Writing Experiments from poet Bernadette Mayer.
Bernadette Mayer was a master of everyday poetry long before sharing intimate ordinary details with strangers (a.k.a. blogging) became the norm.
Many of her poems focus on the business of doing laundry or raising babies, daydreaming about the city or the country, lists of things to do. She wrote sonnets a-plenty, but often with titles like, “You Jerk You Didn’t Call Me Up.” In 1976, her book Studying Hunger attempted to record every thought she had for an entire year (“sitting on the subway with a felt pen, wetting the tip in my mouth just to make it write a few more words…”).
Mundane as it is, Bernadette Mayer’s writing isn’t boring. Her greatest skill is knowing how to frame commonplace things in unexpected and interesting ways. (One of her secrets? “Always welcome mistakes.”)
As far as I know, Bernadette doesn’t keep a blog. But back in the 70s, one of her whimsical writing ideas was to “write on paper and put it up on the wall (public journal) instead of using a book.” That sounds a lot like the internet.
Bernadette compiled this legendary list of writing exercises and inspirations while teaching at Naropa’s Summer Writing Program and at St. Mark’s Poetry Project in NYC (alongside ele idol Anne Waldman). What follows are a few of my favorites. (The full list is online courtesy the University of Pennsylvania.) They never fail to get my pen moving, or my keyboard tapping:
Journal [or Blog] Ideas
2. Ideas for architects/ City design ideas
3. Beautiful and/or ugly sights
4. Reading/music/art, etc. encountered each day
5. Elaborations on weather
6. People one sees: description
7. Subway, bus, car or other trips (e.g., the same bus trip written about every day)
8. Phone conversations (record them)
9. Tenant-landlord situations
10. Write once a day in minute detail about one thing
Read the full list at U-Penn.
1. Rewrite someone else’s writing. Experiment with theft and plagiarism.
2. Eliminate material systematically from a piece of your own writing until it is “ultimately” reduced, or, read or write it backwards, line by line or word by word. Read a novel backwards.
3. Using phrases relating to one subject or idea, write about another, pushing metaphor and simile as far as you can. For example, use science terms to write about childhood or philosophic language to describe a shirt.
4. Structure a poem or prose writing according to city streets, miles, walks, drives. For example: Take a fourteen-block walk, writing one line per block to create a sonnet; choose a city street familiar to you, walk it, make notes and use them to create a work; take a long walk with a group of writers, observe, make notes and create works, then compare them; take a long walk or drive-write one line or sentence per mile. Variations on this.
5. Find the poems you think are the worst poems ever written, either by your own self or other poets. Study them, then write a bad poem.
6. Write a series of titles for as yet unwritten poems or proses.
7. Write a work gazing into a mirror without using the pronoun I.
8. Write what is secret. Then write what is shared. Experiment with writing each in two different ways: veiled language, direct language.
9. Attempt to speak for a day only in questions; write only in questions.
10. If you have an answering machine, record all messages received for one month, then turn them into a best-selling novella.
Find the complete (and much longer) list at U-Penn.
Find more of Bernadette Mayer’s writing at The Poetry Foundation.
Listen to her give a lecture on memory, at the Naropa Summer Writing Program circa 1978.
Mayer reads “Maple Syrup Sonnet”: