Bernadette Mayer sat for her reading, having recently hurt her neck, which lent her the paradoxical authority frailty confers. There must be something awkward about being feted like this, your poems rolling through the basement of the Paul J. Schupf Wing for the Works of Alex Katz at the Colby College Museum of Art, where the contrast with the ‘70s you lived through and the one being frozen into history before you is so stark. “Museum” is just a few letters away from “mausoleum,” there's the same coolness and echoey reverence, and there you are representing, in part, the thing you were then.
Ann Lauterbach had read the night before, and seemed uncomfortable with the set-up, most of all I thought (though of course I can’t know) with the idea that she might be serving as a piece in our Cabinet of ‘70s Curiosities. I must have stopped taking notes by then, since I can’t find it in my Mead, but I remember asides about not intending to read much work from the ‘70s, not liking that writing or feeling close to her peers in that era, being unconnected to a group or generational cluster, having to relearn how to be “American” after six years away in the art world of England. There was a mixture of hostility (“Wake up!” while clapping her hands into the mike) and vulnerability (“I’m just the warm-up act”) in her reading, not so much in the work itself but in the large number of comments she made to frame it, which suggested to me at least an anxiety about us of the Mayer/Coolidge/Language ilk misunderstanding her writing without them.
By contrast, Mayer dealt with the “Cabinet of Curiosities” problem by sitting just to one side of the pedestal erected for her. She remarked on the large audience, asking if Elvis was here somewhere. She joked about the length of Jonathan Skinner’s career-spanning intro. She asked if we knew anyone who’d publish her 400-page manuscript, which was disarming but also a little barbed: so you can honor me in Orono but you can’t get my work into print? Mayer recalled readings she did with Coolidge in the ‘70s that were so long they were meant to drive everyone from the room, but never did, because reading long then was “trendy” and a few always stayed. “So that’s what we’re doing now,” she said, with an answering laugh from the audience, but kind of a guilty one I thought, since she’d so deftly pointed out the difference between that era and our more sober, corporate-clock-driven one. “This is from the ‘70s,” she announced before one poem, “but having been to this reading, you’ll know more about the 2000s.” This was exactly right.
After the reading, I played a little outside with Alicia Cohen and Tom Fisher’s daughter, who plays sometimes in Portland with my son. We were building a knight’s tower out of dirt under the tree, studding it with acorn tops and a leaf flag, when I heard someone say: “What are you making?” I looked up and it was Bernadette, smiling and interested, pedestal-free and on her way back to upstate New York. So we told her. “Sorry to subject you to this, but it’s no worse than poetry.”
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