Bernadette Mayer – 1

Bernadette Mayer, outside The Poetry Project, St Mark’s Church, New York, May 6, 1989 – photo – Allen Ginsberg

Bernadette Mayer‘s 77th birthday today. Happy Birthday, Bernadette!  We celebrate with a transcription of her July 1989 workshop at Naropa, where she ran down a description of each of her books up to that date.

The post is broken down into several sections – beginning here

Bernadette Mayer workshop at Naropa  July 17, 1989

BM: What I’m going to do is go through this motley assembly of my published books and explain to you what the structure of each book is. I’m not going to talk about any other aspect of the book but the structure in terms of, you know, the concept of form which, you know, I prefer to call “structure” in a work. (that’s more architectural, or something) . So how many people think that’s a boring idea? – Well, you won’t know until I start, I guess!

 This is the first book that I ever published. I published it myself and it’s called Story. Actually it has no page-numbers. It’s about thirty pages long, and the way it came into being was I wrote a story that was about… the subject of which was falling down, you know, tripping and falling, and I thought, you know, it’s nicely written, sort of experimentally so, but (it) seemed dull to me, so I tried to figure out what to do with it – and I went to.. being a twenty-year-old person at the time, I went overboard completely and made a structure that is a.. like a diamond- shape, where I got other, I accumulated other, texts, and… I might have a list of some. These are some of the other texts that I included.. I was very interested in American Indian myths at that time so I included a Kalapuya myth about hats and one of their myths about smoking and their description of a hoop and arrow game and then an Italian.. an Italian folk tale about fourteen men who went to Hell and another Italian folk tale about a man.. the man who sold clothes to a statue – do any of you know that one? That’s a great one. And then a Coos myth from the Coos myth texts – a story of the five world-makers and the man who became an owl. And then I got some lists from.. I accumulated.. I put together some lists from the dictionary and thesaurus about other words for beginning, middle and end. And then there’s a recipe for “true sponge cake”, there’s a nineteenth-century letter about etiquette, a couple of quotes from Edgar Allan Poean article by the biologist (Louis) Agassiz about coral reefs which I thought was like…  I mean, each of these things I thought was relevant to the.. to the diamond-shaped nature of the story, or the accumulation of the story – Smoking, cooking, yeah, that’s all I have in my notes. As I was saying to Clark Coolidge a few minutes ago, there’s some aspects of the structures of those works that I can’t remember how I did it.

Then, what I did was, I took the longest work, which was the story that I had written about falling and made that begin at the beginning and end at the end so that in the center (and that’s what I mean by this diamond-shape)   everything was going on at the exact middle of the work and at the beginning and end only one thing was going on, and then it was gradually accumulating and then gradually decreasing. And then, just to make things worse, I decided to interrupt the text at random moments with all the words that I could think of that would mean ”story”. And here’s the list of those – there are fifty-one of them (and it’s certainly not all, those words) – anecdote profile life-story scenario, saga, love-story, fiction report…. account (see I couldn’t even fit them on this paper!) – fairytale, detective story, annals… and memoir”. So the text is just, like, interrupted at random, and it was amazing, like, the confluences, like, with putting all the things together and all of a sudden it would say “detective story” and the section that was randomly chosen to be a detective story really became one, mind or could become one in the reader’s mind probably more so than my mind. I’ll just read you… We started late, huh? – I’ve all these funny notes, I’m not going to read you them all but I’ll just read you real quick, like, the beginning, middle and ending definitions – ‘to start, to come into being, to do…. – halfway between two given points, times, etcetera, equally equidistant from either end, side etc… in Greek grammar the middle voice (I crossed that out, I don’t know why)…”the last point of anything, the final point, finish, completion, conclusion…obsolete meaning to kill” – Those are beginning, middle and end and they were interspersed in this text at the beginnings middles and ends.   Does that… am I being clear?  (Yes?  Yes)

 Ok I want to do this I chronological order, I guess, but I can’t remember how it goes. This book (Ceremony Latin, (1964)) was written before this book (Moving) but published later and the structure of this book is simply the duplication of a journal that I kept when I was about seventeen and it includes translations from Ovid, the Golden Age, and sort of funny journalistic notes and poems and things about how much I hated my grandfather. So all I did was print the journal itself and the reason I wanted (I didn’t actually do it myself) but the reason I wanted to do it was because this was the journal.. the keeping of this journal was what had inspired me to really want to become a poet, so I thought it might be beautiful and useful to other people.

