Lives of the Poets: Bernadette Mayer

One of America’s greatest living writers remains on the outside looking out.
By Bernadette Mayer interviewed by Adam Fitzgerald (Adam Fitzgerald and Bernadette Mayer)
Bernadette Mayer

This is a poet who lives to think. And Bernadette Mayer is always thinking.

When my close friend Allison Power showed me Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets, I remember doing a nosedive tailspin. Who was this astonishingly original, fresh, female, Classical, and raw voice in American poetry? How has this work been such a well-kept secret, even though she’s been published by New Directions for over twenty years, regularly anthologized as a key second-generation New York School Poet, and a chief influence on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry?

Invariably, I turned to the Bernadette Mayer Reader to encounter a wide range of “experimental” work from many of her previous, out-of-print volumes (many of which will soon be republished: Studying Hunger Journals from Station Hill Press,Eruditio Ex Memoria from Monk Books, Sonnets from Tender Buttons Press). The work gripped me, as a poet, formally and technically—oh so this too was possible, huh? What amazed me even more than her crazed, tireless innovation was Mayer’s voice. Something I know is too mysterious (thankfully) to quite pinpoint, being as slippery and finicky as it is, but there it was: dry-witted, ribald, obsessive with diaphanous shifts in diction and music, quaintly domestic, fully eroticized. Whether in her book-length hybrids of prose and poetry, her raunchy, gallant, sonnets or tender epistolary poems, Mayer’s signature is to recreate consciousness on the page, honoring always the simultaneity and enormity of daily life.

Luckily, I had found a poet whose definition of “daily life” pretty much contained everything I had come to see as present in traditional poetry, and a good deal I found missing—from the Catullus she first studied in her Catholic School Latin class to nature poetry, from sexual anecdotes to surreal political diatribes, from “Walmart epigrams” to Whitmanian catalogues that celebrated a few hundred distinct American species of birds, trees and plants (creatures mostly indigenous to the Northeastern world in which she’s spent so much most of her adult life). For its modernism, Mayer’s work recalls Stein and its slow-lightning apprehension of grammar as the vehicle for human existence; but it also recalls Hawthorne and Melville, stubborn American spirits who turned the seemingly “provincial” scope of their scrupulous observations into that stranger, larger fabric: what Montaigne and Emerson meant by “Experience.”

In September of 2010, I had the privilege to interview Mayer and ask her in-depth about her life and career since much of it remained obscure to me. Over the course of three lengthy phone calls, I found the characteristic voice that had drawn me so much to her writing alive in her spontaneous speech and devious pauses, infectious cackle. That is, the syntax and rhythm of her waking brain is entirely her own, quietly explosive, pleasingly blunt.

When my close friend Allison Power showed me Bernadette Mayer’s
Sonnets, I remember doing a nosedive tailspin. Who was this astonishingly original, fresh, female, Classical, and raw voice in American poetry? How has this work been such a well-kept secret, even though she’s been published by New Directions for over twenty years, regularly anthologized as a key second-generation New York School Poet, and a chief influence on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry?

Invariably, I turned to the Bernadette Mayer Reader to encounter a wide range of “experimental” work from many of her previous, out-of-print volumes (many of which will soon be republished: Studying Hunger Journals from Station Hill Press, Eruditio Ex Memoria from Monk Books, Sonnets from Tender Buttons Press). The work gripped me, as a poet, formally and technically—oh so this too was possible, huh? What amazed me even more than her crazed, tireless innovation was Mayer’s voice. Something I know is too mysterious (thankfully) to quite pinpoint, being as slippery and finicky as it is, but there it was: dry-witted, ribald, obsessive with diaphanous shifts in diction and music, quaintly domestic, fully eroticized. Whether in her book-length hybrids of prose and poetry, her raunchy, gallant, sonnets or tender epistolary poems, Mayer’s signature is to recreate consciousness on the page, honoring always the simultaneity and enormity of daily life.

Luckily, I had found a poet whose definition of “daily life” pretty much contained everything I had come to see as present in traditional poetry, and a good deal I found missing—from the Catullus she first studied in her Catholic School Latin class to nature poetry, from sexual anecdotes to surreal political diatribes, from “Walmart epigrams” to Whitmanian catalogues that celebrated a few hundred distinct American species of birds, trees and plants (creatures mostly indigenous to the Northeastern world in which she’s spent so much most of her adult life). For its modernism, Mayer’s work recalls Stein and its slow-lightning apprehension of grammar as the vehicle for human existence; but it also recalls Hawthorne and Melville, stubborn American spirits who turned the seemingly “provincial” scope of their scrupulous observations into that stranger, larger fabric: what Montaigne and Emerson meant by “Experience.”

In September of 2010, I had the privilege to interview Mayer and ask her in-depth about her life and career since much of it remained obscure to me. Over the course of three lengthy phone calls, I found the characteristic voice that had drawn me so much to her writing alive in her spontaneous speech and devious pauses, infectious cackle. That is, the syntax and rhythm of her waking brain is entirely her own, quietly explosive, pleasingly blunt.

This is a poet who lives to think. And Bernadette Mayer is always thinking.

* * *

Adam Fitzgerald: So you were born in Ridgewood. Where?

Bernadette Mayer: Ridgewood’s in Brooklyn. You know, that part of Brooklyn that was called the Disputed Territory. Nobody could decide what borough it was in. So the side of the street I was born on was Brooklyn, and the other side was Queens. And so my address was Bernadette Mayer, 5914 Madison Street, Brooklyn-Queens, New York. Isn’t that great?

AF: Do you think of yourself as both, or one or the other?

BM: I’m honored to be part of the Disputed Territory. Where my son Max lives in Bushwick, I can walk from there to Ridgewood.

AF: When was the last time you went back to your home?

BM: Never.

AF: Never?

BM: Never. I don’t remember.

AF: Was your mother’s maiden name Stumpf?

BM: German.

AF: Do you know how your parents met?

BM: Gee, I don’t know. I have no idea.

AF: What do you remember about them?

BM: Not much, I’m afraid. My mother was a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic. And on her deathbed: “Join the convent, Bernadette! They’ll take care of your teeth for free.” My father designed wallpaper, and he had color wheels, and he had a garden, and he had a little workshop in the basement that I used to tinker around in.… I’m sure you don’t remember this moment in time when everyone got televisions and something went wrong with them. So all the relatives’ televisions were in our basement waiting to be fixed. When he worked, he was a designer of cameras for Fairchild in Farmingdale.

AF: Did you know your grandparents on either side?

BM: I knew my grandparents on my mother’s side the best because they lived in our house. I didn’t know my father’s parents because they died before I was born.

AF: What were [your mother’s parents] like?

