Why would anyone, especially a poet actively working in the field of poetry, sign up for the Coursera MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) Modern Poetry again? The Steiny Road Poet will address that question shortly but offers this background first.
In September 2012, Al Filreis initiated ModPo, as he affectionately calls this popular ten-week course, to see how effectively he could reach out to large numbers of online students with a modern poetry curriculum. In late November 2012 after the course closed for registration, there were over 40,000 students. During the ten-week timeframe, including live web sessions conducted by Filreis with his teaching assistants at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia, he estimated over 20,000 people were actively working on the course as evidenced by their participation in the discussion forums.
Filreis has become the poster child for everything that is good about MOOC learning. He makes his students feel like they are in the room with him. Without teaching—he emphasizes that he leads—he provokes students to think on their own. His "classroom" is a safe place to take risks.
The Steiny Poet signed up soon after ModPo 2 opened for registration in 2013. She felt there was more to learn even if the curriculum was largely the same. Filreis said in an email exchange with the Steiny Poet in late September that about 20 percent of the 2013 registrants were returning students. As stated by Filreis in the 2012 interview with the Steiny Poet, his intention was to get the original students to return and help the second wave of registrants. To emphasize this community learning approach, Filreis and his teaching assistants targeted certain first year students and invited them to become community teaching assistants whose role it would be to work in the discussion forums to ease the way for those struggling with aspects of the curriculum.
DANCING WITH GERTRUDE STEIN
On October 2, 2013, the Steiny Poet attended the live webcast session at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia, PA, on Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. To his discussion table usually occupied by his team of teaching assistants, Filreis invited poets Ron Silliman,Bob Perelman, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis who all share a deep interest in the work of Gertrude Stein. The result of the lively and thought-provoking conversation between students and Steinians sparked the Steiny Poet to embark on a systematic journey through Tender Buttons. This means that the Steiny Poet is working on close reads of each poem segment of Stein's seminal long poem, writing essays, and posting the results to her personal blog, starting with "A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass." And she has enlisted other ModPo students to join her in this journey.
At the October 2 live session, student interaction started with a phone call from a San Francisco-based student named Sophia who said she had an epiphany about approaching Stein's work after Filreis had quoted Stein's "Loving Repeating" in a reminder message he had issued about the Tender Buttons webcast. Sophia said that she realized that it was best to enter Stein's work spatially versus linearly in the fashion one would enter Pina Bausch's world of dance which emphasizes repetition.
The Steiny Poet will pause here briefly to say Bausch's work is an apt comparison to Stein's and bears investigating to appreciate the analogy. Both break normal audience expectations and both rely on repetition to explore the world. Sanjoy Roy published in The Guardian "Pina Bausch: Clip-by-clip Dance Guide," an article illustrated with video clips showing characteristics of Bausch's revolutionary work that is worth checking out despite the annoyance that not all the video clips are available.
Ron Silliman commented that reading Stein starts in his head rhythmically and that this aligns with Sophia's comment about using a spatial approach to Stein. Silliman said he could see speaking lines from "A Long Dress." (the 14th part of Tender Buttons' first section called "Objects") in Project Runway, an American reality television show that is about fashion design. He said Stein's work is plastic and can be moved in many directions and, apparently in his thinking, even in combination with fashion models walking down a runway. He also said, "In Stein there is always a subterranean motif at work and her writing is remarkably clear given it seems so abstract."
Bob Perlman said that when he thinks about how spatial Stein's writing is, he attaches it to the image of a map that says "You are Here!" In Stein's writing, she is always concerned about creating the continuous present. So space and time are linked but what dominates is time almost negating space.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis response to Sophia's comment, which essentially is about how to approach Stein, focused on Stein's iconoclastic way of writing that makes it difficult for the reader to "consume" the work. DuPlessis said the way Stein is writing is anti-normative, semi-mimetic (imitating or representing a thing—a pretty thorough discussion of mimesis can be found at http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/lit_terms_M.html and it also involves a discussion of ekphrasis which is useful in looking at what Stein is doing with art/image in Tender Buttons), and semi-narrative while working on erasing memory and history. Essentially DuPlessis was talking about the perplexing contradictions that a reader faces with Stein's work. So while a reader can find threads of a story, all too soon the threads disappear and what seemed to be defined or constructed is no longer in sight.