 Student: What’s it called?
BM: It’s called Ceremony Latin 1964  (which is the year that it was written)

Let’s see.. Next comes.. (an interesting book that relates to some people present here.. Anne Waldman and.. (to Anne) (did you publish it by yourself or with Lewis?) –  Anne Waldman published this book. She discovered me… I went to the country. I had received some inheritance, some money and I rented a house in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  Then somebody’s summer house that they want to rent for the winter  At that point in time it was very cheap to do that and I set myself the task of not writing as much as possible, and only.. only writing when I absolutely felt compelled to or..  I don’t know how to describe it, but never writing in the sense that many of us do, “Well I have to write” or  “I haven’t written enough”, or “I should write every day”, or say… not doing anything like that but just saying, like, only whatever seems to actually come from somewhere other than the self, I suppose, or, I don’t know how to describe it, anyway I tried very hard not to write. And so after a year I produced this book which Anne discovered as a pile of pages on top of my typewriter when she came to visit me and decided to publish. And the structure of this book – it’s real hard to describe, except in terms of this book (sic), because I was reading. I felt it was important, you know, that if there were things you didn’t know about to read good childrens books about them and get good explanations about why the sky is blue, you know, and so you really know, you know, instead of reading some abstruse text, so you could really tell somebody, and so basically, this book, my book, which is called Moving is based on the structure of this book. The table of contents of which is.. goes like this… I mean, let’s go for the whole thing, right? – “The Beginning of the Earth, Upheavals in the Earth, Souvenirs of the Past (that included things about fossils and glaciers). Water water everywhere , the Earth’s surface, Treasures in the Ground, The Underground Rooms (that’s all about, you know, caves) and The Beginning of Man – and that’s how I ended Moving was The Beginning of Man and all Man’s talents (or lacks of them)  And that’s exactly the structure, although the book.. looks funny. The other thing I should tell you about the structure of this book is that Anne had this really nice printer in Williamstown and he was really very patient and I told him I didn’t want a left-hand margin in the book. I wanted it to be raggedy margin on the left side as well as the right side and, since he was setting real type, it was almost impossible for him to do that but he did it. (displays book)  See what I mean?  – like… you know… And I told him… He said, “How do I do it?”. Like, “Where do I start the line?” And I said, “Just at random!”  And that was obviously not the right thing to say to a..  you know, very careful craftsperson. But he did it! And he said he had to play a lot of extra golf in order to retain his calmness, but he did a beautiful job of it. So that’s that’s structure

Lets see. what comes next?  Memory – ah, well this is a complex one too. This book… oh…you see…notes about Moving  are in Memory. I forgot to tell you that Moving was also… I also incorporated.. I solicited work from other poets and writers to include. In fact, I invited a lot of people to contribute to the book and whatever they wanted to do would just be interspersed at random, and.. so in that sense it’s a collaborative work….  Er.. I don’t know what this means?  It says here (they’re old notes when I was writing the book), it says ““Chance poems to begin from random words, ten different kinds of books left in random order but repeatable” – (oh, that’s..that’s how the book begins with this…with this poem that was written in that manner. I used ten different kinds of books, chose random words and left them in random order but gave myself the right to repeat them).

And then I have this note on the back, it says “I put it all in together. I thought the book should be information and also political but not by me”. That was an.. important part of this book.. that it be.. important political part of the book that it not be written necessarily by me.

This is a book called Memory  and what it originally was was a series of photographs of …it’s a diary of one month and I took..  I shot a roll of film, thirty-six pictures, every day, and I had a patron at the time. She paid for the film and the developing.   I shot slides and then the she made them into prints and she put it up as a show.  We did it along the wall, and it was I guess about forty feet long, and it was just reading from left to right as a book would. It was about forty feet long and about four feet high  – and I kept journals like these (sic) this is the second one (we always painted our journals at the time and on the backs of the I always kept my… I didn’t have an automatic light meter so I kept my list of exposures for the film and just wrote.. made incessant notes about everything, made drawings about everything that happened every day, wrote down as much as I could without interrupting my life.  And I had chosen the month – it was the month of July in 1971 –  and I had chosen the month at random without knowing what I would be doing during that month because I didn’t want to choose a time to do this experiment that would.. that would be particularly loaded, or, you know, or particularly interesting or particularly dull.  Then, after the show..  oh, at the show, all the journals were turned into tapes, reel-to-reel tapes, and opened up in this funny gallery which was trying to do kind of new things at that point in time and… conceptual art, I suppose is what it’s called – and so we played the tapes with an eight-hour show. If you wanted to hear the whole, the whole month you could follow the whole month by walking along with the pictures and spend eight hours in the gallery! – I did it actually! –  And then somebody said that they wanted to… Actually, this is an interesting story that doesn’t relate to structure. Praeger publishers said that they wanted to publish it as a book with all the photographs in it. And I said, “Amazing”, you know, “what a great thing”.  And this agent for them said, “Can I come to your house and discuss this with you?”,  and I said “Fine”. And he came, and he said, “If you’ll make love with me, I’ll get the book published”. So that’s how it wound up in this form!

