“Any space is not quiet it is so likely to be shiny. Darkness very dark darkness is sectional. There is a way to see in onion and surely very
surely rhubarb and a tomato, surely very surely there is that seeding. A little thing in is a little thing.” Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein.
Everything Gertrude Stein wrote was poetry. Did she give readings from her work?
STEIN TAUGHT HER WORK THROUGH LECTURES
No. For as large as Stein’s ego was, she was shy about presenting her work in public. Dame Edith Sitwell, whom Stein met in 1924, had trouble
getting Stein to commit and follow through on a presentation of her work at Oxford and Cambridge. However, in 1926, Stein managed to deliver her lecture. Stein had to teach her
audience how to read her work. The person who helped her succeed with her 1934-1935 lecture tour in the United States was Bernard Faÿ, the man who later kept the Nazis from razing
her art collection and deporting her and Alice to a concentration camp. He insisted that Stein prepare a lecture for the Collège de France where he held a prestigious position.
She delivered that talk in 1933 and that success helped give her the confidence to do the lecture tour in America.
On the other hand, Stein recorded many of her poems and the recordings reveal Stein’s confidence and voice agility.
PRACTICE & BREVITY FOR CONTEMPORARY POETRY READINGS
In 2017, the Steiny Road Poet (a.k.a. Karren Alenier) has been giving poetry readings to promote The Anima of Paul Bowles, her seventh
collection of poetry. It’s a creative look at the life of Paul Bowles and particularly how three women influenced him—his mother Rena Bowles, Gertrude Stein, and the
writer who became his wife, Jane Auer Bowles.
Steiny posits that practice and brevity, coupled with the ability to enunciate clearly and project adequately are the basics for a successful
reading. However, this presumes that the content being presented attracts interest both in subject matter and form, that the reader demonstrates a passion for the work, and enough
publicity has been sent out to attract a receptive audience.
THROWING TOMATOES AT THE POOR POET
Alenier began giving readings in the 1970s. At that time, she was hanging out with a small band of poets led by Deirdra Baldwin,
who was poetry editor of Woodwind, an arts newspaper that was distributed around Washington, DC’s Dupont Circle. Deirdra lived
in a small rented cottage on Avenel Farm in Potomac, Maryland. She said that we should do poetry readings on the farm and if
anyone was displeased with the reading for any reason that the audience should throw tomatoes at the poet.
BECOMING THE EMPEROR OF ICE CREAM
Deirdra was into revolutionary poetry and that meant taking poetry into the streets of Washington, DC. Alenier organized and
presented a reading not far from the National Gallery of Art in front of The Artfactory, an eclectic store selling carvings from
Africa and textiles from Africa as well as Central and South America. After her second book was published in 1981, she
brought together a sitar player and belly dancer for a reading done in a tiny mall that featured Mad Martha’s Ice Cream Parlor.
What a risk the poet was taking of making herself look foolish. However, she got coverage by a local newspaper and the audience
clapped. And by the way, Alenier had a crush on the poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) who wrote “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” Here is the first stanza:
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Deirdra spent a lot of time talking about poets’ theater which clearly meshed with Gertrude Stein’s approach to poetry. Deirdra
insisted that poetry had to come out of the libraries and bookstores to find ordinary people. Otherwise we poets were all wasting our time.
HANDLING DISRESPECT FOR THE POET
Recently Alenier accepted an invitation to read in an art gallery along with a couple of other poets and with short talks by several
artists from the gallery who wanted to promote their work in hopes of selling it. She should have declined this invitation because the artist who organized the event was completely
insensitive to the poets.
When Alenier asked if she could sell her book in the gallery, the artist said no, it was too much bookkeeping for the gallery. Mind
that the gallery was not giving the poets any kind of honoraria (money to read). Because a neighbor of Alenier’s put her in touch
with this invitation and the neighbor attended the reading, the poet went ahead with the event.
The organizer asked Alenier to go first and Alenier said she would prefer to go second because one of her seven attending friends
had not yet arrived. Alenier asked, couldn’t one of the artists start? The organizer said no. So Alenier set her timer on her
IPhone—the organizer told the participants each person had 15 minutes—and attempted to read her first poem but was
interrupted several times as late audience members arrived or walk-ins to the gallery entered. None of this particularly bothered
the poet who was used to reading in non-standard venues. However, after Alenier had finished her second short poem, the organizer signaled it was time to end.
Because Alenier is well practiced in the art of giving readings—she knows how long each poem takes to read out loud, she looked at
the organizer and said, my time is not up and I will continue. She did however cut out two poems as a concession to the nervous
organizer who was throwing eye darts at the poet for not following orders. When Alenier sat down and looked at her timer, even then
she had not been in front of her audience (even with all the interruptions) for 15 minutes.
Did the organizer apologize after the reading? Yes, but not in a way that Alenier believed was sincere. The bottom line was only
the gallery was important—the poets were just handmaids to that cause. Despite this drama, was the reading successful? Yes,
because more than half of the poet’s friends had never heard her poetry. However, was the aggravation worth the time and trouble,
here Steiny will take over and say no probably not though it is worth something as a cautionary tale.
THAT LITTLE THING ABOUT THE TOMATOES
Gertrude Stein who was constantly ridiculed for her work, which few actually read and fewer attempted to understand, had good
reason to worry about standing before the public to present her work. For Karren Alenier, it was that little thing of being pelted
with vine-ripened red tomatoes at Avenel Farm that makes Karren Alenier carefully plan and practice her readings.