KAY: So let's talk about "The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica."

Mayer's poem first appeared in her 1976 book Poetry, originally published by the Kulchur Foundation, available for download from the Eclipse Archive, and reprinted in Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words (Station Hill of Barrytown, 2015). The cover of Poetry has an illustration of some brownstones; it sort of looks like Ridgewood, maybe the house that Mayer grew up in. "You would hang out in Ridgewood to scream and that's all," she writes in Memory,1 and in "Antarctica" she indicates a lot of screaming:

I had written: "the man who sewed his soles back on his feet"
And then I panicked most at the sound of what the wind could do to me2

"Antarctica" is one of Mayer's more famous short lyric poems. Partly that's because, when much of her work was out of print, it appeared in the 1992 Bernadette Mayer Reader (New Directions). I'd guess it's also because "Antarctica" is a poem famously about isolation, and people respond to it effusively, collectively, like a great social experiment in communizing the experience of being totally alone. Jo, you and I underwent a version of this experiment. We held hands and our friend Matthias tattooed "BE STRONG BERNADETTE" on our forearms.

The thing is, this structure of feeling reverses the normal course of sociality and privacy in Mayer's writing. People witness an experience of social isolation, and they make it public and collective. But, as you observed, Mayer's work typically emerges from some kind of pivotal social relationship, and then typically foregrounds a kind of privacy or privation of company.

JO: If I came to Bernadette for one thing, it was surely the screaming. We did undergo a version of her experiment in communizing the experience of being alone, but my first experience of this was with Diana Hamilton. At about 3 am in November of 2017, she read me "The Way To Keep Going In Antarctica." It struck me, both in that moment and upon further readings, how similar it is to the serenity prayer. Both fit into this experiment of communizing being alone so perfectly. Both give a brief reprieve from being alone by inviting in the voice of someone else, in one case Bernadette and in the other a higher power of your own understanding.

KAY: That's really beautiful. It's definitely the case that Mayer, however secular, is abandoning herself in "Antarctica" not, say, to a higher power, not to God, she's resolutely opposed to her own Catholic upbringing, but certainly to language.

Notice how her syntax starts to break down around two-thirds the way through the poem

& no more lies no more
Not to find you no
More coming back & more returning
Southern journey
Small things & not my own debris3

as if she's being led by her language, and not the other way around. When Mayer read this poem at the Poetry Project in March 2019, she varied this experiment of abandoning herself to language, attempting to read the poem backwards first word by word, which didn't work, and then line by line, which she seemed to think was actually interesting.

JO: The first few times I read this poem, those lines were my least favorite. I had no idea what she was talking about. It feels completely out of left field like, "the man who sewed his soles back onto his feet," what does that mean! But then she explains it in Midwinter Day

We have to wear so much clothing it's almost as if we were in the Antarctic. Once one of the Antarctic explorers got frostbitten and the soles of his feet came off, he had to sow them back on; another's eyes turned from brown to blue. When they walked all day or all night trying to get to the pole all they talked about was food because they were so hungry. They would vote on whose idea for something to eat sounded best. I think this was on one of Shackleton's or Scott's expeditions. One of the winning foods was roasted meat wrapped in bacon and baked in a pastry crust. It must have been Shackleton's because Frank Wild invented a sauce for it that became known as Wild Sauce, but I can't remember what was in it, maybe it was something sweet. They would dream about food all the time, they would dream the waiters couldn't hear them, shout their orders and when the food came it was suddenly ashes.4

Which gives a lot of context to what's happening in the middle of "Antarctica."

KAY: Yes, it's almost like "the man who sewed his soles back on his feet" shocks the poem back into syntax through the violence of the image.

JO: And then there's the really auditory whole-body experience of the house shaking from the wind, and then we get that double indent:

"if I crawled back to the house, two feet give no position, if the
branches cracked over my head & their threatening me"5

This is where she really comes back into writing not something cohesive and with a narrative, but with the same throughline as before.

