For the first decade of my love for Bernadette Mayer, I was sad about the "lack of scholarly attention" to her work. This was, in retrospect, a boringly professional complaint: when I wrote about her in college, it was annoying to have insufficient sources. Since I was volunteering at the St. Mark's Poetry Project, where an isolated "Bernadette" was thrown around with the confidence of recognition generally reserved for a Cher or a Dante, I was especially confused to find so little to read. There was a chapter each from Ann Vickery and Daniel Kane, Nada Gordon's unpublished MA thesis, a few items from the Poetry Project Newsletter archives; Mayer's own books were largely out of print then, too, though the Eclipse archive allowed me to read most of them in PDF (and if you could make it upstate, you could still buy the author copies she sold to a used bookstore to cover her utilities). I had just learned how to demonstrate authority with a bibliography, and I saw all this as a consequence of critical misogyny. I saw myself, humiliatingly, as some future academic who might correct the record. There is no writer I have more often failed to write well about than Bernadette Mayer.

I imagine I should have been better positioned to do so when I was younger, before I ruined myself by joining the camp of class traitors. I search my college email for her name, and I find that, in 2007, my absolute worst ex forwarded me an email from the Buffalo Poetics listserv advertising a weekend course at Mayer's upstate house. I replied:


I would love to do that, but I can't imagine spending 250 dollars for a weekend

This is a solid way to write about Mayer: in a letter to a lover, regretting an unmeetable expense. In Memory, Mayer writes a letter to "dear Dash," a pseudonym for her analyst, David Rubenfine, who signs his name in full in his introduction to the 1975 version, in which he expresses jealousy of his patient's accomplishment. She addresses her analyst because she "thought it would be easier to write a letter to no one . . . to wake up on a hot morning, have nothing really to do but everything & no money & no very little sleep";1 in Midwinter Day, she rhymes: "Though pigeons from our roof feed in the yard next door / We are still poor".2

A few weeks after this email, I attended Mayer's reading at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center for Maggie Nelson's Women and the New York School, and I tried to get some other undergrads to come by informing them that "Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth will also be there." I wonder why I didn't want to go alone. In Studying Hunger, Mayer also writes to "Dash" about choosing a restaurant based on the likelihood of there being people nearby who would help her if she collapsed:

Is this elation writing? Is this a woman writing? Is this person a woman? Is this woman elated? Is this a woman's elation? The hunger situation is the deepest point of fixation in the depressions, a model for the later, and famous: "threatened loss of love." Dear Dash (David), I'm having dinner in a restaurant, alone, before the poetry reading. It's a restaurant where they know me, you know, in case I collapse or anything happens3

By 2008, I was already fucked: I had begun to try to sound like a Literary Theorist; I was somehow enthusiastically in a course led by Avital Ronell already a known abuser, but I believed, then, that the only route for women to success required grandiosity and cruelty, and so forgave it on "Poetry as Experience," i.e. Lacoue-Labarthe and Heidegger and Celan. I thought I could do Mayer justice by drawing on the older comp lit students' obsession with German synonyms. Here's the opening sentence:

If, as Lacoue-Labarthe suggests, what the poem translates is experience (18) but not Erlebnis, not the stickiness of what is lived, but Erfahrung, and its relationship to memory and if the poem all poems, according to L.-L. again is "rare and necessarily brief" (22), how can we begin to ask what is at stake in Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day, a poem which may be rare (though it is one of few of her books still in print), but is not brief (119 pages), and which attempts Erlebnis in all its eloquence?

What I wanted to say, I think, was "I was recently psyched to learn that poems can be very long and include grocery lists." I remember that feeling as vividly as I do all the longing to be taken seriously, at least. I was definitely interested in the way Ronell spoke about the "stutter" as always indicating having too much to say, rather than too little, but, as a former stutterer myself, I struggled to see this extremely physical symptom as a metaphor for a poet coping with trauma. I knew better than to talk about personal experience in a graduate seminar, but I often wanted to raise my hand and tell the class about being in a high school German class and my classmates asking me why I only stammered in English. 