BM: Stodgy. Stodgy. Mean. Nasty. I don’t know. They weren’t very loving. They just treated me like the usual addendum. You have to realize, at that point in time it was not a good thing to be a girl. In the 1950s, lower-class German men—boy-children—were highly respected, and girl-children were considered, you know, a mistake: “Too bad.” I remember when my sister went to college, everybody on my father’s side of the family—who considered my mother to be a snob and really hated my father because he was a fiddle player—they said, “What a waste for girls to go to college.” I mean, this never happened in our family before. I mean, girls just take stenography and practice typing and have children. So what are they going to do in college? It was that kind of world.

AF: And your mother was a secretary. Was she comfortable with that persona? Did she have much of a choice?

AF: I don’t think she had any choice, but she certainly became a very bigoted person in that environment, and about that she had a choice. For instance, she would tell me and my sister that we weren’t allowed to hang around with anyone who wasn’t Catholic. So, God forbid—“God,” you see?—God forbid we would hang around with a Protestant person, much less a Jewish person. So the first thing I did while she was still alive was to get a close Jewish friend. She hated it. It was a “threat to your faith.”

AF: So you guys went to church on Sundays and observed all the Holy Days. Fish on Fridays, Ash Wednesday, etc.?

BM: The usual.

AF: I have lots of memories of going to church.

BM: Gruesome, eh?

AF: What was that whole world like to you, raised in a staunchly serious Catholic household?

BM: I was in this weird position that I was just learning about the world. I thought, Well, if this is the way the world is … fuck it! I couldn’t believe that people could behave this way. Even at that point in time, young as I was, I couldn’t believe that one person would hate another person because of his religious beliefs. I found that hard to fathom. All I had to do was sit around and listen to some boring conservations about Eisenhower to realize this was not the world I wanted to live in.

AF: What did you start imagining as something different? Was there any glimpse of a world outside the one you were born into? TV, friends?

BM: Oh, no. I just thought, Wouldn’t it be great to get a flying machine and go up beyond the clouds and not have to think about any of these people anymore?

AF: But what about your sister? Did you guys get along very well as a way to protect yourselves from what was going on around you?

BM: We had kind of a weird relationship. We had witnessed so much death. The one thing we did a lot was go to the library, because there were no books in our house. Frankenstein was the one book we had in our house. That and Popular Mechanics. The library was a block away—the local public library—I don’t know how young I was, but we used to go there all the time. We would bring these books into the house that my parents couldn’t really fathom, and I now myself can’t fathom what possessed us to do it. A Greek mythology book is what I remember most profoundly: studying it and thinking Wow! Maybe I did it because it was acceptable since my parents were Catholic? Sort of.

AF: How did you stumble upon it?

BM: I don’t remember. I just remember visually putting it on the bookshelf and staring at it. It was a picture book.

AF: What did it do to your young, hungry, cramped mind?

BM: It let me understand there were other worlds beside this world that I was stuck in. So as a youth, I’m sure I realized that there were parallel universes [laughs]. 

AF: Myths are recurrent throughout your work. Your Greek and Latin have never left you.

BM: Oh, yeah, I’m doing a project now about the Helens of Troy, New York. So yeah, deeply.

AF: Does that still go back to the beginning, to first discovering these things?

BM: Oh, well, it has been with me always, so yes, I’m sure it does.

AF: What other books did you bring into the house? Did you have to hide them from your parents?

BM: No we didn’t hide it or anything, because they were library books. We were at least savvy enough to realize that was something we could do. So we didn’t have to hide them. I remember when my mother was dying, she was reading this book—it was the only book I ever saw her read—The Anatomy of a Murder, I don’t remember the author. It sat on her shelves for years. But that was the book she read when she died.

AF: She wasn’t a reader?

BM: It was an anomaly. Nobody in my household read except me and my sister. In fact, my grandfather used to yell at me for reading at night. He would say, “Why don’t you read in the daytime when there’s light instead of wasting electricity!” That’s the kind of character he was. He would only let us take baths once a week because he didn’t want to waste the coal that heated the water.

AF: Were you closer to your mother or your father?

BM: I guess my father, sort of, because he had some joie de vivre. My mother had absolutely none. Hers was all bordering on nostalgia.

AF: At what point [in] growing up and going to the library do you remember encountering such a thing as poetry?

BM: [Laughs] Poetry! I think in high school was the first time I encountered poetry because we had to memorize a lot of it:

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

We also had to memorize a lot of Shakespeare. Oh, and that great Robert Burns [poem] which I can’t remember right now.

As fair as thou art, my bonnie lass,
As deep in love am I:
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till all the seas gang dry . . .

 I was good at memorizing it. I liked it. I had no idea that I was going to write poetry until all my entire family died (except my sister), and my godparents’ son and his wife and their baby moved in downstairs. This was after my parents had died, and I would listen to them fighting all the time.

AF: Who were your guardians at the time?

BM: My guardian was my uncle until he died, and after that I was 18, so I didn’t have a guardian.

AF: Were you close with him?

BM: My uncle was an endomorph. Now, this is a phrase that they don’t use much anymore. It means a pear-shaped person. He was an obsessive-compulsive; he loved pads, you know, piles of pads. He used to take his Ave Marias (which was the magazine from the Catholic Church) and pile them up. He lived in this tiny room that was called the Hall Bedroom, which is called that because it was above the hallway in those brownstones.

AF: Did he live in your family’s house before or after your parents died?

BM: All the time.

AF: So you lived in a house with your parents, mother’s grandparents, and uncle?

BM: Yes.

AF: What was a family dinner like?

BM: Oh my god. My grandfather used to always tell us incredible stories about when he lived on a farm in Brooklyn; he couldn’t stand to kill the chickens, so he would never eat chickens. So every time we had chicken for dinner, he would tell that story and refuse to eat it. And there were always jokes about the neck: who would eat the neck of the chicken. So it would go like that. Later on, they would kind of rattle around in there—his false teeth—it was obvious they were there. We had an aunt, her name was Aunt Philly, her name was Philomena. She would always join us for these dinners, and she was as old as my grandfather.

AF: What do you remember fondly about your childhood?

BM: I really enjoyed running around the neighborhood in Brooklyn. I would run around as fast as I could. I would climb fences. I was constantly thought of by members of my family as a tomboy. My parents were fine with that. The only problem was they would torture my sister because she was fat and I was skinny. So they made her feel horrible. But that was my greatest pleasure: running around.

AF: How did your parents get sick?

BM: Oh, separately. My mother died of breast cancer. My father had a cerebral hemorrhage when he was 49.

AF: You were 12 and 14 when you lost both of your parents. How did you survive?

BM: I don’t know. How did I? I guess … I don’t know. I was just fascinated by the world, so I guess that’s how I survived.

AF: Did you grow closer with your sister as a result?

BM: No, I did not. If anything, I guess we grew farther away. It was impossible for us to confront our trauma; seeing each other just reminded us what we had gone through as children, and it was obvious that no one else understood.

AF: Did you have friends as a child?

