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with Karren Alenier

What Was Learned in Teaching Stein

Scene4 Magazine-inSight

March 2012

"Do you see the real joke? It is the critics who have really thought about form always and I have thought about—writing!" - Gertrude Stein

The Steiny Road Poet created and developed an opportunity to teach Gertrude Stein inside the landscape of an art exhibition that focused on this great Modernist. Inspired by Gertrude Stein, a writing workshop, curated tour, and Stein birthday tea party took place at the Stanford in Washington Art Gallery in Washington, DC, on February 4, 2012. The all-day event was supported by The Word Works, a literary nonprofit promoting contemporary poetry through publication of books and presentation of public programs.


Hans Gallas, co-curator of the "Insight & Identity: Contemporary Artists and Gertrude Stein" exhibition at the S-I-W Art Gallery, partnered with the S. R. Poet, contributing anecdotal stories to the workshop and leading the tour of the exhibition. The participating baker's dozen, which are now anointed Steiniacs, ranged in experience from one former graduate student who had read everything Stein wrote to a devoted reader and listener of poetry who had no interest in creative writing.


Before launching her first slide, the Poet asked her students to write down what their expectations and fears were concerning this workshop. Universally, they all came to learn about Stein, even the well-read former graduate student. While few addressed the question of what fears they felt about this workshop, afterward one person who is a teacher by profession postulated that the biggest fear anyone could have in participating in workshop on Gertrude Stein is that he or she would not be able to understand what Stein wrote. Then he paid the Steiny Road Poet an impressive compliment. He said Karren Alenier taught Gertrude Stein without stress, indicating that she created a relaxed environment that was informative and fun.

The goal the Poet set for herself in teaching Stein in a one-shot two-hour session was to provide some modest insight on why Stein was widely known as an icon versus a writer of serious consequence. In the wake of all Stein's critics, including the recent bashing by the cultural critic of the Washington Post, the S. R. Poet believes it is imperative not to dumb down Stein or to ignore why the literate public who have heard of Stein only knows about her life and not her major works. Therefore, the Poet divided the presentation and writing time into three parts naming the sections to play off the "Insight & Identity" exhibition title:

Section I - Identity: Aspects of Gertrude Stein

Section II – Insight: Gertrude Stein's Writings

Section III – Inspiration: Writing Exercises Inspired by Gertrude Stein

One of the questions, the S. R. Poet often asked herself was what role did Gertrude Stein play in making herself an icon? The Poet thanks Wanda Corn, lead curator of "Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories" for bringing clarity to this question, especially emphasizing how Stein throughout her entire life was accustomed to being the subject of photographic and artistic portraits. So, using images of Stein, the Poet discussed Stein's life story.

Choosing which of Stein's 570 works to present was both easy and hard. The S. R. Poet knew for sure that Stein's long book The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress was essential to the teaching objectives of Inspired by Gertrude Stein as was Tender Buttons, Stein's tough-to-crack abstract poem. The Poet was aware that Stein herself provided insight on these works in her book Lectures in America, but a phone conversation with Swarthmore professor and poet Nathalie Anderson pinpointed the need to look specifically at Stein's "Poetry and Grammar," the last lecture in Lectures in America. Anderson said she could see the lights going on in her students' heads when they discuss this particular lecture and, surprisingly, the most resistant students become the most ardent Stein fans after they brush up against what Stein says in this essay.


In the world of teaching and learning, the Poet knows through her number one advisor Jim Rich that successful learning takes place when students are having fun in an interactive environment rich with resources. So the Poet strategically paired up the Inspired students, asking them to pick from a set of Stein quotations the Poet mined from Stein's hard, moderately hard, and easy works. Then the pairs were asked to write three quick reactions or comments to their quotes, discuss these quotes, and then write independently. Being inspired by Gertrude Stein should always involve what Stein called, "talking and listening." And collaboration is a great way to head off the fear of not being able to "get" Stein and to engage even the skeptical.


Here's what Stein said about how to get started writing (the S. R. Poet has added the line breaks for quick reading access):

"without thinking of the result in terms of a result,
but think of the writing in terms of discovery,
which is to say that creation must take place
between the pen and the paper,
not before in a thought or afterwards in a recasting.
Yes, before in a thought, but not in careful thinking.
It will come if it is there and if you will let it come,
and if you have anything you will get a sudden creative recognition.
You won't know how it was, even what it is,
but it will be creation if it came out of the pen
and out of you and not out of an architectural drawing
of the thing you are doing"  

    Gertrude Stein to John Hyde Preston in The Atlantic Monthly (p. 188).


One of the tactics the S. R. Poet exercised in preparing for this workshop was to tweet Stein daily. While there is a certain crowd which uses Stein's name to indicate some kind of sexual come-on message, there is also a very active group swapping Stein quotations—use the hashtag #GertrudeStein to find the serious followers. This is how the former graduate student who read everything Stein had written knew about Inspired by Gertrude Stein. The Steiny Road Poet hoped to achieve a certain level of talking and listening by tweeting Stein, and that happened, but also it provided a certain self-induced challenge to think deeply and succinctly about the genius of Stein.


Although the Poet, had been several times to the "Insight & Identity" exhibition, including the gala opening where Wanda Corn impersonated Stein, hearing Hans' talk about specific pieces underscored the remarkable resource Gertrude Stein continues to be for current day artists. Of particular interest to the Inspired participants was the fabric Katrina Rodabaugh printed with quotations from the "Objects" section of Tender Buttons. Then Rodabaugh sent this fabric to other artists who made wearable dresses capturing the spirit of dress design in the early 19th century.  

Gisela Züchner-Mogall's "Visualizing Gertrude Stein through The Making of Americans" transformed the Long Book into a series of triple-layered scripts that provide visceral image without readability. It's a massive artistic work of which only half the panels were on exhibit at the S-I-W Art Gallery. While the meticulous flowing script awed the Steiny Road Poet, she is not sure that Züchner-Mogall's inspiration does anything to promote readership of this unusual novel that has no plot, emphasizes psychological portraits, and allows for an authorial voice that discusses how to write.


Among the Inspired group was Perry Epes, son of an American artist Isota Tucker Epes who collaborated with Australian artist Suzanne Bellamy. Bellamy had several pieces in the "Insight & Identity" exhibition from her 12-print series called Conversations with Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, including the highly colorful "Collisions: Lying Under the Whole of Gertrude Stein." Here Virginia Woolf lies holding the weight of The Making of Americans with Stein sitting on top of this huge book. What a fantastic conception for an amazing conversation between these two Modernists.


After the tour, the newly minted Steiniacs spent an hour writing in the gallery or in one of the Stanford sitting rooms. Then pianist David Guffleman appeared in time for the tea in honor of Gertrude Stein's 138 birthday, initiating an on key round of Happy Birthday, Gertrude. The day closed with readings from brand new work and from the inspired Stein work already published by Hans Gallas and the Steiny Road Poet. Who could imagine that after a whole day focused on Gertrude Stein that all the participants would be asking for more? Yes, the Poet had her cake and ate it too.


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©2012 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
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March 2012

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