Mayer, Bernadette 1945-
MAYER, Bernadette 1945-
Born May 12, 1945, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Theodore A. (an electrician) and Marie (Stumpf) Mayer; married Lewis Warsh (a poet and publisher), 1975; children: Marie, Sophia, Max. Education: New School for Social Research, B.A., 1967; also attended Barnard College, Columbia University, and College of New Rochelle.
Home—114 West 16th St., New York, NY 100011.
Poet, editor, and educator. 0to9, editor with Vito Acconci, 1967-69; Unnatural Acts, editor with Ed Friedman, 1972-74; United Artists Press, editor with Lewis Warsh, 1977-83. Teacher at schools and workshops, including St. Mark's Poetry Project, New York, NY, (also served as director) and New School for Social Research, New York, NY. Collaborated with filmmaker Ed Bowes on several projects in the 1970s.
Poets Foundation grant, 1967; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1971; Creative Artists Public Service Program grant in fiction, 1976.
Story, 0 to 9 Press (New York, NY), 1968.
Moving, Angel Hair (New York, NY), 1971.
(With Anne Waldman) The Basketball Article, Angel Hair (New York, NY), 1975.
Ceremony Latin (1964), Angel Hair (New York, NY), 1975.
Memory (performance art, exhibited in New York, NY, 1972), North Atlantic (Plainville, VT), 1975.
Studying Hunger, Serendipity Books (Berkeley, CA), 1976.
Poetry, Kulchur Foundation (New York, NY), 1976.
Erudition ex Memoria, Angel Hair (Lenox, MA), 1977.
The Golden Book of Words, Angel Hair (Lenox, MA), 1978.
Midwinter Day, Turtle Island Foundation (Berkeley, CA), 1982, reprinted, New Directions (New York, NY), 1999.
Incidents Reports Sonnets, Archipelago (New York, NY), 1984.
Utopia, United Artists Books (New York, NY), 1984.
Mutual Aid, Mademoiselle de la Mole Press (New York, NY), 1985.
Sonnets, Tender Buttons (New York, NY), 1989.
(With Dale Worsley) The Art of Science Writing, Teachers & Writers (New York, NY), 1989.
The Formal Field of Kissing, Catchword Papers (New York, NY), 1990.
A Bernadette Mayer Reader, New Directions (New York, NY), 1992.
The Desire of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, Hard Press (Stockbridge, MA), 1994.
Proper Name and Other Stories, New Directions (New York, NY), 1996.
Another Smashed Pinecone, United Artists Books (New York, NY), 1998.
Two Haloed Mourners, Granary Books (New York, NY), 1998.
Contributor to anthologies, including Anthology of New York Poets, edited by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro, Random House, 1970; Another World, edited by Anne Waldman, Bobbs-Merrill, 1971; Young American Poets 2, edited by Paul Carroll, Follett, 1972; Individuals, edited by Alan Sondheim, Dutton, 1975; None of the Above, edited by Michael Lally, Crossing Press, 1976; and A Code of Signals: Recent Writings in Poetics, edited by Michael Palmer, North Atlantic, 1983. Contributor of poetry to Ice, Tzarad, 0 to 9, Lines, and other publications. The Bernadette Mayer Papers (1958-1996) are held at the University of California, San Diego's Mandeville Special Collections Library.
Basing much of her work on the environment in and around her home in New York City, poet and teacher Bernadette Mayer has created a body of work characterized by what Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist Peter Baker called "a startling inclusivity by which the poet tries to re-create the innumerable objects, events, memories, and dreams that range into the field of an alert consciousness." Beginning her career as a performance artist with the 1972 exhibit Memory, Mayer has been considered one of the catalysts of the so-called "Language" movement in poetry through her association with poets Charles Bernstein, Peter Seaton, and Nick Piombino. However, Mayer herself has eschewed such categorization, and her work, experimental in nature, continues to defy easy classification.
Memory, which was exhibited at New York's 98 Greene Street Gallery, was comprised of over 1,000 photographs—one roll of film for every day during the month of July, 1971—arranged on walls in rows and accompanied by seven hours of energetic, almost spontaneous narration. Published in an abridged print version in 1975, the exhibit gained its creator instant fame within Manhattan's Artistic enclave; in the Village Voice A. D. Coleman described the installation as "a unique and deeply exciting document" and noted that Mayer's exhibit "fall[s] outside the countries of what is generally considered to be photographic art."
