November 2022

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

Writing in the Voice of Paul Bowles—Abuse or Love?

Karren Alenier

In 2022, a magazine put out a call for poems that referenced an existing opera aria that effected change within the poem upon hearing that aria. The Steiny Road Poet thought this might be an interesting exercise for an unpublished  poem she was working on that involved the poet, writer, and composer Paul Bowles.

Steiny (a.k.a. Karren Alenier)  has a history with Paul Bowles who was an aficionado of Gertrude Stein. GS said he was her prot茅g茅. Steiny, however, thinks Stein did him more harm than good. GS told him his poetry was awful. Bowles, who was published at age seventeen in Transition, a prominent international magazine along with Stein, Breton, and Joyce, wrote poems about dark subject matter and that's probably what Stein didn't like.

Bowles settled in Morocco in 1947. GS had told him he should go there, and he did the first time with composer Aaron Copland in 1931. In 1982, Steiny met Bowles through a writing workshop sponsored in Tangier by the New York School of Visual Arts. Steiny brought with her Next to Nothing: Collected Poems 1926-1977 by Paul Bowles published in 1981 by Black Sparrow Press. When Bowles signed Steiny's copy, he wrote, "Please don't judge me too harshly by what's in this volume." This was 17 years before his death in 1999.


In 2012, Steiny's chapbook On a Bed of Gardenias: Jane & Paul Bowles was published by Kattywompus Press and in 2016, her full-length collection The Anima of Paul Bowles was published by MadHat Press. Steiny recites these details to better explain the odd interaction she had with the magazine publisher who wanted poems addressing opera arias.

Here is the poem she submitted:



Since Jane died, I am a shadow of myself.

She was my muse. Did I abuse that, did I steal

her energy to write?


Did my flights into the world leave her

unprotected? Did she need me more

than I knew?


Like Dido abandoned by Aeneas, death

invades me but I have no sister

no sister's bosom

to rest my bursting head.


Since Jane died, I cannot raise my pen to write

neither prose nor music. Jane, you had so much

trouble with the white page.

Was it my fault? Was it my fault?


I hear "Dido's Lament" play

replay—I am no warrior

a pale shadow of myself.

Yet Purcell's song lifts me

The melody haunts and forces

my breath—


Janie, I loved your work

those two Serious Ladies,

your play on Broadway when few

other women playwrights ascended

the Great White Way. And you heard my soul

cry out in my fiction, my dark brooding

characters so much like myself, so much like you.

You taught me what love was—a sea of gardenias

on our honeymoon bed. Ah! I breathe.

—Karren LaLonde Alenier


Steiny submitted this poem two days before the submission deadline, and she only submitted one poem because she learned about the call late in the submission period. Hours later, she got a message from the publisher saying they had read bios of Jane and Paul as well as a memoir by Paul, that this [poem? Decision?] was a tough call. They also said they had just accepted another submission featuring Dido's Lament and did Steiny have something else to submit?


Steiny thought: Great! This publisher knows about Jane and Paul. How fortuitous! They must like Steiny's writing and if they already have a submission referencing Purcell's Dido Lament, why not rework this poem using another opera aria. So, dropping everything planned for her morning, Steiny reworked the above poem referring to Francesco Cavalli, a more obscure Baroque composer who wrote a compelling and lyrically beautiful aria lament based on what happened to Apollo when he was shot by Cupid's arrow. She sent the poem and offered that the publisher might consider this version, that she was pleased they knew about Jane and Paul, and that Paul might indeed like the choice of Cavalli. She also said she had spent time with Paul in Tangier.

The publisher again wrote right back, exclaiming "Ha! That's interesting…do you think he would approve?" They concluded that Steiny would have more experience about that, but they were not convinced. This message confused Steiny, and she did not write back. Was the publisher toying with her?

A few hours later, Steiny received another message saying they "have to decline" because Steiny has entered "that nether world of faction." Steiny had run into others who personally knew Paul Bowles and did not like the idea that he would be used in someone else's creative work. Steiny wrote back, " ..sorry your gut is saying no. Perhaps you are thinking this is a cause for a lawsuit?" Then she wrote, "Fictional accounts of famous historic people are allowed under the law." She concluded by pointing out she had already done this with her opera about Gertrude Stein, which was reviewed favorably by the senior music critic of The New York Times.

The publisher wrote back that a lawsuit had not occurred to them in this case, although they had rejected other work in the past on that fear.

Steiny wrote one more message explaining that she took a personal interest in her subjects and that she was providing a stage for writers like Gertrude Stein, Jane Bowles, Paul Bowles so that a new audience might know them and read their "estimable" works. Through the nonprofit literary organization known as The Word Works, Steiny has a long history of supporting other writers through publication and public programs. This fact was in her short bio sent along with the submission.

The remaining question is why the publisher didn't politely say no after they received Steiny's reworked poem. What Steiny got from this exchange is the reminder that there will be people who think that she is abusing her subject matter.


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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.
For more of her commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

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