Bernadette Mayer

Edited by Kristin Grogan and David B. Hobbs


Kristin Grogan and David B. Hobbs

Manly Things

Amy De’Ath

The Making of Memory: An Interview with Lisa Pearson of Siglio Press

Gillian White

Almost Famous

Kathryn Winner

Sounding Memory

Matthew Kilbane

Utopia in Her Time: On the Social Worlds of Bernadette Mayer

Tausif Noor

“Just to distract you like the inside”: a correspondence wrapped up in Bernadette Mayer’s poetry

Colin Herd and Maria Sledmere

Incomprehensible Parts: Reproduction and Comparison in Works & Days (2016)

Fintan Calpin

Unsolicited Attention

Diana Hamilton

We May Just Fall

Matthew McKnight


Kay Gabriel and Jo Barchi

Let the plants reproduce!

Kristin Grogan

The Midwinter Constellation

Et al


reading a poet's life   
preconceived ends     
real life of the poet    

impressions accidental          
animals' intelligence       1

If the last half century has a poet of daily life of its dreams, babies, children, jokes, meals, sex, love, labors, and writing she is Bernadette Mayer. She declares as much in Midwinter Day, deciding on that snowy solstice in 1978 that she will "prove the day like the dream has everything in it."2 She will do so, she tells us, by seeing and dreaming "everything that was ever hidden and happening," and even then she will "see further."3 That everything is the key to poetry that doesn't just document what happens within a day but pressures the boundaries that conventionally define it, drawing in global history and political struggle and profound intimacy alongside the charming banalities and minor epiphanies and quieter anxieties that typically belong to the poetry of dailiness. Mayer is often reminding us that everything that has ever happened happened in a day. Or really acknowledging that Mayer hasn't always been read for what she says her work reminds some of us, and tells some more of us for the first time. More and more of us, in fact, lately.

Though Mayer has been writing continuously since the early 1960s, and her most recent books The Helens of Troy (2013) & Works and Days (2016) are some of her finest, a recent run of reissues has helped to bring her sustained brilliance into fuller view. Siglio Press's beautiful edition of Memory (1971; 2020) restores the photographs Mayer took alongside the pages she wrote. It continues an effort that began with Sonnets (Tender Buttons 1989; 2014), Eating the Colors Of A Lineup Of Words: The Early Books (Station Hill 1960-1978; 2015), The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (Nightboat 1994; 2017), and Utopia (Yale Union 1984; 2019), so that by the summer of 2020, knowing mentions and warm reviews were appearing in nearly every literary magazine. It seemed like her day in the sun had finally come.

Or has the sun finally come to her day? Poets who knew where to look have been reading her work on Craig Dworkin's Eclipse Archive since the early 2000s4 and in New Directions's still-essential A Bernadette Mayer Reader (1992). And it's tough to browse Daniel Kane's history of the St. Mark's Poetry Project in the 1960s and 70s without noticing the gravitational pull Mayer exerted on the scene's celestial mechanics. "Mayer, perhaps more than any other poet associated with the Lower East Side," Kane wrote in All Poets Welcome (2003), "brought to the Poetry Project an outside discourse of critical thinking that earlier writers had cockily rejected as being 'too serious.'"5 Kane's "cockily" carries about as much weight as an adverb can be asked to bear, limning the exclusive misogynist dynamics of even the most free-loving coteries and of the critical and academic establishments who inevitably scuttle behind them. It also highlights their hubris. The fact that these serious scholarly men had neither the theoretical chops nor the irrepressible sense of fun that Mayer possesses must have been awfully deflating. No wonder they didn't write about her. As far as we can tell, the first peer-reviewed article about Mayer's writing is Juliana Spahr's "Love Scattered, Not Concentrated Love," published in differences fully 37 years after Mayer wondered about the "preconceived ends" involved in "reading a poet's life" in her first book, Ceremony Latin (1964).6

Which is to say, one of the things that must suck about being an oracle is that you have to wait to be right. In the summer of 2020, after the US had finally risen up in defense of Black life, the Milwaukee Bucks of the National Basketball Association initiated a wildcat strike. The popular actions following George Floyd's murder by the Minneapolis police were in their third month when Jacob Blake was murdered by the police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, just forty miles from where the Bucks would normally play and where guard Sterling Brown who was brutally beaten by the Milwaukee police in 2018 had led 7,500 protesters the previous month.7 The Bucks refused to take the floor for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic, seeking some assurance that the wealthy owners of their team and their opponents' would actually use their political clout instead of simply permitting workshopped slogans onto jerseys. But it was clear, too, that the strike would not have been possible were it not for "the bubble," the airlocked campus of hotels and game courts in Florida that allowed the League to resume play without exposing their valuable athletes to the deadly virus. Who could have anticipated that isolating together hundreds of young, intelligent, hardworking athletes who had only just begun to use their platforms to advocate for social reform would spur a shift in their political consciousness?