BM: I didn’t really like any of them. I had friends, really close friends, you know—well, you really don’t know—when girls are like 12 or 14, they form these really close friendships. I was really close with several neighbors, but one of them, I went to her house and she had a picture of her father hanging on the wall in a S.S. uniform and I thought—even at that tender age—I thought, Oh my god, this is weird.… This is the part of the world that I come from? [Laughs]

AF: Were you a bookworm, were you shy? How do you remember your adolescence?

BM: I was shy. I absolutely hated boys. As I got older, I began to hate them more because they were so stupid. Also, on the basketball court they would make us play them for the court. So an all-women’s team would play an all-boys’ team for the court. They were so cocky and stupid. So they would make jokes about our breasts rubbing up against them. I didn’t enjoy that at all.

AF: Did you have any teachers or allies in this crazy world that you were thrust into?

BM: When I went into high school I had a few teacher-allies that were nuns. At that point both my parents had died, so they would invite me into the convent. They were semi-cloistered nuns. They would have a passageway from the school to the convent, and they could only go out into the world if another nun was with them. They would invite me over for dinner, thinking maybe I wasn’t getting a good dinner. And actually, the food that they made was pretty great.

AF: What did they cook?

BM: Just the usual shit. Roast beef dinners, heavy on the meat, just the usual dinners. I enjoyed being in that funny atmosphere because it was a place I couldn’t have been otherwise except for my weird status as an orphan, right? And as a girl, too. They would have never invited a boy.

AF: Did you form a close relationship with any of the nuns?

BM: I only got close with one of these nuns; her name was Sister Immaculata. She was a big Hawthorne fan … she had written her doctoral thesis on The Marble Faun. I was 15, 16. What did I read first? I don’t know, but shortly after whatever I read first, I read all of it, and I was amazed by his sentence structure.

AF: What about it?

BM: That it was so complex and beautiful to apprehend.

AF: And what about that subject matter, so dark and morbid.…

BM: I was very happy; I felt like I belonged there. I became obsessed with all the New England writers, Melville and the Transcendentalists. I could dig that feeling of being part of that in that part of the world. That was my way of realizing there were other parts of the world beside Brooklyn and Queens.

I was reading a lot of science, and I also read a lot of Latin. What else was I reading? Virgil. I had the good luck, through this Catholic shit, of learning how to read Latin. That was the good thing that happened. It finally led me to Catullus. When I was in high school, and even in college, people would—because of this whole Catholic shit—they would frown on Catullus because he was such a “bad guy.” [Laughs]

AF: Do you remember seeking out any women writers?

BM: In college I read a lot of—I was taking Bill Berkson’s course at the New School, and he said to me one day, “You know, Bernadette, you sound a little too much like Gertrude Stein.” I had never read Gertrude Stein. So of course I read all of Gertrude Stein afterwards—all that I could get my hands on. Clark Coolidge used to have this agreement that if we went, we both went to the Lenox Library and if we found a book that hadn’t been taken out in 30 years, we could steal it. That’s how we got a hold of a lot of Gertrude Stein’s work. They had a lot of it. I don’t know why, but that’s how we got it.

AF: Did anything prepare you for her work?

BM: Oh, I was ready. Well, philosophy prepared me. I was happy that it had already been written. You know what I felt like? I felt like Oh my god, thank god someone has already written this, so I don’t have to write it myself. Ever hear people say that? I don’t know if they really meant it, but I did.

AF: What was it about Stein that caught you? Her syntax? What did she mean to you? She’s been such a clear and enduring influence on your own work.

BM: I’m afraid Gertrude Stein meant all too much to me. She meant like how you could actually be in the world and not be a fucked-up part of it. That you could actually change the world or be completely radicalizing again. You have to realize that at this point in time, I was already a political activist. When I was young I went to visit a friend at Le Moyne College, a Catholic college in Syracuse. There I got involved in the Committee for Non-Violent Action. It was run by Daniel Berrigan. We were demonstrating against Niagara Mohawk because they refused to hire black people, and I would make all of their posters to carry around in demonstrations. I was 17.

AF: Pretty precocious and socially aware for 17.

BM: Well, I figured I was going to die because my father died when he was 49 and it runs in his family, what he died from, cerebral hemorrhages. Even in this stupid world there’s a place I can exist. There’s a part of it that doesn’t believe in things as they are.

AF: Did any aspect of the faith, its dogmas or belief, interest you?

BM: No. I never really studied Gnosticism until much later in life, when I met Fanny Howe. I wanted to leave all aspects of Catholicism behind, so my interest in mysticism didn’t happen until much later.

AF: When did you leave Catholic college?

BM: I had to wait until my uncle died to leave Catholic college. I was at the College of New Rochelle. I got to study Greek. I was assaulted by nuns; previously I had been assaulted by priests, but not nuns until I got there. That was my father’s idea. My uncle’s idea of being my guardian was to keep me in safe places, so he figured Catholic college. There was a concept in the Church at the time of in loco parentis, so the priests and nuns were acting in the place of your parents, so he figured that was the safest place to be. Little did he know. So after he died I was able to go to non-Catholic school. I went for two weeks to Barnard College, and I hated it intensely. For one thing, it took me two hours to get there from my part of Brooklyn-Queens. But then when I got there, there were these girls—I guess I should call them “women”—they would say, “Oh, our favorite person is here: she’s had five abortions!” Even though I didn’t disapprove of abortion, I thought this was weird that it would be something that could be bragged about. So after two weeks I applied to the New School for Social Research. I didn’t know anyone, but I thought it would be fun. I liked that neighborhood, Fifth Avenue and 12th Street.

AF: How long were you there before you met Bill Berkson?

BM: The first year I went there, they didn’t let me take a lot of the classes I wanted to take because they said my schedule was too “eclectic.” But I was able to take a poetry writing class, and I remember having to choose between Kenneth Koch’s and Bill Berkson’s, and I knew of Kenneth—I mean I knew of his writing—but I didn’t know Bill, so I read his. At the time his only book was Saturday Night Poems, and I had no idea what he was talking about, so I thought, Well, I’m gonna take his course.

AF: So by this time you were already writing poetry?

BM: Yeah, but not constantly.

AF: When do you remember getting started?

AF: Well, in high school, when my godparents’ son’s family moved in downstairs and started arguing, that encouraged me to write poetry to drown out the noise. I couldn’t stand listening to them.

AF: Do you have any of your early poems?

BM: Yeah, they’re all published in a book called Red Book in Three Parts.

AF: You were working with Bill Berkson and hit it off? Clearly, you guys developed a friendship and would collaborate on so many different levels. What was he like as a teacher? He was five years older than you.

BM: I liked his age, too, because he wasn’t like that much older that he could lord it over me, male to female. No, I had fun with Bill. I remember once he brought in the complete works of T.S. Eliot and the complete works of Ezra Pound. And I remember he said, “Look how large this pile is and how small this pile is.”

AF: Were you exposed to these poets for the first time?

BM: Pretty much, yeah.

AF: What did you think?

