Thursday, October 23, 2008

Steiny Road Poet on Stage with World-class Singers

How many authors have the privilege of launching their books in New York City with world-class artists? On October 19, 2008, this author shared the stage of the Arthur Seelen Theatre at the Drama Book Shop with Eve Gigliotti and Rosalie Sullivan, the originating singers who helped make the premiere of Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On a success.


Nancy Rhodes and Encompass New Opera Theatre set up the event, hiring, coaching, and directing the singers and pianist Tony Bellomy.
She also worked with Drama Book Shop’s resident children’s theater artistic director to transform the Seelen Theatre from a dark black box to one with color and warmth.

Nancy delivered the introductions and gave background on the connection between the Stein opera, which she helped develop and produce, and The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas, for which she wrote the introduction.
As I explained in my opening remarks, the book is a tribute to the work Nancy does in the field of new opera and was to a large degree inspired by our conversations about the difficulties everyone in the field of opera has in developing, producing and executing new work.


My job as the presenting author for this particular event was to link details from the book to the four numbers Eve and Rosalie would deliver with accompaniment from Tony. My strategy for these musical setups was to consider each intro I made as part of the musical number and to keep the entire talking and singing to five-to-seven-minute segments. Because Nancy and I both agreed that the duet “What a Catch She Is” would be a good final number, the presentation of the entire musical selection was not in the chronological order mapped in the opera.

The Steiny Road book has many themes that I could present that range from my collaboration with Nancy and composer William Banfield, the collaboration between Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, and what it takes to get a new opera on stage in America. What I thought about in constructing my Drama Book Shop talk was what would the audience want to know to make them feel comfortable. So my first thought was what is the Stein opera about? In a few words: an artist dealing with her critics. This covered the first aria by Gertrude who tells who brother Leo I know what I’m doing with my words and I need your support, and it also covers the aria “The Trouble with Arriving” in which Gertrude tells Alice that her American public does not appreciate her serious work and that as an author she needs to take back her name.

With these two arias, I established what the Stein opera was about and introduced the subject of collaboration. This blended easily into the next number sung by Rosalie as Alice: “Me, as Your Secretary.”
In this ballad, Alice describes standing in Gertrude’s shadow, which gave me an opportunity to address the plight of the librettist who is often treated as a second-class citizen in the operatic world. While I understand why the composer gets not only the limelight but also the money—if there is any to be had, I say call me poet and not librettist. For this event, my collaborating composer did not appear, though he had hoped to, and so the audience didn’t get the opportunity to either hear from him on this topic or discuss it with him at the reception.

Thus the situation of pecking order made me realize early in the process that I must travel with my tribe to ensure that I don’t burn any bridges and that I present myself in the best light. This is what Gertrude did in joining forces with Alice. The audience could hear this in their playful and loving duet “What a Catch She Is.”


Besides the emotional poignancy Eve and Rosalie delivered—and sometimes with just one glance, what also made this event memorable was that Nancy’s partner Roger Cunningham made a delicious claret lemonade, an Alice B. Toklas recipe Virgil Thomson gave to them.
I think the secret ingredient lies in the frozen grapes that by the time the thirty-five program had concluded, the grapes had had a chance to chill the punch but yet thaw and be eatable.

In New York, as in any busy city, getting an audience is always a challenge. In attendance were just fewer than 25 people all tallied, but clearly it was a high-quality group networking on next opportunities. Perhaps this event will help Encompass do another production Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On!

To conclude the day's events, my friend Maxine Kern and I went to visit the buddha sculpture of Gertrude Stein in Bryant Park so that we could pay homage to the writer who has given Nancy, Max and me so much inspiration.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

DeBrief on Presenting an Academic Paper

After the sturm und drang of a summer spent developing the ideas for a paper on how Gertrude Stein’s so called children’s story To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays has many points of comparison with medieval literature and then bends back on itself with futuristic pointers, I can safely say, after delivery of said paper, that I am now prepared for serious public speaking.

What I learned from participating in the conference “Lifting Belly High: Women’s Poetry Since 1900” is the following:

• Talking point slides summarizing the major ideas with a few well chosen examples is a far better way to present a paper than to read word for word.

Why? Better control over the limited time given, better chance to make eye contact with the audience, less nervousness about whether your syncopation (Stein’s term meaning the gap between a speaker/actor delivering her words and the audience actually understanding what has been delivered) is successful.

