Whilst Brainard’s work proves more popular, the densities and maximalism of Memory strike a particular chord with several students, who subsequently explore in writing the distinct resonance they have felt with Mayer’s work. This is on account, variously, of Mayer’s “unconventional forms,” the “sheer scope of the work,” her multidirectional collaborations (primarily—and I love this suggestion—with different versions of herself). It’s because of what one student calls her “appetitiveness,” and the ways in which this extraordinary multimodal text reveals memory to be a “hyper-precise, individualized experience wrought with personal anxieties and recollections,” and yet, simultaneously, “an expansive, collective faculty” that elicits and requires sharing, or even over-sharing. The originality, ambition, and innovativeness that characterizes these essays emphasizes the pedagogical empowerment that inheres in Memory.
One assignment continues to develop our class discussion, reading Memory in dialogue with I Remember, paying close attention to the language used in both, and drawing out the anxieties inherent in their authors’ processes of recording and archiving memories. For this student—Alice—Mayer’s “multiple references to time and scope,” as well as her lineation, and her lingering on the word “forget” at the very end of Memory, speak to the endurance of “even the smallest of individual moments or experiences,” and to her “sense of anxiety and instability in her own internalized narrative.” Ella, meanwhile, reads the production of Memory in the context of Mayer’s Poetry Project workshops and Ed Bowes’s early 1970s film of her and Clark Coolidge reading Gertrude Stein while being chased (by Ed) around Coolidge’s home in the Berkshires. For Ella, Memory is an experiment in decentering, and thereby freeing, the self, enabling Mayer to engage in a process of self-collaboration in order to “form something new,” something that exists beyond ego, “beyond Mayer herself.” Poppy’s work, finally, thinks about the effects of “translating” Memory “out of its original form.” Poppy traces Memory’s development from unfolding, deeply personal, labor-intensive process to immersive gallery experience to unadorned manuscript to archive to sensuous, glossy hardback to performed parallel durational work to the PDF version in which she first encountered it. Poppy makes the case for Memory as fundamentally predicated on physical encounter, envisioning the gallery space at 98 Greene Street in 1972 as embodying “the experience of remembering itself… jumbled, both linear and non-linear,” and informed by “non-chronology and a sense of dissonance between audio and visual stimulus.” For her, memory and Memory are subjective experiences of seeing, thinking, hearing, touching, and moving, with the result that “a large part of the original Memory’s impact becomes invisible when translated into the medium of a book.” This, she observes, is partly because the “immersive audio dimension of the work is lost” and partly because “the book form imposes a much more rigid structure” on Mayer’s memories and our experiences of them than a gallery space, in which “linear documentation” communicates “delicately… with non-linearity.” Instead, Poppy suggests, we might imagine “an unbound ‘book’ of Memory, produced with pages packed loosely in a box,” or something akin to Eileen Myles’s Snowflake / different streets (2012), which “houses two separate collections of poetry printed back-to-back, and in opposite orientations,” in order to highlight how readerly interactions “extend into a work’s physical form,” and how, in life, we are recurrently “confronted by the material qualities of what we hold, view or otherwise interact with.”
All student work has been used with permission. Special thanks to Poppy Baxter, Alice Millington, and Ella Morris-Skingley.
- Saranne Weller, Academic Practice: Developing as a Professional in Higher Education (Sage, 2015), 2.
- Bernadette is my mother’s name, and partly as a result of this, I find myself slipping with easy familiarity into referring to Mayer as “Bernadette,” though I never knew her personally.
- James Schuyler, “Thursday,” in Collected Poems (New York: the Noonday Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998 (1993)), 311-2.
- Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 1.
- Diane di Prima’s first book of poetry, published in 1958, was called This Kind of Bird Flies Backward.
- Diane di Prima, “The Window,” in Pieces of a Song (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1990), 18.
- Bernadette Mayer, preface to Memory (New York: Siglio, 2020), 7.