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Difficult writing has its way of illuminating the part of the world that counts. One such difficult text is Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms – long considered the single most groundbreaking literary work of twentieth-century art, literary criticism, and art history. In the centennial year of its publication, Carl Peters offers a sustained, annotated reading of the 1914 edition, responding to the syntax, sound, structure, and semantics of Tender Buttons.
For National Poetry Month on Meta-Talon, Talon editor Shazia Hafiz Ramji talks with Carl Peters about the practice of close reading, interdisciplinary influence, Birdman, and Marcel Duchamp.
SHR: In Studies in Description, your close reading of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, you use etymology to derive the “meaning” of words, discuss the works of her contemporaries such as Ezra Pound and Pablo Picasso to give context, and also offer contemporary perspectives from authors such as Roland Barthes, and Maurizio Lazzarato. Despite the sprawling range and context of literary influence, you still maintain the precision of close reading. Why did you choose the method of close reading for Tender Buttons?
CP: In everything I do I am guided by George Bowering’s instruction in his short essay “The Reader & You”: “Literature as an idea can’t hurt you but reading can.”
I also believe that you cannot teach writing unless you teach reading. There are things you can do that will help you become a better reader. I have learned from watching films that I am a calm spectator; therefore, I try to be a calm reader. This is not easy to do and by “calm” I mean “indifference” in the way that Marcel Duchamp practiced.
Reading is aesthetic practice but that is not asserting anything new – Eliot, Pound, Olson – reading is experience.
I think readers like bpNichol especially in “When the Time Came” – his annotated reading of the first five pages of Stein’s novel Ida, and Bowering’s reading of Robert Kroetsch’s “Stone Hammer Poem” in the essay “Stone Hammer Narrative” – are closer to Barthes because Barthes writes like a reader and he reads like a writer. He shows you the work.
Lazzarato, and I would include others like Ann Lauterbach, Paul Virilio (in Art and Fear), Jean Baudrillard (in The Agony of Power), Franco Berardi (in The Uprising), are trying to get back to something organically creative – intrinsic. One finds oneself going to etymology in order to understand the origin of the image in language. That is what dream analysis is in psychoanalysis, and that is reading: listening with the eyes. I think we learn to play and then we learn to play again. How else are we to survive? And that is why I aspire to be a calm spectator who tries to be without prejudices, as Alain Badiou would put it.
Ultimately, the reader-spectator that I am is very quickly summoned. I have extraordinary guides in this effort and they are Karl Siegler and Jerry Zaslove.
SHR: Studies in Description is organized and structured in a way that retains a sustained practice of reading, a continuous experience. Your annotations don’t take the form of endnotes, but the form of a continuous conversation with the text itself: A page from Tender Buttons appears beside a page of your annotations; each word or line under discussion is highlighted in bold, while the rest of the text appears in grey. How has Gertrude Stein’s idea of the “continuous present” influenced your close reading?
CP: Her writing insists that reading engages the very particular interconnectedness of forms and mind: you only know what you know as you know yourself knowing it. And this, she reminds us, “is painful.”
SHR: What is the function of literary criticism and analysis for you?
CP: To engage texts in meaningful ways.
Still from Birdman
There’s a scene in Birdman where Riggan, the character played by Michael Keaton, asks the critic who wants to destroy his play: “What has to happen in a person’s life for them to become a critic, anyway?” My interpretation of the film is that it is grappling with this problem. In an early scene there is a note on Riggan’s dressing room mirror which reads: “A thing is a thing not what is said about that thing.” Art does not need annotation but readers are human beings and they need to annotate and explain. One of Stein’s critical texts is called “Composition as Explanation.” This gets us back to the reality of what is said and unsaid.
SHR: Tender Buttons is an enigmatic text for many writers, especially poets. However, you come mostly from a curatorial and film theory background. How did you come to Stein’s Tender Buttons?
CP: I also come to it from a visual art background. Stein’s short critical book on Picasso is crucial to me.
I can’t help but think that Tender Buttons fits with the idea and tradition of the ready-made. In many ways, this book is a ready-made – okay, an “assisted” (i.e., “annotated”) ready-made. I would compare it to film or a genre of film I call “desperate and direct cinema.” My book is a work of desperation, and I think that for Stein Tender Buttons was a desperate book. All experimental works are desperate and most experimental writers, if they are worthy of the term, are desperate, meaning “driven to recklessness.” They know and they write knowing that the reader is never the consumer of a work – a work will consume its reader.
This work is my vision of art in addition to my vision of the reader (casual or critical theorist) in relation to the work.
SHR: From Ludwig Wittgenstein to Lisa Robertson, “description” continues to be a way of understanding and knowledge. What does “description” convey in the title, Studies in Description?
Ludwig Wittgenstein and Lisa Robertson
CP: Stein reaches for exactitude in expression. Stein’s exactitude confronts what goes on inside confronting an outside, and inversely. It is interesting to me that you emphasize the word “description” because in my work on this project the word “study” always stood out.
I am talking about how works of art can be understood as the dialogical disposition of a people’s conscious and unconscious mind, and how reading makes reality visible, but also invisible.
In one sense she is being ironic, not unlike Picasso and his title, Woman in a Hat with Flowers; in another, she is writing “against description.”
Stein’s descriptions show that language is the alibi of consciousness because it is a form of thought: thinking about thinking.
SHR: In “The Difficult Poem” by Charles Bernstein, published in Harper’s magazine in 2003 and later in his book Attack of the Difficult Poems in 2011, he discusses the markers of a “difficult poem,” one of which is:
“Difficult poems are not popular. This is something that any reader or writer of difficult poems must face squarely. There are no three ways about it. But just because a poem is not popular doesn’t mean it has no value!”
Tender Buttons is difficult but popular, at least in my experience. Why do you think this is?
CP: This is actually a complicated question. What do you mean by “popular”? If you mean “mainstream” then I cannot answer your question because I do not know what the mainstream is. By “popular,” do you mean familiar? Stein, then, answers the question for us. When Picasso started making cubist pictures she said that everyone will think they are ugly but over time everyone will come to realize that they are quite lovely – even beautiful – they will become familiar.
Duchamp shows how to make unrecognizable avant-garde art, but he applied very strict limitations to his work because, like Stein, a urinal that is called Fountain becomes a part of the canon of great works over time; Duchamp’s lesson is not that he shows how to make anti-art but that he shows how to make “non-art.”
Stein understood this dialectic. She said “I always wanted to be historical.” She never said “I always wanted to be popular.”
“They come to see Pablo and they come to see me, not because we’re celebrities, but because we’re rebels.” – Gertrude Stein