Bernadette Mayer 1945-2022

A Personal Remembrance by Kimberly Lyons

Bernadette Mayer was like a Goddess to me when I first read Midwinter Day in that gorgeous blue Turtle Island 1982 edition which I purchased at the old St. Mark’s Bookstore like a year after moving to NYC. I read it one day! I had never read anything like it and the emancipated narrative that embedded lines of potent poetic condensation was just fantastic. Also, the way she drew from all thought and every kind of experience. It was a liberating read. My friend Lorna Smedman brought me over to her at a party and Bernadette just smiled at me as I blabbered my admiration. Of course, I then became a reader of all of her work and must have written many imitation BM poems. But, you know, an imitation BM poem could be a threshold for one’s own deep streams.

Anne Waldman & Bernadette Mayer at Naropa.
Photographer Reed Bye.

Bernadette was kind and inviting to Mitch Highfill and I, inviting us to her home and offering a hospitable presence at the Poetry Project. She didn’t get all involved in your (or maybe I mean my) work, but she could make perspicacious quick observations which alerted you to realize she heard in a way that was un-obviously attentive.

After many years, I reunited with Bernadette in Chicago where her Memory project was on exhibit at the Poetry Foundation. The acute visual beauty and freshness of the photographs, the subtle, strange details of daily life in the writing and her mapping of mood, time and passages of being were and are just a beautifully realized singular project. Bernadette gave several readings in Chicago and it was good to be in her presence. The two Chicago Jennifers: Jen Karmin and Jennifer Scappitone worked hard to make it all good.

I felt regret that I didn’t give more of myself to her all these years past, especially the hard years up at the farm, though now that I think of it, the panel Ed Friedman and I put together on Studying Hunger at the Project was great. The recording of that day must be at the LOC? I wrote an essay on Studying Hunger published much later in the journal Aufgabe, which I still feel was a deep, persuasive analysis of that text.

Bernadette was a complex, charismatic, affecting presence. She had very little mask as far as I could see—she went through life, raw, vulnerable, and actively feeling life’s inequities and outrages. I would hazard a guess that anyone in her near trajectory was magnetically touched. You felt her and you would then have to fathom the nature of those feelings. Out of that process, I learned more of myself.

Her poetry not only could be a joy to read for its tangible gifts of sights seen and thrilling thought musings but for the audacity of her experiment, that, for the poets, as in Song of Solomon 1-4: “Draw me, we will run after thee.”

Bernadette Mayer 1945-2022, Editor’s Note

American poetry lost one if its most innovative, provocative and brilliant poets on November 22, 2022. Bernadette Mayer was as complex and unpredictable and charming in her being as she was in her poems. I knew her work long before I knew her. Indeed, everybody I knew in the tight-knit “innovative” poetry community in the 70s and 80s seemed to be talking about Bernadette. We finally met face-to-face in 1988 at Naropa, where we were both teaching in the summer program. She was already close with my wife Patricia Pruitt. Through Patricia I got to know Bernadette. I reveled in listening to Bernadette, Anne Waldman and Patricia knock around any topic they deemed worth knocking around. They were all fantastic teachers and I always liked learning. I used to take a seat whenever possible in Bernadette’s classes. Her teaching style was unorthodox and intimate. She was remarkable at drawing out students, at listening. Remarkable for her depth and breadth of knowledge. I always learned.

Bernadette early on learned how to hold her ground. Given the milieu of formidable male egos in which she came into her own, I suspect she had no other choice. In probably June of 1989, Patricia invited Bernadette, Diane di Prima and Allen Ginsberg for dinner at our attic apartment in Boulder. With that group, there was no such thing as casual conversation. Somehow the topic of discussion turned to the importance of form within poetry, including the sort Patricia, Bernadette and Diane were writing. At some point, Allen attempted to venture a comment. Bernadette, in her sweet voice and with a huge smile on her face, turned to Allen and said, “We don’t need to hear from the men.” We all burst into laughter. “Oh, Bernadette,” said Allen, “you’ve never needed my opinion about anything.”

In the early 90’s Patricia and I saw her off and on, as we were then living in Western Massachusetts, not so far away from where Bernadette had relocated. After her massive stroke in 1994, we helped out as much as we could. Bernadette never had much money, and once she became ill, the situation became dire. Michael Gizzi and Clark Coolidge came to the rescue immediately. Michael and Patricia persuaded Bob Willig, a mutual bookseller friend to buy some of her books at good prices to put a few dollars in her account. Others quickly pitched in. All the good turns Bernadette had done for so many over so many years, returned to her. Benefit readings, publications, fundraisers of all sorts, and folks just emptying their wallets became commonplace. That necessary generosity toward her and her partner Philip Good continued even after Bernadette had returned to the living. Patricia saw her a few times in the mid and late 90s; it was difficult. Her recovery was long and fraught and never complete.

Bernadette got on the map quickly. Before she was 30, she caught the eye of more than a few with her exhibit Memory, a conceptual art installation at the 98 Greene Street Loft that incorporated photography, autobiographical narrative and poetry. It began in July 1971, when she photographed one roll of film each day, resulting in a total of 1200 photographs. For the installation she mounted the photos on boards in sequential rows. In a seven-hour audio track that played over speakers, she remembered the context of each image, using them as “taking-off points for digression” and to “[fill] in the spaces between.” The work and Bernadette quickly became legendary. The show traveled to Europe and in 1976 North Atlantic Books issued the edited audio in book form. Memory then served as the starting point for her next book, her three-year experiment in stream-of-consciousness journal writing Studying Hunger (Adventures in Poetry, 1976).

So much of all this fervor in poetic activity was centered around The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. Bernadette taught workshops there in the early 70s, and was director from 1980-1984. From 1978 to 1984 Bernadette co-edited United Artists books and magazine with her then-partner Lewis Warsh with whom she had three children. United Artists published some of the most significant books of their fellow poets, in addition to several of her own volumes. 

Bernadette was in and out of NYC through the 80s; she and Lewis split up around 1985.  After her debilitating stroke in 1994 that left her unable to write or even speak for a time, she battled courageously. Bit by bit she regained the ability to compose sentences. Words and then books and then awards came: The 2014 Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America; a Guggenheim in 2015 and a NEA.

Bernadette’s books now number around 30, including Studying Hunger (1976) Midwinter Day (1982), A Bernadette Mayer Reader (1992), The Desire of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (1994), Another Smashed Pinecone (1998), Poetry State Forest (2008), The Helens of Troy (2013),Works and Days (2016), which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and in 2022 Milkweed Smithereens.

Bernadette lives on in her poetry and her poetry will continue to live.

–Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno