The Poetry Project

An Interview with Bernadette Mayer

Lisa Jarnot

I believe this interview, printed in the Feb/March 1998 issue of the Poetry Project Newsletter [#168], was a rapprochement meeting for me and Bernadette. She was settling back into life on East 4th Street, post-stroke hospitalizations and rehab. I was at the end of (or near the end of?) a tumultuous relationship with her ex-husband Lewis Warsh. This is all to say that the circumstances of this interview were probably less than ideal, and yet we knew each other well enough to get right to work. Re-reading it now, I'm reminded of how much she taught me over the years and how much fun it was to conspire with her around the deep gossip of poetry. — Lisa Jarnot

Bernadette Mayer is the author of numerous books of poetry, including three forthcoming publications: Another Smashed Pinecone (United Artists), The Studying Hunger Journals (Hard Press), and a yet to be titled collection from New Directions. Over the last thirty years her work and ideas have played an essential part in the development of experimental poetry in the United States. This interview was conducted in her apartment on East 4th Street in Manhattan on December 1, 1997.

Lisa Jarnot: Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?

Bernadette Mayer: Well, actually the first poem that I ever wrote was a poem that I wrote for an assignment, about leaves. We had this assignment at school, that was our homework. So I wrote this great poem about leaves. I think it’s not extant anymore.

LJ: Did it rhyme?

BM: No. It was a good poem though. I got an A.

LJ: So that was in Brooklyn?

BM: No, that was in New Rochelle.

LJ: So that was when you were in college. You were an undergraduate?

BM: Yeah. I didn’t really start writing until I was about I7.

LJ: So how did you get from New Rochelle to the Lower East Side?

BM: Well, that was very fast actually. New Rochelle is horrible, as you might imagine. At the time it was a Catholic women’s college, and they threw me out. But they couldn’t figure out why. Their reason was because I read Freud, and they didn’t allow their psychology majors to read Freud until their senior year because it might be a threat to their faith. And I wore sandals. I broke all of their rules. But the real reason was that I wanted to get out of there. I only went there to please my mother. And then, you know, everybody in my family died and I left New Rochelle as soon as my uncle died, because there was no more reason to stay there. I hated it. And for two weeks I went to Barnard, and that was like a two-hour trip from Brooklyn to Barnard. Forget it. So then I moved to the Lower East Side.

LJ: Did you know people here or did you just move here?

BM: No. I just moved here because I knew it was inexpensive.

LJ: When did you first meet poets?

BM: At the New School. I took a class with Bill Berkson and I met all these poets. Frances LeFevre was in my class, and Michael Brownstein. And then I started hanging out with Peter Schjeldahl and then he introduced me to Ted Berrigan. And then Kenward Elmslie used to have big parties at the time, with big boxes of rolled joints and stuff. That was 1965 maybe.

LJ: Did you spend time with visual artists?

BM: Well I used to edit 0 to 9 magazine with Vito Acconci. We didn’t really hang out with the visual artists though, we just published them.

LJ: What was the idea behind 0 to 9?

BM: It was pretty much the same idea that there is behind any magazine—to create a great environment for our own work and to publish all the things that we both loved to see published. So we started publishing the works of Robert Smithson, and the journals of Jasper Johns. You know, these really interesting things, but I don’t think too many people were publishing them at the moment, or at least we never read them.

LJ: How much were you influenced by New York School writing?

BM: Well, you know, I had this incredible resistance to any New York writing. I really didn’t want to be influenced by it. So I wasn’t. I guess I am now, but I wasn’t then. We had such a strong resistance that I was going out with Ted Berrigan for a while and Ted and Ron would do these collaborations and send them to 0 to 9 and we would never publish them. We published one called “Furtive Days.”But we would never publish them and I guess it was because of their style or something. I really couldn’t figure out why it was. I used to go to a lot of those avant-garde concert performance events with John Cage and Yoko Ono. They were pretty amazing. I always liked those. I think they influenced me much more than any of the writing.

LJ: What did you think of the poets on the Lower East Side?