In 1974, Bernadette Mayer and Anne Waldman then in the middle of her ten-year term as Director of the St. Mark's Poetry Project were commissioned by the upstart fake-French porn magazine Oui to cover the (then-ABA's, then-New Jersey) Nets's season. Talented pick-up players in their own right, what they turned in included coverage of the first women's game at Madison Square Garden and Oscar Robinson's thoughts on the murder of Fred Hampton, and their belief that "[i]n an American institution there is no pleasure admitted except in competition." And Mayer and Waldman speculate what might happen to professional basketball if it were removed from spectatorship:

All teams should meet in the center of the world and stay there for the 80-game season. There would be no fans but the other teams . . . The season would last two months after which the players would emerge from the center of the world, change their identities and not have to be healthy, competitive citizens. Then they would travel to all parts of the world for free with a special basketball identification card. Some would become astronauts. Some would join the Communist Party.8

We're not there yet. But in an animating sense, Mayer's earliest writing lets us know how little progress has been made and how much work is left to be done, and that if we did that work together and with love it could be a good time. Naturally, The Basketball Article was also reissued in December 2020, not by literary curators, but by hypebeasts. So when Amy De'Ath begins her essay by observing, "Bernadette Mayer's poetry is finally getting the attention it deserves," and then asking "But what form will this attention take?" we mean for the work in this cluster to offer some of the answers to that question, but feel confident that she'll continue to appear in unexpected places and appeal to unanticipated readers. To that end, we've brought together contributions by some of our favorite thinkers, operating across a variety of styles and methods of intervention, who will push our current understanding of Mayer into new corners of the sky.

There are, of course, through-lines: places in Mayer's career where excitement has gathered; and concepts that seem newly powerful and portable when re-theorized thru her writing. The recent reissue of Memory has been a tremendous gift, and Gillian White's Interview with Siglio Founder and Publisher Lisa Pearson sheds considerable light on how it came to be. Kathryn Winner uncovers Mayer's ambivalent interest in auteurism and filmic representation, culminating in a bravura reading of Mayer's photos of her own reflection, while Matthew Kilbane concentrates on an audio recording of Mayer reading the text, revealing it to be an "acoustic palimpsest." Tausif Noor is also interested in Memory, but more for what it forgets turning to Utopia, which Mayer wrote with her sister Rosemary, Waldman, Ann Rower, Joe Brainard, Lewis Warsh, Hannah Weiner, and others. Tausif argues that Mayer is too often used for nostalgic recoveries of the halcyon days of Lower Manhattan, which erases the very immediate political and artistic challenges that spurred Mayer and her comrades to adopt a collective practice.

Felicitously, we are rich in collaboration. Kay Gabriel and Jo Barchi use one of Mayer's best-known poems, "The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica," as the springboard for a conversation about the sociality of queer(s) reading and about Mayer's remarkably embodied but not bio-essentialized feminism. The pandemic and consequent lockdowns prompted Maria Sledmere and Colin Herd to reappraise Mayer's moments of isolation and translucent concealment, exchanging "lyric tumbleweeds" for each other as well as "everyone who has ever cried in a park." Becca Klaver brings us another kind of palimpsest entirely her Midwinter Constellation is drawn from a collaboration with over thirty other women and non-binary poets, who used Google Docs to cowrite poems on the 40th anniversary of Midwinter Day. Becca has included a selection of these poems as well as short reflections from eight co-conspirators.

While Mayer's many reissues receive a lot of attention, Fintan Calpin and Kristin Grogan attend to Mayer's most recent collection, Works and Days. Where Fintan considers the recursive dynamics of comparison and reproduction, Kristin locates an abundant ecological worldview in Mayer's exuberant opposition to private property. Amy De'Ath also extends the conversation about Mayer's Marxist feminism, or rather, deepens our understanding of Mayer's feminist interventions into conversations about the circulation of capital.

Two deeply felt essays round out our cluster. Matthew McKnight draws a sweeping consideration of creativity, creation, and freedom from a single "letter" from Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters. McKnighttakes the often-elided fact of Mayer's Catholic upbringing seriously, finding a connection to the contemporaneous theological thinkers who propelled the civil rights movement and asking what they, together, can teach us for the necessary social movements to come. And despite this new attention, Diana Hamilton reminds us that academic writing is itself unable to offer such a collective practice of freedom, reflecting on her sustained appreciation for Mayer's work, which helped to trace the very limits of "study" as it is taught and as its boundaries are policed in today's institutions.

Kristin Grogan is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University. She is finishing a book on poetry and labor.  

David B. Hobbs is an assistant professor of English at the University of Lethbridge (Canada) who usually works on modernism.


  1. Bernadette Mayer, Ceremony Latin (1964), in Eating the Colors Of A Lineup Of Words: The Early Books of Bernadette Mayer (Station Hill Press, 2015), 19.[]
  2. Bernadette Mayer, Midwinter Day (New Directions, 1982), 89.[]
  3. Ibid., 2.[]
  4. Christopher Higgs, "Helping to Redraw the Map of 20th Century Literature: In Conversation with Craig Dworkin, Editor of Eclipse Online Archive of Avant-Garde Writing," Entropy, March 1, 2017.[]
  5. Kane, All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s (University of California Press, 2003), 188.[]
  6. Juliana Spahr, "'Love Scattered, Not Concentrated Love': Bernadette Mayer's Sonnets," differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 98-120[]
  7. Meg Jones et al, "Bucks player Sterling Brown, tased and arrested by Milwaukee police in 2018 over a parking violation, leads to social justice march," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 7, 2020.[]
  8. Bernadette Mayer & Anne Waldman, The Basketball Article (Shark Books, 1975; 2005), unpaginated.[]

Past clusters