Generocity: A Poetry Reading and Fundraiser for Bernadette Mayer
The New York Times obituary for Bernadette Mayer published on December 4, 2022 ends with a quote from the poet, expressing her embrace of the imperfect words that must attend our imperfect world: “The idea of perfection in a poem is pretty stupid. Because if nothing else is perfect, why should a poem be perfect?” It is this imperfect mode of recording an imperfect world, resonant with Mayer’s maximalist poetics of the everyday, that the Zoom-recording of, Generocity: A Night of Poetry with Bernadette Mayer and Philip Good, reveals and which my annotations of it attempt to express through audio and visual transcription.
Generocity: A Night of Poetry with Bernadette Mayer and Philip Good was recorded on September 26th, 2020 in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The event, organized by Sarah La Puerta and Cuneiform Press, a small press in Austin, Texas founded by poet and scholar Kyle Schlesinger, was a benefit to raise money for the poet and her partner, Philip Good. The benefit was intended to help the couple buy a generator to heat their home in Upstate New York. To situate my relation to this event, I was “there” when the event was live, as “there” as one can be virtually. I had been invited to the reading on Facebook and jumped at the chance to see Bernadette Mayer read from the safety of my home. Attendees were given a Venmo handle @generocity to donate and PayPal email address, email@example.com to donate. Reviewing my Venmo history, I sent @generocity, whose profile shows a photo of Philip Good, $10 on September 25, 2020 for the Zoom link to event with my name, email address, and an emoji of a bouquet of flowers. Throughout the reading one can hear, at various points, the sound of Philip Good’s cell phone as it receives donations via Venmo with the “ca-ching!” sound effect that marks the sound of receiving money in a Venmo transaction. I have noted this sound in my annotations. In the recording, Bradley King also shares screen to show photos of green and red broadsides of Bernadette Mayers’s sonnets scribed by a master calligrapher Sharon Roos and with art by Philip Trussel, which one could purchase with a five hundred dollar donation to the poet. Meanwhile, a hundred dollar donation would give the donor a signed copy of Bernadette Mayer’s Utopia and a thank you note from the organizers. Moreover, to support Bernadette Mayer, early career poets from around the world read their work from the safety of their homes while other established poets, like Anne Waldman were in attendance.
As Bernadette Mayer’s long-poem Midwinter Day documents the entire twenty-four hours of December 22, 1978 in Essex, MA—full of domestic detail as well as dreams, memories, and fantasies—and Memory combines poetry and photography to similar ends, this recording captures a minute level of domestic detail by showing us the homes of poets that is resonant with Mayer’s ethos. A bookstore or auditorium reading, like seeing a painting hung in a gallery rather than in the artist’s studio or living, may show us the poem and the poet divorced from their lived context rather than deeply embedded in it. In this Zoom-recording, Zoe Darsee (ZD) and Adrienne Herr (AH) in Berlin sit next to each other on a bed as a cat wanders into and out of the frame; Zan de la Parry (ZDP) is a peripatetic poet, pacing his backyard, phone camera in hand to the sound of birds and bugs at night in Philadelphia; Bradley King (BK), your “fool” of the night or the Zoom event’s “host,” reads poems at a desk, playfully changes his background to the Northern Lights, and, when his computer dies, borrows one from his friends who laugh and smile outside with him; Silvan Lavie (SL) reads her poetry at a kitchen table in Jerusalem, a calendar and knives hanging on the wall; Kevin McNamee (KM) in Iowa City reads a poem that lists types of pasta with abstract art and a toy basketball net in the background, as well as a cat and dog; in Los Angeles, Ivana Baranova (IB) reads in a bright white room with a small pot of ivy hanging by a window. In Bernadette Mayer’s frame, the poet sits next to her partner and fellow poet Philip Good, often shown slight to her side. They sit on a couch and behind them are slightly illegible photographs, abstract art, and a plant with red flowers. Mayer is wearing a brightly colored shirt, reminiscent of a dashiki, and headscarf. The overall sense of Mayer’s frame in the Zoom recording is bright, colorful, a bit cluttered.
Mayer is a synesthete (strongly associating colors with language), a trait that she shares with Vladimir Nabokov, as she says in the recording. Mayer discusses her experience of synesthesia at length early in the recording, remarking that different letters of the alphabet are different colors (“A is red. B is pink. C is ochre”). In her brightly colored clothes and home, the poet has created an image and a domestic world in line with her linguistic, sensory experience.
While the Zoom-recording captures a new level of detail through its visual modality and view into the domestic sphere, it is also subject to unintentional disruption on a technical level. It is a disruption in line with what might occur in other modes of recording, like a loud ambulance or air conditioner making part of an audio recording inaudible, but in this case it is the audience’s disruption, albeit by accident, rather than something in the poet’s environment. An audience member has their mic on during King’s interview with Mayer and accidentally takes over the recording’s audio channel with the sound of a loud television. It sounds like they are watching an action movie. King, the event’s “host,” responds to with a frustrated, “Mute! Mute! Mute!” But ultimately, this disruption has not been edited out of the recording and I would argue it should remain. This disruption, in which the everyday sound of a TV overwhelms the performance, reveals a sociotechnical resonance and an unfamiliarity with the platform’s design. Like the many topical references to the pandemic, masks, Trump, and the upcoming 2020 election in Mayer and Good’s poetry, this unintended moment of sociotechnical intrusion speaks to how poets and poetry audiences navigate a complex sociotechnical moment in history in the hope of supporting one another and sharing an asethetic experience, as well as connecitng over onions at the farmers’ market, as occurs in the recordings final minutes during an exchange between Bernadette Mayer and Anne Waldman.