All that is to say that, if I feel differently now about Mayer's reception, it's not because I was wrong in my estimation, but in my priorities. Anyone who's had to sit at a post-conference dinner with a dude Language poet can guess what part gender and what part condescension might have played in Mayer's omission from certain literary histories. Of course, history itself is complicated: in Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing, Ann Vickery also bemoans Mayer's "lack of academic recognition,"4 especially in retroactive accounts of Language poetry that focus largely on the men Mayer herself taught, but she quotes Susan Howe and others' complaints that Mayer was often the only woman cited in criticism or invited to submit work to anthologies. Mayer appears to have enjoyed some exceptional status among "women writers" while the work was being produced, but she joined the sadder experience of that set as a later subject of criticism. And all this effort to find, in Mayer's oeuvre, some exemplary femininity contradicts her own writing in Memory, where she instead expresses a "need to see no one being a woman you can make a campaign of it I dont wanna be forced or forced to be only with other women for a while this is a junk image so volunteer information for the splayed, you look for the self that isnt full of shit".5

Looking for "a self that isnt full of shit," though, is pretty difficult, as is classifying writers in accordance with scholarly norms. In Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions, Maggie Nelson shares Vickery's sense that part of the problem was Mayer's generic infidelity, too difficult for academics to confidently classify. She lists a number of interrelated contexts that, taken together, emphasize that Mayer's is a style of exhaustivity:

Here, I consider both works as extensions of the New York School interest in contingency and dailiness, as well as part and parcel of broader, interrelated contexts, including performance art, conceptual art, and Warhol's pioneering experiments with recording verbal and visual excess; the tradition of the American long poem, especially the kind that collapses the boundary between poetry and prose; and other feminist works from the period . . . many of which act out the productive pleasure to be found in the blurring of private and public spheres6

Throughout this chapter, Nelson accrues additional stylistic descriptions and contexts: Mayer's "general aversion to literary preciousness"; the relationship between her work and John Cage's; "the 'not caring' attitude" of "downtown poetic circles";7 other critics' inclusion of Mayer within the context of Language poetry rather than New York School; and so on. This dizzying set of overlapping contexts helps to clarify what Nelson and others mean when they talk about the desire for the poem to be able to include everything. But when Mayer talks about maximalism, it is for the sake of the experiment rather than for critical reception; the point is to "keep going," as she writes in Studying Hunger, where she tries "to record, like a diary, in writing, states of consciousness, my states of consciousness, as fully as I could, every day, for one month".8

I know of no poet who cares less for the opinion of the university than Mayer. I was wrong to believe that, to be relevant, she needed supporters with some hope of tenure, and not just those who based their well-compensated creative writing pedagogies on her experiments while blaming her poverty on "poor choices." (I share Mayer's opinion that Charles Bernstein owes her a chunk of his prize money.)

My real change of heart was more a matter of genre than gender. Mayer's work invites a reader to respond, certainly, but it's an invitation to keep a dream journal, to start a poorly funded magazine, to document one's life, to cross professional boundaries with a therapist, to ruin your social life by running off with a friend's husband, to quit one's job and spend time with lovers, to write letters and not send them, to read the classics, to translate, to drink too much, even to have children (no thank you, Bernadette). To write academically, after reading her books, is to RSVP for the wrong event.

This is true even in The Art of Science Writing, a 1989 guide for secondary teachers Mayer cowrote with Dale Worsley, where prompts encourage students to "make it up" while they document rather than worry about research:  

Write about a place you know: a streetcorner, a pond, a phone booth, a riverbed, whatever. Bring to it everything you know or can know about the place, from its most distant past to the most recent thing you can remember about it. If you haven't got the time or inclination to research all about the place's deep past, make it up yourself, but keep in mind the general sorts of changes that the earth has gone through in the last billion years or so.9

Reading Eruditio Ex Memoria, published in 1977 by Angel Hair Books, a poem written from torn out pages from her school notebooks (because, Mayer explained, "I didn't want to carry [them] around anymore but I didn't want to throw them away either"), I get the sense that Mayer advocates for a form of documentation that accurately reflects the process of memory formation, rather than accurately remembering. The book opens:

I saw a doctor, a doctor. It was Antonin Artaud. He was elected to the Royal Academy, no, that was Chekhov. This is the Russian Theater, it's 1962 or so, the moralist of the venial sin is here, resigning over Gorky. Doctor, a doctor. "The Seagull" defends Zola and Dreyfus, it's the Moscow Art Theater. Chekhov is Godard. This is what I learned in school. This is what I thought: Artaud, Antonin.10