KAY: We can think about Antarctica as a fixation for Mayer at this period. She moves first to Worthington, MA with Lewis Warsh in 1975 rest in peace, by the way and then Mayer and Warsh move to Lenox, MA in 1976. Lenox is famous for being the town closest to the Tanglewood concerts, a place they describe as somewhere they could live without a car. There's a significant geographic isolation that adds to the social isolation that they are kind of intentionally fostering. In Piece of Cake, her collaborative journal with Warsh that she kept in August 1976, she writes:

There was our cottage in Peru [MA] where we stayed for one month, last August, waiting to move to Worthington, because we just couldn't stand New York one minute longer. All that month we picked blackberries and ate pies. We ate our first steaks in a long while and it was then we applied for food stamps or talked about it. We developed our idiosyncratic patterns then too, me reading books about Antarctica long into the night.6

JO: Imagine someone just moved out of New York and started tweeting about reading books about Antarctica long into the night you would be, like, "Okay, you're going through an intense depressive episode right now." That's such a classic depressive hyperfixation.

KAY: And then she keeps writing about it. Piece of Cake, Midwinter Day, "The Way To Keep Going," and it comes up again in a project of translating Chaucer that she began with Alice Notley in 1979: "If we were in Antarctica," she writes, and then: "we might be in a total trance ... reminiscing for fear."7 We could speculate that this stems from her geographic isolation in New England, where she and Warsh had moved to raise their children, which produced a great degree of social isolation. Arguably "Antarctica" becomes Mayer's code less for a place than for a situation, childrearing in rural poverty.

JO: And that also increases her isolation: the more children you have, there's no time to do anything else, there's no time to see anyone else, it's only your children. I think that kind of link between writing, poverty, and complete isolation continually fuel each other. They all fuel each other.

KAY: On the other hand, I'm interested in your idea of "The Way to Keep Going" inviting someone into experiencing her isolation along with her. This is one of her poems that is so beloved. It's emotionally naked in a way that Mayer often explicitly avoids.

JO: Or at least puts some kind of veil or wall up or has some kind of concept that's shielding her. In Studying Hunger (1975), for instance, there's a lot of naked vulnerability in that, but it almost feels like you're reading something you're not supposed to be reading because that book wasn't written for an audience of anyone other than her analyst.

KAY: Right. Mayer is remediating these genres of intensely private correspondence or communication the journal or the psychoanalytic diary. In the case of Studying Hunger, her analyst, David who, she elsewhere records, was also her lover asks her to write a diary as a tool for analysis. Now, why does she start going to analysis? In What's Your Idea of a Good Time, her collection of letters and interviews with Bill Berkson, she says she wrote Memory, then as a result felt like she was "losing her mind" and began therapy.8 So Studying Hunger, originally published in the same year as Memory, is actually a totally different book from it, born out of a response to the experiment of writing Memory

JO: The psychic toll, almost?

KAY: Yes, out of the toll of recording absolutely everything, which Memory aspires to do.

JO: Memory is also a really closely guarded book for being a journal of an entire month. Its prose style is so similar to verse, so she's really getting away with hiding a lot. This comes out of the method for composing the book as well: Mayer's method for the book was to take a roll of photographs each day, and then to compose the text after developing the images and running through them on a projector all of which places distance between herself and the actual events of the month, which is what I mean by hiding.

KAY: Which is where Memory is different, I think, from confessionalism, although it's a transcription of a life in the first person singular. Diana's review of the Memory reissue in BOMB argues that Mayer's "goal was to, without writing a book, get the audience to become 'a real reader,' by which she meant she would give them so much access that they might become her."9 This project of recording everything positions itself against the kind of disclosure of the confessional, which requires someone to assume the position of a listener to refuse identification with the speaker.

JO: The obvious point of comparison here is The Bell Jar, where Plath's protagonist is in New York for a short amount of time and loses her mind and goes back to New England. Which is how I felt as a teen when I would go to New York and come back to New England and be, like, "Why am I here?"

KAY: Mayer's writing from the period is not not about this experience of being an outsider in New England. It's sort of the inverse of Plath's.

JO: I remember leaving New England and people told me directly: "You will fail and you will be back." You are not going to succeed anywhere else is something I was explicitly told. It is a place where people get angry at you for leaving, because they want you to spend your entire life there and be as miserable as they are, but if you move to New England, the people who live there are very curious as to why and do not really trust you if you are only there for a short time and plan on leaving.

KAY: It's also around this time and in this situation of isolation and poverty that Mayer really begins to work in forms that require a certain exchange or correspondence, when letters become a major part of her practice.

JO: I mean, prior to this time direct address wasn't really a part of Mayer's writing, except Studying Hunger, which is different because it's just one person. With Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, that does become her primary mode for a number of years. I feel like it usurps poetry for her almost, or at least verse.