So I only have a few photographs here.  But when I put the… structurally-speaking again, when I put the text together, what I did was I took my journals and I projected the slides on the wall, right next to my desk, very small (I don’t know if you’ve ever seen, like, really, when you project the slides tiny they’re really vivid and the colors are really beautiful). And (I) wrote sort of around the pictures, around the text that I already had, added to from the pictures and made it into this (sic) (which nearly drove me crazy. I mean, to analyze your own..  One of the reasons I was doing it was to…sort of be nasty to Gertrude Stein, who always said, you know, you can’t write remembering. So I wanted to prove to her that maybe you could. But it.. I think she’s right in the sense that it drives you..  in fact, you practically wind up in the insane asylum after you do a project like this. It’s really…. Yes?

Student:  (What exactly were Stein’s theories?)

BM: Well Stein has a lot of theories that while you’re writing you should be writing in the present moment or in the continuous present (what she calls) and not be thinking of, you know.. and not ever say things like, (to yourself) like “What was I going to say next? – or “Was the couch green?,” you know, or “Did I say it was green in the previous page?”, you know, that sort of thing. It’s also a philosophical stance of hers from.. really from William James, her studies with William James. But, in a spirit of fun, I was doing it – with Gertrude Stein
Is this interesting at all?

Students: Yes
BM: Everybody’s so quiet!

The next one is.. oh god! I don’t want to talk about this book  – Studying Hunger – Here , you can see why I don’t want to talk about it!  This book is actually two lectures culled from a series of journals (I wanted to bring one with me but I really couldn’t carry them on the airplane). I was keeping a series of journals.. I don’t know what to say what they’re about – what are they about? – hunger? – and my work with the psychoanalyst. Most of the books are about that high (sic) (like big drawing books) and a lot of pictures in them, a lot of colored pens and stuff – and then I knew… I could never… This was not a publish-able work. It’s almost masochistic in and if itself to write like that. So, when I was invited to give two readings during the years that I was keeping these books (there were about seven of them) I took things from the journals and made them into, like… sort of like lecture-style, or lecture-length, things, and that’s what’s in this book –  which was probably a giant mistake, but…. And the book is a combination of prose and poetry and the Studying Hunger Journals I’ve recently attempted to publish and the publisher balked because there were.. there’s five hundred pages of text (that doesn’t even include the rest of.. )  [Editorial note – the Studying Hunger Journals were finally published by Station Hill Press in 2011]

I’m trying to think if there’s anything else I should say about the structure of this book. It’s…Well, I could say this – that the combination (and this is, I think, a useful, I think, thought) that the combination of poetry and prose and moving sort of freely between both forms is something that’s always been inspiring to me.  Yes and especially from reading Dante’s Vita Nuova  but also, obviously, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and, I don’t know, Anybody think of other books that do that? – that move between prose and poetry?

Student: Basho?
BM: Basho, yeah –
Student (2): Desolation Angels
BM: Sure, yeah. These are my favorite kind of books I think.
Student (3) – Michael Ondaatje
BM: Right, yeah
Student (4) :  – Lolita – only one or two poems though
BM: Really? does Lolita have..
Student (4):  Yes, There’s three poems in there…

 BM: I love that form. I mean that seems to me like the ultimate freedom to… and especially if you have the nerve to analyze your poems after you’ve put them in the text and.. like Dante did and say.. you know, he said, “and then I wrote this poem”, and he gives you the sonnet or whatever it is, and then he says, you know, the first line, means.. (well he analyzes them in kind of a dumb way but..(he tells you what it means.. what the structure…) he tells you the reason for it

Yeah, but.. I think it’s a great.. I think it’s a great exercise.

So, ok here’s the book – the next book just in chronological order is a book called Poetry that I didn’t bring with me because I think it’s my most boring book and it’s divided exactly in half. It has… It was the first time anybody (Lita Hornick) wanted to publish a book of real poems of mine and so I was very excited about the prospect and I tried to include everything, so what I put in the beginning was all my old poems, and in the second section I put all the poems that I’d written in the last two weeks, you know. So it’s quite..  that’s another possible structure, but I resent the book in a way.

