March 2013

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Poetry In Red Dress

What happens when four writers, two from the East Coast of the United States (Karren LaLonde Alenier and Margo Taft Stever) and two from the West Coast Mary Mackey and Evelyn Posamentier), agree to unite their poetry with the purpose of showcasing Gertrude Stein and Muriel Rukeyser? Never mind that the East Coast poets had never met in person with the West Coast poets and the West Coast poets while they knew of each other had also never met.


This was the situation going into a planning meeting at Mission Pie in San Francisco on January 14, 2013. In a 90-minute session, these four artists, each with her own temperament and ideas, had to find a way to give a joint poetry reading.  

A general plan had been sketched through the Internet before the San Francisco meeting about how to weave in certain poems by Stein and Rukeyser but how to make this program flow so that the audience would be and stay engaged was up for grabs. The general plan was: an opening poem by each of the four live poets and two dead-but-not-forgotten groundbreakers. This would be followed by 10-minute presentations of original work by the four live poets. The close would be another round of single poems by each of the six poets. The goal was to limit the program to 60 to 90 minutes and keep things moving.


The first problem was how to introduce the concept of Poetry in Red Dress. Since the Steiny Road Poet (a.k.a. Karren Alenier) had coined the name, she needed to find a way to succinctly introduce the concept. Her solution was a poetic string of words:

Poetry in Red Dress, think passion, heat, fire.

Poetry in Red Dress, a strategy for understanding for communicating, for living.

Poetry in Red Dress, a manifesto.  

The planning session was a fishbowl for these concepts. The Steiny Poet, whose personal manifesto includes poetry theater, wanted to reach out to West Coast poets while presenting some of the poetic philosophy written down by Stein and Rukeyser. The idea for bringing Stein's and Rukeyser's thoughts on poetry together came out of a conversation that began on the WOMPO (Women in Poetry) listserv and became concentrated offline between Posamentier and Alenier who began Skyping each other to talk about the importance of women writing poetry manifestos.

At Pie, Evy Posamentier, a regular there with her poetry group, suggested the Red Dress program would benefit from a recitation in unison of this quote from Rukeyser:

"What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open!"


Because Posamentier had had personal contact with Rukeyser, the Posamentier-crgroup left it up to her to introduce Rukeyser. Alenier who had recently read Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry had her own ideas about which Rukeyser poem to start with. However, Posamentier read Rukeyser's "Don Baty, The Draft Resister," a poem about a real draft resister who was supported by his friends to the degree that when the authorities asked who is Don Baty, all the friends stood with him in solidarity and said they were Don Baty. This poem fed well into Posamentier's new sequence of poems about homeless men who roam the streets of San Francisco. Here's an excerpt from "I Am Mickey":

today at the v.a.
i rip the chemo tubes out
& head back to sleep in the park
till two cops wake me
threatening jail.
stay awake melanoma.
come & go till
my body can give you
a forever house
after it reports to
agent orange

Margo Stever, an award-winning horsewoman, followed up with Rukeyser's "Haying Before Storm." While this poem is deeply rooted in farm life, there is a keen sense of the writerly life in such words as image and form.

I stand where I can see
Holding a small pitcher, coming in toward
The doers and the day.
These images are all
Themselves emerging: they face their moment, love or go down,
A blade of the strong hay stands like light before me.
The sky is a torment on our eyes, the sky
Will not wait for this golden, it will not wait for form.
Muriel Rukeyser [excerpt from "Haying Before Storm"]

Like "Haying Before Storm," Stever's accompanying poem Stever-cr"Ascension" deals with hard physical labor, but Stever's men are struggling to get asix-foot heart of a whale into a boiling vat while at sea on a whalingship. Stever's lines, "Seven men inhale the vision, their hearts/slackening with each breath" reverberates with Rukeyser's lines, "These images are all /Themselves emerging: they face their moment, love or go down." Here is the last part of Stever's "Ascension":

Only a crane can lift
a six-foot heart, and as the last
inch of the raised organ
recedes into the stewing vats,
dismembered parts of the heart ascend
and billow over the deck.
Seven men inhale the vision, their hearts
slackening with each breath.


Alenier introduced Stein, emphasizing her plain language, her focus on talking and listening, putting meaning back into overused words, the importance of insistence (a form of repetition), and her quest to achieve currency. Alenier read Stein's "A Long Dress," a prose poem from Tender Buttons and then Alenier's response to Stein, "Birth of the Long Dress Made in America." What drew Alenier to this poem was Stein's use and repetition of the word current. In this poem the word is tied to modern day technology—the sewing machine. In this case, an electric sewing machine with crackling power. Then mysteriously Stein leaps to the question, what is the wind? Wind a source of power? Stein's juxtapositions keep her in our time.

Mackey.-crjpgMary Mackey read Stein's "America." The poem begins, "Once in English they said America. Was it English to them." To the Steiny Poet, that line was a great segue to Mackey's work which is set internationally in such places as Brazil. Here is an excerpt from Mackey's poem "This Is a Poem Creating Itself" that she paired with "America":

Este é poema criando-se
this is a poem creating itself em um idioma
in a language you don't understand
think of it as a dancer
whose face is hidden behind a beaded veil
uma bebida preta a black drink…

The heart of the Red Dress program continued with the four contemporaries reading for 10 minutes each.




The close of the program proceeded with Posamentier, Stever, and Mackey each reading one of their poems. Alenier read an excerpt from the curtain raiser of Stein's mini-play "Ladies Voices." Then Alenier read the first column of her poem "Having Words: A Round" and upon finishing nodded to the other three poets to come front and center to read this poem as a round. "Quarreling is a form/of loving not/sparring a sport…" Gertrude Stein was probably vibrating in the Books and Bookshelves venue at the cacophony created by this poem, which takes its lead from Stein's long novel, The Making of Americans.  

The final piece was an in-unison reading of Rukeyser's "Metaphor to Action" by the quartet of live poets.

Metaphor to Action

Whether it is a speaker, taut on a platform,  who battles a crowd with the hammers of his words,  whether it is the crash of lips on lips  after absence and wanting:  we must close  the circuits of ideas, now generate,  that leap in the body's action or the mind's repose.

Over us is a striking on the walls of the sky, here are the dynamos, steel-black, harboring flame,  here is the man night-walking who derives  tomorrow's manifestoes from this midnight's meeting;  here we require the proof in solidarity,  iron on iron, body on body, and the large single beating.

And behind us in time are the men who second us  as we continue. And near us is our love:  no forced contempt, no refusal in dogma, the close  of the circuit in a fierce dazzle of purity.  And over us is night a field of pansies unfolding, charging with heat its softness in a symbol  to weld and prepare for action our minds'  intensity.
Muriel Rukeyser


From the comments the poets heard from the audience afterward ("good variety," "good pacing," "so unusual"), it was clear the theatrically was well appreciated and the poems were heard.


David Highsmith, owner of Books and Bookshelves sold over $270 worth of books. Considering we had an ideal audience of 30 (Highsmith said he thought 30 people was the right number for his space and set up chairs accordingly), considering that Stever and Alenier, as East Coast outsiders, worked hard to get this audience, considering that San Francisco was experiencing the coldest run of days in decades, it was a high for the quartet of poets who had no idea whether such a scripted program would work. In fact, after a night's sleep, the poets communicated that they would love to do this program again.

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©2013 Karren LaLonde Alenier
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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
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