This essay about pride, genius, and obstacles blocking an artistic work was first published in Scene4 Magazine on the Internet.
Hubris, vanity, rejection. In an artist’s life, these stations along the road called ambition loom larger than the witches Macbeth met on a Scottish
heath. Gertrude Stein excised these words from her vocabulary. She openly named herself genius. She declared herself equal with her male peers who
included Ezra Pound and James Joyce. She walked with philosophers such as William James (her teacher at Harvard) and Alfred North Whitehead at
whose house in England she and Alice Toklas got stranded for weeks when World War I broke out on the Continent. Stein broached monumental, cuttingedge scientific work by such giants as Albert Einstein. To this day, most people who have heard of Gertrude Stein reject her as a serious writer. Yet
literary intelligentsia revere her work and continue to mine her writings while the general population, quite unaware of her influence, repeat her words,
such as “there’s no there there” and “rose is a rose is a rose.”
Offering creative work to the public takes unabashed courage or abject ignorance. On the eve of the world premiere of Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On, the Steiny Road Poet’s opera with composer William Banfield, reflection and meditation on what had happened and what would happen seemed imperative. Taking account of one’s vulnerabilities oddly builds armor.
Who Did You Say Gertrude Stein Interviewed?
Indulge the Poet momentarily while she assumes a fetal position to describe the birth of her Scene4 Magazine column, "Bumper Cars: The Steiny Road to Operadom." For a respected literary magazine where she was poetry editor, Hilary Tham, in January 2003, invited the Poet to write an article about how the Stein opera came about. After the Poet wrote the article, the editorial board of that magazine resoundingly rejected the work.
Feeling defeated by this rejection, she shared the news with poet Kim Roberts, who suggested Googling the Internet for another publisher. The
first contact was Arthur Meiselman of Scene4 Magazine. The Poet offered him Gertrude Stein’s interview of Karren Alenier, the poet who wrote Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On. To do this interview, Gertrude climbed over the back wall of Père LaChaise Cemetery. Here’s how this interview began:
Gertrude Stein Interviews a Third Millennium Poet
Those of you who are familiar with the career of the expatriate writer Gertrude Stein might think she lies with her lifelong partner Alice B. Toklas neatly tucked into a plot of earth at Père La Chaise Cemetery in Paris. However, she, like rock star Jim Morrison, is periodically seen escaping over
the back wall to get relief from the graffitists and to pursue unfinished and new projects. With all of her experience entertaining so many artists of every
genre in her 27 rue de Fleurus apartment, Ms. Stein often thought she would excel as a radio talk host. Tune in as the Mama of Dada interviews the poet
who wrote the libretto of the jazz opera Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On.
Madame Alenier, what? What possessed you to write an opera about me?
Ms. Stein, trust me it had nothing to do with my contemporaries making Alice into a cult hero for that marijuana brownie recipe. However, I
have to admit The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas put my Muse in gear.
I see. Let us dispense with surnames, yes? Call me Gertrude. The Autobiography was certainly not my best work. My agent Mr. Bradley made me write it so people would read my writings and know my name. Why, when Alice and I came to New York City in 1934 for my lecture tour, even the corner grocer knew my name. Let’s go over this again, Karren, how is it that you are working on an opera about me?
I started writing poems about you and your friends in the late 1970s, inspired by the way you played both with words and played with living your life. My landscape started with the amusement park and so my early poems contain the seesaw (“Leo on Seesaw”), bumper cars (“Bumper Cars: Gertrude Said She Took Him for a Ride”), and a crack-the-whip (“Alice B. Toklas Comments on a Recent Phenomenon”). Next I picked up the automobile as one of your metaphors—or should I say driving since you also owned and operated a truck that you used as an ambulance during World War I. In any case, I admired your independence and fearlessness not only in the face of world events, but how you never let the critics stop you from writing and breaking new ground.