 Here’s… this is the fascinating idea. This book is called Eruditio Ex Memoria (which basically means Learning out of Memory, or Learning that is Memory) and the way this was designed was I had, like, thousands of high school and college notebooks that were sitting in a room in my ancestral home and then I had to move everything out of that house, everybody had died, and I didn’t have any place to put all the things that I wanted to keep or save, and I thought, (when I dealt with the question of the notebooks), I thought to myself, “Well, they’re really all the same, in a way”.  So I decided to tear out random pages from each one.  Kind of something from each one, and I threw the rest away. And I took those pages and wrote this book, which is a book, really, about what you learn in school, or how you learn it, or..  and the other structural question about this book is how was… how to deal with the transitions between the apparently unrelated material (and I should say about Memory, the book of photographs, was that another structural question there was how to deal with commas, because you’re dealing with so much related material, how to.. how to say, how to pause, or how to choose not to pause. And here the question was how to make a transition or how to choose not to have a transition.

So.. Oh, it’s getting easier. As it gets closer to the present, it gets easier. This is… really the only real book of poetry I’ve ever published. It’s called The Golden Book of Words. So you can see my involvement with questions like, you know, titles and questions like this, and the only structural…  It’s just a book of poems, you know, as we say..  and the only structural thing to mention about it is that I chose to keep it in strictly chronological order because I couldn’t stand not having any structure at all. I’m not advising that people do that but just that, you know, just that it often works very nicely to do it.

So. Next is this book called  Midwinter Day, which is one long poem which also includes prose parts that was written about one day, December 22nd1978, and it was written… nobody ever believes me when I tell them that it was written in (sic) one day, but it almost was. I did rehearsals for the first section which is dreams. I practiced for about two weeks before the December 22nd date and tried to.. tried to sort of fine-tune my dreaming, you know, so that, when I had dreams on the 22nd, that they were really gonna be…I was going to be good at remembering them and that they were going to be vivid, and worth recording, I suppose, or worth sharing with other people, or that I was going to get better at writing them down in some way. So that was an extension over that day. I also took photographs and wrote about them later, and actually that was just here. I divided the book into six parts and it was just like the six parts of the day that I perceived the day being, and the last part was the time when I usually.. at that point in time, just.. at night-time, I would always go to my desk and write. So for the sixth part of the book that’s what I did and that’s what exists here, and the rest is about, you know, regular daily doings (I was mostly taking care of babies at the time – and entertaining friends).

So I’ll read you a couple of the… what I did with the photos, what I tried to do with the photos, and this was worked in later. I also took..  made sure to keep copies of the newspapers from that day and whatever other written or visual material happened to pop up, you know, by accident, I’d keep track of, so that when I was putting the poem together later that I might want to intersperse some of that material, but the only real notes I have are these about the photos (actually, I have extensive notes about dreaming but it would be pointless to begin about that). I wrote this list – just (to) go through the photos (there was one roll of film) and try to describe what each one was before I attempted to use it in the text.

“-l. Trying to see myself in the mirror over the typewriter as sea (S—E- A), 2. Breakfast at the bottle of milk white light, Lewis in shirt jacket, Marie, stripes putting oatmeal in mouth…..”3 – Grey streets – cover of snow – streets wet, not icy, Amoco roofs flat (I should say that, in this instance, and also with the photographs, the use of the photographs in Memory, that, I was never trying to take beautiful photographs necessarily, I was always trying to … I mean.. I guess I should say, take as many, just  take as many as possible, you know, but take photographs in the sense of what you’re really seeing, you know, not trying to isolate objects and say, put them in the center of the frame, you know, and say,”here’s a beautiful styrafoam cup”, you know, surrounded by grass (that would be fun!) but to just to take them just to reflect what actual vision is, you know, and not, not romanticize, you know, it  or certainly not the writing either but not romanticize the visual. I’m not going to read all these but I’ll read a few more – 5. Dress babies Sophia’s fuller lips, dark blue shirt, blue pants, M’s red sweater, blue leggings, green hat, Lewis’ serious glass gold glasses red gold velvet headband all askew pretty lips all family of beautiful lips but my pursed ones – (see that’s all in one picture, it’s interesting, I feel). I’m going to read you all the longest ones because I think they’re better.  (reads)- “11 Sun’s come out, Clark at table reading United Artists”..…”Clark grinning a little or beginning to speak, L looks at me stiff or tentatively..” – ( Just more … I mean that’s more than you could note in a moment, you know, if you were sitting with a notebook), “-13 – M at kitchen table writing with my pen…..  yellow pot with sauce is on” (See, the other thing is you don’t always see all these things when you’re looking with your eyes)  – “Bright sun and Marie holding  holly hobby paper doll….”….‘all the stuff on the sink superior soy sauce sun rectangles  (that’s a good one!)
Here’s a short one, (I’ll read you the last two)  – “35 Blurred cheese sandwich on wholewheat with cucumber and red onion mayo – 36 -” Sink of silver cups and unwashed stuff wooden spoons all circles and lines. orange pot, aluminum sink, soup ladle, lines and lids round drain and drain lines of knives shape of sponge last look”

And so it just became.. It became sort of more information – as I said to the people who were at the workshop this morning , you know, it would be interesting to just write about what you know and leave out the self.  I mean, for an extended period of time, like a year or so.