IS CLOSE READING STEIN A VIABLE STRATEGY?
If the discussion had stopped here, the Steiny Poet would have felt that the time and cost of the trip was well worth it. It certainly got her thinking outside the box in approaching Tender Buttons. However the next question from a woman named Chia struck at the heart of Al Filreis' approach to modern poetry. While her question had multiple parts, Filreis, exercising moderator's prerogative, boiled her question down to, does the strategy of close reading work well for reading Stein?
Silliman said close reading works well with Stein for word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase study, but if the reader is looking for a narrative setting, he or she will be frustrated. He further commented that Stein's work doesn't even relate to tableaux, which the Steiny Poet takes to mean she isn't creating images or pictures the reader can walk away with.
Perelman said the reader has to read Stein more closely than a close reading because every word is an event. In close readings of other authors, one emerges with a clear image of one thing but with Stein, the close reading gives "multiple semantics and multiple scenarios." Later in this conversation, Perelman clarified semantics by saying any word in Stein is a frame and her words have many meanings and include contradictions.
DuPlessis offered that the close reading goes to the practice of New Criticism, which focused on the text and the structure of the text without regard to outside influences as the writer's intention or biography, the reader's response, historical and cultural contexts, and moral opinion. New Critics looked for paradox, ambiguity, irony and tension to interpret poetic texts. DuPlessis said with Stein you can look up words but you cannot resolve the narration or thematics, that "Stein has subtexts but no texts." Even a cubist approach, according to DuPlessis, does not necessarily yield understanding because something hits the surfaces of Stein's words and can send the reader out of the text, perhaps down a dead end, perhaps down an unending road.
Given that Filreis, in his MOOC Modern Poetry, has led effective close reading sessions on two sections of Tender Buttons—"A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass." and "A Long Dress.", the Steiny Poet who is working on her own close readings of Tender Buttons, knows that this approach has value as a way into Stein. DuPlessis brings up good points relative to what close reading entails. In the Steiny Poet's approach to Tender Buttons, anything goes, including outside influences, cubist repositioning, and events/objects beyond Stein's timeframe.
IS STEIN REINVENTING THE WORLD?
The next question came from Crete by a woman named Maria asking whether Stein as well as her literary contemporaries were trying to reinvent the world as well as the word. Silliman said in realizing that Tender Buttons is about to celebrate its centennial, here is Stein working out of 19 century philosophy and philology—particularly the teachings of William James, and doing something very different with words that perhaps is only reflected in the world of visual art at Stein's time. Perelman agreed and provided an example of Stein pointing to Cezanne to talk about the way he put small patches of color on a canvas where all of the patches were equal, drawing attention neither to foreground nor background and saying this was also her approach with words. DuPlessis who held off answering this question until after hearing a string of questions and comments from live audience members said Stein was treating her writing like a scientific experiment where you keep things neutral and than work one action at a time to see what would happen. DuPlessis suggested Stein was possibly taking her lead from the French novelist Emile Zola.
NO PICASSO, NO BRAQUE, NO STEIN
The Steiny Poet had opportunity to ask this question, what would Stein's writing have been like had there been no Picasso, no Braque. Perelman said, no Picasso, no Braque, no Stein. The burst of syntactic and semantic freedom she got from viewing their art was transformative. She wrote nothing like Tender Buttons before and, in fact, nothing quite like it afterward. Later Silliman clarified this point by saying Stein tended to write one of a kind works like The Making of Americans, Stanzas in Meditation, her operas (Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All), and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
THE MORE YOU KNOW, THE MORE YOU KNOW
Lead teaching assistant Julia Bloch also seen at the table pulled the following question from the discussion forums, would you say a few words about how to understand a poem? Silliman answered you have to answer this question differently for every poem. A good definition of poetry is that work which brings its own definition of how to read said work. DuPlessis said that even in reading Stein, who is trying to break from past poetic conventions and traditions, one needs to know what has come before because "the more you know, the more you know." This question seemed to make each of the invited Steinians uncomfortable. Perelman agreed with Silliman and produced an odd anecdote about William Carlos Williams who said a poem is a machine made of words and while Perelman thought this was very wrong-headed as only Williams could be, Perelman proceeded to use this analogy saying if one can think of a poem being a difference-making machine like a brain versus a machine of wheels and cogs, then Stein is certainly a difference-making machine.
