Bernadette Mayer – 4 (Q & A -2)


Bernadette Mayer‘s workshop at Naropa, July 17, 1989

The Q & A following her presentation, continues from here

BM: Oh should I read that. It doesn’t really have to do with structural questions but Lee Anne asked me to read the notes that I wrote in the back, the note that I wrote in the back of Sonnets

“ I didn’t realize that I had written these sonnets, much less that I had written them for such a long time but one year recently without anticipation I found I was writing sonnets all the time”  – (See that’s the way Ted Berrigan was apologizing too, like, saying, “I didn’t realize that I was writing these poems”. I wonder why we have to do that?) – “and after a while I began to expect to write them and soon in the midst of all this contemporary sonnet writing going on I looked through my past poems in the morning and discovered that I’d been writing the always somehow peripheral sonnet all along without understanding the forms of brief conclusive thought the poems had been taking so often in fourteen lines without me. How serious, notorious and public a form, to think you could find a solution to a problem or an ending to an observation in one brief moment – a fraction of an abreaction or the science of the pattern of crumbs appearing on the table from the eating of a loaf of bread. Why are we as human beings so sturdy? How can we conscion existence, much less love? Is that why we have philosophy? Why deconstruct so innately?  Is the sonnet a form of abdication of reality? Because it is so neat and thus does have conclusion? Is poetry’s method of conclusion disjoined to for instance the life of the bee? – If there are no conclusions, why do we wish for them?  Love must be a subject I felt. Are poems like dreams, representations of the absolute beauty of the future? Is the dilation of a form like the unbelievability and constant common acceptance of the something of giving birth as if that was something less or more equal to the necessity of having as many astonishing fingers as have not once been lost?  When I studied my poems I covered the floor with them and made a survey. The inadvertent sonnets, most of love and doubt, won the contest among other forms and other subjects, landlord political sex, suppressed poems, tied only with the categories of experimental work-outs, poems for the dead and I don’t know what. And so it seemed most likely even honest, given the chance to make availablest, the headlong sonnets which are a way of thinking amidst our hemispheric faults – put on what you call what a woman wears around her waist, our many-colored octave then rest from thought and formulate the next design:    – (That) has to do with form. –any more questions  Are we..?  yes

 Student: I’m interested in your comment on apology for.. that you and Ted Berrigan both had to write apologies. Also, I was wondering why the new forms? Because when I write I also find myself coming up with very bizarre new forms as if it’s a necessity but I don’t know why.. For instance…
BM: You mean why you want to do that?
Student: Right, I’m interested in your comment on why the new forms
BM: Oh
Student: For instance, in one work, I just took  The World Book encyclopaedia volume and everything that was in the volume qualified for content in this book – and then provided jumping-off points for thoughts and writing. I don’t know why we’re doing these kinds of things

BM: Because you’re hungry!  You don’t get it. I’ll say it again. I don’t know, it’s so disconcerting for somebody to speak with a microphone, and then I’m supposed to answer, and you.. you can’t talk anymore! – I think, I think the apologies are pretty explicable in a very ordinary way that, you know.. For one thing, the word.. I recently discovered that the word “sonneteer” (which I was going to use to accuse another poet, you know, of being,  a sonnet-writer (I was going to say, ”You sonneteer!) and then I looked it up. Happily I looked it up in the dictionary, and it’s a total insult!  It’s from, like, back in the nineteenth century. The word “sonneteer” was used to accuse people who were writing those flimsiest, most bullshit poetry of all time, you know, and they were writing sonnets, you know.
I mean, sonnets don’t have a good reputation.  I guess that’s why Ted and I have apologized for writing them because I think, you know, it became a form for every sonneteer in the universe..  There’s an awful lot of bad ones.  Did you ever pick up an anthology, like (a) really ancient anthology of nineteenth-century (poetry) and read all the sonnets in it..?  – “I drink the drink of thy heart”, you know – “And this is my part” (well, actually that’s better than…). But, it’s just that obsession with structure – fourteen lines and a certain kind of meter, and that was all that was in the poems – there was nothing in the poems, no life in them, you know, no but… er..  I think the constant invention of new forms is a great thing. I don’t see why we have to worry about that.

