Bernadette Mayer with Susan Howe in 1979
Editorial note: Episodes of Susan Howe’s show aired on WBAI (NY)/Pacifica Radio are available at PennSound as the result of a collaboration with the Archive for New Poetry at the University of California, San Diego. On April 22, 1979, Howe hosted a conversation with Bernadette Mayer for WBAI/Pacifica. They discuss Mayer’s work as editor of 0 to 9, how to lead writing workshops, the tribulations of writing and motherhood, and Mayer’s composition of her long poem Midwinter Day. The recording of the interview can be found here. This conversation was transcribed by Michael Nardone and edited slightly for Jacket2. — Kenna O’Rourke
Susan Howe: I think you mentioned Bill Berkson’s workshop in New York —
Bernadette Mayer: It was my first connection with any other poets, except for the fact that I had known Vito Acconci since I was about fifteen years old, and he was devoted to becoming a writer. That enabled me to really think about that as a possible thing to do. He was more than devoted to it, I suppose. He was obsessed. He was really the first connection to the outside world. Then, in Bill’s workshop I met a lot of the people who are now considered to be the New York School of poets. They were the first poets that I ever talked to. It was a great workshop. Bill would bring in the complete works of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, and he would do wonderful things with them like pile them up side by side and say “Look how high Ezra Pound’s pile is and look how short T. S. Eliot’s pile is!” Bill was very eloquent and inspiring. I was in that workshop about a year or two before I started doing 0 to 9.
Howe: Was Vito in that workshop too?
Mayer: No, he was pursuing a …
Howe: A more conceptual —
Mayer: A different track.
Howe: You were working with conceptual art for a while?
Mayer: Well in the early years, Vito was a devoted writer. He didn’t actually think about conceptual art until towards the end of the last issue of 0 to 9, which was full of the works of Robert Smithson and many of the conceptual artists who were not well known at the time, and who had never published in magazines before. We broke the bank publishing that issue because it was full of illustrations. Not only could we no longer afford to publish the magazine as a result, but Vito decided as a result of that issue he wanted to go into that world, and he was very adamant about no longer writing. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. So then when we stopped publishing the magazine I began to think about it and I inadvertently started to write Moving. And after I finished Moving I realized I really still wanted to write, and not try to be an artist.
Howe: I would say that the conceptual artists brought your work a lot of strength, though. I mean, there’s a kind of experimenting going on in it.
Mayer: Well, there was also a rigorous kind of argumentation that was going on all that time that was really forcing everyone to think a little bit too hard. It wasn’t easy to defend writing at that point in time.
Howe: The two writers who, to me, it’s almost as if they were your parents in literature, would be, I assume, Gertrude Stein and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Mayer: What a couple! I suppose I could talk about them at once and in the same way, in the sense that here all these sentences that were endlessly interesting to me, both of those completely, two completely different kinds of sentences, from which I could lay them out side by side and tell you how I learned to write by just observing the sentences of Gertrude Stein next to the sentences of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I feel an affinity to those writers beyond that, almost in a mystical sense — although it’s “not okay” to talk about Gertrude Stein anymore, you know? She’s too famous now. But we can still speak of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Howe: Do they continue to be important to you?
Mayer: I must admit I can still go back to Hawthorne’s works and learn a lot from them. I have ceased to be able to learn anything from Stein’s works, but I think that in the future I probably will be able to again. Partly that’s because my interests now are causing me to read writers like Milton and Chaucer, and all the old English writers whom I never read before. I find them about a hundred times more inspiring in a momentary way than I do Stein’s work. Although, I must say, that Stein’s work, whenever I go back to it, I find something new in there too.
Howe: What particular work of hers, would you say?
Mayer: I guess my favorite work of hers, or the work that never ceases to astonish me, is Stanzas in Meditation. It’s also the only work I’ve never quite finished reading. I always save a few parts of it for later. And of Hawthorne’s works, I guess the work that always had the most effect on me was The American Notebooks, and also The Marble Faun, and also an unpublished novel of his called Septimius Felter.
Howe: You seem more closed talking in an interview than you do in some work you do, in diary work that you’ve done or dream work that you’ve done. Do you find the interview situation unpleasant?