BM: Well, I don’t know. I took a year off when I became pregnant with my friend Ed Bowes. I got an apartment on 11th Street and Third Avenue. I took a year off to read all the long books. The Cantos. The Waste Land. Paradise Lost. Ulysses. Better than school, I’ll just read all these books. I’m sure I was inspired by Bill to read the books by their size.

Milton kind of left me cold. I felt like reading him was like an achievement that you wanted to get to the end.

AF: “No man ever wished it longer.”

BM: Right!

AF: What about Joyce?

BM: Well, of all of those books, I really enjoyed Ulysses the most. To read it just like that—I don’t think many other people have done, where you just read it from beginning to end—is pretty astonishing. You’re all of a sudden living in a different world. So I like that book. I remember I had gotten in trouble in Catholic school for reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And they said, “If you didn’t have such good marks, we’d throw you out.”

AF: Did you identify with Joyce’s rebellion against Catholicism?

BM: No, I never got into that. I mean I could’ve, I’m sure.

AF: I’m thinking of the preacher, and the fire-and-brimstone sermon used to threaten their young, immortal souls. Was that something you felt like you were up against?

BM: I just thought, well, what else was new?

AF: So you didn’t need Joyce to tell you that the religious-minded could be rotten?

BM: Right. 

AF: So you took this year off to read the greats and the classics. Did you start writing more during this year?

BM: I don’t think I wrote too much that year, except the following year I was going out with Peter Schjeldahl, and he encouraged me to take amphetamines, and I started writing these really complex poems that you would get lost inside. They were poems about the building of cathedrals, poems that only you would know how to get lost inside. But I hated amphetamines. So I never went there again too many times.

AF: Was there a lot of drug use or abuse around you?

BM: Not that I knew of.

AF: You weren’t interested in that? It was in the air, you had always been interested in “altered states of consciousness” …

BM: No, I guess I wasn’t. I guess I just didn’t have the right connections. If I could have met someone that could have turned me on to heroin at the time, I probably would have done it. But it was really downers that I would have been into.

AF: So you started writing more, and when did it start to “click”? Like: “I think I’m going to do this from now on”?

BM: [Laughs] Well, it never really clicked in that way. I knew Vito Acconci had married my sister. Vito went to Regis High School, so they met on the Catholic scene. I think they actually met at a dance. Whatever happened with them, I couldn’t say. Rosemary doesn’t like to even talk about it anymore because she’s so angry. I don’t blame her. Vito always acted like a superior person to her. 

AF: How did 0 to 9 come about?

BM: Vito and I started talking and we realized we wanted to create an environment for our own writing and that none of the magazines that we knew of had it properly down—because we were interested in conceptual art, or whatever they called it at the time, and we wanted Native American art, primitive art, to be meshed with upside-down trees. That’s how 0 to 9 finally happened. We talked about it a long time before it actually happened. If we didn’t know writers, we could dig them up from the past that nobody knew about anymore, like Kleist. There were a lot of writers. Mostly libraries and other people’s book collections, our own book collections—I was already into Native American mythology. I got to know, then, Jerome Rothenberg, and we found a lot of Seneca stuff—stuff that doesn’t get really read or known about.

AF: Was this in the spirit of the modernist magazines, like The Little Review etc.? Were you conscious of trying to create a new coterie, a new sensibility, through these underground, avant-garde publications?

BM: Yes, but at this point in time there were other ways of thinking about art that were allied to the writing of poetry. Poetry didn’t have to be a thing in the middle of a page with a lot of white space around it. It could be anything: over the page, off the page, anything. You know, the idea of perfection in a poem is pretty stupid.

AF: Why’s that?

BM: Because if nothing else is perfect, why should a poem be perfect?

AF: So that ’50s formalism that was in the air didn’t interest you? Lowell, Berryman, and others?

BM: Well, it’s still in the air. No, it didn’t interest me at all.

AF: But you were interested in writers who were formal masters. You memorized Shakespeare sonnets; you read Catullus, who, for all his raw subject matter, was brazenly accomplished in his technique. How do you reconcile the fact that you were interested in these formalist conventions but not repeating [them] in your own work? As you say, being imperfect. There’s the Bernadette Mayer who loves Latin poetry, but there’s also Bernadette Mayer the writer who knows that imperfection is a prerequisite to writing something worthwhile.

BM: What I’m thinking is if you’ve read all that, and studied all that, then onward. Why do it again? Except for fun.

AF: So you had an apartment, you took a year off, you were pregnant. What came along next? When did you meet Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh?

BM: The next year or two, I came out of my apartment and started hanging out with people in the real world. And I was kind of appalled. I just thought everybody was kind of stupid. But here I was at this age being approached by someone I admired, like Ed Sanders, and he would come up to me, and I was a cute chick, and he would be like, You wanna be the next Slum Goddess of the Lower East Side? And I thought, Where am I? I was horrified. I didn’t want to be in that world of blatant sexism, where sexism was so acceptable among people you would respect. So I moved to the country. That was the solution. I moved to Great Barrington. I rented somebody’s summer house for the winter, so it was cheap, and I lived there for one winter. It was amazing. It was totally great. I lived there by myself, and I had a car. It was just wonderful. I walked every day, following the footsteps of this guy and his dog who would walk down this path in the Beartown State Forest, and as soon as he would turn around, I would turn around. I didn’t see him except once. That’s what I did; that’s how I took my walk every day. I had some money at the time, so I had just enough to stay there for eight months because of my parents’ death. I had inherited, I think, $10,000—a big amount, right? [Laughs] I tried to get a job and stay there, but I had no success because I didn’t have enough connections. I had a boyfriend who kept coming up to Great Barrington in the middle of these huge snowstorms and trying to convince me to come back to New York City, and I would say, “No, no, I’m staying here.” No one could believe [that] at twentysomething years old, I wanted to live there by myself. If I had the money and the stamina, I would have stayed there and become a recluse. That’s all I wanted to do. I was so happy. So eventually I came back to New York City and lived in a loft on Grand and Wooster Streets, which is in the SoHo neighborhood before it was called SoHo. It was kind of depressing, but I did Memory there. So that was fun. I wrote it in 1971.

AF: By that time you had already been put in An Anthology of New York Poets, edited by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro?

BM: Right. The only woman. I thought that was weirdly stupid. I mean, where was Barbara Guest? There weren’t too many other women at the time. Where was she? Why wasn’t she in that anthology?

AF: Did you know her?

BM: I knew of her and read her work. I loved it.

AF: Did you know Ashbery and O’Hara?

BM: I met them at a party that Bill Berkson gave for what he called his “best students.” He had an apartment on 57th Street; he had invited us, and all those other guys had come over. The people I remember most from that party were Lee Harwood and Jim Carroll.

AF: What do you remember most about them?

BM: I remember Jim had a really huge cock, and I remember having great conversations with Lee Harwood. Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery would go out to dinner and joke hilariously about New York City. I was interested, but I never thought I would be in that. I liked their poetry, and I was happy about that aspect of things. Here I was in a room full of poets. I have to tell you about my funny John Ashbery story. I was at a buffet table in New York City, and somebody pinched my ass and it was John. He said: “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were a guy.”

