Gertrude Stein left Blood on the Dining Room Floor unfinished. A fan of Dashiell Hammett, Stein began her murder mystery in 1933 after her unexpected success with the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. She was in a writing slump and identity crisis brought on by a confluence of circumstances but especially the success of a book she felt forced to produce by her publisher and which only took her six weeks to write. The audacity of getting such public acclaim and monetary recompense for a work Stein did not consider close to her best! What could be better to take a distressed author's mind off a dreadful success than a murder mystery?
VERSE: A STEP BEYOND TV & MOVIEHOUSE
Ram Devineni is the publisher of Rattapallax Press and a filmmaker who has developed and produced VERSE: A Poetry Murder Mystery. VERSE is a mini video series presented in seven segments (approximately 10 minutes in duration each) being shown free at KOLDCAST.TV on the Internet. Koldcast.com is a "web channel" which hosts and promotes web-series. Recently, VERSE screened at the Second Annual LA Webfest. Apparently video series for the Internet are going viral as Susan Brennan, the scriptwriter for VERSE, explained in a March 16, 2011, email to the Steiny Road Poet, "web series festivals and contests are growing by the second! The web-series world is unprecedented and I'm not sure how web-series will translate to TV or film."
REAL POETS THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
Besides being a totally different direction for poetry, which typically makes no one anyone money or gives anyone popular audience attention in America, what the Steiny Road Poet finds deliciously intriguing about VERSE is that Devineni has used real poets, mostly using their actual names, as actors and New York City venues that are highly recognizable to literary folks like the Steiny Road Poet.
The story concerns a bicycle messenger performance poet (Jon Sands playing himself) who comes by a partially complete poetry manuscript. As it turns out, the woman who wrote the manuscript—purportedly a suicide—had been murdered some 30 years ago. Jon takes the manuscript to the newly relocated Poets House, an organization founded by Stanley Kunitz, which is one of the largest open-access collections for poetry in the United States. At this oasis of a library located within view of the Statue of Liberty, Jon consults with Angel Nafis, who according to the VERSE script is an intern at Poets House. Jon follows various leads that put him face-to-face with such "downtown" poets as:
One particularly interesting encounter shows Jon meeting with poet and performance artist John Giorno in The Bunker, the apartment where Giorno's Beat friend William Burroughs lived for many years until his death in 1997.
While some of the action and dialogue seem awkward, poets in the real world are often geeky and the way they live and move in the world doesn't match what everyone else does. There's a kind of Steinian plausibility for how filmmaker Devineni captures his poet actors. Here, what the Steiny Road Poet means by "Steinian plausibility" is that Devineni is consistent in how he captures the various fractures or infractions of his players who aren't professionally trained as actors. Maybe this seems too out-on-the-limb silly but watching Jon Sands, especially in the scenes in The Bunker is like watching a new born giraffe find its feet. The Steiny Road Poet felt the same kind of wondrous delight and she wanted more after the series ends with a question mark at episode seven.
Because it isn't hard to find Jon Sands on the Internet, the Steiny Road Poet decided to ask him a few questions, including how he got involved with VERSE. Here's what Jon said:
I met Ram Devineni briefly through Bob Holman who serves as a bit of a Godfather to many of the poetry scenes in New York City. Then our paths crossed again when I popped up from the audience to read a poem at the "Hollywood Does Poetry" benefit for Bowery Arts & Science last spring. After that, Ram reached out and told me about his vision for "Verse." He said he thought I'd be right for this poet/bike-messenger character. I'm a poet, and I ride my bike everywhere in New York City, so it seemed like a match. I'd never done any screen acting before (it had always peaked my interest), but I was really just playing me in a bizzaro world, which felt like a great place to start.
Another pleasing aspect of VERSE is the original music by Shira E. & The Tiny Tornadoes. Jon Sands, who is friends with Shira E., introduced the composer/performer to the project. The Steiny Road Poet affirms that in the world of po-biz, most things happen on the fly and that this freewheeling behavior often produces enthusiastic if not unusual results. In episode six, Shira E sings, "There's wolf on the back porch screaming to take your clothes off." It's a song full of pep and pain, a folky piece that fits both with the Halloween street parade (most of the masks worn in this scene are animal heads) where Jon is mugged by two thugs who steal his book bag containing the only copy he has of Claire Wilks' (the dead woman) poetry and with a scene of the man (Mark Greenfield) suspected by Jon to have been Claire's killer. Jon Sands told the Steiny Road Poet that he believed in episode six that Devineni perfectly paired music and scene.
WHERE WAS THE BLOOD?
According to John Herbert Gill author of Detecting Gertrude Stein, and Other Suspects on the Shadow Side of Modernism, Stein wrote in a magazine article entitled "Why I Like Detective Stories" the following passage:
I tried to write one well not exactly write one because to try is to cry but I did try to write one. It had a good name it was Blood On The Dining Room Floor and it all had to do with that but there was no corpse and the detecting was general, it was all very clear in my head but it did not get natural the trouble was that if it all happened and it all had happened then you had to mix it up with other things that had happened and after all a novel even if it is a detective story ought not to mix up what happened with what has happened, anything that has happened is exciting enough without any writing, tell it as often as you like but do not write it as a story. However I did write it, it was such a good detective story but nobody did any detecting except just conversation so after all it was not a detective story so finally I concluded that even though Edgar Wallace does almost write detective stories without anybody doing any detecting on the whole a detective story does have to have an ending and my detective story did not have any.
Briefly, what Stein says about her detective story is that it had no ending as well as no corpse and no detecting. Therefore she concludes that Blood on the Dining Room Floor was not a detective story. What occurs to the Steiny Road Poet about VERSE is that while there is no corpse—except the body of work represented by her manuscript—and there is detecting by the courier poet Jon as well as an ending tied up neatly in the delivery of a new book of poetry by Claire Wilks (apologies if this spoils the experience), VERSE is not so exciting as a murder mystery but it soars as an exploration of poetry in New York City, especially the downtown scene.