Mayer: [Laughs.] I guess it’s just a self-protective feeling. One doesn’t want to particularly have a personality in an interview. Then again, the other thing that happens is, in writing, where it’s between you and the writing, and you can make great leaps. Those leaps and that ability to take the thing higher, a little bit higher, enables you to approximate the truth better. It relates to critical writing, too, because in discursive writing and in discursive speaking, then one feels that the truth is fleeting much more so. You always feel that you’ve possibly said the wrong thing. [Laughs.] It’s a moral attitude.
Howe: That sounds like a rather puritanical, moral answer! The flesh is weak, and the written word is —
Mayer: Sacred. Yeah, well it sure is easier to write than to speak extemporaneously, somehow.
Howe: But that wasn’t a problem for you when you were running a workshop.
Mayer: Well, that’s different, because you know who you’re talking to. But even then I always felt that one’s chickens come home to roost. A lot of people still to this day will tell me something I said in the workshop that I no longer believe. They’ll say: “How can you write poems that have rhyme and meter in them now, when you said in the workshop, in 1971, was this thing that you said,” and so on. The answer to that is that one changes. I mean, hopefully one is learning something. The whole idea of a poet going through certain kinds of changes is a subject that any poet can talk about in that sense, but nobody really wants to hear about it. Someone said to me after they had read The Golden Book of Words, from which I was reading those poems, “Oh, you’ve finally found a style you can really nestle into!” And I said, oh, that’s the last thing I ever want to do. That’s a horrific idea to any poet.
Howe: What about the difference between The Golden Book of Words and Eruditio ex Memoria?
Mayer: Actually those books were written more or less at the same time.
Howe: And they’re quite different. Can you write poems at the same time you’re working on a prose piece?
Mayer: Sure. I always feel like prose is a great comfort to me. Prose is like mother love. If I sit down to write a piece of prose, I can feel that I can go on forever, and it’s a great pleasure to me. Poetry is in some ways much harder work, because it’s something that I’m learning. I think that all the prose I wrote when I was younger, it was easier for me to write. It seemed much more natural to me, and poetry was something that I had to learn how to write. I never knew how to end a line. It took me many years to know where to break the line. It took me many years to understand that I was allowed to use the kind of feeling I had for rhythm and meter in a poem. A lot of contemporary poets don’t do that. You can even read William Carlos Williams’s indictment of meter, and at the same time you can read Milton’s indictment of rhyme. So, it’s really been going on for a long time! I never knew if I was allowed to do that, and also, in poetry, I suppose poetry has always seemed like, as I grew up with it, a place where one speaks about feelings and emotion, and I never really knew how to do it. I could do it in prose because it could take me a lot longer to do it in prose. Then I could do what one calls experiment with it, and learned about that way, and all that learning ultimately went into learning how to write poetry. Although, I’m not saying I’m not writing prose anymore, but I wrote a book recently which I thought was going to be a long prose book, and that was my intention when I sat down to write it, and it turned into a long poem, so I don’t know.
Howe: You have children, and small children. Do you find that has fragmented your time a lot?
Mayer: Well, fragmented is exactly the word. I’ll tell you the bad parts first: one is always dividing one’s time into these little sections. You can’t ever figure that you’re going to have a good six hours or so to do anything anymore, sometimes even to sleep. At the same time I find that I end up having more time to write since I’ve had children.
Howe: Why would you say that is?
Mayer: Well, in the past, before I ever even dreamed of having children, I was never disciplined about writing at all. I would never think that I would write every day. When I had a project that I was working on or a book or something, then I would sit down and work on it for every second of the day and not do anything else. And if I was writing just occasionally, then I would just write whenever I felt like it. Once I had children, I realized that if I was going to keep writing, I had to structure the day around the children and retain a time every day for myself. And so it’s really the first time for me that I’m writing every day. Ultimately, it provides me with much more time than I ever had before to write just out of that sense of some schedule.
Howe: What about the lack of women who are mothers, role models as poets?
Mayer: Well, first of all, I’d like to say at this point in time, I think I have tremendous admiration for almost any kind of poet who can manage to continue to write poetry and really do it and be a mother too. It seems like an incredibly exhausting and difficult proposition. There’s not really any older poets who’ve done that, you know. Well, who are they? Like the old ones? There are a lot of prose writers like Georges Sand and Harriet Beecher Stowe and people like that who’ve had fascinating lives as mothers and as writers. But among the poets it’s been a little sparse. Alice Notley is a mother who is a poet, and I find a lot of inspiration from her work. I know I find it anyway, but I also find it interesting to compare notes about the proposition of working as a poet as a mother. I wish there were more.