• Speaking at 8 am in the morning, especially on the second day of a conference, is not likely to bring many listeners to your audience.
However, speaking at an early hour took the pressure off—the audience members clearly wanted to hear what was being presented and had made the effort to show up. Also if you are a novice as I was in presenting my first academic paper, speaking the second day gave the advantage of scoping out how things worked. So for example, I knew that most of the presenters were reading their papers and that it was hard to follow the compression of ideas, especially if they were reading fast and did not enunciating well. Had these presenters really thought through what they wanted to convey? Could they summarize their ideas and speak without the tangle of words written on paper?

• Using a stop watch while you speak can help you determine whether you need to cut anything from the presentation in progress.

It should go without saying that a speaker has practiced her talk with her slides numerous times and has used a timer or a stop watch to track the minutes. Practice helps the speaker refine the slides and perfect the presentation.


What was particularly nice about this conference was that the Power Center at Duquesne University, the main venue for the conference, was a brand new, well-equipped facility with excellent audio-visual support. I was able to insert my memory stick into their computer and voila, my PDF file was accessible to the screen with a few keystrokes. I had taken my PowerPoint slides and converted them to the PDF format because my husband recommended that was a more stable file. However, he also recommended that I show up with laptop and the PowerPoint files as well as paper copy that could be presented from should all the high tech options fail.

When I saw the room where my panel, which included two other papers on Gertrude Stein, I was stunned. The room could have easily held 300 people and it had two screens unlike the other rooms nearby that had only one screen and probably held a maximum of 150 people. So then I started thinking that because my panel was the only panel devoted to Stein and this being a conference bearing reference to her long erotic poem Lifting Belly that the expectation was that everyone would show up. During the early evening receptions, many people expressed interest in coming to hear my paper but I can only assume now that was the polite thing to say.


My roommate told me that she thought this conference was unusually friendly and supportive to the participants. Her experience with larger conferences like the Modern Language Association (MLA) was that conference goers were more competitive, more likely to attack presenters, and presenters were often presenting to nearly empty halls. When I started speaking, six people were sitting in the audience and little by little more people filtered in. That apparently was a respectable showing according to some conference goers I spoke with.

My friend Judith McCombs who was recently a keynote speaker at a conference in Belgium said I should proactively contact people before I left for the conference to introduce myself. So I wrote a letter to Lynn Emanuel who wrote the well-known poem called “Inside Gertrude Stein.” My long-time Pittsburgh friend Michael Wurster who is a mover and shaker in that literary community said Lynn would be a good person to make aware of my presentation and she was speaking on the plenary panel that followed mine. Long story short, we had an engaged conversation after her session but that was the only contact I had with her. Life is full and so it goes. I also contacted the only other presenter not on my panel who had a mention of Stein in the title of her talk. We had immediate interaction by email and she said she would try to get to my panel, but she had already promised a friend to show up at her panel and as it turns out, the friend’s talk was in a different building on the Duquesne campus, making it impossible to slip into both sessions.

The third thing I did was create a newsletter to introduce myself. I handed The Skinny from the Steiny Road to participants at the reception. The newsletter contains short paragraphs on my participation in Lifting Belly High; my sojourn with NPR radio interview at Toad Hall, a new arts retreat in New Hampshire; and my mini book tour, which includes an upcoming program with arias from my Stein opera in New York City. It also listed my calendar of events and how to obtain copies of my books.


What did I get from going to this conference?

• With a neglected work, I broke new ground in the study of Gertrude Stein and increased my personal knowledge about this important Modernist.

• I learned new skills in giving a public talk which made preparation for a lecture I gave two days later at Catholic University from my book The Steiny Road to Operadom a piece of cake.

• I learned how to negotiate an academic conference.

• I got an opportunity to meet and speak with Guenko Guechev, the head of opera programs at Duquesne University about my opera Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On.

• I reconnected with the Pittsburgh literary community.

Would I do this again? Maybe. It’s hard to say and would clearly depend on what additional feedback I get on this paper as well as whether I had another topic in the future that I felt equally as passionate about. People who usually go to these conferences are required by their universities to write, present, and publish papers. While I enjoyed the community and events that gathered around topics that I found immensely interesting, my preparation was all consuming just as if I were writing a dissertation for a university degree. How much room does that leave for poetry?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Primer for Participating in an Academic Literary Conference

What every writer dreams about is a quiet place in the country where s-he can think, imagine, dream, create and as a bonus get an appreciative and helpful audience. Maria van Beuren, has invited this writer for a third year to Toad Hall in North Haverhill, New Hampshire.

