The text is the text is the text

Or nothing is easier than making fun of Gertrude Stein.

A sharp reminder of both of these facts at the Colloque International on Gertrude Stein at UQAM last week. Marjorie Perloff gave a very good, old-fashioned close reading of Stein’s portrait of Christian Berard. This reading it seems, was in response to the recent Poem Talk installment out of UPENN and KWH in which Jerome Rothenberg, Bob Perelman, and Lee Ann Brown discuss the poem in question. The Poem Talk episode is called “A Portrait, But of Who?” Does it matter if this is a portrait of Berard and not Picasso, the panelists wonder? And no the panelists seem to agree, it doesn’t. The portrait, panelists suggest, is indicative of Stein’s larger project in the portraits, a sweeping statement that conflates each portrait. Which means what? That it’s all a wash? That one thing can be another?

The text, Perloff reminds us, should be the primary site of our thinking and investigating, not the existing criticism or biography. I’m sure it’s a matter of time before Perloff publishes the essay, at which point I urge you to take a closer look. I’m tempted to recount the nuances of her reading here, but suffice to say there is clear evidence of the specificity of the portrait.

Other excellent presentations included Joan Retallack’s “Language and Pleasure. Stein, Stein, Stein, Stein, Stein,” which was itself a pleasure. What struck me in her presentation was simply the relief of hearing someone enjoy what they were reading and engaging with. Not trying to trump Stein (as other participants did), but engaging with the text. “If you enjoy it, you understand it,” Stein said. I’m not convinced that it’s that simple, but for a minute it’s refreshing. There is something antagonistic about insistence that Retallack seemed to be saying gets at the “irrational, abject other within us…” that made good sense.

Barbara Cole, from SUNY Buffalo, gave a talk on Stein criticism, pointing out the overly-familiar and bodily attacks used in language of reviewers. She started out with an anecdote about Jerry Seinfeld talking to Merv Griffin and Griffin interjecting a Steinian line that Seinfeld doesn’t get, tries to fold into his joke, etc. Tried to find that one on youtube because it sounds too good to be true. And hoping to hear more from Cole about her work in the coming weeks. The language of criticism really needs to be examined.(On a side note, TC Boyle reads Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” a biting send up of a critic’s last moments over at the New Yorker fiction podcasts.)

Lianne Moyes offered a reading of Gail Scott’s My Paris, illuminating the use of French, and outlining some differences between Scott’s Paris and Stein’s Paris, while tracing influences and tensions in Scott’s novel. More precisely, compositional strategies versus description. How much universilizing and erasure happens around Stein’s commas? And what of Scott’s use of the comma to include translation? I’m looking forward to the paper, and wanting to re-read My Paris with this in mind.

Unfortunately my French isn’t good enough to report on the papers given by the French academics, but what I understood of Jean-Francois Chassay’s “Euphemisme et politique: Stein et la bombe atomique,” was brilliant. Made me want to do a reading of it here myself. Indeed how can we think about the atomic bomb? I mean really. Have a look at Stein’s poem on the bomb here. “If I were a general I would never lose a battle, I would only mislay it…”

Journalist: Why don’t you write the way you talk?
Stein: Why don’t you read the way I write?

Finally, Jacques Roubard was there looking stately and absolutely warm and appealing–though much of what he said alas went right over my head due to language, not lack of clarity. There’s a good review of Roubard over on Eyewear.

You can hear the Poem Talk segment here, and also subscribe to it in iTunes. There are other excellent readings, particularly the Armantrout and Berrigan. It’s a great series.

Oh, and Rob Winger points out that Arc Magazine in Ottawa has been featuring How Poems Work segments, available here.

PS, found this bit of audio from Al Filreis over at Poem Talk that features Marjorie Perloff talking about Stein’s Portraits, though not the one in question above. Things are always more complicated…

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