Scene4 Magazine-inSight

November 2010

Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

Paul Bowles and Me

Gertrude Stein was a Modernist of affirmation. Unlike other writers of her time, her work shows no alienation, no social judgment, no anger, no fear. As a writer, Stein never manipulated her reader emotionally. However, she did attempt to manipulate other writers whose themes and style did not meet with her standards. One of these writers was Paul Frederic Bowles, best known for his novel of extreme angst The Sheltering Sky (1949) which Bernardo Bertolucci turned into a film starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich. Bertolucci gave Paul Bowles a walk-on part in the movie.

Bowles came to visit Stein for the first time in Paris in the spring of 1931 when he was twenty years old. They sustained a long friendship but among the many things she advised was that he quit writing poetry. She told him to try fiction. She suggested that he live in Tangier, Morocco.

It's an accessibly published fact that the Steiny Road Poet spent three weeks in Tangier with Paul Bowles in the late summer of 1982. He gave her help with poems she had written about Gertrude Stein. These poems eventually became part of her opera Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On.


A less well-known fact is that the Steiny Road Poet has formed a collaboration with composer John Supko on an opera dealing with the marriage of Jane Auer and Paul Bowles. This work-in-progress opera is now called How Many Midnights: The Love Story of Jane and Paul Bowles. When there is more news on this opera, there will be some sort of website or blog to provide more information about it. For now, the Poet thinks it would be worthwhile to start writing short reviews of various documentary films that have appeared over the last couple of decades about Paul Bowles.

Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider is one such documentary film. Catherine Warnow and Regina Weinreich directed and produced this the 57-minute movie. Because it was released in 1993-94 with many reviews easily found on the Internet, the Poet will provide a quick look into the contents of the film and talk about the footage in relation to her own experience with Paul Bowles.

Using a backdrop of original music by Paul Bowles (this might be reason enough to experience this film), Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider provides interesting tidbits on what Gertrude Stein said to Bowles, his out-of-the-box relationship with his wife Jane (there is some footage showing Jane's female Moroccan lover Cherifa when Cherifa was young and beautiful), Paul's writing process, and what poet Allen Ginsberg and composer Ned Rorem had to say about the enigmatic Paul Bowles. The film provides various perspectives of Tangier—close-ups of donkeys being led through the twisting narrow streets of the medina and panoramic views of the rooftops of this crowded Arabic town. What cinematographer Burleigh Wartes shot and what Warnow and Weinreich selected to include in this film are true to the Steiny Road Poet's experience of Paul Bowles and Tangier.

Things that stood out included what Allen Ginsberg said about how Bowles continued the "grand lineage of the Twentieth Century" from Gertrude Stein. Presumably the comment meant that Bowles was an innovator in the tradition established by Stein since Bowles himself states early in the film that how a novel is told is more important than what is in it. Definitely process is the legacy of Stein.

Bowles also talks about Stein telling him to quit writing poetry, that he was better at prose. He gives a little gloss of the weaknesses as outlined by Stein of his poem "Spire Song." Here's the opening section of that poem written in three parts.


When in between the rows of corn
the heated beetle pants
on a faroff hill the peasant is lunching.
But we are still waiting by the corn.
But we are still waiting by the edge of the field.
When in between the sunlit pebbles
my summer melody rebounds
can you still smell the rot of last year's crop?

Stein told him beetles do not pant. Bowles was mortified. The poem was published in transition, a little magazine that also published Stein and James Joyce, just to name two of the luminaries with whom the teenage Bowles shared publication. The S. R. Poet has an inscription from Bowles in Next to Nothing, his book of poetry released by Black Sparrow Press in 1981 that reads, "Don't judge me too harshly by what's in this volume." Although the S. R. Poet does not count "Spire Song" among her list of favorites, Next to Nothing has some interesting work that informs Bowles's fiction. As a composer, Bowles had a good ear for poetry.

Bowles also said Stein told him to move to Tangier. Bowles said had she told him to move to Spain, he would have followed her direction. The Poet thinks this captures the man she met in Tangier who appeared to be both impulsive and controlled by how he was brought up. While he rebelled vigorously against his parents, he followed what Stein said slavishly.

In the film, Ned Rorem characterizes Paul as "childlike" while Jane, he said, was "childish." Rorem also recounts how Bowles made perfume for his friends and said that perfume was one of Paul's screens. Stein called Bowles Freddy because she considered Paul a romantic name that she felt he could not live up to because he hadn't an ounce of romanticism in him. Bowles himself talks about the emotional cage he lived in. However, the camera catches Bowles petting a cat in an outdoor market. He was clearly a man of contradiction.

Here's a poem written around 1982 that the S. R. Poet wrote based on one of her visits with Paul Bowles. And yes, just like in the film, he talked about ripping his telephone off the wall.


Paul Bowles told me he ripped
the telephone off the wall.
Otherwise he was quite polite
despite the American Government
revoking his citizenship for being
a communist, however briefly.

On the street, when I meet him,
he says, "Come by any night.
My friend Mrabet, raconteur,
artist, will make chicken
with pickled lemon. Show me
your stories and poems, we'll
talk. My poetry is awful.

Gertrude was right."
At the door, he invites
me in, "Yes, yes. Take
your djellaba off. Tangier
is stifling though the wind
blows and doors slam and
people always shout. Make
yourself comfortable. X marks
the spot: sit down." He points
to the symbol in his shaggy
rug. Then he puts his
jacket on. Decorum, not heat,
overtaking him.

Karren L. Alenier
from Looking for Divine Transportation


View other readers' comments in the Readers Blog

©2010 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2010 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.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
Read her Blog


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November 2010

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