This year this writer used her ten days to work on her paper “On To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays—Gertrude Stein: Medievalist, Futurist or Both?” To Do is an A-B-C primer for children that Stein wrote in the spring of 1940. Her publisher didn’t think it was appropriate for children and Stein’s partner Alice B. Toklas said it was “too old for children and too young for adults.”


The talk will be presented at “Lifting Belly High: Women’s Poetry Since 1900,” which is taking place September 11-14 at Duquesne University. It’s the first time this writer has participated in an academic conference. She is an “independent scholar” and she doesn’t know what to expect, so she was hopelessly bogged down in the underbelly of what one needs to know to write a paper with such an audacious thesis. After all, Stein was intensely focused on the present moment. Luckily, the assembled group at Toad Hall, who was starving and waiting for a lobster feast, had no choice but to listen and comment. Would those lobster pots ever boil? Would the speaker ever get to the point?


Writing about Gertrude Stein requires a lot of chutzpah, especially if a writer intends to seek an audience of academics. One assumes that whomever is up early enough to hear this writer talk (I am scheduled to speak at 8 am on a Saturday morning) and chooses my panel session (my paper gets presented with two others also writing on Stein) probably knows a good deal about Stein. I am shaking in my shoes, but I keep thinking—will there be anyone in the room besides the panelists?

Those familiar with academic conferences know that there are numerous other panels running concurrently with the panel you are on. In the case of the Lifting Belly High conference, there are six concurrent panels in the first session of the day and for two days in a row, there are three sessions of six concurrent panels or roundtable discussions except for the last session which has seven. This involves 118 speakers not including moderators. What’s the possibility that there will be more than four people in the room where this writer will present her talk, a talk she has fretted over since early June when she received an email message saying she was selected and therefore invited to present a paper? Is it possible for someone not registered at the conference to come hear my talk? Yes, for one panel session, anyone can steal in and not have to worry about being bounced at the door. Building and room designations are posted on the conference schedule.

Also, I should confess that besides having identified an exciting subject for an academic paper this past January and published a preliminary essay in Scene4 Magazine, this writer was influenced to apply for this conference by two other factors. The first is that the conference name is taken from Gertrude Stein’s long erotic poem entitled Lifting Belly. The second factor is that for several years, this writer Karren Alenier has been talking to the head of opera programs at Duquesne University about her opera Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On. So the poet-librettist recently called Guenko Guechev, Director of the Duquesne Opera Workshop, to set up a meeting with him. While he isn’t doing any jazz operas this year, in past years, he has had the voices for this kind of theater and hopes to again in the future. So yes, this conference appeals to my investment in Gertrude Stein and I look forward to hearing my co-panelists Kimberly Lamm and Liz Vine talk about Stein. We are three of only four talks mentioning Stein by name in this conference.


So back to the question of who will attend my talk? One thing I know is that the speakers are a fluid group of participants. How many people actually come for the entire conference? This question has gravitas. To play, you have to pay—cost of a hotel, transportation to Pittsburgh, food not covered by the conference (you get lunch), and the conference fee. As soon as the conference schedule went up, I started contacting people I knew to see if anyone wanted to share a room. One person said she was bringing someone who was not speaking. Wow! There will be at least one person who is purely there to listen. Another person I contacted said she was flying in, giving her talk, and flying back to DC on the same day. I posted a message on the Women in Poetry listserv (WOMPO) and about eight weeks later someone emailed asking if it was too late for her to share a room with me. Luckily, I had reserved a room before the price went up and so with a number of phone calls to the hotel, I got the room sorted out and the reservation to show there were two people in a room with two beds.

Another thing that is a shock to someone who has never participated in an academic conference is that one has to pay a conference fee. For some academics, the fee, as well as their travel and board, is paid by their college or university. I asked about the fee, reminding the conference governors that I was an independent scholar with no organization behind me that might pick up the tab. They kindly cut the fee in half for the two independents, which one might think was no big deal for either side. However, I have limited funds for expenses beyond my usual day-to-day costs and the conference board is paying for food and other things not covered by Duquesne University. As any who handles money knows, small amounts add up.


On a panel of three, each presenter at this conference has 20 minutes to dazzle or bore her audience. (Here, I prefer the feminine adjectival pronoun because there are very few men.) If the presentation order is alphabetic than Alenier goes first, meaning Ms. Lamm and Ms. Vine will divinely follow and therefore won’t sneak out. I already heard from one possible listener who may drop in, but not for too long because a friend of hers is presenting on a different panel during the same session.