What chutzpah inspired Karren Alenier to think she could be interviewed by Gertrude Stein? If asked, Alenier would say, she was following Stein’s model: if Stein could write Alice B. Toklas’ autobiography… The Scene4 Magazine editor-in-chief thought the interview demonstrated potential, but was a bit over the top for his readership. He encouraged a different creative tack that involved travel. Much to the Poet’s absolutesurprise, the first essay was not the end point, but just the beginning of a Scene4 Magazine column.
What’s this Insistence on Genius?
Because the Stein opera deals with Stein’s insistence that she was a genius, various onlookers have quietly told Nancy Rhodes, the artistic director of the producing theater group Encompass New Opera Theatre, that this insistence is not comme il faut. In our day, one does not proclaim she or
he is a genius.
The trouble is Stein said she was a genius and that proclamation appears many places in her oeuvre. Furthermore, she wasn’t the only one of her generation saying this. So therefore, what the public requires (because who would take the word of a mere poet?) is an expert attesting to Stein’s
insistence on genius. Enter Barbara Will, a professor at Dartmouth Collegewho published a book entitled Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem
In a telephone conversation the Steiny Road Poet had with professor Will, Will made it clear that if a reader does not understand Stein’s investment in being a genius, then one cannot understand Stein’s work. Will also points out in her book that the source of Stein’s interest in genius first came from what she learned from her Harvard professor William James. James set “oldfogyism” (James’s word) in direct opposition to “genius,” which he defined as “the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.”
The Gates as Steinian Theater
How does one manage to perceive in an unhabitual manner? Certainly freedom is a state of being that comes to mind in the rigor of achieving genius—but, so does insanity.
Let’s consider a phenomenon in the art world that applied Gertrude Stein’s criteria of creating art that continually moved the viewer into the present moment. The Steiny Road Poet had the opportunity to walk through Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates exhibition in New York City’s Central Park on opening day, February 12, 2005. This was art that created its own theater and was why Christo and Jeanne-Claude drove around the park to view the viewers.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude have said the purpose of The Gates was to create beauty. One who did not experience The Gates, which seemed to the Poet to be a perpetual entrance into the peace of a Zen Buddhist temple, might ask why would these two artists spend so much of their time and money to pursue the installation of 23 miles of orange-colored arches hung with similarly hued curtains? Hubris? Vanity? Because, after years of rejection, they could? Professor Will in her problem-of-genius book provides a compelling quote from Russian critic Victor Shklovsky in which he juxtaposed habitual behavior with art. “Habituation devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife … And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life: it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” [Barbara Will in Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of “Genius,” p. 28, quotes Shklovsky from “Art As Technique”  in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis. Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 1965.]
Every Writer Needs an Alice B. Toklas
In order to take artistic risks and withstand the assault of critics, one must work from some center of strength. For most artists, intelligence and
creativity are not enough. When Alice Toklas entered Gertrude’s life, Gertrude’s art began to emerge into the world. Alice was Gertrude’s fan club and literary manager. When Gertrude’s brother Leo moved out of 27 rue de Fleurus, Gertrude took over the role as master of the salon and was no
longer the silent sister sitting in her brother’s shadow. Alice took up that supporting role and acted as the gatekeeper. Every writer should have an Alice Toklas.
The Steiny Road Poet has been practicing yoga since the early 1970s but only recently realized that yoga not only offers a spiritual centering, but also puts a person viscerally in touch with his or her corporal center. One might think of this center as the gut—the source of balance and the core from
where strength radiates (as in “she’s got guts,” meaning “courage”). For the Steiny Road Poet, the illumination about yoga as it relates to the artistic
center of strength became apparent in researching voice projection techniques for Poetry on Stage, a workshop she developed to help poets become
more proficient public presenters. Projecting the voice is about breathing and exercising the diaphragm. Sometimes the Poet wonders why she doesn’t know what she knows. In 1975, this poem was published in her book Wandering on the Outside:
Mantra for the Whole
Monday and I am
and breathing out
waiting for every
to move in my
knowing I am
Tuesday I am
Monday and I am
So what happens when the Steiny Road Poet is offered criticism of her work? She takes a deep breath and then another. One should always learn from what is offered. Then the witches of ambition—hubris, vanity, rejection—will not get the better of you.