Saturday, October 31, 2009

Steiny Road to China: Step 7

Li Changdi, a.k.a. the Steiny Road Poet, has been caught up in Chinese homework and too "mang" (busy) to post to the blog. However, instead of going to a Halloween dance party, she decided to catch up her readers on her progress and adventures in learning Chinese.

Everywhere she goes, she carries along her character chart homework. Twice she was on the DC subway busily practicing Chinese characters for such words and phrases as wan fan (dinner), zhou mo (weekend--sounds like Joe Mo) hao jiu bu jian 好久不见 (long time no see--is this hip or what?), when she looked up to see a Chinese woman watching her. The first one who turned out to be Yang Yuge, a Chinese 101 teacher at American University, asked how long Changdi had been studying Chinese. At that point, it was six weeks. "No," the stunned laoshi exclaimed. She thought what Changdi was writing was too advanced for such a short time of study.

When Changdi reported this to her teacher, Laoshi Zhang Xiaoli said she also teaches at A. U. and could she please have Yang Yuge's email which Changdi had jotted down. Furthermore, Changdi learned that Laoshi Zhang teaches advanced Chinese studies at American and Georgetown University.

Backing up a couple of weeks before she met the Chinese women who complimented Changdi's ability to write Chinese characters, she went to a Renaissance music with Chinese pipa concert a the Folger Shakespeare Library. In their Great Hall, they had an exhibition called "Imagining China: The View from Europe, 1550–1700." As she stood with a friend looking at one of the showcases, she saw the Chinese characters for pengyou (friend) and pointed them out aloud. A Caucasian women standing next to Changdi nodded her head and so Changdi asked if she spoke Chinese. She did and she thought that Changdi was doing very well for someone who had only been studying Chinese for four weeks.

In Changdi's third week, she was attending a poetry reading and met Anli Tong, a Beijing research doctor who had just come to Maryland to work at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. To make this woman feel comfortable, Changdi said a few words in Mandarin like Wo jiao Changdi—my first name is Changdi. Ching wen, ni gui xing? (May I please know your family name?) Ni jiao shenme mingzi? (What is your first name?) It turned out that one of the poets reading that night Deborah Ager had studied Chinese in high school and in the audience was an eight-year old who had been studying Mandarin in a school in Indonesia.

The point is that in urban American cities, there are many opportunities to encounter Mandarin speakers and to see Chinese characters. Only yesterday, Changdi met two neighbors, originally from Beijing, who had brought their sons to the condominium Halloween party where Changdi lives. (Changdi was assigned the job of taking photographs and posting them to the Condo's blog.) To these neighbors and with her tongue tripping over the words, Changdi said to each woman, renshi ni hen gaoxing (so pleased to meet you).

週末快樂 - Zhou mo kuai le! Happy weekend!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Steiny Road to China: Step 6

Laoshi Zheng was absolutely stunned. The average score on the first quiz was 64%. Most of the Asian students got the worst scores. Most the newbies got scores above the average. Changdi got a 71%. A week ago on Saturday night instead of going to the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo, she practiced writing Japan—Zhongguo,

..............................................the United States—Meiguo,


France—Faguo, and

Japan—Riben in Chinese characters.

She also practiced the words
laoshi (teacher), xuesheng (student), and pengyou (friend). Oh, and toss Beijing. The thing she has the most trouble with is hearing the correct tone.

The quiz had four parts: 1) dictation—write the Chinese word in pinyin with the correct tone mark, 2) translation—write what the Chinese word is in English, 3) write the pinyin & tone mark for 5 countries and for teacher, friend, student as well as the Chinese character, 4) write the pinyin & tone mark for 5 family members.

