Malavika S. Udayan. Dining with Gertrude Stein: Parody and Pointing


The Dinner Party

Welcome to the party; I met her at a dinner party.

I am going to seat her in front of you, you are going to have a good laugh about her. She donned

a petticoat. A not so rosy charm, an inkspot,

a light white, a disgrace, light white.

Nothing elegant in her charm. A charm,

when a single charm is doubtful, it is earnest.

When the red is rose and the inside is let in, and places change,

something is seen upright. I filled a room to welcome the guests.

She sits; I collect her, poetry is about

abusing, using, losing, wanting and caressing.

A cycle of this; deep pleasure broods,

a deep public pleasure in her, At this dinner

prepared of innocence and passivity-

there are Rudeness, Redness and Quick questions.

Eye, Selection, Research and Painful cattle.

It is so rudimentary to see, so earnest to analyse

and strangely has it been a repent point, not too red

but to point again, then the order is not

a white way of being round, something suggesting a pin.

And it is disappointing; and it is disappointing when

she is disappointed. When the red is rose, when the inside is let in,

when places change, something is seen upright.

She opens a new cup and saucer, just in case,

the bite in the ribbon hurts the bud and the saucer.

How to watch this? How to? I am yearning, in search

a fan of the cutlet, she sits across.

A cutlet is a blind agitation, and manly.

Manly is a cutlet uttermost. Poke.

When there is chicken on the table, I repeat,

that’s the eternal woe. Is this a chicken or a potato?

Potatoes, loaves. Fake potatoes cannot stay in-between.

Chicken. Mean. Chicken. Alas, a dirty word,

alas, a dirty bird, alas a dirty word, Alas.

Bread crumbs fall down out of her mouth.

I take them and keep them, as they fall I make them.

My living room is full of unsent letters. A red stamp; no longer useful.

They need a catalogue; them, they.

If the wish for lilies were white,

the wish which exhausts noise and distance;

even dust will have extreme grace. If the dust dirts a surface

that has no extreme grace, if they do this,

 which has no extreme grace change. If they do this,

melody will be made even out of copper.

She is neither Dirt nor Copper; she is in both.

Copper makes a melody, dirt makes the melody harder.

At places that are not empty and have a table

it takes relentless relaxation and strength to spread a cover fuller.

She has bitten the ribbon, she has bitten the pencil, the edges of both ─ 

when they are bitten by the same boundless teeth and love?

There goes the peeled pencil, and choke,

I collect the peel, as she chokes, inside her,

as she peels. I collect the ribbon, I keep the elegance,

I keep the charm. I wish. Do not rub her coke, let her choke.

Can all this happen at a single party ─ an attractive

Black silver on table ─ her adventure,

and clock; her cloak, it all, at a dinner party ─ 

See, can this all happen at a dinner party?

Such dismay, loafing; turmoil of collections:

Laud and praise; acclaim,

made from my heart and shared for her.




A seminar is like a dinner party. People come together; they meet and greet. There are the hosts and the visitors. The party has to take place somewhere, indoors or outdoors. At a table, somebody sits across from somebody; there will be food, and there will be eating. There is a distance between the onlooker and the one eating. We know nothing about the other’s appetite. But eating is a window to another’s eye, mirroring the teacher’s instruction at the center of a seminar hall. The one who is looking fixes her eyes on the woman sitting across; they can share the laughs of the muse who sits across the desk, lucidly, freely, watching her have her bread crumbs. Her languid body movements keep the onlooker interested.




I was a student in Thomas Karshan’s seminar on Ludic Literature at the University of East Anglia in the early months of 2022. We met, once a week, for three hours, sitting around a horseshoe table. We read and talked and imitated and parodied and played. Eventually, I wrote ‘A Dinner Party’, as part of the classroom exercise to imitate Gertrude Stein’s writings. It includes phrases which I have picked out of Tender Buttons. Unlike the poems of Tender Buttons, it appears as a long central passageway or a column, aligned centrally to the page, like the empty column at the center of our horseshoe.


As a student who migrated from India to do a Creative Writing Master’s in Poetry, I wondered how this form of teaching, based on the tradition and history of ‘imitatio’, would fix and form my voice. Parody is a form of pointing. When we point at people back from India, where I was born, it used to mean a sort of disrespect towards the one who we are pointing at. The hand is never allowed to make this gesture. When we point, the person pointed at does not feel welcome. They are made to feel they are from another world.