AF: What did you say?!

BM: I just laughed. I thought it was great.

AF: Did people feel they already had to follow in their tracks?

BM: I think people felt that way about O’Hara, but I don’t know about Ashbery yet. Unfortunately, Frank died right around the time I met him, so I never really got to talk to him.

AF: How did you find out you were going to be in an anthology with all of these guys?

BM: A letter.

AF: You were only 22, 23. It must have been pretty astounding.

BM: Well, I recently found—this is even more astounding—I found a manuscript I had put together for the Frank O’Hara Award. This must have been right after he died. It’s a great manuscript, where the word for every chapter forms a sentence, and I lost to Joe Ceravolo, who was also a good friend of mine. Isn’t that an honor?

AF: Did you ever print that book?

BM: No. I’ve been trying to, but it hasn’t been figured out yet. Maybe it will happen.

AF: Did being in that anthology change the attention that was brought to your work?

BM: Gee, I don’t know. I mean, my world wasn’t really altered in any way, but it was already very interesting to me because I would hang out with Joe Ceravolo and Rosemary Ceravolo and go over to visit them in New Jersey, and talk with them. I really had fun. You know what would happen? I thought I would go to more great dinner parties, because at the time I had gone to a dinner party at Holly Solomon’s house where she had all gold-plated silverware. And also, then, the same year, I went to a dinner party at Lita Hornick’s house and she said, “Oh, I love to watch the poets eat—they’re always so hungry.” I remember talking to Hannah Weiner at the time, and I remember the ideal way to live was to sleep until it’s time to get up and go to dinner. For a while I could write all night, sleep all day, and get up in time to go to dinner.  

AF: Was that the ideal life?

BM: Yeah, I think so.

AF: Were you ever tempted to write a memoir?

BM: No. I mean I have: 0 to 19, 20 to 40, 40 to 60. That’s a memoir. 60 to 80 would be fun.

AF: Do you read memoirs?

BM: No, I don’t.

AF: But you are interested in certain writers’ lives. Whose lives?

BM: Emma Goldman. She wrote her autobiography, two volumes, called Living My Life. Pretty great. I was reading all of the anarchist writers and I thought, Wow, Emma Goldman!

AF: Are you interested in dead poets’ biographies?

BM: Yeah, if they’re well written. Do you have some to recommend?

AF: My favorites are Walter Jackson Bate’s books on Keats, Dr. Johnson, and Coleridge. Speaking of which, Keats was surrounded by death from an early age, like you. You’re obsessed with memory and how you can store consciousness and package it and channel it and distort it. At the same time, you’re not interested in autobiography, even though your subject matter will very often absorb daily life. (I’m thinking of your poem Eve of Easter, when you end up transgendering the great dead male white authors and before the poem’s over, they end up children at your feet.)

 So that seems to me interesting; in a way, you’re trying to put your mind down on the page, but you’re not necessarily committed to anyone knowing your life. I wonder how importantly those events shaped your life as a writer.

BM: Well, I don’t think they’re that interesting. They’re interesting to know about once.

AF: So the correlation between suffering and art, that’s a myth?

BM: [Laugh] I laugh at those ideas. It seems trivial to make that comparison. It trivializes both the art and the suffering. I mean, really, you have to suffer to make art? Give me a break.

AF: How did you meet Lewis Warsh?

BM: At one of Anne’s parties at St. Mark’s Place after the readings. I just knew Lewis because he was part of that scene; it was a great scene in the East Village. You could stand on the corner and decide to start a magazine and collect all the poems, and someone would have a mimeograph machine, and you could have a magazine that night. It was great to have all the poets within walking distance, I mean so many of them. Mimeograph is print on paper, you put ink on the machine. We bought them. They were easy to get a hold of. They were $200. You could immediately make a magazine anytime you wanted.

AF: You’ve always been interested in making your own magazines.

BM: It’s always fun because there are poems written in the moment that you want to publish immediately.

AF: So you met Lewis at this party; you already knew about him because he was on the scene. When did you guys get close?

BM: Oh, not until much later. I was looking around for a guy who wanted to have babies, which at that point in time was pretty difficult, because no guys wanted to have babies. If they did, they already had them or they just didn’t want any part of them. And I agreed, I understood that. It made absolutely no sense to bring any more people into the world. It made little sense then, even much more now.

AF: When did you know for certain that you wanted to have a family and children?

BM: I was about 25.

AF: Did your female peers want that too, considering that the ’60s were this time of sexual liberation?

BM: Not as many as now. Now it’s very fashionable.

AF: So you and Lewis didn’t become intimate until much later? That was in the ’70s.

BM: Yeah.

AF: Were you in love?

BM: Yeah, how else could I have had babies with somebody? Shit. [Laughs]

AF: Well, that’s reassuring to hear someone say! What was he like as a person?

BM: The thing that impressed me the most about Lewis when I first met him [was that] he could type up a sample, do a mimeograph really fast and efficiently. [Laughs] He was cute; he was a good lover. And he really wanted to have children.

AF: How did you guys decide to get married?

BM: We didn’t. And I want to make this clear: I have never been married. I don’t believe in marriage, and I refuse to get married. Stupid Lewis said to me when I was about eight months pregnant with Marie, who was our first baby, he said, Both my parents are going to have heart attacks if we don’t get married. He knew how to push my buttons. I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone’s death. So I succumbed to a marriage ceremony … knowing all the while he was still married, but he did too, but he didn’t think it mattered. So that was okay with me; I didn’t think it mattered either.

AF: So you were never legally married?

BM: No, thankfully.

AF: Marriage is something you’ve been against your whole life?

BM: I just think it’s a stupid tradition. I mean, if you want to declare your love for someone in public, there are many ways to do it besides getting married.

AF: You weren’t interested in any financial or legal advantages of getting married?

BM: Shockingly, there are no advantages to being married. The taxes are in fact higher. The only advantage is to get your mate health insurance or to become a citizen.

AF: How long were you two together?

BM: We stayed together for 10 years. We managed to have all our kids in the country, which is nice. I think of those years as very happy. I could have gone on having babies forever, if anyone had let me. Once I started, I just couldn’t stop.

AF: Were you ever worried about how raising a family would affect or interfere with your career or art? Or that your vocation wouldn’t allow for that kind of time? Did that ever cross your mind?

BM: I’ve heard men say that a lot. No, it never did. Well, since Marie was born I said, “Wow, this is an amazing part of life. I get to watch Marie.” I was happy. Watching babies.

AF: Where did you guys live in the country?

BM: At first we lived in Worthington, Massachusetts. Then we lived in Lenox, Massachusetts. I got a job at New England College in New Hampshire, so we went there and lived there for a while. I liked Massachusetts, that neighborhood. There are very few people there. It sits right with me. There’s woods to walk in, wild animals, you know. And Lenox was a town you could live in without a car. So that was attractive to me.

