Bernadette Mayer's Experiments

By Bernadette Mayer + St. Mark’s Poetry Project Workshop

Circa the mysterious year of 1988


EXPERIMENTS:  Pick a word or phrase at random, let mind play freely around it until a few ideas have come up, then seize on one and begin to write.  Try this with a non-connotative word, like “so” etc.

Systematically eliminate the use of certain kinds of words or phrases from a piece of writing: eliminate all adjectives from a poem of your own, or, take out all words beginning with ‘s’ in Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Rewrite someone else’s writing. Experiment with theft and plagiarism.

Systematically derange the language: write a work consisting only of prepositional phrases, or, add a gerund to every line of an already existing work.

Get a group of words, either randomly selected or thought up, then form these words (only) into a piece of writing – whatever the words allow.  Let them demand their own form, or, use some words in a predetermined way. Design words.

Eliminate material systematically from a piece of your own writing until is ‘ultimately’ reduced, or, read or write it backwards, line by line or word by word.  Read a novel backwards.

Using phrases relating to one subject or idea, write about another, pushing metaphor & simile as far as you can, for example, use science terms to write about childhood or philosophic language to describe a shirt.

Take an idea, anything that interests you, or an object, then spend a few days looking & noticing, perhaps making notes on, what comes up about that idea, or, try to create a situation or surrounding where everything that happens in relation.

Construct a poem as if the words were three-dimensional objects to be handled in space.  Print them on large cards or bricks if necessary.

write as you think, as close as you can come to this, that is, put pen to paper and don’t stop. Experiment with writing fast and slow.

Attempt tape recorder work. that is, recording without a text, perhaps at specific times.

Make notes on what happens or occurs to you for a limited amount of time, then make something of it in writing.

Get someone to write for you, pretending they are you.

Write in a strict form, or, transform prose into a poetic form.

write a poem that reflects another poem, as in a mirror.

Head or write a story or myth, then put it aside &, trying to remember it, write it five or ten times in intervals from memory.  Or, make a work out of continuously saying, in a column or list, one sentence or line, over & over in different ways, until you get it “right”.

Make a pattern of repetitions.

 * * *

Take an already written work of your own & insert, at random or by choice, a paragraph or section from, for example, a psychology book or a seed catalogue.  Then study the possibilities or rearranging this work or rewriting the ‘source’.

Experiment with writing in every person & tense every day.

Explore the possibilities of lists, puzzles, riddles, dictionaries, almanacs, etc.  Consult the thesaurus where categories for the word ‘word’ include: word as news, word as message, word as information, word as story, word as order or command, word as vocable, word as instruction, promise, vow, contract.

Write what cannot be written, for example, compose an index.

The possibilities of synesthesia in relation to language & words: the word & the letter as sensations, colors evoked by letters, sensations caused by the sound of a word as apart from its meaning, etc. And the effect of this phenomenon on you, for example, write in the water, on a moving vehicle.

Attempt writing in a state of mind that seems least congenial.

Consider a word & letter as forms – the concretistic distortion of a text, a multiplicity of o’s or ea’s, or a pleasing visual arrangement: “the mill pond of a chill doubt.”

Do experiments with sensory memory: record all sense images that remain from breakfast, study which senses engage you, escape you.

Write, taking off from visual projections, whether mental or mechanical, without thought to the word in the ordinary sense, no craft.

Make writing experiments over a long period of time, for example plan how much you will write for a particular work each day, perhaps one word or one page.

Write on a piece of paper where something is already printed or written.

Attempt to eliminate all connotation from a piece of writing & vice versa.

Experiment with writing in a group, collaborative work: a group writing individually off of each other’s work over a long period of time in the same room:  a group contributing to the same work, sentence by sentence or line by line: one writer being fed information for another writer to fill in what you can’t describe: compiling a book or work structured by your own language around the writings of others: or a group working & writing off of each other’s dream writing.

