Bernadette Mayer is a stream-of-consciousness poet and writer from Brooklyn. Last night, she came to speak at Columbia for “A Reading and Conversation with Bernadette Mayer,” sponsored by the Heyman Center for the Humanities. Bwog sent Daily Editor and poetry enthusiast Lila Etter to listen.
Not only has Bernadette Mayer written over 27 collections of poetry; she has also received a Guggenheim Fellowship, directed the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and taught at various prestigious institutions across America, including the New School for Social Research, Long Island University, and Miami University. Ignoring all her numerous accomplishments, the event description simply read: “Bernadette Mayer will be reading from her newly re-released Sonnets.” So I knew little of what to expect in terms of my experience on Wednesday night. I walked up the stairs of Dodge Hall to the fifth floor, eager to see what the infamous 501 would be like. Although I love the Music & Arts library, often study there, and have been invited to 501 for various Facebook events (mostly art gallery openings and writing workshops), I’d never made it to the room itself. As I walked into 501, I realized that no amount of buttons and pins on my backpack–promoting Bernie, feminism, Barnard Divest, etc.–could save me now.
I felt more out of place than I had in a while. In a crowd of at least fifty I was one of only a few undergrads. Nearly everyone was impeccably dressed. This is not to say that the audience members weren’t varied. Far from it. There were polished young women with ombréd, fringed bangs, pin stripe blouses, and perfectly applied lipstick. There were a few unshaven scruffy young artists with terrible hair. There were SoHo-ites with black leather jackets. There were even women about Bernadette’s age, with Meryl Streep-like dignity, dressed elegantly in loafers and colorful scarves.
I quickly became aware of the unique way this event must have been advertised, because everyone seemed to know everyone else. They stood around–sipping the wine and eating the finger sandwiches that had been provided–and talked like old friends (and perhaps many of them were). As I found my seat, a conversation beside me was just beginning: two forty-somethings asking each other how they knew Ms. Mayer, as if at a wedding. One of them recalled, “I’ve known Bernadette since 1992. I met her at a party on the Lower East Side, back when I was in grad school. She wanted us all to have an orgy that night. We didn’t, of course… but she wanted us to.” They continued to reminisce as I looked around. Another man behind me was telling his friend, “Oh, I feel the Bern. Bernadette is the real Bern, you and I both know that.” Some conversations were filled with pretension: talking about the meaning behind their tattoos, referencing and mis-referencing the titles of their favorite literary works. I heard one man claiming his favorite Williams play to be Racecar Named Desire.
Amidst all this, Bernadette Mayer appeared, and she was nothing but real. 70 years old, wearing a grey t-shirt, a denim vest, fleece slacks, and brown Blundstones, she sat down at the front of the room while Simona Blat, a poet and Columbia graduate, introduced her. Simona began by saying, “Bernadette Mayer was born in Brooklyn, where she attended Catholic School.” It was at this point that Bernadette, sitting to the side of the podium, released something between a laugh and a scoff. The audience joined in, and Simona quickly turned to make sure her facts were correct. Bernadette assured her that accuracy was not the reason she was laughing. Now in on the joke, Simona continued that in her poetry, Bernadette is able to emit a stream of consciousness which “imbues everything with a sense of magic.” The introduction was interspersed with quotes from Bernadette’s poetry, the last of which ended with, “A dog could be god.”
Within the first minute of speaking, Bernadette reached out to adjust her microphone, and accidentally pulled it off its stand, causing her to unleash a slew of profanity. Everyone laughed. She began with a poem about a conversation with her house, in which she asks, “Why do so many things get lost in you?” Bernadette and the house discuss types of poetry, and Bernadette suggests that if the house were to write poetry it would be “a concrete poem.” She asks, “What was it like when people prayed in you?” and the house replies, “It was kind of creepy.” The poem continued to oscillate between profound and ridiculous, although never seeming to fully reach either extreme.
Listening to Bernadette was like sitting in on an inside joke shared by everyone around you, except that you don’t feel left out at all. You feel fortunate to have even caught a glimpse. In between personal anecdotes and sips of wine, Mayer continued to read. The long silent pauses between speech were comfortable, even comforting, as people sunk deeper into their seats. Sometimes the only sound in the room was that of someone hiccuping gently from their wine.
After reading what she titled “My Worst Poem,” she explained, “It’s my worst because it’s a 20 year old person–me–trying to imitate John Ashbery. Can you see that? Was it too obvious?”
At the end of her final poem, she clapped along with the entire audience.
During the question-and-answer session after the reading, she cited her influences to be William Bronk, and Gertrude Stein, among others. “I love all the Steins,” she said. “Gertrude Stein, Einstein, and Wittgenstein.”
Someone asked what it was like to be a younger poet “with all those older influential poets defining what poetry ‘should be’ in New York at the time.” She responded, “Well, everybody was a guy. Not too many women were around, so the men thought of me as someone to fuck. My work was never taken seriously as poetry, because I was just a woman to them. So what I learned–and I’m sorry to say this to you, a man–but what I learned was that men are assholes.”
An older woman asked, “You spoke about the idea of adult poetry and how all that term means is a greater sense of confusion. Do you feel that as we age, our poetry becomes more confused, because our experiences become as such?” Bernadette nodded and said, “I don’t understand this push as we age to make more sense and be logical. Everyone thinks it’s cute when a baby falls down and says nonsensical things. But actually it would be just as cute if adults did that, too. Well, more accurately, if they made no sense and then fell down.”
The final question was about the concept of genius, and her immediate response was, “Oh, fuck. That’s an uncomfortable word. I really could live without it. Let’s just put all the so-called geniuses in a home. Maybe they’ll make us a good cake.”
Everything about the night was as stream-of-consciousness as her poems. She spoke about everything–from the Northern Lights, to the Jungle Book, to her favorite time of day (evening), sometimes all in one breath. But I hesitate to use the word “ramble” here. Because in that moment, in Dodge 501, surrounded by Bernadette’s admirers and colleagues and friends, every nonsensical thing that came out of her mouth made sense. Or, I suppose it could have been the Malbec.
Photo via Columbia.edu/Philip Good