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
she was working on that
involved the poet,
writer, and composer
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,
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:
PAUL BOWLES LAMENTS THE DEATH OF HIS WIFE JANE
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
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 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