Last November, the poet Bernadette Mayer passed away in her home in East Nassau, NY. She was 77, and the author of over 30 books of poetry and prose. A beloved member of the Poetry Project community virtually since its inception, she ran workshops here regularly from the early 70s through the 2000s, and served as Director from 1980-84.
Mayer’s work, committed to the universalist premise that anyone with any relationship to thought and language is or could be a writer as well, developed method after method specifically in order to make writing more possible. “The thousand episodes the mind enjoys can make a book in a minute, if you’d only write it,” she offered in Piece of Cake, her 1977 collaboration with the writer Lewis Warsh. Anyone could be that you, and her methods seem specifically designed to make poetic language more pliable and accommodating. A partial list of the genres that Mayer developed or expanded over the course of six decades includes the journal poem, the psychoanalytic diary, the sonnet, the epistolary sequence, the book composed in a determined span of time, collective or shared composition, the Utopian tradition, constraint-based writing, creative translation and even the form of the writing prompt itself, which she and her students in the workshops she taught at the Project amassed together. (In an interview for the Newsletter from 1998, reprinted in this issue, Mayer observed to Lisa Jarnot: “Someone said to a friend of mine recently ‘Your book is filled with all different kinds of poetry.’ I mean, why not?”) In a sense, the work collected in this issue circles a central question: how does Mayer’s writing teach others to write?
Through collaboration, certainly: Jen Karmin in this issue indicates the duration and force of Mayer’s collective writing techniques, and in that spirit we’ve also reprinted excerpts from Mayer’s The Basketball Article, written with Anne Waldman in 1975, and a letter and poem from her 2022 collaborative book written with Lee Ann Brown. Equally, through deep and enduring attachment to the friends with whom one writes: as Rainer Diana Hamilton suggests in her essay, friendship for Mayer is in part a way to access “a collective fabric from the language various loved ones had added to the otherwise private and naive closets containing poetry.” CAConrad weaves a review essay of Mayer’s Milkweed Smithereens (2022) into a buoyant letter to Mayer, and similarly Elizabeth Willis, Lydia Davis, and Bianca Messinger offer heartfelt reflections on the absence that Mayer’s passing has left on the lives of those who knew and loved her.
Meanwhile, Mayer treats poetry itself as a device for capacious thought—philosophically ambitious, practical, political, and this-worldly. Shiv Kotecha, Matthew Rana, Elena Gomez, and Marcella Durand each explore Mayer’s now-classic experiments in using poetry as an instrument of theoretical inquiry, focusing respectively on Memory (1975, 2020), Studying Hunger (1975), Midwinter Day (1982) and Utopia (1984). Rona Cran reflects on the pedagogy of introducing these experiments into the classroom, where “the vertiginous nature of Memory’s form and its handling of ideas are immensely freeing for students.” Cam Scott and Tausif Noor explore two recent collections of Mayer’s letters, exchanged respectively with Clark Coolidge and her sister Rosemary Mayer, in which she clarifies the intent of her project to achieve a “real translation of thought.” The maximalism of this project is palpable both in the prolific extent of Mayer’s own writing, and in the writers who have patterned their work after her enabling list of experiments, several of whom wrote poems in that mode for this issue of the Newsletter.
Our intention is for this special issue, a kind of Festschrift, to offer both entry points for reading Mayer’s work and theses that change the questions we ask about it. In the introduction to the 1975 Studying Hunger, and again in her preface to the 2020 edition of Memory, Mayer expressed her desire for an “emotional science” project which might produce “a great piece of language/information.” What was that science project, and what would it mean to achieve it—if not for her, then for the writers she instructed and continues to instruct? Midwinter Day links the intimate details of family routine to astonishing philosophical theses and great political upheaval; why, how, and what does that show us? Researchers have scarcely looked at Mayer’s papers housed at UCSD, or the Poetry Project archives at Library of Congress; how might close study of those documents, including her correspondence and notebooks, change what we think we know about her? What work does poetry do in the political project of “giving everybody everything”?
The warmth and insight that Mayer’s work makes possible radiates here across acres of thought and feeling both—mingled forever, as fits her work, steadfast in its refusal to rip the two apart. “All heart I live, all head, all hand, all ear,” Mayer wrote in her poem “Eve of Easter,” and that’s an example, too.