August 2022

The Steiny Road to Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier | www.scene4.com

On Creativity

Karren Alenier

The Steiny Road Poet read Mary Mackey's Creativity: Where Poems Begin with giddy pleasure. Part memoire, part how-to, part poetry collection, this book of 105 pages dovetails with things Gertrude Stein did in her quest to become recognized as a cutting-edge writer. While Mackey has her flamboyant moments, her approach is modest in comparison to Stein's, Stein who said she intended to be known as a genius.


Both Mackey and Stein graduated from Radcliffe which means their education included Harvard professors. Unlike most writers of poetry, both Stein and Mackey were influenced by professors with science backgrounds. While Stein had psychologist philosopher William James as mentor, Mackey enjoyed the influence of ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, known for having analyzed the hallucinogenic "black drink" of Amazonian shamans. Like Stein who worked for James on automatic writing experiments, Mackey worked for Schultes as an assistant in the Economic Botany Collections of the Harvard Botanical Museum. While Mackey's job was a low-level clerical exercise, Schultes wasn't entrusting this job  to his biology majors or graduate students. During the time she spent working for him, she found a wad of raw opium, which she took to Schultes who immediately stored it in an iron safe. Both Harvard professors were involved in the study of altered states of the mind.


Favoring a rational approach to creativity, neither Stein nor Mackey were interested in drug-induced alterations of their minds. Mackey says she experienced an altered state of mind since childhood because of abnormally high (and life threatening) fevers. However, Mackey was curious about the culture Schultes studied in the Amazon and traveled and lived there to experience that environment firsthand. Uninterested in the surrealism (being in touch with the unconscious mind) of contemporaries like André Breton,  Stein relied on a disciplined schedule of writing which she did late at night when everyone else slept. Mackey describes how she developed her process of "extreme focus" to move from an ordinary object like an ashtray to her creative landscape. This method of concentration is what she says taught her to re-learn metaphor, something she could do at eleven years old. The point is that children have a natural ability to see things creatively until they lose touch with their inner child by what adults teach them.


In 1893, Stein entered Harvard classes pre-Radcliffe's founding through the Harvard Annex. She was one of 100 women taking a full load of classes. She, like the other women in the Annex, lived in boarding houses and were restricted from many of the privileges afforded to the male students. Mackey notes that cost of going to Harvard was the same for both male and female students. What is surprising is that Mackey who entered Harvard in 1962 was shut out of Harvard's undergraduate library where her course books were on reserve for the students and entrance to such events as a poetry reading of "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg.


Steiny's favorite part of Mackey's book is how her poem, a reverse engineering of Wallace Stevens "The Emperor of Ice Cream," was published in The Harvard Advocate—a magazine that had published few women—and then she woke up to the realization that only by writing in the style of a male poet would she ever get recognition from Harvard and its magazine. This story is punctuated by Mackey thanking those who rejected or snubbed her, followed by a poem in her own voice:




O mundo do rio
the world of the river
is not the world of the bridge not the world
of memory não o mundo do passado
not the world of the past não o mundo da
not the world of longing

beneath the pollen that lacquers the surface beneath the light
that combs the water something indeterminate
lies in wait


o que é what is it
that swims like a fish but is not a fish
that eats bone and flesh but has no teeth
cold-blooded, intelligent
suave como uma pantera smooth as a panther

Leia a água
read the river



Mary Mackey

from Sugar Zone


Mackey also spends a chapter of her book discussing such creatives as Marcel Proust and how to get in touch with personally stored memories by achieving a "liminal state" which "straddles the threshold between the world of dreams and the world of waking consciousness." Mackey ends her book saying that "creativity is a gift. You can't board it like a bus and expect it to take you wherever you want to go." She says there is nothing logical about creativity but nonetheless it follows a path of its own. She sees it as a jungle encompassing both beauty and danger.


Steiny read Creativity: Where Poems Begin by Mary Mackey published by Marsh Hawk Press in one sitting. Steiny did two performance style readings with Mackey where our program of four women featured our own work and the work of Gertrude Stein and Muriel Rukeyser. Steiny is surprised that Mackey mentioned neither Stein nor Rukeyser in Creativity: Where Poems Begin but maybe Stein and Rukeyser represent yet another set of jungles waiting to be explored.


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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
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