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On Reading Stein
Last month, thanks to Vanessa Place and the Poetry Foundation, I was able to read from Gertrude’s Stein’s Stanza’s in Meditation at the stunning home of Poetry in Chicago. To say I was nervous about this is an understatement. Particularly since I have not been “in” Stein for some months and I find that to read something even moderately well one has to be immersed in it. Also, I am not a Stein scholar: Stein lover yes, scholar no, and the clout of mastery keeps many a girl out of the ring—in my lifetime I have already wasted far too much time giving weight to such brutes though, so, even in doubt, I add my voice.
Thankfully there were no brutes in the house. And, thankfully, at the last minute the order was reversed and Stein got to go first and did not to have to follow the powerhouse Tracie Morris (reading Gwendolyn Brooks) or Kasey Mohammad (reading Zukofsky), or Peter Gizzi (reading Pound), or Vanessa Place (reading the fascist Pound). There was a certain amount of swagger, particularly with the Pound, and not surprisingly, given the level of talent in the room. I was pleased to be part of it.
Partly this is due to Stein, who is always great fun to read. I approached the event with the same aloof determination I felt she would approach it. I thought she would be chuffed to have such an opportunity so I wasn’t going to waste it, but I also thought she would be a tad irreverent. I didn’t memorize the section I read (you can read it yourself in the online archives of Poetry Magazine), though I did spend time (as much as my current domestic situation would allow me) working through the stanzas very intimately, moving backwards and forwards, revisiting associations and trying to imagine, first of all, how Stein would have read it (I thought the lines would be ripe with associations that she would bring in tone and measure). I considered how that might or might not be different this century later, and then I made a few strong decisions of my own. I also spent time listening to her read, thanks to UBU, but so far as I know there is no recording of her reading from the Stanzas so I was free to find my way through.
History of the writing aside, it seemed to me a matter of deciding what to emphasize and not. There are such fabulous backtracks. Assertions then reassertions, slight changes, repetitions. Some repetitions seemed to me more playful than others. Some wanted to be sectioned off “which which” as opposed to “which/which”. The first two lines “Mama loves you best because you are Spanish/ Mama loves you best because you are Spanish,” I read quite differently each time. The second time around seeming much more provoking, teasing, but again which part to emphasize? Particularly as it is followed so quickly with “Spanish/ or which/ or a day.” Repetition and insistence, but what to insist?
I don’t think there is one way to read the poem. No right way. Though I was aware that my reading might be perceived as a more lyric interpretation. I could have chosen not to emphasize any given word, read the entire selection in monotone, but that seemed to me ridiculous given how much delight there is in the tightly wound language, and how in the pieces we do have of Stein reading, she reads effusively. Bouncy. She is working on syllable, the word pairings sing. She would not, I thought, want to bury that.
So, when is a sentence a sentence? When must it be left alone? When is a break appropriate and when was I forcing myself on the poem? I am not sure how I did—I didn’t record it though now I wish I had because I would love to do it again (and so improve my relationship to the text). And I have sworn to memorize some of the portion I read (particularly the above section). Not all of the Poetry Magazine selection because it isn’t precisely the selection I would have chosen to publish, or read, for that matter, and I am hoping to have the opportunity to read Stein again. And again. And again. And in a variety of interpretations.
Why am I /if I am uncertain /reasons may inclose.
Remain remain /propose /repose /chose.
I call carelessly that the door is open
Which if they can refuse to open
No one can rush to close.