I want to go back to your question about how "this structure of feeling reverses the normal course of sociality and privacy in Mayer's writing. People witness an experience of social isolation, and they make it public and collective." I'm interested in your relation, social or otherwise, to Midwinter Day and your decision to host a marathon reading of the poem in December 2019. It's sort of the same question in reverse.

KAY: Totally. My friends Stephen Ira and Liam O'Brien and I gathered a number of friends at their apartment to read through Midwinter Day in one sitting. There have been a lot of Midwinter Day marathons, actually, including a pretty significant one in Albany in 2018 on the 40th anniversary of the poem's composition. I'd never been to one, though. It's appropriate to experience Midwinter Day all at once: famously, Mayer composed the poem in a single day, December 22, 1978. The poem grounds itself in epic language, but its events are more or less just the reproductive labor whereby Mayer and Warsh care for their, at the time, two young daughters. At the same time, the poem is densely cognitive and associative it's everything Mayer's thinking about in between walking her children to the library, shopping for groceries, preparing meals, putting Sophia down for her nap.

There's this line in her final entry in Piece of Cake: "the thousand episodes the mind enjoys can make a book in a minute, if you'd only write it."10 Midwinter Day is both the experiment of writing those "thousand episodes" and an intensive documentation of some of the relations that inhibit that writing, namely the miserable or, more precisely, immiserated repetitions of reproductive labor privatized to the family. The everyday routine of the epic poem is actually the mode by which the writing makes itself something other than everyday, makes the day quite singular and defies this miserable repetition. We talked about this a lot in our class the question of how much Mayer's working when she's writing about care work. I think my provisional answer is that she uses writing as a way to leap beyond the boring, mundane, and never-ending elements of childcare, even as the two are happening simultaneously. You don't get the sense that Mayer resented her children but you do understand the severe challenges of her situation think of how in part four she's preparing food for pages and pages, which is when she writes about the Antarctic explorers dreaming about food turning into ash, and then it's eaten in a single line. 

Why is this relevant to the marathon? I think this is a book that is experienced pretty well in a single sitting, and by doing so allows participation in some of the relations she tries to manifest. One of the things she says near the start, in the section on dreams: "the best dreams are free stories like a present of food." She's drawing on her sense of a utopianism to writing, one that reclaims the labor extracted from oneself and turns it into a gift between people. She says something similar when Bill Berkson, propitiously, asks her: "What's your idea of a good time?" And she writes back that it's to "have a wonderful dinner, talk incessantly, write poems, go to bed without guilt ... sleep late, have many dreams ... and of course deal effortlessly and lovingly with one's children."11 I want to emphasize effortlessly and lovingly. Her poems, intensely about social relationships, are in some sense premised on this utopian image of exchange, let's say based on abilities and needs.

On the other hand, there's something about the synchronic element of Mayer's poem it's a long poem that happens all in a single moment, so to speak that's central to her experiment, and that I think changes by reading it out loud in real time, proceeding through the day along with her from dreams into dusk. That involves participating in Mayer's willed transformation of consciousness. What do I mean by that? Mayer has a very strongly felt belief that poetry is a form for intervening in thought, that poetry is even a way of discovering new thought think about how she describes Studying Hunger as a project of "emotional science," and if someone conducted its experiments, "he or we or someone could come up with a great piece of language/information."12 She writes in the belief that if you intervene in poetry and syntax you can actually manifest a different consciousness in the world. She believes this very deeply it's an experiment that really begins with Memory and extends throughout her work. So if we dwell with this in real time it actually becomes a very different way of experiencing or embodying or living her words, of putting this utopian promise or gift into practice. So you get this poem that's about deprivation, everything we've been talking about, isolation that is born out of material necessity that is, as you were saying, that is intensified by the mounting burden of child care, and then on the level of the book itself can be transformed or experienced as a very social or collective process, which a reading marathon enacts.

JO: You had also assembled a room of gay, queer, trans people for that reading. I don't want to say it's important to talk about that, but I feel like that's such an underlying thing of what we're talking about here too, which is, I don't know any straight people who give a shit about Bernadette Mayer! Everyone I know who knows about or cares about or engages with Bernadette Mayer after I tell them to and really loves her work is gay in some way. She does a world-building that's so inviting to other people. For queer people it's so nice to choose to become someone else as opposed to trying to force ourselves to become someone else and isolating ourselves.

