Monday, April 21, 2014

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger Karren LaLonde Alenier

Thank you so much to D.C.-area poet Karren LaLonde Alenier for today's thoughts on Gertrude Stein's  Tender Buttons. Karren LaLonde Alenier is author of the libretto Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On, an opera collaboration with composer William Banfield and director Nancy Rhodes of New York’s Encompass New Opera Theatre. Her book The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas provides snapshots of contemporary American opera and how her own opera came to Broadway in 2005 with a favorable review in The New York Times. She has published six collections of poetry, most recently On a Bed of Gardenias: Jane & Paul Bowles. She writes a monthly column on Gertrude Stein and the arts for Scene4 Magazine. She has been an officer of The Word Works since 1986. More information at

I am reading Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein and having so much fun, other activities like sleeping, eating, and paying bills sometimes get short changed. Yes, this is the same experimental poem that critics love to hate.

In October 2013, inspired by a panel discussion sponsored by University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis, I decided I would start blogging my own personal study of Stein’s first book of poetry. If I felt I could sustain interest in such a project than I would open the study of Tender Buttons to other students of Filreis’ Modern Poetry Massive Open Online Course, taking the work inside the MOOC’s discussion forum where I operate as a “Community Teaching Assistant.”

Tender Buttons is divided into three sections. The first two sections have titled subpoems. By the fifth subpoem “A Piece of Coffee.” [NB. All the subpoems end with periods as part of the title] in Section 1 “Objects,” I was ready to commit to the project and seek a community to study with me. Thus, within the Modern Poetry MOOC, I have established a working international group with as many as 20 people, but the silent audience draws from a registered community of over 40,000.

One aspect of this project that intensely interests me now is how to evaluate any experimental poetry. I brought up that question in a panel at the Associated Writing Programs convention held in Seattle recently. The panel entitled “Is It Really That Difficult? The Problem with ‘Difficult’ Poetry” seduced me when the first panelist to speak invoked Gertrude Stein’s name and work as an example. I had not intended to stay, but went there with new Word Works author Barbara G.S. Hagerty. Unfortunately, the panelists had not thought through this question and offered there was audience for any work of poetry no matter its quality. Both Barbara and I who write ludically and have a comic sensibility (and no, her middle initials do not stand for Gertrude Stein) were not amused by the collective response from this panel.

So far in the study of Tender Buttons, I have come to believe that interesting experimental poetry, worth the time I will spend reading it, offers these two things—underneath is something substantive, like philosophy or science (some kind of thought process or as Stein put it in the opening subpoem, “a system to pointing”) and the writer has some kind of strategy for what is being written. I’m very open to a work being inconsistent, but like Chaos Theory, I believe a grand design must be in place. I invite you to follow the progress of the Tender Buttons study and to sign up now for the next ModPo MOOC that begins its third presentation in September 2014. After the ModPo course opens, find the Tender Buttons study group in the discussion forum and join in.

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