BM: I asked everybody in the workshop this morning to invent a new form before Thursday so by Thursday we’ll have, you know, a good number of new forms

Student: Could it have something to do with trying to get some sense out of chaos, that you just pick some structure and then let.. impose that on your work – the structure in itself doesn’t…

BM:  Oh, but you’re asking a different question. You’re saying why do we have any form at all?  We don’t have to, right? – I mean, I love structures, because..  It’s like, in architecture or something, I mean it just becomes so beautiful and intricate to think about, you know, how the different parts of the thing are functioning together, and if you perceive… if you can have, like, if you have a dream, or a visual representation of a poem even, because of an idea that relates .. to words, and then it comes.. you know, you have it almost before the poem exists, and it’s really lovely. I think for the beauty, we have the forms for the beauty of it (and if we don’t have the forms, that’s also for the beauty of it, don’t you think?)

Student: I think you use forms for various reasons. I guess in this situation..

BM:  – and to get a good grade!

Student: Well I think in the situation that I described, I was using  that volume, the encyclopedia, just to have something to hold on to when everything seemed chaotic

BM: Okay here’s another reason.. here’s another reason to have forms at all, or create new ones – is to practice writing, you know. To find ways, like, we don’t always feel so inspired to write about all the important matters of the world, but you.. if you create structures like that to rehearse and practice and learn more about words, I think, you know, that’s another, that’s another good reason to talk about form – like (an) athletic kind of work-out. – And it’s funny too. It’s a lot of..  You get a lot of laughs out of it.

Student: It’s an exercise  in that you have to impose some kind of limitation…
BM: Yeah
Student:  …to where your mind can wander to.
BM: To make rules, yeah – just like the old guys.
Any other thoughts?   Let’s go swimming?

Student: Yeah I wanted to make a comment and also speak on the structural  elements. As a writer… As a male and as a writer, I have kind of a resistance to…
BM: what? –  Tennyson? … {workshop erupts in laughter!]

Student: …..for me it’s (what’s?) contributed to the demilitarization of language and experience.
BM:   the demilitarization? – ok. Yeah.
Student: Say for, example,  when we draw a straight..   You have a left hand and a right hand margin running square.    There’s a implicit logos to this form, this structure…..(and)…

BM: And is that good or bad?  I can’t…
Student:  Well for me it’s really enriching.
BM: Oh, oh, I thought you were saying it was awful !  –
Okay.  – Anything else?

Student: When you started your last book..
BM: I hope it’s not my last book!   Yes?
Student:  Are you, like, going with new forms again, or improvisation?
BM:  “New forms” ?  I’ll never deal with the phrase again after this week!  You know what’s happening to me?- I keep writing Sonnets!  I can’t stop writing them.. I don’t know. I mean,  it’s the craziest thing. I’m serious when I say, you know, in my roundabout way, that I don’t know how I started to write them either, and now I can’t stop writing them! But I started writing this other book a couple of weeks ago, that’s sort of like…  I don’t know what it is,  it’s’s called “A Journal of Small Cures”. And it’s a kind of a..  trying to mix, like, in prose (and maybe some poetry will be in it)  things that happened to people, people I know. I got especially inspired to start writing it because of a couple of store-owners I know on the Lower East Side and just their daily life – that we… how we talk about their daily life, not being intimate you know but just, just… but we know what’s going on with each other in this funny, you know, mid-level (level) of things – and just trying to mix that with, like, the most sublime notions. I don’t know, this sounds incoherent but..  It is incoherent at the moment but – but that’s what I’ve started to write. And then these occasional funny little sonnets will  appear like rabbits reproducing (but I haven’t written as many as Shakespeare yet!). So..


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