Wrecking the Classics

A Challenge to Read the Masters and Make Them Your Own

Gertrude SteinIf you put Gertrude Stein and John Waters in a literary cage fight, who would win? My money would be on Gertrude Stein, scrappy, aesthetically ruthless and downright rude. John Waters, so thin, so well-dressed, would surely step aside, demurely (and dryly) saying, “Gentleman never engage in cage fights with ladies. That is, if Gertrude indeed is a lady.” Or something more clever, simultaneously traditional and subversive.

I’ve been thinking about John Waters* lately because he has been making the rounds of the talk shows, hawking his new book, “Role Models,” and talking about great art. He, in turn, has been making me think about Gertrude Stein, one of my own role models, because Stein and Waters are both writers who discuss art, specifically the masters, with fighting words. So it struck me that I’d like to put these two literary icons in the same room…or ring…to spar about the virtue of having artistic role models.

A side note: I know–it’s a bit reckless to talk about Stein and Waters as if they were contemporaries. Stein (“Tender Buttons”) was born in the 19th –century, a poet, novelist and playwright; Waters (“Hairspray”) is a current-day film director, writer and actor. The Las Vegas bookies would sneer at my imagined fight club. But I think Stein and Waters were twins separated by time and space, and they have something to teach us about literary masterpieces.

Listen to this clip from an interview with John Waters, and check out this quote** from Gertrude Stein. They use words like “wreck” and “ugly” when discussing the classics of art and letters. They both believe contemporary artists have to break the mold of traditional art in order to make something new. Broken patterns of art are bound to be ugly. Or, at least, what’s new will seem ugly, even obscene, until people get used to it and polish off the edges to create new classics. Then the next wave will come along and break the mold again.

John WatersI mention this because this month YARN is asking you to look back at the masters of poetry and write your own poems (more on this later). Sometimes, however, people read the classics and become intimidated by them. They are so beautiful and perfectly crafted. How could we ever do the same? Our society tends to talk about the masters in hushed tones, a worshipful incantation to Homer, Dante and Shakespeare. This (well-earned) reverence makes those masters seem far-away and inaccessible. That’s what I find so refreshing about the way Waters and Stein treat the masters. They aren’t afraid to show a little irreverence. I know it’s summer vacation, but spend a little time re-reading the classics this month and allow yourself to see them with fresh eyes. Pick apart their word choices, their structure, their themes and imagery. Could you do it better?

Here’s where I get back to the contest.

YARN is running a poetry contest right now that encourages you to choose a classic poet and write your own poem following the master’s style. As a literary journal, YARN is in the business of publishing and promoting new work – not only that, but we publish in new media. We’re not your mother’s English class. So why are we asking you to turn back to the old-guard poets? Two reasons:

  1. We want to help you be the best writer you can be. It’s partly self-interest. We want to publish the best work we can find. And unless you know good style, it’s hard to avoid bad style. Ask John Waters. Unless you know good form, it’s hard to break the form. Ask Gertrude Stein. If you want to be the next big thing, you need to know what the last best big thing was. In short, to re-make the masters, you need to know the masters.
  2. We’re featuring a YA novelist this month, Terra Elan McVoy, whose latest book, “After the Kiss”, includes characters who write poetry in the style of their favorite poets. YARN is hosting a fan-poetry contest in which you can be like Terra’s characters and write your own fan-poems. Terra McVoy herself will help YARN choose the winner. Entries are due July 31. Learn how to submit here.

Do you already have literary role models? If not, it’s time to find some. Pick up your favorite anthology of poets and read, read, read. Choose a few poets who resonate with you. Read them again. And again. Try memorizing them. Walk while you read. Get the rhythm in your body, your breath. Then write your own poem in your role model’s manner. But, of course, don’t be afraid to wreck the work of your role model. Don’t be afraid to create something ugly (especially in your first draft). Don’t be afraid to have fun. Follow the master’s form or style, but make it your own. Stein did this, Waters does this, now it’s your turn. Send us your own literary boxing match: you vs. Stein vs. Waters vs. the world.

Colleen Oakley, Poetry EditorColleen Oakley is YARN’s poetry Editor.

*Caution: John Waters’ book would not likely be rated PG-13, but his interviews could be.

**From “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” by Gertrude Stein:

“… when you make a thing, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don’t have to worry about making it and they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when the others make it (30).

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3 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Andrea says:

    I love the idea of Gertrude Stein and John Waters being in a ring together. And, having happened to catch John Waters on The Daily Show recently, I feel surprisingly literarily aware. =) Good luck with the contest!

  2. Susan Young says:

    John Waters is amazing. Speaking of remaking the classics, how corny was the “Hairspray” remake that came out a few years ago? I thought they totally lost the “Waters edge,” but I guess people who don’t understand that kind of twisted humor (poor souls) enjoyed the new version b/c it did well and is now a Broadway play. I’m glad he was cool with the new one though (which he said in the interview).
    I love the Stein-Waters literary cage fight concept. It reminds me of the “Which 5 people, living or dead would you invite to a dinner party?” question, which is always fun to think about.

  3. Colleen says:

    Yes, Susan, I agree with you — “Hairspray” has become new work in a new genre. But one of the things I love about John Waters is that he can embrace high art, low art, pop art… I think that was partly why I wanted to include him in my column. He knows all the artists, genres and classics so well, but he’s soooo not snooty about the divisions between elite and mass appeal. In fact, he seems genuinely happy (and possibly surprised) that he has such a loyal and growing audience for his own work. Who would have guessed that he’d get *any* audience when he first started making his off-the-wall films?

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