Among the numerous questions posed by students calling in or writing through the Internet about understanding Stein if English is not the reader's first language, came this thought from Rachel Blau DuPlessis—Stein's work, especially Tender Buttons, is more linguistic than literary. The emphasis is on components of linguistics like polysemy—words that have many meanings, interplay of sound and meaning, grammar, syntax.
Related to this line of concern where a reader of Stein is a nonnative English speaker, Jenina from the Philippines suggested that maybe Stein wanted her work to be read differently each time and that Stein was hoping for return readings as viewers of profound art might come back to a painting and see something new each visit. Another student familiar to the ModPo staff, Jennifer Snead, followed with this question: did Stein mean to be difficult? Perelman said Stein wanted to participate in the moment of discovery again and again. She wanted to capture the excitement of opening discovery in the present moment. Silliman said Stein was intent in creating a different relationship with her readers and literary community.
DuPlessis said Stein used any kind of language manipulation that one can think of—sound associations, translingual puns, writing from prior writings (nursery rhymes and bromide pieces though not literary works), split phonemes, etc. However, Stein did not work in patterns so she keeps the reader off balance, unable to anticipate the writer's (Stein's) next move. DuPlessis asserted that Stein was playing a mind game with herself that was hypnogogic (a state preceding sleep) but not stream of consciousness. Moreover, this was Stein enjoying herself.
STEIN: WHERE EVERYTHING TURNED AROUND
Filreis has a way of creating personal relationships that make even geographically distant onlookers feel like they are in the room with their workshop leader. Actually in the room at this webcast was community teaching assistant Andrea Buonincontro. All the community teaching assistants are taking ModPo for a second time. Filreis asked Andrea to compare her experience of ModPo 1 versus ModPo 2. She said that in ModPo1, Stein is where everything turned around for her, that her world exploded. Before ModPo, Andrea only knew Stein's "rose is a rose is rose." In ModPo 2, Stein made her see that language can be something other than information giving, that when Stein described an object as she does in Tender Buttons, Stein was giving the experience of an object.
To Andrea's comments, Silliman said, Stein doesn't get old because her work doesn't lapse into denotation (the explicit or direct meaning(s) of a word). While Perelman expressed excitement about hearing Andrea's enjoyment of Stein, DuPlessis used her comment time to segue to a discussion about what Stein does in Tender Buttons. She said, Stein subverts the language and part of her approach can be thought about in what she does not include. Stein does not use the pronoun I except in two occasions, one of them being coded erotic commentary (I hope she has her cow—from "A Little Called Pauline." and I spy—from "Butter."). Other lacks include: no moral judgment, no "nasty" words (the worse one being pus—It is pus—from "Shoes."), and few complicated verbs.
Here Filreis stopped DuPlessis' commentary saying Andrea had to come back for ModPo 2014 to get all the details concerning what is missing from Tender Buttons.
The Steiny Poet invites you, Dear Reader, to sign up for Coursera's Modern Poetry class now. It is not too late. She invites you especially if you have always wondered how to approach Tender Buttons. Find the Steiny Poet discussingTender Buttons in the ModPo Discussion Forum's Study Group called "Close Reading all of Tender Buttons." The final wrap-up live webcast of ModPo happens November 18 at noon. The Steiny Poet does not expect to be finished her journey through Tender Buttons by then, but she vows to continue until she gets all the way to the final section called "Rooms." Who knows, maybe the Steiny Road Poet will sign up for ModPo 3 in 2014.