What I wanted to do was create a video where my Second Life avatar Kaala Ragu chases Mr. and Mrs. Quiet’s big bad rabbit away from the little rabbit warren. In Stein’s To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays, the letter Q is predominantly the allegorical story of a couple who love a big rabbit so much that they allow him for many years to get away with evil behavior—he always eats a little rabbit on his birthday. My belief is virtual worlds like Second Life would be a great place to teach Gertrude Stein. There her cubism would be fully realized in the present moment. However, my time is short and at my last practice session, the talk was 21 minutes. I need to cut it by a few minutes to be on the safe side. So, video moves to the back burner.

Now this writer will go back to creating slides to talk from instead of reading her paper. She’ll also be biting her fingernails and wishing that she had the attentive audience at Toad Hall who could teleport to her panel session at Lifting Belly High.
This time around to honor her Toad Hall friends, her pot boils rapidly on the front burner. Lobster or rabbit?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Progression of the Exquisite Corpse

Gateway's Heliport Gallery moved their “Le Cadavre Esquis” exhibition along by reassembling the artful body parts and having a second opening July 26. Collaborating poets Karren Alenier, Christopher Conlon, and JoAnne Growney held a poetry reading in the Gallery on July 29. The theme of the reading was corpses, body parts, and surrealism. Neil Joffe finished the evening with a dramatic presentation of a Tom Waits song.

Here are images from the newly remixed show along with the people at the poetry reading.

Artists in the show include:
Karren Alenier . Mark Behme . Bobbi Clay . Christopher Conlon

Warren Craghead III . Patrick Finley . Fred Folsom . Gail Gorlitzz

JoAnne Growney . Stephen Hanks . Elyse Harrison . Neil Joffe
John Landis
Emery Lewis . Donna M. McCullough . Emily Piccirillo
Shelley Sarrin
 . Rima Schulkind . Ed Thomas . Joyce Zipperer
Birdie Zoltan . Student Artists
Voices from Eastern Village
Voices from Silver Spring Drop-In Center and some of their
art is depicted above.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Town Hall Meeting for Dramatists

On July 14, 2008, The Dramatists Guild of America, which is based in New York City, held a town hall meeting in a hidden away rehearsal room in the Kennedy Center. The Guild under the auspices of Gary Garrison, Executive Director of Creative Affairs for the Guild, and the Guild’s DC area representative Callie Kimball organized and presented a panel discussion by area theater artistic directors in an effort to foster relationships between local playwrights and theaters. When this active member (the Guild has three levels of membership: Active—those who “have been produced on a First-Class/Broadway, Off-Broadway, or mainstage of a regional theatre (LORT) contract,” Associate—those yet unproduced authors of theatrical works, and Student) and a half dozen others finally found the location, the panel discussion was well underway and the room was packed with what turned out to be participants of a workshop that Garrison (author of The New, Improved Playwright's Survival Guide) was leading at the Kennedy Center.

The Artistic Directors included: Randy Baker of Rorschach Theatre, Christopher Henley of Washington Shakespeare Company, Jessica Burgess of Inkwell, Keith Bridges of Charter Theatre, and Deborah Randall of Venus Theatre. Also on the panel was dramaturg Richard Washer of Charter Theatre. Most of these theaters have produced work by some local playwrights. Nonetheless, Garrison cautioned audience members that this was not the time to approach these directors with an unproduced play. Adding a bit of levity after the panel had disbanded and the workshoppers had left the room to about 25 Guild members, Garrison said, “you can’t marry a theater, but you can have an affair.”

Garrison went on to say that personal contact is everything in finding a theater for your play. In fact one of the panel members—Keith Bridges of Charter Theatre— said that his theater does a temperature check with potential playwrights by first giving them a reading and then gauging how well this author will support the goals and needs of his theater company. For this theater company, working with locals means a better production because the playwright is able, without financial burden, to be on location when the play goes into development.

Among the people this playwright met or knew at this event included Frankie Little Hardin, Al Lefcowitz, Patricia Montley, Juanita Rockwell, Emily Solomon,
and Paula Stone. Frankie Little Hardin is the artistic director of 4Oth Street Stage of Norfolk, VA, that welcomes new plays. She created a buzz of excitement after the meeting convened. Juanita Rockwell also created a stir when she spoke about The Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET), a national coalition of theater groups driven by artists.

Garrison said that the Guild is working toward a national conference in the next couple of years. Although this playwright is a librettist and part of a minority group within the Guild, the networking opportunities offered by the Dramatist Guild are tremendously important and a big wow to have them extended beyond New York.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Showing the Exquisite Corpse

The peripatetic poet of The Steiny Road to Operadom collaborated recently with poets JoAnne Growney and Christopher Conlon to create an Exquisite Corpse triptych of three stand-alone poems for an art show entitled “Le Cadavre Esquis.” Read the poems at the end of this post.