BM: I was very inspired. I was so happy to be around poets all the time. And then I was reading. I embarked upon this project of reading all of the long books. That was my theory—I could just read a lot of long poetry books that I had never read.

LJ: So which ones did you read?

BM: I read The Cantos and all of T.S. Eliot. I didn’t have too much to do. After I fell in love with Ed Bowes, we lived in Syracuse for a while and then I got pregnant and Ed got thrown out of school, and his parents freaked out and they sent him to a psychiatrist in Ardsley. So I had nothing to do for about a year and I had enough money to pay my rent, so I just read all these books. And I used to listen to WBAI at night and write.

LJ: What do you think of Eliot? Was he an influence on you?

BM: No. Never. I’m sorry, I wasn’t impressed by Eliot.

LJ: What was the best thing you read?

BM: Well, it was around that time that Bill Berkson told me I was writing too much like Gertrude Stein, whom I had never heard of. So I started reading Gertrude Stein and that was pretty inspiring. I guess I liked her work and I also liked reading philosophy. Like all those amazing philosophy books. Like Kierkegaard and Heidegger and all the great philosophy books. Much better than going to school.

LJ: How old were you?

BM: I was 19. We used to order all our books from Blackwell’s in London because they were cheaper. So we would send these great long lists to Blackwell’s, and get back these bills for like 30 dollars and we’d get amazing books. And I read all the works of William Carlos Williams. I read Djuna Barnes and that was interesting. I mean I’m sure I read a lot of things.

LJ: What do you think has changed in the poetry world since the 60s?

BM: Well. It went through this period of being very social, and now it’s much less social.

LJ: Maybe it’s because people work more.

BM: Yeah, I think so. Jobs. Like it used to be very easy to live without a job. But now when I teach a workshop all of my students have jobs. Like real 9-to-5 jobs. So that’s changed. And I think more people are writing. And what’s changed a lot is that there are more women writers. When I was first writing we only knew of a few women poets, like Barbara Guest and Diane di Prima. So it’s great to see more women writers. That’s why I was so honored to read with Barbara Guest. And I remember when I met Diane di Prima, which was also amazing—to meet your childhood heroes.

LJ: Right. That’s one good thing about being a poet.

BM: Yeah. Like if you start a magazine or a reading series you have an excuse to write to almost anybody. I mean literally anybody, so that’s the reason to do it. That’s why we did it. We started our magazine so we could write stupid letters to Robert Smithson. And we were so honored to write to Jasper Johns. I mean nobody was inaccessible. Everybody wanted to publish their work. It was great. It still is actually. I mean I get on the phone now and call up anybody and invite them to give a lecture and chat with them. It’s a great privilege.

LJ: What about the 70s and 80s scene in New York? What about the Language scene? You were at the church.

BM: 1971 was when I did the workshop and a lot of the Language people were in the workshop, secretly learning what they needed to know. We used to talk about Lacan. It was a great workshop.

LJ: What did you think of Language writing?

BM: Well, I encouraged it. I never thought it would reach these proportions. I always thought it was a great idea. I’m for all kinds of writing. I never knew Language Poetry would become so exclusive. I mean Language Poetry is fine, but it’s one kind of poetry. Someone said to a friend of mine recently, “Your book is filled with all different kinds of poetry.” I mean, why not? Are you supposed to write only one kind of poetry? I don’t think so. I love Louis Zukofsky’s translations of Catullus, which are not translations, they’re just mimicking the sound of the Latin, and they’re beautiful, they’re great. What Americans really seem to find difficult is when something doesn’t make sense. They find it really hard and boring, what’s it all about? It seems like you can just enjoy the sounds of words without any other meaning rearing its ugly head. Why bother? Who cares? It’s just that people watch TV. and they’re made to think that things are very simple and clear, because that’s the way they are on TV. And everyone thinks that everything should be that way.

LJ: Do you think your relation to the poetry scene has changed? Do you feel more at ease? I mean, as an “established” poet.

