After I read and adored Bernadette Mayer’s Utopia last year, I looked for other work by her and stumbled across her 1989 text Sonnets, which was published by Tender Buttons Press.
Reading about other books on the press’s website, I found myself adding multiple books to my “cart” before realising that this book exists: Tender Omnibus: The First 25 Years of Tender Button Press 1989 – 2014.
Given the insane shipping costs were I to have it delivered over the border from the press’ base in New York City (like in the movies!), I had to have it sent it to my lover’s mother’s Detroit PO Box and arrange for its collection (timed with a big drop of copies of Because Earth Is Flat: A Flat Earth Poetry Collection) by a Canadian, as they can basically go back and forth to the USA as much and as often as they like, which is strikingly different to the attitude directed towards the country’s other land border.
Anyway, Tender Omnibus made it to my hands and it is a joy to behold. Over 600 pages of poetry.
As I usually do when I discuss reading a compendium of discrete (is that the “write” (lol) spelling of discreet?) works, I will briefly mention them all, separately.
Sonnets by Bernadette Mayer (1989)
This is the first book Tender Buttons Press released, and it’s fucking brilliant. I mean, it’s essentially why I bought the book and I was not disappointed.
Sexy poems about sex, beautiful poems about love, articulate and powerful pieces about landlords and literature and all the other big things.
I laughed, I kinda cried (in too good a mood due to recent good news financially and a few publications of poetry in the last week), but tbh if I find the rest of Tender Omnibus dull and unexciting, it will have been worth the cover price just for this (particularly as Bernadette Mayer’s Utopia cost me nothing but P&P).
These are sonnets, but then they’re not sonnets, but they’re still kinda sonnets; Mayer plays with form and it’s fucking glorious to see, to experience. Having read two of her publications now, I’m going to make a terrifying but blunt pronouncement: I think Bernadette Mayer may be a better poet than Anne Carson. That’s maybe not true, but she’s certainly more fun and more engaged with the present in which she writes.
Oh god, I’ve said something I shouldn’t have…
Not A Male Pseudonym by Anne Waldman (1990)
This – as maybe all books of poetry written since 1989 should be – is dedicated to Bernadette Mayer.
It’s a lot shorter, but it’s also beautiful and dense and complex and graspable and important and energetic and good.
It’s about muses, the idea of being a muse and the way in which this erases notions of self, but how the self is actually not erased in reality when treated as a muse. It’s rebellious, direct, etc. Might revisit this one before hitting “Publish”. (I didn’t.)
Trimmings by Harryette Mullen (1991)
I really enjoyed the prose poems of Trimmings, and – as all three of these texts so far have had – I was particularly intrigued slash justified in my enjoyment by the “Author’s Note” that closes the text.
Mullen uses the language of fashion to explore notions of feminine writing and feminine language, finding the spaces where “female” evocations of femininity and male-gazy descriptions of women-as-objects intersect.
Mullen writes in her note “white and pink femininity in contrast to life as a black woman”, which is a subtle but powerful evidencing of the discriminatory trope of misogynoir: the intersection of misogyny and racism leaving the female writer of colour with a more limited language for self-expression. Trimmings is a great text that plugs that gap with lots of material.
Agnes Lee by Agnes Lee Dunlop Wiley (1992)
This is an intriguing piece of memoir written by a woman who must have been around 90 years old.
Agnes Lee Dunlop Wiley reflects on her education, childhood, youth and the lives of her family before she was born. Though there is a questionable attitude towards indigenous peoples (this is the first text in the Omnibus to be “selections” rather than in its entirety, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the excised sections were on this topic) and a typically American absence of class consciousness, Dunlop Wiley’s simple prose offers descriptions of cultures and lives very different from the now.
The book ends with a long piece called ‘Things I’d Like To Do Again’, a list of possible and impossible experiences the writer would like to repeat. Some could be achieved, even with the declining health caused by age, but many of them refer to people certainly dead. It’s heartbreaking and deeply moving and builds on the impression of Dunlop Wiley’s life given by the prose sections to achieve something truly impressive.
Lawn of Excluded Middle by Rosmarie Waldrop (1993)
This is prose poetry and, tbh, too intellectual for my taste (and my intellect!) but I can tell that with a more in-depth study or better general knowledge of philosophy (etc) I would have been able to take as much pleasure from this text as I had from those which preceded it in the book.
silent teachers / remembered sequel by Hannah Weiner (1994)
I first read Hannah Weiner when I was an undergraduate.
I didn’t enjoy her poetry then but I felt intimidated by it. My inability to understand made me feel foolish, and I didn’t know if even wanting or needing to “understand” Weiner’s work was an incorrect/inappropriate approach.
