An Interview with Bernadette Mayer by Stephanie Anderson (part 3)
We are thrilled to bring you an interview with Bernadette Mayer that will run in three installments. Much in the spirit of Mayer herself, we will run the interview conducted by Stephanie Anderson with limited edits. Throughout Anderson’s interview she discusses Mayer’s involvement with small press publishing, the Poetry Project, and Mayer’s poetry— all of which has forever altered the landscape of poetry.
SA: How long had you had the idea for Midwinter Day, do you remember?
BM: Oh god, forever! I had the idea forever, and I couldn’t figure out how I would ever do it. So what I had to do beforehand was figure out… I figured out I could probably do it there [in Lenox, MA] because I was more settled down in one place. And so I could plan everything ahead of time. And it seemed possible to do. But I had that idea hundreds of years ago. My life was always just so crazy that I never felt like I could really do it. I mean, actually it probably would have been more interesting to do it in a crazy life, for a crazy life. Don’t you think?
SA: I don’t know. That would have maybe taken away some of the meditative quality of it… I think you need it in that book.
BM: Yeah, it would be gone completely. A very interesting fact about that book—when I wrote it, it was… you have this experience when you write, or I do, sometimes, where you’re writing, but you’re feeling like the writing is already there, and you’re just kind of tracing it.
SA: Do you think it was that you had like meditated on the idea for long enough that you had accumulated all these things?
BM: Yeah, I guess. [pause] No, I think it’s more… probably more weird and spiritual than even that. But I’m not even going to get there. Go there. Whatever people say nowadays. [laughs] Because if you quoted me, people would say, “Mmm, I never thought she was that crazy.” [pause] No, when I visited once, a hundred years ago, Bill Corbett, in Boston—where he used to live—he said to me… he made the mistake of saying to me, “So. What are your plans? For writing I mean.” So I said, “Mmm. Very interesting. Now I’m going to put all these things into words.” I didn’t say any of this, I thought this. And so I delineated all these different projects, among which was Memory, and I’ve done each of those projects.
BM: This is scary. Right? [laughs] Well I was in a real hurry when I was growing up, to write as quickly as possible. Everybody in my father’s family died as the result of a cerebral hemorrhage at age forty-nine. So, stupidly, it never occurred to me that I could get brain surgery, right? And survive. I just figured I’d die when I was forty-nine, so I’d better hurry up. It was a very unemotional decision. And so, I hurried up. But then I didn’t die! [laughs] So I did all these things, and wrote all these works, and had all these kids, and… what am I doing now? What am I doing? [laughs] Talking to you about the past. It’s funny.
SA: Well, and the future a little bit too. [pause] What would you tell a young woman who was wanting to do a magazine now?
BM: Oh! Hmm. Well, I think it’s a great thing, and it’s much easier now, so, it’s possible. I would talk to her about money, mostly. Because you need some money to pay for it. And—this is true of anybody who’s writing poetry, too. So that would be your main concern, I would think. But I think possible to do it nowadays if you can afford it.
SA: Were there other magazines from “way back then” that you liked and were reading especially?
BM: I used to read Alcheringa all the time. I don’t know what other magazines I read. Well I read Avalanche, when it came out, because I was interested in that whole world. Magazines of poetry… Good question. I don’t think I knew of any that I read all the time. I just read them all. At least once, to find out… It was like this hungry desire to make sure you knew what was going on. Right? [laughs] But I mean, I never really, excitedly, thought, “Oh, what’s going to be in the next issue?”
SA: I almost find that like working on a magazine makes me have less energy for reading other magazines.
BM: Mmm. Really? Why? You have less time…
SA: Yeah. And because, living in that world of discussing contemporary poetry so much within the confines of the magazine… I don’t know. I get tired. I come home and I want to read noir or something.
BM: Yeah, right? People. I like schlock magazines. Those magazines that they have in the supermarket check-out lines. I mean, they’re pretty engrossing. [laughs] We should publish a gossip magazines for poets. Wouldn’t that be great? I would love it. Imagine collecting work for it? You could write it all yourself! In the magazine, we would treat poets like celebrities, right? That would be so great.
SA: I think it would be fun to have a magazine where you could put, like, ephemera in. Like leaves and whatever else you want to do.
BM: Different ones in every issue. Yeah. [chuckles] It would get kind of messy. People would say, “Oh, give me a copy of that messy magazine…”
SA: Was it you or Alan [Casline]9 who was talking about the two issue problem? He was saying that people sometimes get stuck after the second issue, but if you keep going, you’re good.