Howe: In the past —
Mayer: In the past there are none, and it’s a little bit alarming because one instantly realized why there aren’t any. It seems insane that we’ve been somehow cheated historically out of this great pleasure of having not only women as writers, but women writers who could be mothers too, conceivably.
Howe: Who are some writers that interest you, apart from Hawthorne and Stein?
Mayer: I could list a few things that I’m reading, but ultimately I think it’s more important to say somehow that I’ve had to, in the last three years — I’ve had to make the choice between reading and writing, and I always seem to opt for writing, because it makes me sane. When it comes time for me to do some work, then what I want to do is write, and not read.
Howe: You read a dream piece at St. Mark’s this last reading of yours. Can you talk about what you do with dreams — you write them down and then transfer them?
Mayer: I’ve tried everything. The piece I read was the first section of a poem that is in six parts, and it’s entirely about one day. The first part begins with me relating the dreams that I had before waking up that day. This particular poem is kind of the flowering of everything that I’ve learned about writing poetry in a very rational way. I’m very interested at the moment in that work, in writing about dreams in as rational [a way] as possible. In the past I’ve written about dreams maybe in some much more primitive or childlike or experimental or whatever you want to call it ways. These dreams, I was interested in relating them and talking about them in almost a Freudian sense, and making a narrative out of that. I wanted to try and make a narration not only [of] that part of the poem which is about the dreams, but of the entire poem.
Howe: What about the difference between the diaries and dreaming? You’ve worked with writing a diary, too. You and Lewis did that together: one would do one day, and one would do the other. Now, when you actually do that, how much rewriting do you do?
Mayer: In the case of that book Lewis and I wrote together, we did a lot of rewriting, but that was really the first time we’d ever done it. We wrote that book, and I used my sections of that book as a way to study how to write coherent, sensible sentences with periods and punctuation, to make it something that would be really accessible to everyone, almost like writing a letter to a stranger. At that point in time, that was very hard work, and I was devoted to taking what I might call the “gibberish” out of that book. Whenever there was a […] space accounted for by just two or three words, the way one does it in poetry, say, I would expand it and explain it like a letter or even like a phone conversation or something. It was very much a one-to-one arrangement.
Howe: You worked with a tape, too.
Mayer: I find that very hard to do. I work with a tape recorder in a lot of different ways. One of the ways is that I would try to talk prose into the tape recorder. That was okay; that was easy. Then I tried to talk sensible prose into the tape recorder. That was a little bit more difficult. Then I tried to talk poetry into the tape recorder. That was impossible. But I do find that the tape recorder is very useful for making notes, you know, certain kind of notes, like in a situation where you’re sitting around in the afternoon with babies who won’t let you write things down, I can keep the recorder in the closet or something and run over and make a few notes if I want to. Now the babies are older and they let me take notes. [Laughs.] But I don’t know what to do with it anymore, actually, because I really hate transcribing it. I find it such a chore. I think maybe if one had somebody else do the transcribing that it would be a more useful method for writing.
Howe: You published 0 to 9, I mean you were editor of that, and you and Lewis are editors now of Angel Hair. What do you feel about publishing your own work?
Mayer: I’m all for it.
Howe: Could you sort of say why?
Mayer: Well, why not? Nobody else is going to publish it! [Laughs.] I think it’s great to publish one’s own work. I never felt any vacillating about that whole thing. The first book of mine that was ever published, which was this book called Story, I published myself. It seems like a way to disseminate writing in a very efficient way. You can get it to all the people who you know are going to read it. There’s no fooling around. You can do it the way you want it done. Nobody ever tells you: change this or that, or I’m going to put this cover on your book. It’s all in your own hands. It’s now even to the extent that Angel Hair has turned into United Artists now, and we handle absolutely every level of the production of the books. We do everything. I prefer it. With all the books of mine that have been published by other people, there have always been these difficult problems, including emotional ones that have to do with friends. I prefer it. I know that none of us as poets are ever going to be published by the so-called publishing companies, because ultimately the government has written us out, haven’t they? It seems that way. It seems John Ashbery and James Schuyler are probably the last great poets to have contracts with real publishing companies.
