About Bernadette MayerMarie Warsh
This biography appears in Memory by Bernadette Mayer, Siglio, 2020. All rights reserved. © 2020 Marie Warsh.
Bernadette Mayer (1945-) is an experimental poet and writer, and the author of over thirty books. While associated with the New York School, the Language poets, and the conceptual art movement, she is also renowned for her defiance of poetic conventions and associations. Her varied and radically open-ended body of work includes sonnets, dream transcriptions, letters, epic poems, journals, and other forms. Collectively, they reveal Mayer’s lifelong attempt to explore and record consciousness, the nature of perception, and the complexity of everyday life and experience as a source of personal and political expression. Mayer is also known for her generous and expansive approach to poetry and collaboration, expressed through her work teaching and editing. Her famous “Experiments List,” a list of writing experiments and journal ideas, has been a source of inspiration for writers, and students and teachers of writing, for decades.
Mayer was born and grew up in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Brooklyn in a middle-class family of German descent. Her parents and her uncle died while she was a teenager, leaving her and her sister Rosemary Mayer largely on their own. She studied the classics and languages in Catholic school and became more interested in writing while a student at the New School for Social Research, where she graduated in 1967. In the same year she began collaborating with Vito Acconci, then primarily a poet and married to Rosemary, on the mimeographed magazine 0 TO 9. They started the publication with a simple goal: to create a venue for their own work and for work that interested them. Mayer’s poems appeared in all the issues and her first book Story was published in 1968 as part of the 0 TO 9 imprint. Ultimately 0 TO 9 brought together the leading figures of experimental art, writing, and performance from the late 1960s.
With her multimedia work Memory, created in 1971 and exhibited in 1972, Mayer achieved critical acclaim and deepened her involvement in the downtown art scene. Mayer conceived of Memory as an installation, an attempt to explore the nature of memory and consciousness through an immersive environment comprised of images and audio. Like many of her fellow artists who had appeared on the pages of 0 TO 9, this moving beyond the printed page and the space of the book was a natural next step.
While Mayer did not continue making installation art, Memory provided a foundation for numerous other innovative experiments in recording consciousness through writing. While preparing for her next project, Studying Hunger, a month-long journal created for her psychoanalyst, Mayer attempted to describe the process and its possible outcome: “if a human, a writer, could come up with a workable code, or shorthand, for the transcription of every event, every motion, every transition of his or her own mind … he or we or someone could come up with a great piece of language/information.”
Beginning in 1975, Mayer explored this idea in a new context, moving from the art and poetry scene of downtown New York City to small-town New England. Between 1975 and 1980, she lived in the Berkshires and New Hampshire with poet Lewis Warsh, where they wrote, published books, edited the magazine United Artists, and had three children, Marie, Sophia, and Max. Books written during this this period include Piece of Cake, a journal with Warsh that chronicles their life as poets and new parents in Lenox, Massachusetts during the month of August, 1976; Midwinter Day, her most acclaimed work, which documents the course of a single day, December 22, 1978; and The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, a series of unsent letters, composed in 1979 and 1980 during her pregnancy with her third child Max. All of these works are notable time-based, diaristic conceptual works, but also significant for their focus on motherhood and specifically Mayer’s dual occupation as mother and poet.
In 1980, Mayer returned to New York City to become Director of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, a position she held until 1984. In the following years, she focused on teaching, while continuing to raise her family on the Lower East Side. Since 2001, she has lived in upstate New York, where she writes and conducts workshops in experimental poetry. She has received numerous grants and awards, including from the Guggenheim Foundation, Creative Capital, and the Poetry Society of America. Her latest book, Works and Days, published in 2016, received a National Book Critics Circle nomination and significant critical attention. A collection of poems that includes a journal of spring, it reveals her characteristic embrace of everything. She declares in one poem: “My name is Bernadette Mayer, sometimes / I am at the head of my class.”
“Not an object or a text but a name, a spirit: Jean Brown … The name ‘Jean Brown’ itself was, for me, the conduit of Howe’s “mystic, documentary telepathy.” When her name appeared on a citation, I sensed that this object or book had been carefully selected, cared for, considered, held.”[...]