A Note on Bernadette Mayer & Hannah Weiner, October 1970 to April 1972
It’s well known that Bernadette Mayer and Hannah Weiner were close friends from the mid-1960s until Weiner’s death in 1997. Indeed, the house where Mayer has lived since 2000, “a former church/synagogue/Jewish boardinghouse” in East Nassau, N.Y., was purchased with an inheritance from Weiner, according to Mayer in a May 2011 conversation.
I’ve been interested in the two poets’ purely poetic relationship ever since I realized that Weiner’s The Fast and Mayer’s Studying Hunger Journals have related titles and initial premises, though Mayer’s book eventually diverges from “studying hunger.” My interest was further piqued by the proximity of the two works in time: The Fast was written at the end of 1970, and Studying Hunger Journals was begun in late March 1972, a little more than a year afterward. According to Mayer in a 2009 interview with Sam Truitt and me, Mayer was one of the people who appeared at Hannah Weiner’s door and saved her from her actual fast and derangement, though the text of The Fast doesn’t make an explicit identification. Mayer’s former husband, Lewis Warsh, published The Fast in 1992. From a formal point of view, The Fast represents a very sharp detour by the highly formal poet Weiner in the direction of narrative prose. In Mayer’s case, Studying Hunger Journals is her fourth consecutive book of predominantly prose poetry, much prosier than its immediate predecessor, Memory, but far less narrative than Weiner.
I thought it might be useful to make a timeline of this roughly one-year period early in Mayer’s and Weiner’s poetic careers.
In October and November 1970, Hannah Weiner fasted for three weeks. Soon afterward, she wrote The Fast, which recounted the experience in rough prose, part conversion narrative and part outsider art, somewhat reminiscent to me of William S. Burroughs’ Junkie. She apparently considered dictating it. The Fast begins: “I want to write but I am lazy. I would like to put my thoughts about the fast directly on tape without the medium of speech.”
In July and August of 1971, Bernadette Mayer wrote notes, took photographs and dictated materials for Memory, originally a sound and photographic installation meant to document one month, not much longer than Weiner’s three-week fast. Weirdly, the text of Memory begins with a sink: “& the main thing is we begin with a white sink a whole new language is a temptation.” On the first page of The Fast, Weiner writes: “My thoughts right now are about my great sink experience…I had an ‘at home’ experience and spent 3 weeks in the kitchen sink because I had no bathtub and partly because I became sensitive, magnetic to metal, and couldn’t take a shower in my metal enclosed shower.” Is this a coincidence? Someone should pore through Memory looking for other possible references to Weiner. Formally, Memory is mostly laid out as prose, though rarely uses prose rhythms, unlike The Fast. In Mayer’s tape recording that was transcribed to become the book Memory, part of which I heard at the 2008 Orono conference on American Poetry of the 1970s, the text sounds more like individual lines of poetry than prose sentences.
In the fall of 1971, while Mayer was giving shape to Memory and preparing for its exhibition at Holly Solomon Gallery in February, Weiner wrote the diaristic Country Girl, explicitly a sequel to The Fast, also obsessed with eating, also a prose narrative. Unlike The Fast, it’s written in the present tense, day-by-day instead of afterward, and apparently covers five weeks instead of three weeks. Weiner termed these works “journals,” culminating with her path-breaking Clairvoyant Journal, which she began in 1974, while Mayer was still composing Studying Hunger Journals.
A few months after Weiner wrote Country Girl, Mayer began Studying Hunger Journals in late March 1972. It is as explicitly related to its immediate predecessor, Memory, as Country Girl is to The Fast. It begins as an epistolary novel, or perhaps a subjective novel in the mold of The Sorrows of Young Werther or Nausea. It’s rarely narrative like Weiner’s two “journals,” which are also highly subjective.
Mayer has written and spoken a few times about her connections with Weiner during this period. In her 2009 introduction to Studying Hunger Journals, Mayer mentions Weiner alone among writers as an influence on the work: “I wrote in the books with colored pens because I hoped I would hit upon a way to color-code emotions, which I never did, & in imitation of Hannah Weiner, a close friend.” In the 2009 interview with Sam Truitt and me, she mentioned that Weiner “kept these kind of copy-book journals” where she wrote in colored pen. These sound like precursors to the journals Mayer used for Studying Hunger Journals. Mayer said she originally intended Studying Hunger Journals to cover a month, like Memory, and roughly the same time period as The Fast and Country Girl. When asked directly about the similarity in subject between Studying Hunger Journals and Weiner’s two eating-obsessed narratives, Mayer said “she was not particularly influenced” by Weiner’s focus on not eating and eating. In her introduction and interview, Mayer primarily attributed the hunger theme in Studying Hunger Journals to the fact that “my parents had died young (there was nobody to feed me)” and a several-year period of difficulty swallowing. She also mentioned in her introduction a Weiner-like “synaesthesia” that made “letters & words seem as edible as paintings.”
To put things in historical perspective, Weiner and Mayer were not the only people in America who were fasting and obsessed with what they ate from 1970 to 1972. I’m tempted to say that fasting was a fad that reached the suburbs of New York, where I was growing up, precisely in 1972, appealing to people both as a natural high and as a way of purging the body of the unhealthy chemicals in the American food chain. My friend Andrew Gurien introduced fasting to our crowd in South Orange and Maplewood, N.J., that year. A number of us also became vegetarians in 1972. As 14-year-olds at sleepaway camp in Maine that summer, we fasted for three days during an Outward Bound-type “solo” under a tarp in rainy woods, one of the most boring experiences in my life, only enlivened by the packets of iced-tea mix I smuggled in.
As part of proofreading Studying Hunger Journals for its 2011 publication by Station Hill Press, I noted many possible references to Weiner in the text, starting with “I guess I’m refusing to eat” in the book’s first paragraph. Weiner, “finally a visitor I don’t mind having,” visits Mayer on the seventh page, and Weiner’s style would seem to underlie the ensuing fauve description: “Max has big blue arms and purple legs and Bernadette long pink hair and a green signal for a face…” I think it would be worthwhile for literary scholars and biographers to explore as much as possible the cross-pollination between Mayer and Weiner during this unquestionably crucial early chapter in their poetic lives.