Dream work: record dreams daily, experiment with translation or transcription of dream thought, attempt to approach the tense & incongruity appropriate to the dream, work with the dream until a poem or song emerges from it, use the dream as an alert form of the mind’s activity or consciousness, consider the dream a problem-solving device, change dream characters into fictional characters, accept dream’s language as a gift.

Experiment with every traditional form.

Write poems and proses in which you set yourself to the task of using particular words, chosen at random like the spelling exercises of children: intelligence, amazing, weigh, weight, camel, camel’s, foresight, through, threw, never, now, snow, rein, rain.

 * * *

Write the poem: ways of making Love.  List them.

Diagram a sentence in the old-fashioned way.  If you dont know how, I’ll be happy to show you; if you do know how, try a really long sentence, for instance from Melville.

Turn a list of objects that have something to do with a person who has died into a poem or poem form, in homage to that person.

Write the same poem over and over again, in different forms, until you are weary. Another experiment: Set yourself the task of writing for four hours at a time, perhaps once, twice or seven times a week.  Don’t stop until hunger and/or fatigue take over.  At the very least, always set aside a four-hour period once a month in which to write.

 * * *

Attempt as a writer to win the Nobel Prize in Science by finding out how thought becomes language, or does not.

Take a traditional text like the pledge of allegiance to the flag.  For every noun, replace it with one that is seventh or ninth down from the original one in the dictionary, for instance the word “honesty” would be replaced by “honey dew melon”.  Investigate what happens; different dictionaries will product different results.

Attempt to write a poem or series of poems that will change the world. Does everything written or dreamed do this?

Write occasional poems for weddings, for rivers, for birthdays, for other poets’ beauty, for movie stars maybe, for the anniversaries of all kinds of loving meetings, for births, for moments of knowledge, for deaths.

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.

The uses of journals.  Keep a journal that is restricted to one set of ideas, for instance, a food or dream journal, a journal that is only written in when it is raining, a journal or ideas about writing, a weather journal.  Remember that journals do not have to involve “good” writing – they are to be made use of. Simple one-line entries like “no snow today” can be inspiring later.  Have 3 or 4 journals going at once, each with a different purpose. Create a journal that is meant to be shared and commented on by another writer – leave half of each page blank for the comments of the other.

Type out a Shakespeare sonnet or other poem you would like to learn about/imitate double-spaced on a page.  Rewrite it in between the lines.

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.

Choose a subject you would like to write “about.” Then attempt to write a piece that absolutely avoids any relationship to that subject. Get someone to grade you.

Write a series of titles for as yet unwritten poems or proses.

Work with a number of objects, moving them around on a field or surface – describe their shifting relationships, resonances, associations. Or, write a series of poems that have only to do with what you see in the place where you most often write. Or, write a poem in each room or your house or apartment. Experiment with doing this in the home you grew up in, if possible.

Write a bestiary (a poem about real and mythical animals).

Write five short expressions of the most adamant anger; make a work out of them.

 * * *

Meditate on a word, sound or list of ideas before beginning to write.

Take a book of poetry you love and make a list, going through it poem by poem, of the experiments, innovations, methods, intentions, etc. involved in the creation of the works in the book.

 * * *

Write the longest most beautiful sentence you can imagine – make it be a whole page.

Set yourself the task of writing in a way you’ve never written before.

* * *

What is the value of autobiography?

Attempt to write in a way that’s never been written before.

Invent a new form.

Write a “perfect” poem.

Write a work that intersperses love with landlords.

Plan, structure, and write a long work.

 * * *

What is communicable now? What is more communicable?

What is the poem of the future?

