July 2023

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

How does a poet make
an audience remember her?

Karren Alenier

Here's the situation, the Steiny Road Poet was given five minutes in a 90-minute program featuring over 20 performers of poets and musicians. This program, taking place June 13, 2023, at the DC Arts Club of Washington, was the tenth annual Voice as Bridge, an event conceived by poet and playwright Grace Cavalieri who for 46 years continues to feature other poets in her nationally broadcast radio show from the United States Library of Congress known as "The Poet and the Poem."




Steiny's assignment was to translate one of her poems into French. Since Steiny wanted to make this project worth her time, she chose one of her signature poems. "Leo on Seesaw" is the language poem featured in her jazz opera with Bill Banfield. The poem hinges on the relationship Gertrude Stein had with her brother Leo in Paris when they were breaking off their time together.


                                         for the pleasure
                                         of Gertrude Stein

    little Buddha                  little brooder
    Kleiner Bruder               tiny brother
    bitty bother                     sitting baldly
    in the butter                    in the batter
       shaking philosophic digits
                       in the kitchen
                       for the Kuchen
                       has been eaten
                       by the kitten
    wearing mittens        in the winter
    hiding splinters         in his fingers
                     finding spiders
                     in the cracks
                     of the plaster
                     So we laughed
    twenty HA HA HA HA HA
           in metered breathing
                     something close
                       to the day
                      he was born

The poem has a driving rhythm and energy that animates even people who don't speak fluent English or no English at all. Steiny recited this poem in a class of 10-year-olds who wore their coats to keep warm and who were perpetual motion machines because Chinese buildings lack central heat and the stove used instead produces carbon monoxide, so the windows are opened. These children of Xian, China, suddenly stopped moving and listened with rapt attention while Steiny recited her poem. She also had the experience of a Chinese porter on a riverboat cruising down the Yangtze River reciting "Leo on Seesaw" to her after Steiny was part of an evening's talent show that was videoed. The Chinese man spoke no English, the children, on the other hand, had learned a few English words.


As many people know, Robert Frost defined poetry as something that cannot be translated. Now intensify this declaration by making the poem a language poem in which meaning is not the primary focus. The Israeli poet Moshe Dor admired one of Steiny's language poems about a hot tub enjoyed in Japan, but he said he didn't know how to translate it. That made Steiny realize when the Voice as Bridge assignment came along that the best person to translate "Leo on Seesaw" was Steiny herself. This means that Steiny could focus on the way a translation sounds and not worry about the word-for-word translation.




This is not to say, that Steiny threw French grammar out the window. She consulted with a bilingual editor who set Steiny straight on those rules. Probably it was a bit frustrating for her editor to have words like "little brooder" become "enfant boudeur" (sulky child) and "little brother" become "tout grand blagueur" (big joker). Steiny also rejected the French word for spider (araign茅e) in favor of hornet (frelon). And she changed the number of times the narrator of the poem laughs from "twenty HA HA HA HA HA" to "vingt-et-un HA HA HA" as a Gallic accent. Steiny liked the grunting sound of "vingt-et-un" (21) and the attitude that she could produce with just four iterations of HA.


Is "Leo sur la balan莽oire" a translation or a new version of "Leo on Seesaw"? Steiny says both and probably French with all its rhyming words was a good choice for this funky English poem.


    Leo sur la balan莽oire

                         pour le plaisir de Gertrude Stein


                 petit Bouddah      enfant boudeur

               Kleiner Bruder      tout grand blagueur

                  peu de peine       assis chauve

                dans le beurre      dans la p芒te

             secouant ses pouces philosophiques

                               dans la cuisine

                          parce que le Kuchen

                                a 茅t茅 mang茅

                               par le chaton

           portant des gants      en printemps

    cachant des 茅chardes      dans ses doigts

    •  trouvant des frelons

      dans les fissures

      du pl芒tre

      alors nous avons ri

      vingt-et-un HA HA HA HA

      en respiration mesur茅e

      quelque chose de proche

      de la journ茅e

      il est n茅















Above all, spend adequate time practicing the presentation. Memorize the poem if you can because looking at your audience will make a difference. And remember to breathe as you present.


Much to Steiny's relief, people laughed as she came to the line about laughing. A friend of Steiny's proclaimed that her performance was a big hit because it elicited wild cheering and thunderous clapping. Others said it was entirely fun and apparently that was an unexpected plus.



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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.

Index of Karren Alenier's
columns in Scene4
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©2023 Karren Alenier
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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