Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Hillary Ferguson, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Bernadette Mayer about her book Works and Days (New Directions), which is among the final five selections in the category of Poetry for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
On a Monday morning in February, when it was a rare 60 degrees outside, I sat inside my New York-size apartment talking on the phone with Bernadette Mayer, who sat outside enjoying the weather in Upstate New York. The conversation felt more like a discussion than an interview, and at times—much like her work does to me—she pushed, pushed against, questioned, and made me question. She is also as dry and funny as I imagined she would be.
It was, I admit, difficult to come up with questions for someone who has been such a key influencer on my writing—and, in some way, a sort of cult-like figure-idol. In my nervousness, I texted a mentor/friend/teacher/poet who had also recently interviewed Bernadette.
I asked, “How, I mean how, did you prepare?”
Her response? “I thought about what I most wanted to know and tried to ask that!”
And so that is what I did. Or at least, what I could ask in a small window of time.
What follows is an interview/conversation/discussion that weaves in and around the questions I prepared, that deviates from poetry to life to the in between and back again, that offers and explores motherhood, womanhood, location, time, and briefly, the future or role of The Poet.
Hillary Ferguson: Motherhood in both its joys and perils is such a central aspect of your work, and as someone who has had multiple miscarriages—motherhood hasn’t happened for me yet—I found myself afterwards gravitating to those poems. Poets like you, Alice Notley, Rachel Zucker, and Brenda Shaughnessy sustained me in a way I still today can’t adequately articulate. Through your and their work, I gained permission to write about a subject matter I didn’t think was ok to write about at 25 in this City. So, I guess what I’m asking is who gave you permission to write about motherhood, especially during a time and era—the 70s—where mother-poetics were neither particularly popular nor encouraged?
Bernadette Mayer: Well, here I am: a woman, a mother, and a writer. It seemed kind of silly not to write about being a mother. What really annoyed me (as a poet) was that I didn’t have many examples of women writing about motherhood—especially from the really distant past when nobody would write about it. In Midwinter Day, there is a list of all the writers who were also mothers. You could count them. It was possible to make that list. I don’t think it would be possible to make a list like that now.
HF: No, I don’t think so either. I am fortunate to have a very good and long list of influences for me who wrote or have written or are currently writing about motherhood in all forms. I’m lucky in that regard.
In your new book, Works and Days, you ask, “is motherhood virtuous?” Have you come to an answer?
BM: I don’t remember!
HF: Ok. Is it virtuous? Motherhood?
BM: Not necessarily, no. Do you think it is?
HF: Well, I don’t think I can answer that question, yet. Even though I want to be a mother and want to experience motherhood, I think there must be or can foresee a “give and take” between the good and the awful. So, no, I don’t imagine it is virtuous.
BM: I don’t think it could be. It’s like being a woman. Is being a woman virtuous? Perhaps.
HF: I’m inclined to say hell no. Especially right now.
BM: Well, given the fact that men are as awful as they are…
HF: How was writing this book different to writing the others? I’m thinking about your stroke in 94, and how you’ve said that your writing process since then has been in a constant state of altering.
BM: Writing this book was interesting for me because it was the first time—no, second time—I ever did this. I write on a certain kind of paper. Its color is “goldenrod.” I can go to all my different desks and take out those pieces of paper and see what’s written on them, and if it is interesting or not. This is a much more sloppy process, I would say.
HF: Why sloppy?
BM: Because I didn’t actually write the book. It was already written. I just had to find it.
HF: So you didn’t write it on the Smith-Corona?
BM: Oh, well yeah! I did! But I had already done that. I just didn’t know where I had put it all. As soon as I found everything, it was obvious that it required references to the jumble in between, and I thought perhaps the book would be a little bit too anarchic.
HF: Anarchic? Why?
BM: Because of the jumble references. Jumbles are anarchic to begin with. It’s just a bunch of letters that could or might become words. Which is kind of the way you think if you’re a writer.
HF: True. I feel like I’m constantly thinking in a flux of fragments.
There is so much of the pastoral in Works and Days. Did it feel like whiplash, in a way, to shift from the chaos of writing about New York City to the quietness of Upstate NY?
BM: Well the [whiplash] happened a long time ago. I’ve been living in this house for sixteen years, so I think—if anything—it would be that getting older makes it feel that way.
HF: Do you want to go into that a little bit more?
BM: No. But, I am seventy-years old, so of course I have different ways of viewing everything. I’ve had lyme disease about millions of times, and I can’t really walk around up here in the woods anymore. I’ve formulated a new plan, though. Because I’m so old, it doesn’t really matter if I die of using DEET—I’m going to spray that all over my body and hope for the best. This is my plan.
HF: You’re often sequestered in with the New York School of Poets. I think I even came to your work after reading James Schuyler. Somebody said, “Oh, you like that? You’re a woman, why don’t you check out Bernadette Mayer.” Can you tell me what it was like to be a woman poet in such a large “boys club?” How do you feel those dynamics have changed over the years? Obviously and thankfully this is not something I struggle with in writing today.
BM: New York School. That’s a funny image to use. The poets I hung out with had not been cured of their sexism yet. It was kind of horrible. It was also simultaneously kind of great, because it was at a time when people could still afford to live on the Lower East Side. We could formulate a magazine and just walk around, pick up the poems to put in the magazine, and then walk to a place where we could put it together. The next day, we’d have a magazine. In that sense, it was great. It was wonderful. What street corner could you possibly stand on discussing metaphor? You wouldn’t think that it could be done.
HF: Would you like to speak more about the rampant sexism back then within that group of poets?
BM: No. But what was really interesting was the fact that there was such a vibrant art scene in New York City, and when we got bored of standing around discussing metaphor, we could go to the art galleries. New York City is great in the sense that you can walk everywhere and it has public transportation and good shopping. I’m pro-New York in every way, except for the fact that it doesn’t have enough trees and plants.
HF: Yeah. It’s certainly lacking for trees! So, going forward what do you think the role of the poet is in our current political climate and under this administration? Obviously I would rather have a good president and bad poetry, but it seems like already there is some absolutely amazing works of art coming out and I don’t think that is going to stop anything soon.
BM: Somebody asked me to write something about Murial Rukeyser. Well, in one of her essays, she says that people during war tend to go completely crazy but at the same time fear poetry. The fear of poetry is based on the fact that it is the truth. I think that’s fascinating in relation to your question.
HF: Would you mind reading a poem from Work and Days for me to include? I’m thinking “Climate Change = Text Messaging” could be a timely one.
Watch video by clicking here: BM Climate Change Vid2
Prolific poet Bernadette Mayer's first book was published when she was twenty-three years old. Now, many texts later she continues to write progressive poetry from her home in East Nassau, New York. Mayer has taught at Naropa Poetics Institute, New School for Social Research, College of Staten Island, and New England College. She has received grants and awards from: PEN American Center, Foundation for Contemporary Performing Art, The NEA, The Academy for American Poets, and American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Hillary Ferguson is a New York City-based poet and writer. She is currently an MFA candidate in poetry and fiction at The New School and the Editor-in-Chief of Winston Wise Magazine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Metropolitan Magazine, Lamprophonic, Public Pool, Poets Country, the Roanoke Review, Open Thought Vortex, and elsewhere. She is the curator of two reading series at KGB Bar in New York and can be found on twitter @Hillary_Ferg.