So Laoshi Zheng gave the class a worksheet with 34 words/phrases to write in Chinese characters! Some are words that the class was tested on but most are new. Learning ching wen (Excuse me or May I ask) is incredibly hard and what we have to learn is the simplified character set versus the fancier traditional character set. Changdi read a comment blog and found out that some students think it is easier to learn the traditional character set versus the simplified because the former has a story thread. Also the simplified character set is used primarily in mainland China. This might be why some of the Asian students in Changdi's class didn't do well on writing characters. One other thing she learned is that pinyin has become very important because of communication through email. Changdi's teacher thinks pinyin is hard also because she is more comfortable with the Chinese characters.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Steiny Road to China: Steps 4 & 5

While Americans believe the number 13 is unlucky—as in Friday the 13th, the Chinese believe the number 4 sì is unlucky because it sounds similar to the word for death sǐ. However, the number 4 must be "sung" with the fourth or descending tone and the word death is intoned with the rollercoaster of the third tone that goes down and then up. So for this post, Changdi (a.k.a. the Steiny Road Poet) has paired 4 with 5 because the Chinese say that good things come in pairs.

Last week, I had the experience of thinking in Chinese. My laoshi (teacher) was going to each student and asking for a response to a question she would pose to that person on the spot. She was asking, "Are you the teacher" (Ni shi laoshi ma?) or "Are you the student?" (Ni shi xuesheng ma?). She expected us to answer "No, I'm not the teacher" (Bu. Wo bu shi laoshi.) or "Yes, I am the student." (Dui. Wo shi xuesheng.) I was feeling anxious because my brain was bouncing around trying to keep track of how to say I instead of you and yes instead no. The words for teacher and student I had down cold. So when she asked me in Chinese if I was the teacher, I responded, "No, I am the student." (Bu. Wo shi xuesheng.) I certainly hadn't planned what I was going to say. It just popped out without any conscious effort. It also surprised the teacher and she stopped to ask the class if they heard what I answered.

This week the drill is to learn how to write the Chinese characters for five countries and a few assorted words like student, teacher and friend. Last week we needed to learn how to write characters for 1-10 as well as the pinyin. Our first quiz is next week. So far, I cannot hear the tone differences very well. Tone one, the flat sound to infinity, isn't so bad and neither is tone four which descends but the rollercoaster and rising tones are hard for me to hear unless the words are said very slowly.

Basically, my teacher thinks the answer to our student anxiety can be covered by this: ke kou ke le. This is the Chinese interpretation of coca cola and in Chinese, ke with the rollercoaster third tone means permit and le, pronounced with the descending fourth tone, means happiness. So, drink ke le (coke) and permit the mouth to rejoice!


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Steiny Road to China: Step 3

My laoshi (teacher) Xiaoli Zhang said in the second class that she was going to assign us each a Chinese name if we didn't already have one. Over the weekend, the Steiny Road Poet, who has always been good at naming, decided she would look for a Chinese name that appealed to her as a poet. After looking at baby names for Chinese girls, she decided that was like looking for a needle in the haystack.

Shifting gears she thought of the book Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, or is that Chang Jung? (Last names come first in China.) In that memoir, the author and her mother and grandmother have swan in their given names. OK, the Steiny Road Poet decided she wanted a name with a musical instrument and began investigating the translation of flute.

Actually there are many names for different kind of flutes in Chinese: dizi and bangdi are transverse flutes usually made of bamboo. Xiao is an end blown bamboo flute. Gudi is an ancient vertical flute made from bird bones. Paixiao are pan pipes. Koudi is a tiny bamboo flute. Xun is a clay ocarina.

In the Han Dynasty, the dongxiao (currently known as the xiao) was called a chángdí or long flute. During the Song Dynasty, the chángdí was renamed dongxiao. Chángdí is represented by two Chinese symbols. The first symbol looks like a fancy version of the Roman letter K and it means long in space, lasting, deep, profound. The second symbol means bamboo flute.

Ok, so the Poet also needed a Chinese sur name and so she picked Li. Chinese people didn't always have surnames but Li meaning plum is 3000 years old. here is the symbol: 李

Li Changdi

Friday, September 11, 2009

Steiny Road to China: Step 2

On Thursday September 10, 2009, the Poet spent two hours in the language lab trying to nail down how to read pinyin, that's the Romanized phonetic spelling of Chinese which was developed by a government committee in the People's Republic of China and approved by the PRC in 1958. She used the expanded second edition of Integrated Chinese, a popular text book for teaching Americans the Chinese language. However, the Montgomery College Bookstore ordered the wrong edition and next week, the Poet will have to go back to the store and get the third edition. What's really frustrating is not having the CDs that go with this text book.