Then ..then I wrote Utopia which is red…red and black. And this is another book where I felt it was very important to include  other contributions by other writers. So there are many other people, footnotes and whole sections by other people  (although, surprisingly, a small number of people actually respond to those requests to be a part of a collaborative writing project and I’ve worked on collaborative magazines and collaborative work in workshops and it’s amazing to see how frightened people are of sharing their… anonymity, I suppose! – being anonymous and sharing, you know, something, or knowledge, with others.  So I wrote… Let me read you the..  one of the things that is about Utopia that I really wanted to do was to make it be sort of tongue in cheek like a text book with a table of contents and a preface and an introduction and also, thanks to a friend of mine, a great index, right?. So I’m going to read you this.. I’m going to read you part of the beginning and end of the book. I don’t think I can talk about the structure of this book in terms of the middle, but I wanted to read you what we decided to put at the beginning and then I’ll read you part of the index, which is, I think is the best part of the book, really. So I thank all the people who have been involved and then it says “Utopian copyright” (and it’s a “U” upside-down, a sideways ”C” with a circle) – “All rights unreserved under International and Pan-American no-copyright no-conventions. Except for brief passages quoted in a newspaper, magazine, radio or television review, every part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from anyone. All rights remain unreserved and free including the right of reproduction in whole or part or in any way or form that seems pleasing or useful to you”

And then, since I had to grow up Catholic, you know, I decided to put the imprimatur in . So, it says, “NIHIL OBSTAT Censor Librorum, Noplace” – not all of you will get this joke – “IMPRIMATUR (of) Archbishop of Nowhere” –  “The Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur are official declarations that a book or pamphlet is free of the error od the lack or absence of truth. No implication is contained therein that those that have granted the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur agree with the contents, opinions or statements expressed’

And then I daringly say ‘’Since this page cannot legibly accommodate all permissions, acknowledgments and questions necessitated by such a work”..(then I give) my real name, real address and phone-number! – (not a great idea!)

I also wrote, for this book I wrote all my own blurbs and the authors of the blurbs are Plato, Emma Goldman, Aristophanes, Thomas More, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, mostly Utopian-related writers, Jack Kerouac, Ted Berrigan, Gertrude Stein, Andre Breton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Plotinus, Sigmund Freud and William Saroyan

Student: What did Freud say?

 BM: Freud says “I wish I were still living to understand this book”. So, I’m going to read you from the… I think indexes. I mean, part of what I love about the structure of indexes or indices (whatever we’re supposed to call them) came from a long time ago when I was sort of apprenticing myself to poetry and I decided to write in every form that really couldn’t be written, you know, so one of those things is obviously to write an index for a non-existent book. So that’s why I wanted so much to have an index for this book. So I’ll read you the love part. It’s really beautiful. It says “love” and then it gives lots of page numbers, general things about love and then it says ‘see also sex”. And then it says “love..”  – should I read, should I say the word “love” all the time when I read it ?  Yeah. Ok –

“love – and all its emotions
love, apposite of pulled tooth
love – as sin/love, – big flurry of crazy
love – eating potatoes
love – r. – asking you not to go   fight with – -, dignity of her privacy   who insists on fighting
love – rs eyes  – wanting two or five or more

There’s actually more…

falling in – w/scholars
free –
homosexual –
hurt at –
I – you I want to be you
– in the industry
– ing me with sunbeams in my pocket
incessant –
-, jargon of fool
-, like a streak of cars
– making for no real reason
– in air
-, just
-, play’s climax
– in dream
– in medium-sized beds
– in prison
– in satin sheets
in steeple
-, king
-, with all people in zip-code area
message of –
-, no one at aged 3
– of life
– of our talking
– out of the stove even
– overwhelming
– ‘s pea soup
– poem
– play about what’s possible in
among punk people
-, reformist underground lectures on
-, rules about
– seeming like nothing
-, self
– tearing down Grace’s smashed in the neck thoughts
– voting for or against
– w/out books – is just the/ signifier!”   (so funny!)

So, Utopia is a form, certainly is a form, and if you read all the different varieties of it, it’s a form that doesn’t…(tape audio disappears)

to be continued 


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