 * * *

Compose a list of familiar phrases, or phrases that have stayed in your mind for a long time – from songs, from poems, from conversation:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet  (Romeo & Juliet)

A rose is a rose is rose (Gertrude Stein)

A raisin in the sun (Langston Hughes)

The king was in a counting house

Counting out his money… (nursery rhyme)

I sing the body electric…

These United States… (Walt Whitman)

A thing of beauty is a joy forever (Keats)

(I summon up) remembrance of things past (WS)

As not for whom the bell tolls

It tolls for thee (Donne)

Look homeward, Angel (Milton)

For fools rush in where angels fear to tread (Pope)

All’s well that ends well (WS)

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by

madness (Allen Ginsberg)

I think therefore I am (Descartes)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…


O brave new world that has such peoples in it

(Shakespeare, the Tempest,

later Huxley)

Odi et amo (I hate and I love)


Water water everywhere

Nor any drop to drink (Coleridge)

Curiouser and curiouser (Alice in Wonderland)


Write what is secret.  Then write what is shared.  Experiment with writing in two different ways: veiled language, direct language.

Write a soothing novel in twelve short paragraphs.

Write a work that attempts to include the names of all the physical contents of the terrestrial world that you know.

Take a piece of prose writing and turn it into poetic lines.  Then, without remembering that you were planning to do this, make a poem of the first and last words of each line to see what happens.  For instance, the lines (from Einstein)

When at the reception

Of sense-impressions, memory pictures

Emerge this is not yet thinking

And when…

Would become:

When reception

Of pictures

Emerge thinking

And when                           

And so on.  Form the original prose, poetic lines, and first-and-last word poem into three columns on a page.  Study their relationships.

* * *

 Write a macaronic poem (making use of as many languages as you are conversant with).

Attempt to speak for a day only in questions; write only in questions.

Attempt to become in a state where the mind is flooded with ideas; attempt to keep as many thought in mind simultaneously as possible.  Then write without looking at the page, typescript or computer screen.

Choose a period of time, perhaps five or nine months. Every day, write a letter that will never be sent to a person who does or does not exist. Create a title for each letter and don’t send them.  Pile them up as a book. 

Etymological work.  Experiment with investigating the etymologies of all words that interest you, including your own name(s).  Approaches to etymologies: Take a work you’ve already written, preferably something short, look up the etymological meanings of every word in that work including words like “the” and “a”. Study the histories of the words used, then rewrite the work on the basis of the etymological information found out.  Another approach: Build poems and writings from the etymological families based on the Indo-European language constructs, for instance the BHEL family: bulge, bowl, belly, boulder, billow, ball balloon; or the OINO family: one, alone, lonely, unique, unite, unison, union not to speak of the one of the GEN families: kin, king, kindergarten, genteel, gender, generous, genius, genital, gingerly, pregnant, cognate, renaissance, and innate!

 * * *

In a poem, list what you know.

Address a poem to the reader.

Write household poems – about cooking, shopping, eating and sleeping.

Write dream collaborations in the lune form.

Write poems that only make use of the words included in Basic English.

Attempt to write about jobs and how they affect the writing of poetry.

Write while being read to from science texts.

Trade poems with others and do not consider them your own.

Exercises in style: Write twenty-five or more different versions of one event.

Review the statement: “What is happening to me, allow for lies and exaggerations which I try to avoid, goes into my poems.”

Please add to this list.

 List of Journal Ideas:


Journals of:





writing ideas


ideas for architects

city design ideas

beautiful and/or ugly sights

a history of one’s own writing life, written daily

reading/music/art, etc. encountered each day


elaborations on weather

people one sees – description

subway, bus, car or other trips (e.g. the same bus trip written about every day)

pleasures and/or pain

life’s everyday machinery: phone, stoves, computers, answering machine messages

round or rectangular things, other shapes



daily changes, e.g. a journal or one’s desk, table, etc

the body & its parts


tenant-landlord situations

telephone calls (taped?)





coincidences & connections

times of solitude


other journal ideas:


Write once a day in minute detail about one thing

Write everyday at the same time, e.g. , lunch poems, waking ideas, etc.

Write minimally: one line or sentence per day

Create a collaborative journal: musical notation and poetry; two writers alternating days; two writing about the same subject each day, etc.

Instead of using a book, write on paper and put it up on the wall (public journal).

& so on….

Katy BohincComment