BM: In the world of the St. Mark’s Church poetry scene it’s easier to exist. Years ago when you walked into St. Mark’s Church it was like a pickup scene. I mean the difference is that now I really know how I feel about poetry, and that I really love listening to poetry. In the beginning I didn’t really know that. I mean I guess I did, but I didn’t know that I did. So it’s really great. A lot of readings that we go to, I’d prefer to be invisible and just listen to the work. I wish there was a poetry series on TV, so you could listen to poetry all day long; the social scene doesn’t really make it at all. It used to be much more fun. People used to make love in the church belfry and on the pews. You know, it was a lot of fun. What was more interesting about the sixties, that doesn’t seem to be true now, is that sex was more predominant. Unless maybe I’m just missing it. So I’m still regressive in that sense, like when I tell my kids about various types of birth control, and then I suddenly realize that they can’t make love without the fear of getting AIDS or something. I mean, and sex is totally different than it used to be. I guess a lot of people really don’t pay attention.

LJ: What do you think of monogamy?

BM: Oh, I think it sucks. Yeah, I’m against monogamy. That’s an easy one. Always have been. But you know, people in the world don’t feel that way. Even in the sixties, people used to go around saying how great faithfulness was. And like if a couple stays together and celebrates their 50th wedding anniversary everyone thinks that’s a great thing. I think it’s a terrible thing, especially for women. I think it’s an awful thing, but nobody will admit it. It’s like a moral issue. I mean monogamy works if the woman is really content to do all the cooking and cleaning and be a housewife, and then it works. And that’s why there are all those couples who celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. I mean I can’t believe that’s what they have to do.

LJ: What about marriage?

BM: I’m against marriage. The only reason I’ll get married now is if someone needs a green card and will pay me a lot of money. Then I’ll do it.

LJ: What’s your idea of utopia?

Mayer: Well it’s all in that book. [Utopia, United Artists, 1984]

LJ: It seems like a lot of your early projects are about consciousness, exploring that. What did you think you were going to find out by doing that?

BM: Good question. I’ve always been interested in the brain and consciousness. I mean it’s amazing that I had a cerebral hemorrhage and now I see all these neurologists and am concerned with all those things in a different way. I think it’s great actually. I shouldn’t say that. I learned in the hospital that you’re not supposed to think a cerebral hemorrhage is interesting in any way. Otherwise you get accused of having a sense of unreality. One nurse actually said to me, “You don’t realize what happened to you.”

LJ: What do you think of the medical system?

BM: I think we should all be able to use our health insurance to see homeopaths if we want to. I think the medical system stinks. And I think doctors must take a course in medical school on how not to tell the truth and how not to answer questions. Because if you ask the doctors a question, they won’t tell you they don’t know, because that’s against the rules. A doctor is not supposed to not know something. So they just make up some phony answer which is not true. And I can’t find a neurologist who knows about dreams. I mean I finally found one in a book, but in real life never. And I guess I’ve been spoiled by seeing a psychiatrist who was a doctor, and he was a neurologist, and I was totally spoiled. I could just ask him whatever question I wanted and he would actually answer, and if he didn’t know he would say I don’t know. It’s a very simple thing to say. But the only valuable thing a neurologist has ever told me is this one guy said in medical school he was told to take PABA to remember dreams. And that works for awhile.

LJ: And you’ve been having dreams again?

BM: Yeah. I have them if I take this drug called Xanax—it induces dreams—but that’s problematic because how can you take that much Xanax? And that’s the only way I can remember dreams, so one day I hope to come up with another solution.

LJ: Do you still use information from your dreams in poems? Have you been incorporating that?

BM: Yeah I can, but at the moment I don’t because I don’t have enough memory of dreams to do it. I mean it used to be an integral part of my work, but at the moment I’m writing mostly about reality. [Laughs]

LJ: When you were in the hospital, how did the doctors and nurses react to the fact that you were a poet?

BM: Oh. Amazingly. They would say to me all the time “Say something poetic.” They never used the word poetry as a noun. “Do something poetic.” And they would hover over my shoulder when I was using the computer to see what I typed. Well, those weren’t the doctors, they were the cognitive therapists.

LJ: Do you think that you figured out anything about consciousness from having that experience?