The exhibit runs from July 12 to August 9. Be sure to check on hours of operation.The organizers of the show John Landis, Mark Behme, Neil Joffe welcomed a large crowd. Mark Behme provided the idea for this show and it is his rope sculpture seen above that announces the show in the front window of Gateway's Heliport Gallery

Gateway's Heliport Gallery

8001 Kennett Street 

Silver Spring, Maryland 20910

[DC’s subway Red Line to Silver Spring Station]

For more information: 
call Gateway's Heliport Gallery 

at (301) 562-1400

What is interesting about this show is that the visual artists were asked to create three separate pieces involving head, torso, and legs. The odd thing is that the poets in their planning meeting over the Internet divvied up the assignment in the exact same way, not knowing the instructions to the visual artists. (The other choice was to create a back-and-forth poem in the traditional form of the exquisite corpse and there were some poems done by groups of people for this show in this manner.)

The show opened July 12 with each set of works by a particular artist lined up from head to toes. On July 26, the gallery will have a new opening to show a recombined set of works such that the art and our poems will be mixed with other work not by the same artists.

Here are the names of some of the artists in the show:
Karren Alenier . Mark Behme . Bobbi Clay . Christopher Conlon

Warren Craghead III . Patrick Finley . Fred Folsom . Gail Gorlitzz

JoAnne Growney . Stephen Hanks . Elyse Harrison . Neil Joffe
John Landis
Emery Lewis . Donna M. McCullough . Emily Piccirillo
Shelley Sarrin
 . Rima Schulkind . Ed Thomas . Joyce Zipperer
Birdie Zoltan . Student Artists
Voices from Eastern Village
Voices from Silver Spring Drop-In Center


Aloft in space, suspended in someone’s
hands, he hears: Kiss Uncle goodbye, son.
But the old man is different now—his face
hardened, as if brought into focus
for the first time. His skin like plaster.
(They did a wonderful job, someone murmurs.
Just exquisite.) Strange: no odor of whiskey
or cigarettes now, nothing but roses, dust.

Thirty years later he’ll tell them
about Uncle, their private games that were
never fun, the old tongue slimy in his mouth.
I hate you, Uncle. He shuts his eyes,
lips touching the corpse’s cheek. And I love you,
anyway. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.

by Christopher Conlon
Copyright © 2008 by Christopher Conlon


.......................................Held in a padded box—
.......................................never proudly reaching
a muscled right arm up or shaping gestures with with a graceful left arm out—
.......................................and never more a laughingstock.
.......................................In spite of coffin confinement,
.......................................rhymes flow from my felt-tip pen;
.......................................words from the other side :
.......................................surds — again and again !

.......................................From lower worlds I testify :
.......................................The memoirist cannot but lie.
.......................................Only the crust can hold the pie.
.......................................With a boring man, a woman’s dry.
.......................................You can’t be a corpse unless you die.
.......................................Then, to be exquisite, there’s a prerequisite:
.......................................never one-sided — you must be divided!
.......................................Hang on! Bye-bye.

by JoAnne Growney
Copyright © 2008 by JoAnne Growney


Exquisite the shoes,
feet, legs of royalty—
Louis Quatorze in heels
versus the unnamed
empress, princess,
concubine with three inch
stumps, many toes missing,
pushed into baby doll
bootees of silk.
.......................At three, four,
five, six, feet broken and bound
to produce tiny hooves,
lotus hooks, later a swaying
gait if the woman could walk
on painful, rotting stubs.
fold between heel and ball
of the altered paw—site
of the husband’s
.....................Hello, was the Sun
King hobbled so? Oh, no!
His platforms made him His High-
ness, not a come-fuck-me
piece of infected
property confined
to the master’s
dark house, not
a jaded

by Karren L. Alenier
Copyright © 2008 by Karren L. Alenier

Art in order of its appearance starting at the top and descending:
“Knotty Boy” by Mark Behme Copyright © 2008 by Mark Behme
“Jug Head,” “Pot Belly” and “Clay Feet” by Shelley Sarrin
Copyright © 2008 by Shelley Sarrin
“Standing Woman from La Chaise” by Patrick Finley
Copyright © 2008 by Patrick Finley
“Body, Mind, and Sole” by Bobbi Clay Copyright © 2008 by Bobbi Clay
“Yo-Yo Ma” by Steve Hanks Copyright © 2008 by Steve Hanks