Her laoshi (teacher) Xiaoli Zhang now says it would be better to have the third edition but that the class should listen to any Chinese recordings to help their ears get tuned up. Yesterday the Poet listened to the CD she bought in Chinatown Philadelphia when she went by bus to hear poet Nathalie Anderson's and composer Thomas Whitman's opera A Scandal in Bohemia. She's about to jump out in the rain and do the same in a few minutes.

She is telling you these ponderous details because learning Chinese and working in the field of new opera are fraught with obstacles. The Poet is OK with this as long as there is some return on the investment.
Here's my ROI from last night's class:

1) The Chinese character for 'hao' is a combination of the characters for woman and child. Hao means OK, fine, good. You greet another human being by saying, 'Ni hao' meaning 'Hi, are you good, are you OK?' Have a look at the character for woman. The Poet had already gotten this character into her subconscious memory in the first class because this is how she is going to find the Ladies Room when she gets to China! Is this not extraordinary that well being engages around the creative act involving a woman with child?

2) Changcheng (the Great Wall) means long city/fortress and Chang Jiang is the name of the longest river, the Yangtze.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

First on the Steiny Road to China

The Steiny Road Poet has rarely taken the easy path. For years, the Poet has been meaning to learn Chinese. Well, at least learn enough vocabulary to get by as a traveler. Over the years, she bought flashcards, cassettes, workbooks, and CDs. Today she is officially on the books at a local college for Chinese 101. The first class was Tuesday evening.

The Poet walked in the class late because she was caught up in a line trying to register for the class. Wow, the majority of the 20 or so students were Asians. The laoshi (that’s Mandarin pinyin – phoenetic spelling—for teacher) greeted the Poet with “Ni hao!” Lucky for for the Poet, she knew this is how you say hi and so she returned the “Ni hao!” By the way, the pinyin she is using here is missing all the accent marks. Sorry but she doesn’t have that character set.

First up is to learn the four tones—the flat tone into infinity that is Ma as in mother (open your mouth wide), the rising tone (like a question) of Ma that means flax, the rollercoaster tone of Ma that goes down and then up and means horse, and the descending tone Ma that means scold or criticize.

And tones are not the only sounds that need to be heard and internalized. There are also the sounds that require different positioning of the tongue. The idea is to spend hours in language lab to nail down the sounds and tones. So the Poet went to check out the lab and got totally confused. The confusion stems from the fact that different versions of the text book and workbooks are being sold and used. So for example, the Poet had the 2nd edition of the text book, while her laoshi had a 3rd edition. Laoshi Zhang said it didn’t matter. Oh but it does, the Poet is now muttering to herself. Guessing where her laoshi is reading from wastes time. When the Poet was in the lab she tried to follow the CD lessons in the workbook but that didn’t work. Wrong version? The Poet had a 3rd edition workshop but the CD said 2nd edition. Now she thinks the CD plays to the text book and not the workbook. To quote her Yiddish bubbeh, Oy vey!

So for now the Poet will concentrate on learning her numbers. This is something she started to teach herself from YouTube tutorials before she decided to go to a formal person-to-teacher class. What she didn’t realize is that the numbers say a lot about learning the tones and the characters are pretty simple to grasp.

Learning Chinese is like learning to identify instruments in an orchestra. The Poet likes the musical aspect of learning this language. By the way, the Poet thinks in another life she was Chinese.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Avoiding the Deadly Undertow

Yesterday, the Steiny Road Poet received an email from composer John Supko who has been germinating an opera project with the Poet. His message read, how about changing the name of the work from the storytellers of Tangier (actually Raconteurs in Tangier) to an actual story title by Paul Bowles. Paul and Jane Bowles are the focus of this work. While the question from the composer wasn’t put to the Poet in exactly that way, she is now thinking after a walk along the Potomac River this is how the conversation has evolved.