KAY: That's a funny thesis. I like that. There's a lot of gay desire in Mayer's work, it's just subtextual, and a lot of the more explicit writing about sex is heterosexual. She says that's a Catholic thing. But I'm thinking about all these trans people in this room, reading this poetry with peals of laughter, many of whom cannot biologically bear children, many of whom do not have the resources to adopt or raise children. Why does this poetry about childrearing appeal to people who, economically or biologically, can't do it ourselves?

JO: Well, I have a pop psychology answer. When you're trans and a child there's no way your autonomy wasn't stripped from you in some way.

KAY: Oh, so the claim is that a really honest writing about parenting is enabling for those of us who have to think about parenting not of children but of ourselves. And that's not narcissistic, but it does involve having to think about how to relate to yourself in the world in a way that does not reproduce the miseries that the family continually inflicts on itself, say, generation by generation. There's this other side to it, too: Mayer avoids a lot of the really offensive biological essentialism of the feminism of her moment, and she does so by continually attending to the work of making sure that yourself and another person continue to be able to nourish yourself and wake up and get the places you need to get and engage in the leisure necessary to do it again.

JO: There's that really specific line in Desires of Mothers: "Sophia's so beautiful. I only worry all the time, I worry about my cervix, I worry about my ovaries, my uterus, my pleasant vagina, and that reading too many books by women about things will turn me into an even more unbearable crank than the cranky poets who write hate letters."13 I feel that's the perfect example of writing about a very specific experience of womanhood without also asserting that all women have pussies. TERFs can't have her, is the other thing about her. She never gave you shit. She's very specifically talking about herself, and talking about class.

KAY: And in that same passage, and this has to do with this experience of social deprivation we've been talking about, she says: "this from reading A Room of One's Own, which is an odd book to read when you're broke and worried about your female sexual organs, I kept being distracted, the book didn't distract me, she is not of my class."14 That's the other thing about her, she's trying to write full-time. At the same time she had been hired to teach a class, as she says, "to the children of rich people to write about skiing." That's how she describes her situation in New Hampshire. She's opposing her experience to one of white bourgeois leisure.

JO: That includes the Sylvia Plath shit, who also writes very explicitly about white womanhood and New England and having a child.

KAY: And when Mayer writes in Utopia about having a family she's also refusing a world in which each person individually expends their labor on an enclosed family, because in her world that should be a social experience, that should be something that everybody does. And for Mayer children are active participants in that process too.

JO: Well, Sophia, her daughter, appears next to Socrates in the epigraph: "I'm going to make dinner for all the people in the world, the sun will come but it won't melt the food, and the clouds will sit quietly at the table without raining, and the moon will come but it won't get too dark."15

KAY: Yeah, she's definitely asked her, say, 4- or 6-year-old daughter to be one of the authors of Utopia, which is to say that she believes that children are authoritative over their world and speech and cognition and should be a part of determining that world. Midwinter Day and Desires of Mothers are full of the language of her children.

JO: That's such a brilliant method for communalizing these private experiences, including the private experience of writing.

Kay Gabriel is a poet and essayist. She lives in Queens, NY.

Jo Barchi is a writer and editor. They live in Chicago.


  1. Bernadette Mayer, Memory (New York: Siglio, 2020), 145.[]
  2. Bernadette Mayer, Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill of Barrytown, 2015), 335.[]
  3. Ibid.[]
  4. Bernadette Mayer, Midwinter Day (New York: New Directions, 1982), 60.[]
  5. Mayer, Eating the Colors, 335.[]
  6. Bernadette Mayer and Lewis Warsh, Piece of Cake (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill of Barrytown, 2020), 39.[]
  7. Bernadette Mayer and Alice Notley, "from a continuing collaboration," Mag City 13 (1982): 14.[]
  8. Memory is Mayer's month-long journal project from July 1971[]
  9. Diana Hamilton, "Bernadette Mayer's Memory," BOMB Magazine, June 16, 2020.[]
  10. Mayer and Warsh, 2020, 316.[]
  11. Bernadette Mayer and Bill Berkson, What's Your Idea of a Good Time (Berkeley, CA: Tuumba Press, 2006), 33.[]
  12. Bernadette Mayer, Studying Hunger Journals (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill of Barrytown, 2011), 2.[]
  13. Bernadette Mayer, The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (New York and Washington, DC: Nightboat and SplitLevel, 2017), 23.[]
  14. Ibid.[]
  15. Bernadette Mayer, Utopia (New York: United Artists, 1984), 3.[]