Howe: You think that’s true?
Mayer: I don’t know. I’ve talked to a lot of people about it and nobody seems to know the answer. Some people have a definitely paranoid feeling that that’s the reason that small presses can get publishing grants now from the government rather easily, I mean, if they’re devoted to it, to some extent it’s because it’s an accommodation to that situation where none of the publishing companies are even acting independently really anymore. So they won’t publish poetry because they’re all owned by the entertainment conglomerates. It does seem like a plot to keep people from reading poetry. And I know that a lot of poetry by me and by Ted Berrigan and by Lewis and by Alice could be read by a much wider audience. That’s how it stands, and it’s so intractable. If we’re going to continue, and to continue to publish at all, then these are the terms we seem to have to do it on. I don’t mind it, except in the sense that I wonder if people are being cheated out of reading more poetry, because certainly whenever a book of poetry does get published, it doesn’t ever get any kind of publicity or advertising or anything like that. Nobody ever reviews it in The New York Times. We publish books now in editions of 1,000 copies. That seems to be about as many as can be distributed, and that’s not too many.
Howe: Do you spend a lot of time on the publishing business now?
Mayer: Yes, we do. It’s very time-consuming. We’re publishing the books and we’re also publishing a magazine, also called United Artists. Between two of those things, between me and Lewis sharing the work, it’s a full-time job. The magazine is mimeographed, which makes it very time-consuming.
Howe: Would you really like to write a novel? You’ve said that. I mean, would you?
Mayer: No. [Laughs.] Well, I wrote this poem a while ago; in the beginning of it I’ve said: “Everybody tells me now to write a novel.” No, I’ll never write one. I think it’s a terrible idea. A lot of people say to me: “You could write the ultimate novel about that Catholic girlhood and that whole thing.” Well, I’ll let somebody else do it. Lots of people do, and actually there are some great ones. It’s just not my talent, I think. No, I can’t do it.
Howe: In a lot of your work I notice the word “nun” occurring. In fact, I was thinking I could just ask you some words, and you could to do a take on them. You do bring in a lot of saints’ names, and Dante is running very strongly a lot.
Mayer: Yeah, he runs with the nuns.
Howe: But what about a girl who receives a Catholic education from nuns?
Mayer: Does it matter anymore? Is anybody ever going to experience that again?
Howe: Maybe it gives you something quite rare or special.
Mayer: Well, I did see them every day from the age of five to twenty, or somewhat less than that, so they’re bound to be in there. They are startling-looking figures, and they always had startling ideas. There’s no way that I’ll ever get them out of there. Although, I think I’ve managed to get rid of them to some extent. I don’t know. I always think that one shouldn’t write about them and certain other things, but that you just can’t help it. I think a lot of the things about the Catholic church, I mean, nuns, think of nuns: what a startling visual image they are. I spent as many hours as I did doing anything else contemplating their habits, and I don’t mean their habits, I mean their black and white costumes and all the starchiness of them, and the idea of what they were supposed to be. It was always a matter of total perfection, and that way of looking. Boy, just having your head encased in white starched material and long veils. The Ursulines that I had in college had these incredibly dramatic capes to wear when it rained. And when they walked across the college, they looked like wraiths. They were always running into the church with giant black umbrellas to kill the bats that were literally hanging in the church belfry. There’s no end to the drama of it. But as for other things about the Catholic Church, even besides all those — and don’t get me started on the priests — would be other amazing visual things. The church that I went to as a child was highly decorated with painted statues, and marble, and a very high ceiling with an imitation of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and stars interspersed with the pictures of God and angels, and everything glittering in gold, and expensive. It was either church or home. That was how it was, and church was sure different than home. The ceiling was so high that it did have a lofty effect on one’s thoughts. Some ideas of meditating as a Catholic have always stuck with me. Levitating. See, I don’t even know how to talk about those things. The vestments …
Howe: They’re magical.
Mayer: The Latin, every trapping of that was totally inspiring. Then again, there are many poets who were brought up as Catholic who really never mention it. I wonder how they can contain themselves.