One of the things that the Poet liked about this suggestion is how intimate the composer is with the literary side of Paul Bowles. For those who don’t know PB, he was both a writer of words (fiction and poetry) and music. More importantly, John’s suggestion took the Poet outside of the box she had created for herself. While she was OK with Raconteurs in Tangier, she knew deep down that it wasn’t the most evocative title because while raconteur is a word used in English, it’s not familiar to most people.

“How Many Midnights,” the story title that John is suggesting, comes from Paul’s collection The Delicate Prey. In “How Many Midnights,” the main character June (surely modeled after Jane Bowles) is engaged to be married to a very private man named Van. For some period of time, she has been focused nightly (midnight) out her bedroom window on where he lives. She is much younger than Van and she still lives with her parents. Finally, Van makes the ultimate sacrifice and gives her a key to his apartment. The trouble is the first night she goes there by herself, he never comes home from his book store. The story deals with privacy, the threat of suicide, and abandonment. Paul Bowles was the master of suggestion.

While the libretto the Steiny Road Poet wrote never mentions midnight, there is a suggestion that midnight could be the timeframe during which the anchoring characters Paul and Jane's Moroccan lover Cherifa are rehashing Jane's life. (She has already died when these two unlikely smoking partners get together.) So now the quandary is whether to insert the phrase how many midnights somewhere in the libretto. The Poet is thinking, why make the audience for this opera work so hard on how the title connects, especially if they are unfamiliar with this particular story by Bowles. The gift of its connection to PB's short story should stand out of the way and only go to the Paul Bowles aficionado.

So that’s it on a Labor Day weekend from the Steiny Road Poet who went for a walk along the C & O canal and learned today about an enticing dam across the Potomac River that kayakers might like to run. Well, the only rapids this Poet will run deal with the creative process. How wonderful to have a creative partner who can set the Poet free without sending her into a deadly undertow.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Deep Plunge into Making of Americans

So where has the Steiny Road Poet been lately?

Mostly with her nose in a book this summer. She read Karen Leick's Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity and then she took the big plunge -- she began reading The Making of Americans up at Toad Hall in New Hampshire. Currently she is over 700 pages deep and that's pretty close to the end of this 900 page plus novel by Gertrude Stein.

Here are some images from Toad Hall.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Hungry Monster that is Opera

“Opera is an omnivore and can eat everyone alive.” Anne Bogart at VOX 2009

At VOX 2009, I had the pleasure of hearing George Steel, the new general director of New York City Opera, moderate a panel of prestigious artists involved with the making of new operas on May 2, 2009. Steele, who seems to be embracing new American opera with culinary gusto (he said he had just consumed Elise Kirke’s wonderful reference book American Opera), started the discussion with the preternatural question, What is opera?

Who were the panelists? Let’s start there.

Mark Adamo is composer librettist of Little Women and Lysistrata.

Eve Beglarian, characterized as post minimalist composer. Her work has been performed by Bang on a Can All-Stars, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and others. She approaches music from all timeframes and styles and is considered in your face, outrageous, and intellectual.

Anne Bogart is an award-winning dramatic director who made her debut directing opera through the work of composer Deborah Drattell.

Carlisle Floyd is composer librettist of many operas including Susannah, Of Mice and Men, and Cold Sassy Tree.

Nico Muhly, known as a wunderkind composer (he was born in 1981), he is working under commission from the Metropolitan Opera on his first operatic project with Craig Lucas.

Quotable lines from this panel discussion:

“Performing arts is about changing time.” Anne Bogart

(I agree and think that is why any artist pursues his work – to get some control over the speed at which our lives go by and to help our audience experience what is happening right at this moment.)

“We listen faster (in opera).” Mark Adamo

(The operatic experience brings life into warp speed so that we can experience the full compliment of activities from birth to death. Yet the performance of opera can make time slow down so we can take in a whole life time.)

“The operatic story is ruled by the emotional content of the music.” Carlisle Floyd

(The music helps clarify and deepen a story.)