But I was intrigued by Stein’s warm ways of hosting parties, her clever ways of arranging pictures, and how her everyday quirkiness in engaging with her fellow artists proved valuable to her own artistic output, to the singular act of looking and watching another person eating; perhaps an attractive other. These parties helped shape Stein’s literary and artistic identity. The circle included poets like Apollinaire, and artists like Picasso and Matisse. They gathered around her living room, where they had a good laugh about the paintings which she collected and decorated her house with.



A dinner party is also like a poem. The pleasure is born out of one’s fervid and deep heartfelt compulsions. In Stein’s use of language, pleasure is instinctual; it is a sensual pleasure in stealing glances at a public party. In the above poem, it is never revealed what both the speaker and the one eating do outside of the dinner party. Through their desire, their lives are restricted to this intermediate, temporary occasion, much as how one reads a poem or looks at a piece of art and figures out a whole biography of the painter or the poet, or makes a story about the work of art. They are closed, boxed, and constricted. Disguised in eating and looking are several aspects of everyday life; work, sex and self-consciousness are hidden.


A dinner party may also be unlike a poem. The sensual, peripheral and bodily pleasure of eating is different from the pleasure of writing poetry. To look at a woman, dressed in loose and flowing robes: in her is the charm which frees the one who is looking, which broods in deep pleasure at a dinner party. Stein writes the ‘petticoat’ and later the ‘rosy charm’ and the ‘disgrace’ in the same line; the attribute, the thing and the combinations of them hide the queer sensuality. In this poem, the picture of the woman who is looked at is at a distance, marking movement, noting the tiniest details, like how bread crumbs fall off her mouth, or the suppleness of the loosened ribbon. We are left to imagine her mouth, the hands, and the etiquette. The one who looks can either be a woman or a man, yet there is no agitation or manly desire at the table. The Dinner Party is a place where people meet and greet for leisure, exchanging friendliness, warmth and camaraderie.


In the poems in Tender Buttons, Stein hides herself, her affinities for her living room, her collections and her friends. Phrases such as ‘extreme grace change’ and ‘cutlet uttermost’ recur in Tender Buttons, lacking a locative verb, and rarely do the phrases point towards a precise place of occurrence of the action. Nothing is pointed out. I have used her wit to hide her hiding of circumstances. Wit moves around and circles on the page. Wit covers; it helps a writer to belong. There are differences between standing and writing, sitting and writing, or moving and writing. Wit hides the states of the body. There is a similarity to how a body is made of ligaments and tendons, tangible, which consists of the push and pull of several factors. The body is real, and so is wit. Both can be touched and located. The one who writes the parody need not point: they can hide with it, with the unnerving passivity of wit. In daily life, wit helps one to transgress and move across moral obligations, the circumstantial obligations and the strangeness one is met with on such occasions.


The collective habits cultivated in the classroom, in parodying texts, created new habits in me. The process of writing down new parodies seeped within me as a pupil. I learned to look at my habits; treating literature as one that creates sensibilities in life. Everything happens now, here and close. Another world is not possible. When Stein writes ‘she donned a petticoat’ we get to know that somebody is sitting somewhere. When she writes ‘chair’ and ‘chicken’ we imagine a place somewhat similar to a room. We keep thinking about the poet. We are left with events, objects, women, clothes and their details. The cup, a saucer, a chair and a desk are placed. The distance between the people is covered by a table between them. The means to each other’s minds are tools – forks, spoons and cutlets. There is no biography or identity of the speaker or the attendee outside of the party, they are cloistered in the prison of pleasure.




Pointing is a way of telling which situates the body at its apex. I played around with the muted symbols in Stein’s writings such as colour, research, fossil and skin, but Stein constantly reminds us, readers, that colour and skin remain attached to something in the real world. One may preserve a bone or a brain in a chemically potent solution. But the work of art separates them, only to induce a series of successive degenerations.