AF: And during that time you were happy that you weren’t living in New York City?

BM: Yeah, and I thought I had gotten out for good. Little did I know. It’s actually a funny thing that happened: in 1978 both Lewis and I got National Endowment grants, and some friend of ours was on the committee and decided it was against the rules to tell us, so in the midst of all that—and for that amount we were soon rolling in money—Ron Padgett called us up and said, “We want you to be director of the Poetry Project. But, like, everybody thinks you want to move back to New York City but can’t afford to.” He thought it would pay my rent.

AF: You directed St. Mark’s Poetry Project for four years, from 1980 to 1984. You lived in the city for a good part of your childhood and adult life. You spent a good part of your time in the East Village. When you moved back, had the city changed a lot?

BM: While I was living there it was starting to change, yeah. At that time, we called them Eurotrash. The gentrification of the Lower East Side had begun. That kind of thing.

AF: What were you expected to do as the director of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project?

BM: Everything. Raise the money and run the Wednesday Reading Series and do the introductions. Allen Ginsberg used to come into the office every once in a while and say, “Why are you guys so busy? All you have to do is run a reading series!”

AF: And what did you say to him?

BM: Oh, he was absolutely right.

AF: Did you like the job?

BM: It was exciting. I got to see all the dance-based concerts in rehearsal. That was fun.

AF: What were some of the readers you were able to invite and help promote?

BM: So we invited Dennis Brutus and [Mahmoud] Darwish from Palestine. We also invited Linton Kwesi Johnson and Larry McMurtry, and he was the only prose reader that I invited and he came. I was so happy.

AF: What was it like to try and raise money for an arts organization?

BM: It was time consuming and stupid. I was just doing exactly what Ron did before me. I would take out his applications and fill them out the same way. Somebody once told me, in the midst of money raising at St. Mark’s, the way to get New York State money was to fuck a certain politician—I forget who it was. So there was that kind of thing going on, too.

AF: You weren’t interested in doing it for more than one term?

BM: Oh, god no. I didn’t want to do that again. It was too much work to do, even though a lot of it was unnecessary. You even have to go to meetings every month with people in the Church who yell at you that they’re going out of business, and all of that.

AF: Was it your most boring job?

BM: I don’t think I ever had a job that boring.


AF: You write in a letter to Bill Berkson that you became the Henry James of grant-writing applications. The community around the church included what kinds of people? What was the whole spirit of it like?

BM: It had gone from a community of poets living in the same neighborhood to, gradually, that same community not being able to afford to live in that neighborhood. So they went to various cheaper parts of Brooklyn. Otherwise, it was the same except that people were more spread out. I always found the audiences, even to this day, all too serious. I mean, you can hear a pin drop in that room, and everybody is waiting for what? The poet to blow up or explode? Never could figure that one out.

AF: Do you like giving poetry readings?

BM: I do now. I didn’t then. I used to get very nervous doing them. But now I can do them okay.

AF: Did the performance aspect of writing appeal to you or influence how you were going to make your work?

BM: Not at all. The first time I heard John Ashbery read was a long time ago, probably 1967, and he just read from his pages in front of him and held his head down and kind of mumbled. I thought, Wow! I can do this too! I was so happy. [Laughs]

AF: Interesting that you weren’t captivated by performance art at all, considering that you began with Memory. Could you tell me how that project came about?

BM: I took the month of July 1971—I took 36 pictures a day as color slides. I kept a journal and I made the color slides into snapshots and color photographs. I mounted them in a gallery on all four walls, about four feet high, so it would go around the gallery left to right, and the narration was made up of my notes combined with the photographs I had projected on the wall, very small and crisp and clear. And the narration was a combination of the two. It was eight hours long so I recorded it, and if anyone wanted to see all of the photographs and listen to the entire narration it was like a day’s work. It was a month of my life. The month of July.

AF: What was the reception like among friends and reviews? What did you think of how it turned out?

BM: I thought it was great. I thought the way pictures intersected crosswise were illustrative of the way memory is. I loved it. I felt it was too carefully thought out, but other than that, I was fine with it. Critical reception of it was mostly from other photographers. There was a great review in the Village Voice by A.D. Coleman and that was great.…

AF: Was photography something that you were always interested in?

BM: Yes.

AF: Did you play with cameras as a child because they were all around the house?

BM: No, I never had a camera until I was an adult. If I had a camera it was a Canon, and then I had a really old-fashioned one where you could run the film through twice.

AF: How did you learn how to do these deliberate and sophisticated things with a camera?

BM: Ed Bowes taught me how to use a camera. And through him I bumped into a whole lot of other photographers. We used to have special nights when we would show each other our slides forever. We were hanging out every month; there were about four of us. We did this to the point that none of us felt bored. We would bore other people to death, but we would just watch slides.

AF: Did film ever interest you as a medium, as an analogue of your interest in memory and imagery?

BM: I thought of it for a while, but Ed Bowes had a video camera when they were really the unwieldy huge things that you had to carry around. I made tapes—we called them tapes—of Clark Coolidge and various others. But we were just fooling around. I never really got the point of involving myself totally in film.

AF: A lot of the poets in the New York School, the scene you were living in, felt that poetry had to reconnect itself to the other arts. Gertrude Stein, one of your heroes, also spent most of her life involved in marrying art and poetry. Did you feel likewise, that your literary work had to avoid being exclusive to the other arts?

BM: No, not at all. I was interested in seeing paintings, and I was certainly interested in the other arts, but not as a writer.

AF: As a writer, you didn’t feel any pressure to synthesize technology the way that Pop Art and other movements were?

BM: Not really.

AF: After the exhibit, did anything else come about?

BM: Well, I got an offer from this gallery in New York called the John Weber Gallery right after that. So I thought, Well, this is interesting. I had a new work, so I went over and showed it to him. He said, “Oh, this is too”—what was the word he used?—“amateurish.” It was a work called Scene of the Crime. It was all these tracings, and I would write on the pictures. He thought that it wasn’t slick enough for the art world. He pulled all that art world crap on me.

AF: What did you say?

BM: I just didn’t listen. I probably said, “Thank you very much.” [Laughs]

AF: Do you think the art scene has changed?

BM: I think it’s less crappy. For instance, my son Max got a gallery—not for himself—to show other people’s work in Bushwick, Brooklyn. So you can do things like that now that you never could do before. So I think that’s a great thing. You just excerpt yourself from the traditional art world and do other things. It’s much easier to leave it and not be a part of it.

AF: Kind of transitioning from Memory to Studying Hunger, journal writing seems to have become for you one of the most important aspects of your poetic process. Can you tell me how that started and developed for you?

BM: I realized that I was using myself and my life as my subject material. So why not go there?

AF: Were there any models you were thinking about? You mentioned Emma Goldman before.

BM: Not really, no.… There probably were, but I can’t think of them offhand.

AF: In Studying Hunger, you decided for a month to describe various states of consciousness.