I'm tempted here to pause and take Mayer and Worsley's advice: let's call Memory a riverbed with which I'm familiar, and let's call me a 12-year-old with little inclination to do research, keeping in mind the general changes to which our poor shared orb has been subject. What could I say? I could make up a new history, one where, when Mayer turned down the Praeger editor who had offered to publish this book with images only on the condition she sleep with him, she was thinking of my future, knowing that some indignant student would one day recount the story to her professor. Mayer wanted to give me the opportunity to be laughed at by a very important woman, one who inevitably rejected my surprise: "I'm Mayer's age. Do you think any of us got anywhere in the 70s without fucking someone?"

Recently, I found myself to be a 34-year-old with little inclination to write and a shiny ARC of the new full-color reprint of Mayer's most ambitious project.11 I took a week off work, and I spent it painting terrible, humiliating watercolor reproductions of her photographs, coping with my inability to respond in language: a photo of Mayer standing in midtown outside a hotdog truck, one self-portrait shot in a dark mirror, a few trees. When the week ended, I felt these comprised a more effective "review" of Siglio's glossy reprint than the actual 500-word essay I'd sent to Bomb.  

In Sianne Ngai's introduction to Our Aesthetic Categories, where she lays out the attributes of the cute, the zany, and the interesting, she describes the last category traced from Henry James to conceptual art as the "only aesthetic category in our repertoire invented expressly by and for literary critics".12 She argues that an increase in criticism led to art explicitly created with the hope of being interpreted. Later, she offers a history of the "interesting" as both an aesthetic judgment and a style in its own right, one "of serial, comparative individualization".13 With this focus on seriality, Ngai moves from the 18th century rise in criticism's professionalization to conceptual art, where "the 1960s critic relinquishes making value judgments for the task of 'passing out information,'" a process by which the critic begins to "resemble the 1960s conceptual artist".14 But far from merely describing art accurately, Ngai argues, "all contemporary criticism is thus, in some sense, an implicit provision of evidence for why the object that the critic has chosen to talk about is interesting".15 Given how much Mayer's projects have in common with those Ngai analyzes, we might anticipate a similar effect, a generation of critics working hard to explain what is compelling about, say, a therapy journal of emotional states (Studying Hunger) or an "unreadable" (according to Mayer's gloss of her friends' reactions) collection of writing through omitted photos (Memory). But if what I'm doing here constitutes criticism, my purpose is opposed to this genre's typical aims.   

Mayer's work is not interesting. Or, more specifically, its primary effect is not to elicit some critic to offer justification of its interestingness. It has a different generative effect: it prompts its reader to produce their own aesthetic objects, rather than aesthetic judgments. This is perhaps why Mayer's name is most recognized not for any of her books, but for her collaboratively written list of writing prompts, and why poems written in response to these prompts make for better "interpretations" of Mayer's work than the critics I've quoted above:   Stacy Szymasek's Journal of Ugly Sites, for example, written in response to one line from Mayer's list of suggested journal ideas, or her A Year from Today, which Kay Gabriel suggests

belongs deviantly to a different prompt from Mayer's list: "Set yourself the task of writing for four hours at a time, perhaps once, twice or seven times a week," Mayer writes. "Don't stop until hunger and/or fatigue take over. This is always possible and will result in a book of poems and/or prose writing for each year. Then we begin to know something."16

In their playlist for Verse, "Beyond the Rented World," Charles Theonia collected poems that answered Mayer's call to "write a work that intersperses love with landlords";17 Tender Buttons Press's print version of Mayer's experiments, Please Add to This List, collects a number of poems written in response, including Laura Henriksen's "More Experiments," which responds to the collection's titular quotation of Mayer's invitation to expand and includes instructions I'm prepared to follow: "Let days go by and do nothing about it," "Journal of heartbreaks," and "Only meeting minutes."18