BM: Well, you could say kind of anything. But I guess that’s true. [pause] Well, I have the third issue of The Tasawassans somewhere in this house… I tried to publish it about four different times, and Phil kept saying to me, “Don’t do it now, we don’t have any money.” And it was true, we didn’t, but I was going to do it anyway. Because, you know, you can put a lot of stuff on credit cards, and you know, what the hell. So after about the fourth time, I just thought to myself, “I’m never going to try and do this magazine.” And I lost all the manuscripts. And the cover. So, I mean, if I ever find them, maybe I’ll do it again. So maybe Alan is right. I have the… it’s the third issue hurdle, or the second issue hurdle, really bad. [chuckles]
SA: We’ll have to go on a treasure hunt through the house for The Tasawassans.
BM: Yeah. Well I’ve looked every place that it could possibly be, and I haven’t been able to find it.
SA: Who was in it?
BM: It was a “Bill” issue, so it was all poets named Bill. And on the cover was a picture of Bill DeNoyelles as a child on the shoulders of his father, whose name is also Bill DeNoyelles. And then, I was… I had some poems by William Carlos Williams, and a poem by Shakespeare… and then I was going to let anybody who wanted to be Bill whatever their last name was be a Bill too. [chuckles] So it was a well-planned issue, and the only reason I’m sorry that I never did it now is because the issue after that is so interesting. So maybe I should just skip ahead and do it anyway! [The next issue] is like The Tasawassan’s version of the New Yorker. You know in the New Yorker they have that “About Town” column? I was going to have it be all about trees. And have pictures of all the different kinds of trees.
SA: [pause] It seems like it’s always been important to you to publish older stuff alongside contemporary stuff. You guys were doing it in 0 To 9…
BM: Well, there’s no reason to discount some writing because it’s old. I mean, some of it is actually more interesting than anything anybody’s doing right now. [pause] But also there’s the idea that your own writing doesn’t have to be written by you. It can have already been written by somebody now or a long time ago. So you want to appropriate for your own this older writing. I mean, why not? When you do a collaboration, it doesn’t have to be by you and Jennifer Karmin. It can be… just, everybody’s writing. There’s this form, I’m sure you’ve heard of it, called—it’s a poetic form called a cento. Which is one line, out of a hundred lines, by other people.
SA: Right. And you like to make up blurbs by other people.
BM: Oh, yes! Making up blurbs is one of my favorite things to do. [chuckles]
SA: Are they always John Ashbery’s blurbs?
BM: No. I mean, they can be… I like to use John’s name to get a rise out of people.
SA: Does he know that you do that?
BM: Oh yeah. It makes him laugh. He especially likes when I say that I’m him. [laughs] I’ll give you a copy of Utopia. I wrote all the blurbs on the back. And they’re from people like Plato. I had so much fun writing that. It just seemed so easy.
SA: [pause] Are you still involved in United Artists?
BM: No. Lewis is still keeping it going, though. He keeps saying, every time I see him, that he’s not going to do it anymore. Then he keeps doing it! I don’t think he can contain himself. [chuckles] Yeah, I have nothing to do with it anymore, but… But it’s still happening, as far as I know. It could end at any moment. [laughs]
SA: Was almost everyone you knew in the ‘70s publishing or editing somehow?
BM: It seems that way, right? Probably. Yeah. [chuckles]
SA: Was there ever extra conflict, because you were editing with your partner, at all?
BM: I don’t think so. I’m nice. I don’t say, you know, to my partner, “That’s a really stupid opinion! Go take a walk!” [laughs] My god. [pause]
SA: [Holds up Utopia] What color is ‘u’?
BM: ‘U’ is a grayish-black kind of color. Yeah. Not a beautiful color.
SA: Did you pick the [red] cover paper?
BM: Yeah, because I wanted it to look like the colors of anarchy. [chuckles] I don’t know if you’re going to read this book, but I hope you do. It’s kind of funny. Clark said to me… I gave him a copy. He said, “That is your worst book,” when he read it. Any idea why?
BM: Because he doesn’t like… he didn’t like books that were about something.
SA: Speaking of your books, I must admit that I haven’t finished the Studying Hunger Journals. Is the original Studying Hunger in there as it is?