Mayer's reputation as an experimental artist was earned with Memory, and future works built upon that reputation. Studying Hunger is a prose version of Memory, consisting of over three hundred pages of journal entries documenting one month in the poet's life. Only one-fifth of the work was actually published in book form. Mayer's work during the latter half of the 1970s was, in contrast to Memory and Studying Hunger, more conventional in form, comprising poems written earlier in her career and those she had written quickly, in response to particular inspirations, rather than planned and constructed over long periods of time. These poems' conventionality caused some critics to condemn Mayer for abandoning the experimentalist "cause," while others considered such works more accessible to the average reader. In fact, in contrast to the many volumes she has published through small presses, the poems in Mayer's collections Poetry and The Golden Book of Words, first published between 1976 and 1978, served as the bulk of New Directions' A Bernadette Mayer Reader, which was released to relatively wide national distribution in 1992.
"The body of Mayer's work reveals her clear allegiance to certain practices of surrealism," maintained Baker, "as well as to the experimental techniques of [Gertrude] Stein, William Carlos Williams, and other writers in the American tradition." Both her conventional poems and her highly praised book-length poem Midwinter Day—a 119-page work composed during the course of a single day the poet spent in Lenox, Massachusetts, in December of 1978—speak to Mayer's familiarity with the American literary tradition. The poet records the details of everyday activities, such as grocery shopping and caring for her children, in what a Publishers Weekly critic described as "long, elegant lines" and "prose poetry." This same reviewer pointed out that the 1999 republication of Midwinter Day, which was originally published in 1982, "signals a growing recognition of her achievement." Of Midwinter Day, which Baker noted is acclaimed by some as "one of the unacknowledged masterpieces of late-twentieth-century writing in English," reviewer Fanny Howe remarked in the American Book Review that, "In a language made up of idiom and lyricism, which cancels the boundaries between prose and poetry, … Mayer's.… search for pattern woven out of small actions confirms the notion that seeing what is is a radical human gesture. Doctrine is irrelevant here to the moral—and solitary—courage displayed by this act of writing, and sharing of that writing." In Utopia, Mayer shares her work alongside the work of others. Formatted almost like a social studies textbook, Utopia addresses Mayer's social concerns, interleaving her verses with those of other poets to create a collaborative work.
Mayer's extremely popular A Bernadette Mayer Reader sold one thousand copies in one month. This collection of Mayer's poetry spans her entire career and introduces some new poems as well. Her next work, The Desire of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, is a collection of prose poems written during the poet's third pregnancy in 1989. Mayer once said in an interview, "When I found out I was pregnant with Max, I decided to write the letters until he was born, which is a very congenial structure for me. I mean not in terms of the giving birth thing, but in terms of any kind of time structure happening."
Mayer's collection of poetry and prose, Proper Name and Other Stories, was warmly received by literary critics. "This culmination of Mayer's particular flow of language, initiated in her early work decades ago, remains outrageously pure and phrased with pleasure," wrote Alystyre Julian in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. "Mayer's voice is demonstrative, animated, witty, and questioning. Her considerations are philosophic and deeply psychic," Julian continued. Mayer's poems in this collection cover an amalgam of subjects, from physics, to lyrical observations of her surroundings, to the writing process itself. In several poems, Mayer examines the impact of different words and letters on human thought processes and emotion. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that the writings in this collection are "so much about tile sounds of language and about their appearance on the page that the meaning behind the sparsely punctuated stream of consciousness is often murky." Mayer's style echoes that of 1950s poets experimenting with stream of consciousness—a difficult style to master. Perhaps the poet is in a constant state of experimentation as she records thoughts flowing freely from her mind. In the Lambda Book Report, Susan Landers said that Mayer's work has "a certain postmodern sensibility." Landers commended the author's accomplishment, comparing Mayer's work to that of writers before her: "Proper Name exhibits this sensibility through Mayer's Steinesque syntactical play, her meta-narrative maneuvers a la Barth or Borges, and a language poet's interest in language." A Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that "Mayer has created a unique exploration of words."