Asked by Phillip Griffith whether she considered Memory a "form" in itself, Mayer expressed surprise that no one had imitated it: "After I did it, years went by, and I thought, it's odd that nobody else has done it. So maybe it's not a form. Maybe it's just something to do?"19 In a 1974 interview in The World, Mayer was asked if she'd ever written a work that failed and needed to be thrown out. She says that none of her works have failed, before rejecting the question and implying that fear of failure is bound up in an inability to keep going (a stance that makes sense from a writer whose best-loved works involve writing hundreds of pages in short periods of time):

The real issue for me now in terms of other people's writing and what I feel about it is that I don't think . . . you talk about addiction, it's not addition [sic] that's the issue, it's addiction to style. You can't get anywhere by becoming addicted to a style that works. You have to be constantly changing. That's a very peculiar thing for me to say because I have a very successful style in the recent work. It's very easy for me to use it, but I constantly change it. I want to write an episode of "Gunsmoke."20

Recognizing that the style she develops in her experimental projects from the 1970s is working well, this same style is made possible by a refusal to adhere to it. At times, it even seems like a style trying to undo itself from the crafted-ness style implies. Consider a passage from July 29 of Memory, where she describes a set of photographs:

I shot the insane drawings & drew some darker ones & someone says again were you on mescaline & the one that came out like a map & one like lightning the color wheel, like the light I took pictures of lying on the floor no style no nerves the bottle of amontillado smokes tampax strike anywheres newspapers & towels a long bath film can ashtray & matchpack up closer blurred who cares? a spiral binding for the earth.21

And now that you've considered it were you looking for evidence she'd failed to make it pretty? Focused on the rushed prayer of "no style no nerves," or recognizing it as decidedly Mayerian style? Ignore it: the previous sentences are an excerpt of my dissertation (from "in a 1974 interview" through the block quote), which ends with a long reading of Memory, attempting to determine whether style is made up of "images" or something else.

Like Mayer, I don't want to carry these critical essays around anymore, but neither do I want to throw them away, so I'm combining them here in an attempt to present some sense of how you come to understand or fraughtly idealize or become overinvested in or get the false impression you've understood another writer's work. Personally, I've done more with the permission Mayer's list gave me to record my dreams than I have with the authorization graduate school gave me to write about literature.

Diana Hamilton is the author of three books: God Was Right (Ugly Duckling Presse), The Awful Truth (Golias Books), and Okay, Okay (Truck Books).


  1. Bernadette Mayer, Memory (Plainfield, VT: North Atlantic Books, 1975), 32.[]
  2. Bernadette Mayer, Midwinter Day (New York: New Directions, 1999), 41.[]
  3. Bernadette Mayer, Studying Hunger (New York: Adventures in Poetry, 1975), 42. []
  4. Ann Vickery, Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 150. []
  5. Mayer, Memory, 121-122.[]
  6. Maggie Nelson, Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2007), 100. []
  7. Nelson, Women,107[]
  8. Mayer, Studying Hunger, 7.[]
  9. Bernadette Mayer and Dale Worsley, The Art of Science Writing (New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1989), 48.[]
  10. Bernadette Mayer, Eruditia ex memoria (Lenox, Massachusetts and New York, NY: Angel Hair Books, 1977), 1.[]
  11. Bernadette Mayer, Memory (Catskill, NY: Siglio Press, 2020).[]
  12. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 15.[]
  13. Ngai, 120-121.[]
  14. Ngai, 156.[]
  15. Ngai, 171.[]
  16. Kay Gabriel, "A Review of: A Year from Today, by Stacy Szymaszek," The Believer (2019).[]
  17. Bernadette Mayer, "Bernadette Mayer's Writing Experiments," electronic poetry center, University of Pennsylvania, quoted in Charles Theonia, "Beyond the Rented World," Verse (2019).[]
  18. Laura Henriksen, "More Experiments," in Please Add to This List: Teaching Bernadette Mayer's Sonnets & Experiments (New York, NY: Tender Buttons Press, 2014).[]
  19. Bernadette Mayer, interview by Phillip Griffith, Brooklyn Rail (September 2017), []
  20. Bernadette Mayer, interview by Barry Alpert and Dick Miller, The World 29 (1974): 82. I am grateful to Joseph Yearous-Algozin for this source, as the interview is not cited, to my knowledge, in any extant Mayer scholarship.[]
  21. Mayer, Memory, 167.[]