from the Bernadette Mayer Symposium, Buffalo, April 1
It is a pleasure to be with you all today to celebrate a poet like Bernadette Mayer. Her work has been a generative source for me for many years now and it is regularly that I encounter some new piece of her work (a line I never noticed, a poem I ignored) and get inspired all over again. Each book, each poem, each line, does what all good poetry should—it radiates a constant stream of glowing energy that is forever flowing with generous light.
I remember the first time I encountered Mayer’s work. I was in a poetry workshop with Peter Gizzi as a MFA student. After a few sessions, he asked us to write a paper about our favorite poets and as anyone who knows me knows, of course, I chose Plath and easily wrote pages upon pages for her. Afterwards, Peter took me aside. He was like “Ok, yeah, I get it. You like Plath, but who else?” I explained to him that the source of my poems all existed in a room and that there were very few poets I let into that room at any one time. Sure, some poets got one-day passes. Others stayed for a few months before I threw them out. Some hung around the door, until I kicked them in the balls and told them to go home. But Plath had her own chair there, a throne, growing with brambles, and overflowing with fruit and figs and gemstones, and other presents I had found for her over the years. He said, “Well, you need someone else in that room. Might I suggest someone?” “Yeah, sure” I said. He handed me The Bernadette Mayer Reader.
Reading that book, I found a lot of things that I had been searching for in Plath, but that weren’t there. One of those things was the fairness of the line (which I will talk about in a moment). Another was a love of the Classics (and I had grown up reading Latin, so this was a very strong, primitive attraction), and also, knowledge and wonder and awe. The ultimate strength of the I I found there, too. After reading that book, I built a soft, red velvet bed in my poem room, decorated with green vines from another world and big strong leafy plants from this world. And I put Bernadette Mayer there in my room. And she has sat on that red velvet chair ever since.
Someone once recently asked me to situate myself in the contemporary poetry scene. I think that is a really hard question. But when I thought about Mayer, the answer became obvious. A poet like Bernadette Mayer is the kind of contemporary poet I model myself after. After all, she is someone who has written in a variety of forms—narrative, conceptual, project-based, in the Classic voice—all the while making her entirely present I sit squarely in everything and everywhere. The self is included in her poems, but it is a self that is bigger than just herself.
Many of you have alluded to this today, but I think how Mayer does this so deftly in her entire body of work is through her ability to use many kinds of forms. For example in Midwinter’s Day, Mayer writes an entire book (and life!) in the space of one day (12/22/78). In Sonnets, she reinvents the form, so as not to bend tradition, but to use the long tradition of the sonnet to invent (and open up the possibility of infinite reinventions). In The Formal Field of Kissing, she loosely translates Catullus and Horace, not just under the guise of reverence for their tradition, but in the spirit of these poets, so as to re-interpret tradition. In all of these works, what is important is the ‘singular universal’ (steeped with Kierkegaardian sense of that term) and the notion that the self could become the universal within the scope of a poem. Mayer is not worried about labeling herself or representing a particular camp, because what she seeks to represent in her work is the importance of consciousness (both her own and a grand sense of it) and in this way, her own consciousness finds the form within each poem that is most suited for it in what it needs to say. Hers is a project-based poetics, but the project is her life itself.
I mentioned earlier that I learned a lot about the perfect line in Mayer’s work and this is true. A line of Bernadette Mayer gives you everything you need to know. It is fair, in every sense of that word. It assumes that you need to know things to move on in the poem and that you are smart person, but it doesn’t try to trick you into thinking anything you don’t want to. It is a lot like objective reality in that way, although in the best sense of that idea. The declarative sentence, but not. There is just enough in each line, as in “Be strong, Bernadette” and “No one will ever know” or “I came here for a reason.” Or even more so, “Even the water freezes in the tap.” “I need something done to my mouth” or “you suck my cunt for a thousand years, you are weary.” And also, the most so, twinned with Catullus’ naturally fair lines, as in “And even if the formal field of kissing” or “Had more kisses than there’s corn in August’s fields” then “I still wouldn’t have had enough of you.”
I think about education a lot, or more so, how we can create the best educational systems that can foster creativity. I think the future of education, if it is possible to change the impenetrable structures that make up our public schools, lies in the collaborative and generative processes Mayer presents so clearly in her Writing Experiments. To construct a curriculum that uses these experiments for a multitude of disciplines and fields would be a perfect first and last step to help bring out a democratic field of learning. In learning, just as through feeling, we experience the world through perception versus fact. Her book, The Art of Science Writing, is another example for this, as Mayer and her co-author, suggest, all writers and thinkers might approach science not as hard fact, but as a malleable process of perception. The book teaches us that our own thinking is a warm flux of a neverending system of things. Which some might argue, is the nature of science itself.
A lot of times I think of a favorite poet as a mirror to my favorite ancient myths. If I were to connect Mayer to anything, it would be to tie her to the history of Diana and the tale of how she was spied upon in the woods by a human hunter, Acteon. Once seeing Diana naked and bathing, this hunter was turned into a stag and hunted by his own hounds. The ultimate revenge of universal law. In such a mirror, Mayer’s I might be Diana, her bathers, the hunter, the hounds, and especially the woods itself. All those things and nothing, too. The story after the story. The neverending and changeable poem.
Connected to this, but also not the same, I love Mayer for her metaphysical I, the summative complex I, that is always changing and changeable, too, and that Whitman explains “contains multitudes” or as Berrigan mentions “is pronouns and all of them.” But then again, I won’t get into this now. There is never enough time to talk about this fully.
I am so glad to be here today. Thanks so much for inviting me.