An avant-garde writer associated with the New York School of poets, Bernadette Mayer was born in Brooklyn, New York and has spent most of her life in New York City. Known for her innovative use of language, Mayer first won critical acclaim for the exhibit Memory, which combined photography and narration, and which was recently shown at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago (it's first showing since its original 1972 exhibition). Mayer took one roll of film shot each day during July 1971, arranging the photographs and text in what Village Voice critic A.D. Coleman described as “a unique and deeply exciting document.”
Mayer’s poetry often challenges poetic conventions by experimenting with form and stream-of-consciousness; readers have compared her to Gertrude Stein, Dadaist writers, and James Joyce. Poet Fanny Howe commented in the American Poetry Review on Midwinter Day, a book-length poem written during a single day in Lenox, Massachusetts: “In a language made up of idiom and lyricism, Mayer cancels the boundaries between prose and poetry . . . Her search for patterns woven out of small actions confirms the notion that seeing what is is a radical human gesture.”
Bernadette: O sweet delightful house
why do so many things get lost in you?
House: Maybe you just dream you lose them.
B: How do you know what dreams are?
H: I pride myself on knowing everything you know.
B: Oh, so you know we’re getting you new windows?
H: I have trouble with no & know. With knew & new too.
Why do people do that?
B: I don’t know; I don’t mean I don’t no.
H: See, you make it hard for a house. Anyway I don’t
B: Do you write poetry?
H: I dabble. I don’t know if it’s poetry or prose though.
–from ‘Conversation with the Tsatsawassa House’
The Desire of Mothers to Please Others in Letters consists of prose poems Mayer wrote during her third pregnancy. She also combined poetry and prose in Proper Name and Other Stories (1996). Reviewing that collection in the Lambda Book Report, Susan Landers noted Mayer’s “Steinesque syntactical play, her meta-narrative maneuvers à la Barth or Borges, and a language poet’s interest in language.”
gimme anytime a pile
of leaf-hay across
the field underneath
the bright new blue
tractor pulling the tedder
which is the waffler or fluffer
Ange Mlinko’s review of Two Haloed Mourners (1998) in the Poetry Project Newsletter describes its structure:
The book starts out dense, vagrant, proceeding on a combination of automatic writing and methodical structural repetitions. It picks up speed, changes gears from poetry to prose and back again, tries out a sestina where both beginning and ending words recur. . . . 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.
“You know, the idea of perfection in a poem is pretty stupid,” Mayer said in an interview with poet Adam Fitzgerald. “Because if nothing else is perfect, why should a poem be perfect?”
Bernadette Mayer has worked as an editor and teacher. She edited the journal 0 TO 9 with artist Vito Acconci and established United Artists Press with the poet Lewis Warsh. United Artists Press, under Mayer and Warsh, published a number of influential writers, including Robert Creeley, Anne Waldman, James Schuyler, and Alice Notley. Mayer has taught at the New School for Social Research and The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City. In 2015 she was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.
The Helens of Troy, N.Y., New Directions, New York, 2012
Studying Hunger Journals, Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 2011
Ethics of Sleep, New Orleans: Trembling Pillow Press, 2011
Poetry State Forest, New Directions, New York, 2008
Scarlet Tanager, New Directions, New York, 2005
Two Haloed Mourners, Granary Books, New York, 1998
The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, Hard Press, West Stockbridge, MA, 1994
A Bernadette Mayer Reader, New Diretions, New York, 1992
Sonnets, Tender Buttons, New York, 1989
Midwinter Day, New Directions, New York, 1982
Studying Hunger, Serendipity Books, 1975
Memory, Atlantic Books, Plainfield, Vermont, 1975
Moving, Angel Hair, New York, 1971
Proper Name & Other Stories, New Directions, New York, 1996
Lives of the Poets: Bernadette Mayer interviewed by Adam Fitzgerald, PoetryFoundation.org
Poetry Off the Shelf: Adventures in Babysitting, PoetryFoundation.org
Poetry Off the Shelf: Channeling Catullus, Poetryfoundation.org
Poetry magazine podcast for February 2016, Poetryfoundation.org
Poem Talk: Tired, Poor, Huddled, Gentrified: A Discussion of Bernadette Mayer’s ‘The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty’, PoetryFoundation.org