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Karren LaLonde Alenier

Poetics Theater: A Steinian Wormhole?

People getting what they want how they want when they want it

People getting fumbly stumbly crazy with it

People getting stuck there

People getting theoretical about it too

                  Rodrigo Toscano, from “Truax Inimical”


At the 2015 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference and Book fair in Minneapolis, Minnesota, (April 8 through 11), the Steiny Road Poet had two missions: promote contemporary poetry by selling books published by The Word Works, Steiny’s first publisher, and find a satisfying dose of Gertrude Stein among the offerings of 2,000 presenters and 550 readings.




Limiting herself to one conference event each day, she found listed for April 9, “There Be Monsters: Poets in the World of Novel Writing.” The panel write-up read:


“To many poets, the world of novel writing may seem as if, as was written on old maps. ‘there be monsters.’ Yet there is a vibrant history and contemporary practice of poet novelists; poets such as Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Renee Gladman, and Tao Lin have all written exceptional novels. The panel participants, all poets, will discuss their experiences charting the seas of novel writing: our processes for writing a novel, differences and crossover between forms, and publishing the results.”


As the There-Be-Monsters panelists spoke, Steiny realized that the panel’s title and description was the best part of the offering. Gertrude Stein’s name (as well as the other poet-novelists) was never mentioned in this mostly self-indulgent, mostly rambling set of presentations. Only the Language poet Mark Wallace who read a paper on the crossover theme between poetry and fiction provided something of value and came close to invoking Stein with this line: “I am a writer who writes writing.”




The next day while working the crowd passing by The Word Works table, Steiny got a visit from Magus Magnus, a Washington DC area poet with ties to New York City theater. He said he was on a panel dealing with poetic theater, another genre crossover approach. This panel was titled, “Poetics Theater: A Textual and Theatrical Performance and Discussion.” The panel write-up as written by panel moderator Kaveh Bassin read:


“For centuries, major poets have also been playwrights. Modernist poets continued the tradition, exploring the possibilities of theater and its elements. More recently, by experimenting with language in physical, personal, and social bodies, a new generation of poets has been writing a hybrid Poetics Theater, that, like the prose poem, challenges the conventional notions and the expected boundaries of poems and plays. Join us for a unique reading and discussion of Poetics Theater.”


By reading from original work, each poet-playwright cut to the chase, demonstrating instead of telling what his or her work achieves. This put the audience immediately in that small window of time called now, something Gertrude Stein vigorously supported.


The opening offering—“Truax Inimical: a trans-modern masque for four voices” by Rodrigo Toscano—reminded Steiny of Gertrude Stein’s “Ladies’ Voices.” All the panelists—Patrick Durgan, Magus Magnus, Joyelle McSweeney, and Toscano—participated in the reading and brought a lively energy to the work.




What Steiny particularly loved about Toscano’s piece (part I) was the infectious 21st century repetition: scrolling, pointing, clicking, selecting, which was used to punctuate such thoughts as:


I was very disappointed by the doping up of red-hot scientific phenomenon into a consumerist cocktail


or (This quoted passage with numbers indicating which voice of the four speaks the lines)


(4) At the edge of the Empire is a synthetic voice that sounds like a recorded loop with emotional highlighting tweaked-in later

(3) You mean you

(2) By copping, onlyme

(1) Jittery, I’m getting jittery


(2) Very Lilliputian


(1) Scrolling

(4) Pointing

(2) Clicking

(3) Selecting



In an email dated April 16, 2015, Magnus provided these details about Toscano’s work and how the two of them came to work with each other:


“Rodrigo Toscano presented Truax Inimical from his book Collapsible Poetics Theater, 2007 winner of the National Poetry Series. His theater troupe is also called "Collapsible Poetics Theater"—my organization of 2005-2010 was called Yockadot Poetics Theatre Project (and festival), and both Rodrigo's and my group independently arrived at that phrase, but we meant the same thing:  a subset of Poets Theater involved in 21st century poetics, aesthetics and societal concerns. I showcased his Collapsible work in 2007 for a poetics theater festival, and so we've been thinking along parallel lines more or less since.”




Magnus, going solo, read his work entitled: "8 Phases of Staring at the Sun." In his email Magnus offered this gloss:


“My ‘8 Phases of Staring at the Sun,’ in theatrical terms, follows my work on the theory and technique of the Idyll (performance poetry utilizing the poetic arc and poetic image—the image of imagination activated in real time), as well as poetics theater structures (contemporary arc through numbers, series, ambiguity of voice and character); in terms of content, it connects to my current development of work on Heliogabalus and the concept and history of the Free Spirit, as canon and cult.”


Like the complexity of Stein’s theater work, which often eliminates distinct characters and story throughline, what Magnus described in his own work will certainly require an investment of time to understand. According to what Steiny is gathering, poet’s theater is not poetics theater. What Steiny would like to impart here is that a contemporary underworld exists in the realm of poetry where poetry and theater cross-pollinate and surely this mixing of the two art forms has much to do with Gertrude Stein’s theatrical legacy but very certainly going beyond what Stein offered.


So while the Steiny Road expected at the AWP Conference to find a cozy Gertrude Stein rabbit hole on the order of the one in Alice in Wonderland, she believes she stumbled into a socio-political wormhole, where sudden collapse (could Toscano’s collapsible theater pertain to wormhole, a bridge across time-space?), high radiation and contact with dangerous exotic matter are possible, even as a shortcut across time-space beckons.


May 2015

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier's most recent book is
The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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