BM: Yeah, that’s it. And it was originally written by me in these journals that were like 11 x 17. And with colored pens. And my original plan… well, I guess it was to attempt—through writing it, but maybe after writing it—to color-code emotions. Of course, I didn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. But that was what was in my mind. [pause]
SA: Hannah was doing something kind of like that in her notebooks; she would circle something and say “yellow” or “yellow means…”
BM: Yeah. She did. But you know, recently I’ve learned more about synesthesia, and I think that what Hannah was expressing with the words written on your forehead was a form of synesthesia. And that her relationship to color was based on some – I can’t explain what, how – synesthetic reaction. Because, what else could it have been? I mean, people would say that she was schizophrenic, but she really wasn’t schizophrenic… well, I don’t know. She was just treated by everybody, including her doctor, as if she was. But I don’t think Hannah was schizophrenic. I did for a while think that. When she did The Fast, she had a bottle of liquid LSD in the refrigerator, and I thought, “Hmm, well, if Hannah’s not schizophrenic she might be later, now.” Right? I don’t know. I don’t think she was. Anyway, I learned this from… well, a lot of reading but also from this TV show, “Criminal Minds.” They have an episode about a guy whose words come out of his head. And each letter is a different color. It’s worth seeing. And the character on that show, he says, you know, very wisely, “This is a form of synesthesia.” And apparently it is. But you know what is interesting to read? Oliver Sacks’s new book, Hallucinations. You should check that out if you have a moment. Or many moments.
SA: Maybe I will only read the right-hand pages.10 [laughs] It would be especially hallucinatory.
BM: Well, the only hallucinatory thing about reading the right-hand pages is just the beginning of the top line. Because that’s pretty funny! Like, it says “-ing,” right? Hmmm.
SA: It’s like the most intense line-break ever. [pause] Have you noticed that doing that has influenced your poetry lately?
BM: No. It’s a weird thing about being old. I don’t think something like that… It might have influenced my poetry in the past, but at this point in time… I mean I see “-ing” on the top of the page, I just think to myself, “Oh! This is good! This is nice!” But I don’t think, you know, it’s something new. It’s something that I’ve already known about. Boring to be old, in that sense. [pause] Well, I’m going to have a glass of wine.
after a break
SA: I think Jen said that your favorite book of your own work is Scarlet Tanager?
BM: It is now, yes. Took me a while to figure that out.
SA: Why is it your favorite?
BM: I was giving all these readings and I realized that that’s the book I always read from. So I started looking at them, realizing that it’s a very interesting book, for me to do that.
SA: Do you like giving readings?
BM: I do now. I used to hate it. I used to be so nervous. I remember when I gave my first reading—that I had a twitch in my, uh, ass. And I kept thinking, “I wonder if anybody’s noticing this.” I mean, it was out of my control, obviously. [laughs] I never understood why other people weren’t nervous too. The most nervous person I ever saw was Jim Carroll when he would sing. When he first started singing… He used to just read poetry before then, and then all of a sudden he was singing, and he would be shaking, visibly. And it was painful to watch. I always enjoyed Jim’s singing, but I hated watching him sing.
SA: What’s your favorite time of year to write?
BM: You know, I was thinking about that the other day. I used to write mostly in the winter, but in this house, I like whatever season I can sit and have my typewriter out on the back porch. Which is usually the warmer months. So that would be spring, summer—sometimes it gets even too hot to sit out there. So fall. But when I have to move in here [to the winter study], lately I’m not liking it. But that might change. I don’t feel inspired to write here yet. But I just moved here, so who knows. There’s too much stuff in this room. Too many pieces of furniture, and… I mean, it’s like a storage room now. Phil and I, whenever we say we don’t know what to do with something, “Well, put it in my winter office.” Right? [chuckles] It’s kind of ridiculous. But yeah. I always liked writing, you know, in living rooms, when there were a lot of other people around. I always thought that was fun.
SA: Was that something that happened a lot?
BM: Well, whenever I arranged it. I think [it’s] fun to arrange to—I like writing in the middle of the action, you know. Because there’s a lot of words to overhear. But ideally nobody would care that you were there, writing. Right? [chuckles] Maybe it’s time to tell you—hope I didn’t already tell you this—my ideal house.
BM: It would be this house, but it would have to be relocated in the middle of the woods. And rebuilt a little bit so that there would be porches on all sides of it. Wouldn’t that be great? And, if you really had the leisure, all the porches—well, not all of them, but some of the porches—would have to be glass-enclosed. Like the ones facing south and I don’t which others… You’d have to figure out from where you moved it. And in the house would be an indoor swimming pool. And outside the house, an outdoor swimming pool. And nearby, a glass-enclosed walkway for walking in the winter. You would have your neighbors walk there, too. And at one end of the walkway, where people would finish their walks, I would be sitting there fixing them grilled cheese sandwiches. To allow them to get on with their day. And we would have really excellent bottles of wine available. Or, you know, Coke I guess, if people needed it. Wouldn’t that be great?