BM: Oh yeah, definitely. But what I’ve mainly figured out is that really fascinating things have been happening to me for the last three years, and nobody asks me about them. Nobody seems to care. I can’t get a straight answer from anybody.

LJ: You mean like doctors?

BM: Yeah. I mean they all think I’m imagining it. I saw some optometrist and I told him I couldn’t read because I was seeing weird squiggly orange and green shapes on the page, and he looked at me askance, to put it nicely, and then about six months later he said “yeah, I think probably you were right about what you said because I just read it in a book.” So it’s been very frustrating. I mean it would be great if somebody was really interested in what was happening to me, and if it continues the way it is now, I’m going to be forced to write a book about it, which I don’t think is the book I want to write. But I would love to talk about it. I mean when I first left the hospital I was desperate for someone to talk to and I really thought that was a possible thing, and somebody had told me that if you put some kind of statement or question on the Internet that you’ll find a person—that it’s inevitable, you’ll have to find a person. So I did that and the only response I got was from this doctor who said “If you can’t remember your dreams, it’s important not to forget your aspirations.” [laughs] and he signed it, Doctor So-and-So. I mean my collection of silly statements about dreams is endless. So it would be nice to know a doctor, it would be nice to know a neurologist, it would be nice to be able to ask questions and have them answered. I mean it’s tiring to be the person who has all these thoughts and they don’t go anywhere and nobody seems to care about them. I know I’m complaining.

LJ: You’re writing again. How has your writing changed?

BM: It’s changed a lot. I feel like a different person. I was thinking I should have a new name, and to start a new kind of writing. At the moment I’m writing these epigrams, and it’s amazing. I started writing epigrams because Lee Ann Brown created this game where there were a pile of form cards and a pile of content cards. And every time I would draw out a form card it would be an epigram. So I started writing all these epigrams, and then I realized that it was very easy to write them, and all I had to do was close my eyes and think about anything at all. And epigrams are an amazing form because they’re so brief. So that’s what I’m doing now. And/or writing a book about the iguana, maybe.

LJ: The iguana in the other room?

BM: Yes. Well it’s hard not to. He’s right next to my desk.

LJ: What are the projects that you haven’t done yet that you’d like to do?

BM: Uh. I’d like to get rich. You mean writing projects?

LJ: Yeah, writing projects.

BM: I don’t know. Good question. While I was in the hospital I had this dream that—I mean it persisted for about a year too, and I thought it was real—that in The Desires of Mothers To Please Others In Letters [Hard Press, 1993], I had written a poem for each prose piece, and that if people read that, they would learn how to write poetry. So, maybe that’s a project. [Laughs] I’ve written so many poems, they’re everywhere. I don’t know exactly where they are everywhere, but everywhere I look I find more poems. So, it would be nice to find all the poems.

LJ: That’s a good project. What about experiments? Are there writing experiments that are still useful for you from the original experiments list?

BM: I like doing the free associative experiment, where you write whatever.

LJ: How did those experiment lists come about?

BM: We put them together in my first workshop. The workshop students and I put them together. There’s a project I’d like to do, but it’s not exactly a writing project. But I’d like computers to be able to record everything you think and see. To be like the brain, and to write that out. And apparently eventually computers will be able to do this. That Wim Wenders movie, The End of the World, is sort of like that. And somebody said to me, “who would read it?” But I’m thinking that I would read it. I would love to read it. Like if you had all these documents of everybody’s experience. It would be amazing.

LJ: That’s kind of like a high-tech Olson project. Scanning and mapping.

BM: And then you could just take part of it and publish it in a poetry magazine. I like taking prose works and changing them into poetry and vice versa. Well, I just want to make some money. I want to start a wildlife refuge. Those are my plans. I know exactly where to do it but I don’t have the cash.

LJ: Where?

BM: In East Chatham, where we can build those wooden walkways over the pond and over the swamp, and people can walk on them and observe. We can bring the beavers back. Beavers and herons and all kinds of wildlife. So that’s my aspiration. See I remembered my aspirations.

#272 – Spring 2023