Mayer again plays with unconventional forms in Two Haloed Mourners. In the Poetry Project Newsletter, Ange Minko wrote of this work, "The book starts out dense, vagrant, proceeding on a combination of automatic writing and methodical structural repetition. It picks up speed, changes gears from poetry to prose and back again, tries out a sestina where both beginning and ending words recur." Minko continued to explain the poetic movement that occurs throughout the poetry: "Then something explodes midway through the book, as though all this formal experimentation was the rumbling and smoldering of Mt. Saint Helens erupting over the circumstances of Bernadette Mayer's move back to the Lower East Side from New Hampshire, where what was menace in the air of rural America is met head-on in the New York of Reagan and Wall Street." In 1998, Mayer collected some of her previously unpublished poetry, written between 1975 and 1993, and published them as Another Smashed Pinecone.
While the limited distribution of her work outside of New York City, with the exception of the Reader, has caused Mayer to be relatively little studied by academics, her career as a teacher of experimental poetry techniques—particularly at New York's St. Mark's Poetry Project—and her efforts to extend the use of language "beyond poetic theory of any kind and closer to an honest … means of expressing the reality of the human mind," in the words of a Contemporary Women Poets contributor, have made her instrumental in expanding the limits of poetry as a literary form.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Baker, Peter, Obdurate Brilliance: Exteriority and the Modern Long Poem, University of Florida Press (Gainesville, FL), 1991.
Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997, 1998.
Corbett, William, and Michael Gizzi, editors, Writing for Bernadette, The Figures (Great Barrington, MA), 1995.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 165: American Poets since World War II, Fourth Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
American Book Review, July, 1984, p. 16.
Differences, summer, 2001, Juliana Spahr, "Love Scattered, Not Concentrated Love Bernadette Mayer's Sonnets," p. 98.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1996, p. 639; June 15, 1999, review of Midwinter Day, p. 917.
Lambda Book Report, September, 1996, Susan Landers, review of Proper Name, p. 28.
Library Journal, December 15, 1976, p. 2540; May 15, 1999, Michael Rogers, review of Midwinter Day, p. 132.
Lingo, number 1, 1993, Michael Gizzi, interview, pp. 3-9, 139-143.
Multicultural Review, June, 1993, pp. 62-63.
Poetry Project Newsletter, October/November, 1992, Ken Jordan, "The Colors of Consonance" (interview), pp. 5-9.
Publishers Weekly, May 6, 1996, review of Proper Name and Other Stories, p. 74; April 26, 1999, review of Midwinter Day, p. 77; September 24, 2001, review of The 3:15 Experiment, p. 91.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, September 22, 1996, Alystyre Julian, review of Proper Name, p. 198.
Village Voice, August 21, 1972.
Voice Literary Supplement, May, 1983, p. 5.
Academy of American Poets Web site,http://www.poets.org/ (November 19, 2003), "Bernadette Mayer."
Bernadette Mayer Home Page,http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/mayer (November 19, 2003).
CultureReport.com,http://www.culturereport.com/ (November 19, 2003), "From Lingo 8: Bernadette Mayer, from Studying Hunger Journals "; "The Prostitutes at the El Dorado Club: from Bernadette Mayer's The Desire of Mothers to Please Others in Letters."
Exquisite Corpse,http://www.corpse.org/ (November 19, 2003), "Issue 5: Poems by Bernadette Mayer."
Jacket Online,http://jacketmagazine.com/ (November 19, 2003), Juliana Spahr, "'Love Scattered, Not Concentrated Love': Bernadette Mayer's Sonnets."
Nada Gordon,http://home.jps.net/~nada/mayer9.htm/ (November 19, 2003), "Form's Life: Nada Gordon: An Exploration of the Works of Bernadette Mayer."
Online Poetry Classroom,http://www.onlinepoetryclassroom.org/ (November 19, 2003), "Bernadette Mayer: The Academy of American Poets."
Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church Web site,http://www.poetryproject.com/ (November 19, 2003), "Features: Bernadette Mayer."
SUNY Buffalo Electronic Poetry Center,http://epc.buffalo.edu/ (November 19, 2003), "Marcella Durand: Bernadette Mayer & Clark Coolidge: Correspondence & Collaboration."
University of Buffalo Web site,http://wings.buffalo.edu/ (November 19, 2003), Jordan Davis, "Poets in Review: Bernadette Mayer."
University of Puget Sound Web site,http://projects.ups.edu/engl/ (November 19, 2003), "Bernadette Mayer: 'First Turn to Me.'"
WriteNet,http://www.writenet.org/poetschat/ (November 19, 2003), Daniel Kane, "Poets on Poetry," interview with Bernadette Mayer, October 8, 1998.*