BM: Yeah, what a failure that was! [Laughs]

AF: Oh, why do you think it was a failure?

BM: Because I never did. I wrote millions of pages and never succeeded. But somebody’s going to publish the Studying Hunger Journals. They were going to publish it originally as a print-on-demand book because it’s a 400-page book, but now it’s being done by Station Hill [May 2011].

AF: Did you always envision it coming out that way, the whole megillah?

BM: Yeah, I did.

AF: You say somewhere in an interview that you realized, even among your fellow poets you were experimental. . .

BM: They’re just impossible to read.

AF: You know there’s an obvious question here.

BM: Which is?

AF: Why do you think you were so interested in writing things that were impossible to read?

BM: Because of the desire to record everything in detail. Even if it was impossible to read, it was fun to record all those things.

AF: Your desire to include everything—how does that feel different from the other types of writing you’ve read or done yourself?

BM: I don’t know. John Ashbery says that great thing in Three Poems, “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.” It sort of equals the same thing.

AF: Do you remember reading Three Poems when it came out?

BM: Oh, yeah. It was one of my favorite works.

AF: You and Bill Berkson talk about it very fondly in your letters. So when did you meet Clark Coolidge?

BM: In 1969, I traveled with a bunch of other people cross-country and I banged on Clark’s door. Celia was just born. But later he moved to Hancock, so then I got to see him more.

AF: You write about how Clark’s work reaffirmed the purpose of what you were trying to do.

BM: Yeah, it was great to talk to Clark.

AF: When did you guys decide to start doing collaborations?

BM: We had this correspondence going on, and in the midst of living in Hancock, we went to this cave in West Stockbridge, and we wrote this collaboration about this visit to the cave.

AF: How long did that take to do?

BM: [Laughs] It didn’t take that long. We wrote alternating chapters and sent them through the mail. It sat around for about 40 years, and then it got published. Neither Clark nor I could find anyone to publish it.

AF: Is there a living writer you feel closer to than Clark?

BM: Well, we’re not that close anymore; we were then. But I don’t know. It’s a good question, but I don’t know, really.

AF: How many books do you own in your house?

BM: I just sold all my books through Bob Willig, who has this bookstore in Hadley, Massachusetts. I know it’s sad, but I needed the money. I sold them about five years ago. I still have quite a few of them. I didn’t sell them all. I kept all the Hawthorne books, all the Gertrude Stein books. I wound up having all the Larry McMurtry and all the John McPhee books.

AF: You were telling me about John Lilly. When did you get interested in psychology and the study of the mind’s churnings and turnings, etc.?

BM: Around the time of Memory, I underwent psychoanalysis, but even previous to that I was interested in books about that. One of my favorite books was Altered States of Consciousness. Around that time, I read all the works of John C. Lilly—I was fascinated by his study of dolphins and whales. 

AF: Were you ever interested in taking LSD and following the steps to get the results?

BM: I would have if I had had the nerve.

AF: What year did you start psychoanalysis?

BM: That would be about 1971.

AF: How long did you participate in it for?

BM: Oh, god. Too long. Way too long. David Rubinfine, psychoanalyst of the stars. I found him through Ed Bowes. He had been, believe it or not, Tuesday Weld’s and Anthony Perkins’ psychoanalyst, and he married Elaine May. Guess who I met in the waiting room? Alger Hiss. He was based in the West Side of Manhattan, 81st Street. At first it was once a week, but then it was every day. I can’t remember for how long it was, but it was way longer than I would ever want to remember.

AF: How did you afford that?

BM: I didn’t, actually. It was free. Everybody said to me, “Free psychoanalysis isn’t worth as much as psychoanalysis that you pay for.” David’s idea was that he thought he would see Averell Harriman’s wife and she would pay him upwards of $100 an hour, so he figured why not have it be free for me. He had plenty of money.

AF: What was he like to work with?

BM: He turned out to be a good teacher. He gave me a lot of his books. We studied Freud. He thought he was making a convert of me. You know what I always thought? The Interpretation of Dreams would make a great movie. Why hasn’t anyone turned that into a movie? Wouldn’t it make a great film? Also a great title! I don’t know why anyone hasn’t done it, it’s right there in little segments for each dream to be filmed. It would be great. Peter Greenaway made a movie of The Pillow Book—that’s about as close as you can come to that kind of filmmaking. That was pretty great. You should check it out.

AF: You were doing psychoanalysis for an intense period of time. Were you resistant or afraid of it?

BM: I was happy because I figured like after doing Memory, which was a very intense period of time where I was busy all the time, I thought like I was completely going crazy. I thought, Well, maybe I was just crazy to begin with, and now it’s surfacing. So that’s why I went to see a psychoanalyst, to be sure whether I was crazy or not crazy. I never regretted it. You can do it forever. It’s liberating to know a little more about yourself than you did before.

AF: How did it influence your writing?

BM: It just made me want to write more. I would write all the time. I would write in these huge journals, 11 by 17. David would buy me two of them, one to read and one to write in. I would always have two going on. Those were the Studying Hunger Journals. Eventually I put them together, chronologically. It was about 400 pages.

AF: How did you decide to stop?

BM: I really don’t know. I came to the end of the second journal and said, “Oh well.” I can’t remember, really.

AF: Midwinter Day seems very related to this process.

BM: Now I mostly write poems when I’m not writing projects like the Helen of Troy thing. I’m just like an ordinary citizen: I think about the weather. [Laughs]

AF: What’s your writing process like? When do you write, for instance?

BM: I write whenever I want to. I’ve written every time of the day. You probably know about the 3:15 a.m. technique—it’s an exercise I started at Naropa with a bunch of women. You do it in the month of August. I like doing it here, when there are other people in the house. Then you can sit around the house and read what you wrote at 3:15. The results are funny; sometimes they’re stupid.

AF: Does it start with a line floating into your head?

BM: Having had a stroke makes my whole process different. I can’t immediately jot something down. I can’t handwrite. Like all those poets who had to memorize the poems because it was against the law for them to disseminate. If I’m really bored, I can just memorize license plates—it’s gotten pretty out of hand. I’m glad I know I’m not crazy. It’s not really a happy occasion. I wish I hadn’t had the stroke, needless to say. I’m fine now. I walk with a cane. If I drink too much, I fall down. That aspect of things is not perfect—otherwise, it’s not a problem.

AF: When did you have the stroke?

BM: I had the stroke in 1994, just when everyone on my father’s side had a stroke: aged 49. It didn’t affect my language, happily. It just affected my right hand and my right leg. I couldn’t walk. I just had to have a wheelchair. I remember saying to Allen Ginsberg, “I am so bored.” I was sitting in this wheelchair, and he said, “Well, this is a good time to meditate.” I said, “Fuck you, Allen!” I was really pissed. [Laughs]

AF: Luckily, there wasn’t a cognitive disaster. I know people can wake up and not be able to use words they’ve done their whole lives.

