Bernadette Mayer “for Helen Decker”


This is a Bernadette Mayer recording that seems like it was created by Mayer to either practice the performance of a set of poems or to help her revise them. I’m especially interested in these types of recordings that exist in a space between private and public. Is this a private recording that somehow slipped into a wider circulation? If not, how was its reception imagined by Mayer? How does the status of a work’s intended audience/distribution change the nature of how one listens to it? What might recordings like this say about the prevalent but mostly unacknowledged practice of poets privately practicing performances of their work? What do recordings such as these say about the sheer volume of discarded or privately held “personal recordings” of a poet performing their work?

I borrowed and digitized a cassette recording of this from Peter Gizzi a few years ago. I need to check with Peter because I no longer have the bibliographic information. That’s a huge problem with this kind of work. When I first got into doing sound recordings I didn’t pay much attention to dates and places. I just wanted my own private listening copy and I wanted to be able to burn CD’s for friends. However, with the emergence of PennSound and a more systematic approach to archiving these materials, I often want to kick myself for not taking better notes. Aside from my own sloth, I think the lack of urgency I felt about documenting the materials says something about the status, circulation, reception, use, etc. of recordings. Most of the poets I know have a shoebox full of poorly labelled, 10th generation dub cassettes of really amazing stuff. They often exist as secret treasures passed along through a network of friends. There’s usually a huge chain of people who have handled and reproduced these materials. You’re usually not just getting “a copy of a copy” but “a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of…”

Back to the recording itself: Bernadette Mayer “for Helen Decker”

I like the low recording level of this recording, how you have to lean in to hear it. The hiss builds up a surface or texture that her voice moves in and out of. I like to interact with this recording by flipping between hearing and listening. Sometimes I don’t pay attention to the content but experience the interplay between the hiss of the background and all the s sounds of at the ends of the words Mayer catalogs. It also feels like wind. When I listen to the recording I imagine Mayer reading this on a very windy day and I think about the invisible, physical pressure of wind on my body. For some reason I imagine her reading on a screened in porch facing a densely wooded area. Obviously, that’s just me. BUT I don’t want to discount that kind of specific, personal nexus of associations a recording like this might evoke.


One Response to “Bernadette Mayer “for Helen Decker””

  1. 1 NEG

    Interestingly, when I was listing to this clip in my office, Sara, who was just ten feet away, thought I was listening to Lisa Jarnot. It’s pretty obvious that Jarnot is deeply influenced by Mayer (as we all are, no?), but maybe not as obvious that that influence also translates into the aural performance, into what they both do with a particular cadence of sound, one which can only come across in the performance.

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