Bernadette Mayer (1945–2022)
Poet, artist, publisher, and scholar Bernadette Mayer died November 22 at the age of seventy-seven at her home in East Nassau, New York. A giant of American poetry who blurred the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary in expansive streams of consciousness, she was most frequently associated with the New York School and with the Language poets. Mayer was widely recognized for her pathbreaking poetry featuring blunt and open musings on the experience of motherhood. She was a central figure of the community surrounding the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York in the 1970s, eventually going on to serve as that organization’s director.
Bernadette Mayer was born in Brooklyn in 1945 to a secretary mother and an electrician father whom she described as a World War II draft dodger. “Everybody in my family died by the time I was sixteen,” she told Artforum in 2020. “My relatives were afraid that if they adopted me, they would die too. My father died of a hereditary condition at age forty-nine, so I thought I had to hurry up and do everything I wanted to do before age forty-nine. My older sister, Rosemary, got married after my mother died. I felt abandoned.” Forced by the uncle who had been appointed her guardian to attend the College of New Rochelle, a Catholic university, she dropped out after his death and enrolled in New York’s New School of Research (now the New School), where she studied under Bill Berkson. While attending the college, she began dating Peter Schjeldahl, whom she later noted “encouraged me to take amphetamines, and I started writing these really complex poems that you would get lost inside.”
Mayer quickly abandoned amphetamines but dove deeper into poetry, writing, and editing. In 1967, the year she graduated from the New School—where she would later go on to teach—she cofounded the magazine 0 to 9 with Vito Acconci, who for a time in the ’60s was married to Mayer’s sister, sculptor and A.I.R. Gallery cofounder Rosemary Mayer. The pair published six issues before the magazine folded in 1969, featuring contributions from artists including Dan Graham, Michael Heizer, Adrian Piper, Yvonne Rainer, and Robert Smithson. Mayer shortly thereafter became involved with the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, where she taught workshops throughout the 1970s. She was named director of the organization in 1980 and occupied the role through 1984. During her tenure, she secured a $10,000 donation—a tremendous sum at the time—from the Grateful Dead and helped to establish a lecture series and a Monday night reading series, both of which the Poetry Project continues to host today. Mayer in 1978 with her then-partner Lewis Warsh launched United Artists Press, which published both her own work and that of her peers. She ceased her involvement with United Artists in 1984, but the publisher survived her split with Warsh around the same time.
As a poet and an artist, Mayer first gained real prominence with her diaristic 1971 work Memory. To make the work, she shot a roll of film every day for a month. In 1972, at New York’s 98 Greene Street, she presented the resulting 1,200 photographs in chronological order accompanied by a thirty-one-part voice-over narration lasting seven hours, in which she offered her thoughts or memories about the various images. The work has since been presented in various forms, including a text edition released in 1975 by New Atlantic books and an edition including the photographs published by Siglio Press in 2020.
In the course of her career, Mayer penned some thirty books of poetry and prose, including Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words: The Early Books of Bernadette Mayer (Station Hill Press, 2015); Poetry State Forest (New Directions, 2008); The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (Hard Press Editions, 1994); The Bernadette Mayer Reader (New Directions, 1992); Sonnets (Tender Buttons Press, 1989); Midwinter Day (New Directions, 1982); and The Golden Book of Words (Angel Hair Books, 1978). She was the recipient of a 1995 Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists award, a 2009 Creative Capital award, and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship. Her 2016 book Works and Day earned her a National Book Critics Circle nomination.
Mayer’s last volume, Milkweed Smithereens, was released this month by New Directions. In a poem from it, “Unconditional Death Is a Good Title,” published online by the Paris Review in October, she wrote:
maybe it’s just fear of the winter, this is a day supposed to be sunny but what is this white sky? seen some yellow & orange trees, the sky is white: western wildfires, we’re having a drought.
so many leaves are falling, it’s exhausting