SA: It would be amazing.
BM: Yeah, that’s my ideal house. [pause] But, you know, I have other ideal houses. I mean, my ideal house would also have a tree growing in it. So, you’d have to arrange it so that the top of the tree was outside.
SA: When you were a kid, did you have much access to nature in New York?
BM: No, not at all. There was a park in Ridgewood, in Brooklyn, where I grew up. And it’s called Forest Park—and it’s still there, my kids tell me—but to me, it always seemed like a kind of a wasteland-ish park. I mean, it didn’t seem beautiful to me. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I just had a horrible childhood. I mean, I know I did. But maybe that’s why. I hated everything about my childhood. Including the park, which I might, under normal circumstances, have loved.
SA: It seems like you read a fair number of books about nature, or natural things… It seems like a big part of your work.
BM: Yeah. [pause] Well, my project now, I think, might be to accumulate the rest of the field guides that I don’t have, and read them all. But not like just read them but really immerse yourself in them. And then write a field guide to field guides, which would not really be about these other field guides at all. And what it would be, I don’t know yet. And my other project, with Jennifer, is to write a history of science in poetic form. She and I have already written poems about neutrinos and poems about the Higgs boson particle. But that’s more like news kind of poetry. But anyway, this would be the whole history of science. I think we could do it easily. We just have to come up with the right table of contents. Like, to know what aspects of science we want to write about. And then you do some research on them. And I write the poem. I mean, do you realize the bad science poems that exist in the world? This would be so fun to read. And to write.
SA: I really like doing that kind of work. Using field guides and science books.
BM: I know. What could be finer? [pause] So that’s what I’m planning. But I think the field guides… I mean, I’m thinking to myself, “Am I just planning projects that don’t involve walking around anymore? Because I broke my arm?” It’s possible. [chuckles]
SA: Well, you’re adapting maybe, then. [pause] What are the earliest projects you can remember that involve walking around?
BM: Well, I think they all did, really.
SA: Do you write while you’re walking?
BM: No, I can’t. I never do. I’ve tried to tape record, and… I hate it. So really what I do is—when I’m walking around—is just memorize things that I want to write down. And what percentage of them I remember wind up in my poems.
SA: [pause] It would be fun to do a science magazine. A poetry science magazine.
BM: Wow, yeah. That would be interesting.
SA: Last year I met a doctoral student who was writing her dissertation on… I think a little bit about you and Clark and science.
BM: Mmm. Once, I was hearing about all these papers being written about me, and I said to somebody in conversation, “Boy, I wish they would all send me a dollar.” So the next request I got from a person for more information for her thesis, I said, “Okay, I’ll send it to you, but send me a dollar.” So she sent me… I think it was twenty dollars, because her advisor was Lyn Hejinian, and they put their money together. And she said, “This is for your oysters and raspberry fund.” [laughs] And I thought, “Wow.” So maybe on the internet, the thing to do—for me to do—would be to make a plea for money to buy oysters and raspberries. Right? Don’t people always go for, like, more luxurious things? As opposed to not paying my heating bills—so boring.
8 Poet and Bernadette’s partner.
9 Poet and friend of Bernadette’s.
10 At the time of the interview, Bernadette had a broken arm and it was difficult for her to read lying down. So before bed she was reading just the right-hand pages of books.
Bernadette Mayer (born May 12, 1945) is an American poet, writer, and visual artist. Mayer edited the journal 0 TO 9 with Vito Acconci, and, until 1983, United Artists books and magazines with Lewis Warsh. Mayer taught at the New School for Social Research, where she earned her degree in 1967, and, during the 1970s, she led a number of workshops at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York. From 1980 to 1984, Mayer served as director of the Poetry Project.
Stephanie Anderson is the author of In the Key of Those Who Can No Longer Organize Their Environments (Horse Less Press) and several chapbooks, including the forthcoming Sentence, Signal, Stain (Greying Ghost) and LIGHTBOX (The New Megaphone). Her poems, prose, and interviews have recently appeared or are forthcoming in 6×6, The Conversant, Lana Turner, Mimeo Mimeo, not enough night, Tarpaulin Sky, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Projective Industries and currently resides in Tokyo.