“In opera, the story has to be the right size.” Nico Muhly

(Everything in the arts is a question of balance.)

“Don’t worry about whether it is an opera. Anyone asking doesn’t matter.” Nico Muhly

(There is a lot of debate about what constitute an opera. Muhly’s advice to a question from the VOX audience was if the creators say the work is an opera, it is an opera.)

According to Floyd, the libretto contributes 60% to the success of an opera. He also said you would think that the playwright is the artist best suited for writing opera libretti but he thinks that poets can better adapt themselves to the job.

Because I am weighing the idea of creating a new libretto based on the same source text for existing music, the panel seemed a timely bit of counsel. I will add that Carlisle Floyd was skeptical that one could effectively rework the music to good effect because he feels the libretto provides the inspiration. Another Steiny Road challenge for me.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

High Noon at the Library of Congress

National Poetry Month has begun with a lot of fanfare for the Steiny Road Poet. First was the WOM-PO reading at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Next, April 7 was the 15th Anniversary Reunion Reading of Poetry at Noon series at the Library of Congress. I was one of 27 poets to read. It should have been 28 – Greg McBride I saw you last night at Café Muse and Judy McCombs did a shout out to you to come to the mic if you were hiding behind the celebration cake. I hope all is well with you.

Beginning with Nan Fry who was the first Poetry at Noon reader, the quick succession of readers to the mic was quite a survey of styles and subject matter. Nearly everyone knew each other and so there was an energetic exchange of greetings and news. A hearty thank you to poet Patricia Gray who started and continues to run this important program in our Nation’s Capital. And by the way, George Bilgere was right to expect the President—Barack and Michelle Obama should be invited to EVERY reading on the LOC schedule.

Here is the list of readers:
Karren Alenier
Nancy Arbuthnot
Cliff Bernier
George Bilgere
Jody Bolz
Kenny Carroll
Grace Cavalieri
John Clarke
Nan Fry
David Gewanter
Barbara Goldberg
Patricia Gray
Erich Hintze
Reuben Jackson
Hiram Larew
Lyn Lyfshin
David McAleavy
Greg McBride
Judith McCombs
Miles Moore
Yvette Moreno
Jean Nordhaus
Linda Pastan
Heddy Reid
Kim Roberts
Marty Sanchez Lowery
Rosemary Winslow
Kathi Wolfe
Edwin Zimmerman

Monday, April 6, 2009

Letters to the World: Meet the WOMPOnies

On April 5, 2009, the National Museum of Women in the Arts hosted a celebration reading of Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-Po Listserv edited by Moira Richards, Rosemary Starace, and Lesley Wheeler. The 452-page anthology nicknamed the WOMPOlogy contains poems from 258 women and one man. Yes, the WOMen's POetry Listserv allows men as long as they talk about women in poetry or women's poetry.

The creation of the book, with a preface by Annie Finch—the founder of the WOM-PO and an introduction by D'Arcy Randall, is a study in an unusual collaboration. The egalitarian process took much longer than anyone predicted but everyone agreed the results were worth the wait. In my experience with creating anthologies (I have edited two: Whose Woods These are, I was the sole editor, and Winners: A Retrospective of the Washington Prize, I was co-editor with Hilary Tham and Miles David Moore), they always take longer than you originally plan.

While there are poets from five countries represented in the anthology, the gathering in DC brought WOMPOnies from such American states as California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, DC, and the greater DC area of Maryland and Virginia. On a beautiful spring day during the peak of blossoming cherry trees and its annual festival, the NMWA auditorium was respectably occupied and the audience attentive. After all, the the National Museum of Women in the Arts is a prestigious space and place for women's voices to be heard.

The featured readers included Rosemary Starace, Lesley Wheeler, Kim Roberts, Julie Enzer, and Rosemary Winslow. Eleven other WOMPOnies read from the anthology including some like me who joined the WOMPO listserv after the call for Letters to the World had ended. The event was a grand opportunity to meet women poets, put faces to names known on the WOM-PO listserv, and display our books along side the new anthology.

