It was during an experimental writing class that I first fell in love with Gertrude Stein. Since that class, I’ve fallen in love with her time and time again. So, imagine my delight when, awestruck in City Lights Books, I discovered Tender Buttons, The Corrected Centennial Edition. Corrections. In Stein’s own handwriting. Need I say more…
In 1914, Gertrude Stein—an experimental writer in a lesbian relationship—had her revolutionary prose poem published, which has undoubtedly stood the test of time, immeasurably influencing the past 100 years of experimental, female, and queer writers.
I could write a thesis on the title alone—Tender Buttons. The words tender & buttons placed together conjure a concrete yet abstract image, not only redefining preconceived conceptions of buttons, but also brilliantly summarises the entire book with two simple words. Buttons, the most domestic of objects, are radically redefined by the word tender, emphasising the malleability of understanding and definition, and the possibility of polyvalent interpretations. With active participation, buttons function to keep things closed or to open things up. Which represents Stein’s invitation for readerly participation in interpreting, defining, opening-up and shifting power dynamics within text.
An example of how Stein manipulates phrase in order to critique, deconstruct, and undermine meaning and patriarchal traditions can be found in the first two lines of the first stanza of ‘A Chair’. A widow in a wise veil and more garments shows that shadows are even. It addresses no more, it shadows the stage and learning. Here Stein foregrounds the fact that death and shadows do not discriminate against race, gender, class, religion, or sexuality. While subtly calling attention to the veiling of this wisdom, found in death and shadows, through the generally accepted, unquestioned, and repetitious patriarchal and imperial representation of the world. However, the ever-present indiscriminateness of death and shadows are constant reminders questioning the automatic repetition of patriarchal traditions, It addresses no more, it shadows the stage and learning. Stein’s refusal to conform to traditional literary conventions at once interrogates, unhinges, bends, and reinvents representation in prose and accepted ways of knowing.
Like everybody else, I am influenced by everything that has come before, especially by that that has dramatically changed the way that I think. Coincidently, in January this year I had my prose poem ‘A Pound of History’, which pays homage to Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, published in the 2014 prose poem & microfiction anthology, Writing to the Edge.
Interviews with the authors in Writing to the Edge can be found here: http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/blog/
A recording of ‘A Pound of History: after Gertrude Stein’ can be found here: https://soundcloud.com/spineless-wonders/a-pound-of-history-4?in=spineless-wonders/sets/writing-to-the-edge
Gertrude Stein reading ‘If I Had Told Him a Completed Portrait of Picasso’ over Keith Jarrett’s The Köln concert, “Part I”.