I didn’t understand Weiner’s poetry now, either, but I don’t believe that there’s any point in trying to decode writing this dense. What does it mean? I’ve got no idea and I don’t care to know.
I felt like reading this section of the book was a colossal waste of my time, tbh, and I should have trusted my decade-old opinion of Weiner’s work. A pity, as I’d been loving the Tender Omnibus until this.
Imagination Verses by Jennifer Moxley (1996)
This is the first time the Omnibus skips a year. I don’t know if Tender Buttons put anything out in 1995 that isn’t included in this book, and I likely never will.
I really enjoyed these poems. Direct, emotive, articulate, witty and frequently a discussion/exploration of the form itself. My kinda thing.
Cunt-Ups by Dodie Bellamy (2001)
As the introduction to Tender Omnibus as a whole taught me, Cunt-Ups is a play on “cut-ups”, the Burroughsesque literary technique (well, the literary technique most famously used by William “killed his wife by shooting her in the head at a party but still somehow uncancelled” Burroughs) that is oft considered blokey.
These were great: erotic/romantic/pornographic/violent, highly sexual and complex and “hermaphroditic” (Bellamy’s word).
The “I” – or “I”s of the poems is/are all bodies and all body parts: there is fucking and sucking and kissing and deskinning and bathing in cum and so much more. Loads of fun.
Pollen Memory by Laynie Brown (2003)
I didn’t understand this one either, tbh, but unlike Weiner’s text I found it more boring than frustrating. Coming after Cunt-Ups, it was obviously going to suffer.
Experimental prurience, that’s something I can get behind. Whatever this is… not so much.
the desire to meet with the beautiful by India Radfar (2003)
I really really enjoyed this one, though I’m struggling to explain why or how.
There are two sections to this, one exploring and playing with the Greek poetic tradition and the other exploring the Indian poetic tradition. Though there is quite a lot about plants and trees and flowers (which I usually find a turn-off in poetry), I liked this.
Maybe, though, it was just me being overexcited by reading something I didn’t find incomprehensible. Great stuff.
The Book of Practical Pussies by Michelle Rollman (2009)
This one is a collaboration with Krupskaya Press and it is the first book by Tender Buttons to include illustrations as well as text.
The illustrations are by Michelle Rollman, and the text is by nine different writers some of whom – including Dodie Bellamy – are familiar.
All of the writing is related to cats, and all of the drawings are of cats that are kinda fused with other animals, mostly human: e.g. a cat with human legs and genitals, a cat with human tits, etc..
The written pieces vary in tone and style, with some very sexually explicit (phwoar!). Bellamy’s piece is a very moving stream-of-consciousness-type text about life with, and then the death of, a pair of cats.
This one was fun. The last text in the omnibus, though, looks fucking daunting…
Dear Alain by Katy Bohinc (2014)
Strangely, and suddenly, we are in the contemporary.
The references to popular culture and contemporary history/politics and technologies has reached the smartphone age.
Although 2014 was six years ago (plus the time since the COVID lockdown began which is an era in itself), it is still – for me – much closer to “now” than even 2009 was.
In 2009 I was still an undergraduate, I was still living in the provinces, I was still ignorant, naive and had barely read any poetry I loved (at that stage, maybe only SOME of the Beats).
2009 was pre-widespread use of smartphones, before the internet was everywhere and ubiquitous. This final book in Tender Omnibus – conspicuously its longest – reminded me a lot of I Love Dick, though more focused on philosophy [I didn’t understand] than contemporary art [I didn’t understand].
Dear Alain is great, though: intellectual and emotive and complex without being off-putting.
It is a prose collection of letters to the philosopher Alain Badiou that weave through explorations of the similarities and differences between poetic and philosophic writing, love and sex, pure mathematics, the Arab Spring, the false promise of Obama’s presidency etc..
The political issues raised are still potent now (slash the direct repercussions of them are potent now), as too are the literary and artistic conversations, though maybe when I couldn’t understand them they weren’t, but I felt like they were because I was confused, and confusion is a very in the moment kinda emotion. Yeah.
I enjoyed this omnibus a LOT.
Though I didn’t love every individual text within it, the Bellamy, Mayer and Bohinc texts were so exciting that I will certainly seek out more texts by each of them once the bookstores of the world reopen.
Yeah, a nice big book to read! Support small presses!
Buy a PDF of one of my books!!!
Obviously paying for a pdf isn’t a great deal, but I’m outta day job work so a contribution towards my living costs would be appreciated by me and my dog and my lover. I’ll email and you can tell me which you want. BEIF as standard.