The bottom line is buy the book and join the WOM-PO listserv now. You will not find a warmer and more welcoming community anywhere in our world. I love the blend of cyber and real world contact. Wherever I go, I make a point to meet WOMPOnies.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Epiphanies of Celebrating Four Saints in Three Acts

Having given herself nearly one month to reflect on the outcomes of celebrating the 75th anniversary of Gertrude Stein’s and Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, the Steiny Road Poet is still basking in the energy of the over-capacity crowd that showed up at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Elebash Recital Hall to experience Encompass New Opera Theatre’s concert version of the experimental opera that still puzzles and delights. Who would have thought that in only a year’s time, a celebration of such magnitude could successfully come together? The celebration included:
• A film screening—Steven Watson’s Prepare for Saints based on his book Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism.
• Five talks done by a cubistic set of esteemed speakers—a cultural historian (Watson), a poet-librettist (Karren Alenier), a composer-orchestral arranger (Charles Fussell), an American art historian (Wanda Corn), and a theater director who was mentored by Virgil Thomson (Nancy Rhodes).
• A culminating panel that included all of the speakers and composer Scott Wheeler who was a student of Virgil Thomson.
• An exhibition of Stein memorabilia from the collection of Hans Gallas.
• A video film interview by Steven Watson of Virgil Thomson.
• Book selling of selected titles by Bluestockings Bookstore.
• Production of Four Saints that included a cast of 24 performers and an orchestra of 16 musicians.
• A post-production talk back that included the stage and music directors, two singers from the cast, the cultural historian who documented Four Saints, and two composer who had worked closely with Virgil Thomson.
• Special guest David Vaughan, the biographer of Frederick Ashton, the choreographer of the original Four Saints production.
• A modest wine reception.
Financial support from two major organizations—City University New York (thanks to the sponsorship of Dr. Frank Hentschker, Director of Programs at the Martin E. Segal Center of The CUNY Graduate Center) and the Virgil Thomson Foundation (thanks to the sponshorship by the Foundation’s Board member Charles Fussell)—and many private individuals.
• Advance publicity from The New York Times by a senior music critic.


What was the role of the Steiny Road Poet? Besides serving as the accidental catalyst that started the celebration ball rolling, she was responsible for suggesting and enlisting the cooperation of most of the principal participants, including Nancy Rhodes who became a significant partner in developing the daylong festival. The Poet also coordinated:
the details of the afternoon program, such as
• The order of the speakers.
• How long they would speak.
• Who would introduce them.
• How the Q&A period would proceed.
• When the speakers needed to show up.
• What information they needed to be successful.

Additionally, she
• Kept in contact with the speakers.
• Collected their bios.
• Prepared their introductions.
• Made sure Hans Gallas stayed connected to the CUNY staff who would provide the locked display cabinets.
• Interfaced with the CUNY staff such as Jan Stenzel and Siobhan Glennon who prepared the publicity and the program brochure.
• Lobbied for a small reception after the event.
• Reassured the director when her job load seemed unappreciated and too heavy to bear.

Thank you, Frank Hentschker! The Poet considered the libations and the NY Times publicity divine intervention.


If there could have been one element that could have turned out better, it was getting a little more support for the audio-visual presentation of two slide shows (the bottom lines of the Poet’s slides were not seen because of last minute change of software needed for the art slide show by Wanda Corn and Professor Corn’s slides were somewhat distorted.) Nonetheless, the auditorium was 60 to 70 percent filled for most of the speaking sessions and only one person (who was unable to get back into the auditorium for the opera performance) complained about some of the talks not meeting his expectations.

Someone—was that you, Roger Cunningham of Encompass New Opera Theatre?—decided on the fly to give departing audience members The Steiny Road to Operadom bookmark as an entrance ticket to the evening performance. While not many books were sold, surely among those audience members carrying the Poet’s bookmark were potential future buyers. This was another little glitch in the management of the event. Not everyone who attended the afternoon session was able to identify him- or herself and therefore didn’t get into the auditorium for the evening program. The Poet rescued a woman with a cane whom she encountered in the restroom. The woman lacked a bookmark, but had been in the afternoon sessions and so the Poet walked her around the crowd into the auditorium and felt darn good for doing that.