BM: I could talk. My memory was fucked up for a while, but eventually I could remember everything. Right before I had the stroke, I always thought I might have caused it somehow—not completely, it was caused by high blood pressure exploding brain vessels—but I was doing these funny things with my brain: if I would lie down in a certain way, I could get myself—in 10 minutes—into a hypnagogic state. It’s a state between waking and sleeping—so you’re awake, but you’re having visions as if you were sleeping. You have to lie down in such a way that none of your limbs are touching your body and be completely undisturbed. And then I could—for a long time I could not only see visions that way, I could actually summon up words. So I made a list of all the words. (I used a tape recorder.) I made a list of all the hypnagogic words, which I read recently. One of them was You don’t aggressively soothe the butter. I’ve never published them, but maybe I will. They’re mostly lines rather than single words. I would have the tape recorder going while I was doing it; otherwise I couldn’t retrieve the words.

AF: Is that kind of state ever terrifying?

BM: No, not at all. It’s kind of fun.

AF: After the stroke, did you try to compose with the tape recorder?

BM: You know, a lot of people advised me to do it, but I just can’t do it. It makes sense, but I just can’t. I use an electric typewriter—pretty much been using it forever.

AF: What’s your revision process like?

BM: Doesn’t really exist. Sometimes I’ll cross whole sections out if I do revising.

AF: How much unpublished work do you have?

BM: I have an archive. There’s a lot of stuff in my archive [at UCSD].

AF: How does it feel to have an ARCHIVE, Bernadette Mayer?

BM: It feels very self-important. [Laughs]

AF: You’ve been creating archives in one way or another your entire life. How come revision doesn’t interest you as much? Do you have any definitive statements on revision as a teacher?

BM: I disapprove.

AF: When did you start teaching writing?

BM: Oh, a long time ago, in 1970.

AF: How long have you done it since then?

BM: I did it a lot to earn a living in New York City. Then I taught up here. I had a workshop in my house. So I do it whenever I have a chance. I had students come here in the wintertime, two years ago, for a weekend. We would feed them, and they would sleep over. It would be 24 hours of poetry. They were my prisoners. I would make them get up at 3:15 a.m. We would make them talk about poetry. At night, when they were tired, I’d show them movies about poetry. Andrei Codrescu made this movie called Road Scholar. I also love to show them Agnes Varda’s movie The Gleaners and I. I don’t know, whatever movies seemed appropriate.

AF: What’s your style like as a teacher?

BM: Conversational.

AF: How do you teach a poet? Or can you?

BM: No, you can’t. You import knowledge, something they don’t have. You tell them things. Or you tell them stories. Whatever. Yeah, you act old and wise.

AF: Your experimental prompts are a very popular Bernadette Mayer item on the Internet. How did you develop those?

BM: I did them at my workshop that I did at St. Mark’s Church in the ’70s. We put that list together, all of us. And that’s what we did each week in the workshop. The students loved it; they were excited. You have to realize that a lot of the people in that workshop were future members of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E School. They would tell me what they needed to know about, I would go home and do a little research, and then I would teach them about it. Like Wittgenstein or Lacan, or even things they didn’t ask me to talk about. Like Dada. And then we developed from that workshop a lecture series. Then we’d invite people to come. It’s amazing who you can invite in New York City to lecture to a group of poets, and they would come; they were happy to come. I had a guy come and do a dream workshop for two weeks; and that guy who was at Columbia—he might even be dead—Richard Feynman, he came and lectured. It was kind of easy to get people to speak to a small group of poets in a basic little cavernous room.

AF: What do you think of Language poetry?

BM: I like it now that they—I shouldn’t say “they”—that they’ve developed a sense of humor. For a long time it was in abeyance; now it’s back—well, I don’t think it ever existed, but now it does.

AF: What was Charles Bernstein like as a student?

BM: Charles! [Laugh] He was funny. He would say these semi-erudite things, and you see, I was only like 26, so I would say to him: “Charles, you’re not at Harvard anymore!”

AF: Finally, could you tell me about the Helens of Troy project—the new book that you’re currently working on?

BM: Helens of Troy is finished. It’s a book of photographs of all the Helens in Troy, New York. There are 15 Helens. I put an ad in the Troy Record, which is the Troy newspaper, and some reporter picked up on it, and on their second page they have questions and answers of people who are doing local things. Lots of people saw that; they didn’t see the ad. Then I put an ad in the senior center. The name Helen was a big name at that period of time; a lot of people named Helen are in their 80s. The youngest is 28, and mostly they’re people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s.

AF: How did they respond to the idea of your project?

BM: I don’t know if they liked it, but they put up with it. I’d call them and make an arrangement to come to their house. You know what I found out? A lot of people who grew up in Troy really loved it, and have even returned to it. I live about 18 miles from Troy. Now the town is spread out, but it has beautiful architecture. How big is it in terms of numbers of people? I have no idea, maybe about 40,000. It used to be walkable. You could get on a boat every day, every hour, on the Hudson River to go to either New York City or Boston. Pretty amazing, right? So life there was pretty interesting for a person growing up. They never had to have a vehicle.

Originally Published: April 4th, 2011

Adam Fitzgerald is the author of the poetry collections The Late Parade (2013) and George Washington (2016). The founding editor of poetry journal Maggy, he is currently a contributing editor for Literary Hub where he regularly features and interviews contemporary poets. Born in New York City, Fitzgerald grew up in New Jersey and earned...

An avant-garde writer associated with the New York School of poets, Bernadette Mayer was born in Brooklyn, New York, and has spent most of her life in New York City. Her collections of poetry include Midwinter Day (1982, 1999), A Bernadette Mayer Reader (1992), The Desire of Mothers to Please...

  1. April 7, 2011

    For the interested--

    Here is a fascimile of "Memory," the published result of Mayer's 1971 exhibit:

    And here is a brief clip--reconstructed footage from "Memory":

    Love the Ginsberg quotes & "How does it feel to have an ARCHIVE, Bernadette Mayer?" (!)

  2. April 9, 2011
     nm boliek

    Reading this interview I found myself longing for this type of creative 'communtiy'. I feel that so much of poetry isn't about reflection but about connection.It's a deeply intimate, warm art that is often best explored with the eyes and emotions of other like minded, unminded individuals. Bernadette has a solidness of personality that radiates as ease and acceptance - I like that - it is what good poetry is and she is 'good poetry'
    [email protected]

  3. April 17, 2011
     Megan Burns

    For those interested: Trembling Pillow Press has just published Bernadette Mayer's Ethics of Sleep, which includes many of her poems on dreams and recording hypnagogic states. (

  4. January 13, 2012
     Gillian White

    For those interested, many of Mayer's early works (now out of print) are
    available in facsimile and "reading" copies at Eclipse, a digital archive
    supported by the University of Utah's English Department (I think the
    curator is Craig Dworkin). It's a great site for radical, small press work,
    including Mayer's: Here's a URL of their
    site: You can search by title or by