One regret was that the Poet was unable to get to New York for the dress rehearsal, which would have been the right time for photo ops. Oh, to capture the eyes of Eve Gigliotti as as the Commère, Laura Choi Stuart as Saint Teresa, and Roland Burks as Saint Ignatius. However, there were videographers enlisted by Steven Watson to shoot archival footage. The Poet hasn’t heard anything yet about this, but expects to see it at some point in the near future. The Poet said all along this celebration would go down in the history of American opera as a significant event and the archival footage should ensure that. And yes, the Poet asked for a closed circuit monitor for the exhibition hall in case there was an overwhelming crowd with a battering ram. As it was, dear beleaguered Dr. Hentshker had to schlep an old monitor from his home so that the singers could see the conducting directions from maestro Mara Waldman.


What kept the Poet calm during this exciting day? She was lucky enough to have shelter from a friend in the neighborhood of the CUNY Graduate Center, a seven-minute walk so she could check on the last minute details in the morning. Ellen Rappaport, a new friend had organized a lunch at Ali Babba’s, the Poet’s favorite Turkish Restaurant, which kept her nourished until the short break between the afternoon and evening events. Then some more of her friends—composer Janet Peachey, poet-librettist Nathalie Anderson, dramaturg Maxine Kern—joined her at the CUNY Graduate Center’s café while she ate a little vegetarian fare (okra stew and rice, yum!). And after, this time for sure thanks to Roger Cunningham, the triumphant Nancy Rhodes, Mara Waldman (Encompass music director), singer Roland Burks (St. Ignatius), Frank Hentschker, Hans Gallas, Steven Watson, his videographers, several people associated with the new music orchestra Ionisation, Norman Carey (director of the CUNY Graduate Center Doctor of Musical Arts performance program and Nadine Carey (she was in the Four Saints chorus and both she and her husband Norman have worked with Nancy Rhodes in the past on Encompass productions) and the Poet all leaned in to toast the production and the events that led up to it at Brendan’s Bar and Grill. More good food eaten there. Armies and performers definitely travel by what goes into the stomach. Good food helps produce good results.

Then with the spirits of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson lighting the way, the Poet, thinking about how a February 2008 production of In Circles, a musical by the late Reverend Al Carmines based on Stein’s A Circular Play: A Play in Circles was the genesis of the Four Saints celebration, walked the few blocks home to her friend’s condo and fell deliriously into bed like a heavy log.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Raising Four Saints in the 21st Century

Before the moment flees, the Steiny Road Poet wants to clarify—she only raised one saint and his name is Ivan. The Saints under discussion here are the ones Gertrude Stein created for Virgil Thomson so they could have an opera together: Four Saints in Three Acts. That opera premiered on Broadway February 20, 1934, and that is what the Poet will be celebrating with her dear friends and colleagues Nancy Rhodes, artistic director of Encompass New Opera Theatre, and Frank Hentschker, director of the Martin E. Segal Theatre of the Graduate School of City University New York, on February 20, 2009, at CUNY’s Graduate Center.


The 2009 celebration of the 75th anniversary of Four Saints will be gloriously free to the public. The public, that means you, Dear Reader, must come early to claim a seat because after the 180 seats in Elebash Recital are filled, there will be no seeing the historic 50-minute oratorio version Nancy is producing with Roland Burks as St. Ignatius, Laura Choi Stuart as Theresa, Eve Gigliotti as Commère, and Nils Neubert as St. Chavez and St. Stephen.

At the 2009 Encompass New Opera Theatre party, I heard Roland Burks sing the joyful “Pigeons on the Grass, Alas” segment of the opera (there are no arias in Four Saints—it’s an equal opportunity opera) and my heart nearly broke open with excitement and spiritual lift. If you cannot come early, I recommend you contact Encompass and donate $100 so a seat can be reserved for you. The money is needed to pay the small orchestra that will enhance Virgil Thomson’s settings of Gertrude Stein’s poetry.


All the photos from that fundraising party can be seen in the slideshow currently installed in the upper left-hand column of this blog. Seen at the opera party was American art historianWanda Corn who will be speaking at the 75th anniversary celebration in the afternoon on what Stein’s operas did for this early Modernist who now folks say is a Post-Modernist as well. Go, Gertrude! Professor Corn, who is currently teaching for one semester at CUNY’s Graduate Center, will be curating an art show that is a cultural study of Stein’s friendships and partnerships with other artists during the period between the two great wars (WWI & WWII). That show entitled “Seeing Gertrude Stein” will open in San Francisco at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and run from May to September 2011. The show will move to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC (Fall 2011). Wouldn’t it be swell if Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On could be featured along with this art exhibition?


OK, so come hear the Steiny Road Poet talk about why Four Saints in Three Acts remains the most important American opera at CUNY’s Graduate Center 3 pm on February 20. Be a saint and bring your checkbook so you can buy The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas and Steven Watson’s book Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism. Steven will be airing his film based on his book and original film footage from the 1934 production of Four Saints (2 pm). If you don’t get into the Elebash Hall at 6:30 pm, you will be able to see the Hans Gallas Gertrude Stein collection.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Of Kill Fees and Presidential Musicales

How many times is a poet paid to NOT sing for her supper? In fact, how often is it that a poet gets her dinner when she goes out to do a reading?

On January 18, 2009, this poet was invited to do a seven-minute reading at 3:30 pm in celebration of Gival Press’s new anthology Poetic Voices without Borders 2 in A Sunday Kind of Love poetry program at the 14th & V Street Busboys & Poets restaurant. What this meant to this poet was writing a new poem to present, selecting the poems that would be read, deciding the introductory remarks, practicing the reading several times, inviting friends and family to the reading, and getting myself to Busboys on time. All this cost me time and money and I had no expectation of getting anything except a copy or two of the new anthology as total payment.

My husband Jim Rich decided to go with me because he likes Busboys and so by some miracle we got there just before 3 pm (Jim wanted to have lunch ahead of the poetry reading). By miracle, I mean the roads leading downtown were packed with cars headed into the city for a pre-inaugural event. At Busboys, we headed straight back to the Langston Room and found one unoccupied table that we claimed. What we realized straight away was that president-elect Obama’s musicale was being broadcast live from HBO on the big screen in this room set aside for poetry in honor of Langston Hughes. The people assembled were vocally reacting to the performers and Barack Obama and his family.

About 15 minutes later, Melissa Tuckey, the current host of A Sunday Kind of Love, and her husband Dave appeared and we all started conferring about what a tough transition it was going to be when the HBO broadcast got turned off at 3:30 pm. Being first on a list of six poets, I said I would dedicate my first poem to Michele Obama.

Then the other poets started showing up Yvette Neisser, Patricia Gray, Joe Ross, and Sydney March. Only Christopher Conlon didn’t make the event since he had alerted me he might not, due to succumbing to a cold.

Last came Robert Giron and his partner Ken Schellenberg with a box of books.

When the assistant manager announced to the crowd that there would be a poetry reading starting a little late at 4 pm, the crowd voiced their disapproval. So he called the Busboy’s owner Andy Shallal and Andy said, “Go with the most popular program and offer the poets dinner on the house and a kill fee of $25.” So there you have it, in a room bearing a poet’s name, poets were paid off not to sing their lyrics.

Nonetheless, I went around to each table of folks and gave them literature from The Word Works and everyone apologized and took my poetry propaganda. Two tables of people were disappointed and said so. Pat Gray and I gave one table a private reading of one poem each. Seeing Obama did remind me that when Martin Luther King delivered his “I had a dream” speech at that very same memorial, my mother refused to let me attend. It also reminded me that having grown up in a family of six children, I don’t like crowds and what could be better than to see the musicale from the comfort of Busboys?

Next time I do a reading, I’m inviting Barack and Michelle.