Stein’s writings treat, as Folgarait says in Painting 1909, ‘meaning-as-change and change-as meaning’. Stein writes her poems pivoting them on nouns (that generically include the lexical category of adjectives); as she says in her Poetry and Grammar that nouns are names of things, and they are fixed, verbs and adverbs exhibit unsurety. Stein’s symbols are examples of colour, fossil, and skin. Language, and therefore, bending, turning and folding words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs. Writing poems, I stress, is based on the biological preoccupations of being a human.


I compare the process of reading and writing in Ludic classrooms to the weekly exercises in a gymnasium. The tactile alphabets and the virile body engage each other to create the poem on paper. Parodying is like putting one’s arms into mittens to take freshly baked food out of the oven; it feels as smooth as the wool of the mittens, while not knowing the heat of our own tempting appetite.




As my writing progressed, I realised that culture can rupture at a seminar. The teacher who encourages students to parody is simultaneously inviting others into his own affinities with literature; but parody and play also project his pupils as makers of works of art and simultaneously as other human beings, who can manifest their own imaginations and affinities. As one parodies texts from different parts of the world, I realised that there is a mismatch between the temporal origins and contextual meanings. As an Indian, new to a foreign university, I understood that this rupture in culture can be productively degenerative.


Stein never fails to give space for poetic ambiguity in language; she is successful in creating a separation between meanings. The traditional semantics of the words and sentences are distinct from the instinctual moral meanings the onlooker might attach to the girl. In his recent book, Imitating Authors, Colin Burrow writes about the presence of a ‘charismatic; graceful and charming’ teacher at the center of a lecture hall, whose presence is similar to that of an orator in Greek tragedies. The bodies become significant, and the degenerative experience in the Ludic classroom never becomes a disembodied experience. The re-embodied differences are the ones between original texts and the new parodied texts, between pupils who are part of the classroom collective, and different parodies as prompts which actively engage and create a shared feeling of collective.


This pedagogical rapture on culture, the mismatch between temporal origins and their contextual meanings worked in my favour as a pupil. The mismatch is similar to a misplaced pencil on a messy table, or the word research written next to rudeness and redness. Such combinations of words occur more than once in Tender Buttons. The pencil sits idle on top of a table; the word paper is next to the word pencil, and these are intentions (such as ‘rudeness’ next to the word ‘research’). The copper and dirt fall out of the page, out of context. The eternal woe is in determining whether what is placed in front of the table is a chicken or a potato. A catalogue becomes necessary. Copper and dirt are the material out of which melody comes; dirt sticks on copper. Dirt, melody, copper, chicken, potato, a table, black silver etc are names and statements interchangeably. However, all these words dance on the page. I infer that these permutations – combinations of everyday random arrangements – is the disorganised mental landscape and my crossness encourages me to research about what we know now, in the present; I am angry, I am agitated and hence I research. I found out that this is similar to an immediate confrontation that I learned while parodying and creating new works in the lecture hall from the teacher. There is knowledge of the natural world, and what we find out, through researching.




I found the practice of imitation and therefore parodying as part of the classroom exercise a process of dwelling in thought. Stein’s images are similar to pine cones which dwell in our thoughts. The lady who sits across from the speaker in the poem is ill-mannered, her charm is one that does not have the usual elegance. The poem is always biased toward the importance of public pleasure, even if brooding. It is self-reflective, it thinks and comments that poetry is about abusing, losing and wanting. The moral repugnancy of the narrator, her peering eye, is based on how important it is to have this sense of public pleasure while reading and writing poems.


It is important to me that poetic pleasure becomes public, and I constantly wonder if all this can take place at a single party. The self-consciousness in Tender Buttons and in Dinner Party is of the one who intrudes. It attempts to transgress categories of skin, colour and movement. Stein reminds us, readers, that colour and skin are attachments to someone or something in the real world. Colour of the clothes, colour on her cheeks, colour of the rose, the skin of potatoes, the skin of the chicken, the peel of the pencil, her coke and the falling of breadcrumbs out of her mouth. Colour and skin are the only means of representation of the outer world for Stein. One can be white, black, yellow or brown. Colour, like Stein’s red, is fundamentally a pointer in a spectrum of occurrences or the diluted state of an extracted pigment. One doesn’t have to know which nature this is exactly, but both can be found in nature. Another nature is impossible. There are no more demarcations between the deciduous, the arctic and the tropic, nor in varieties of chickens and potatoes. It sounds like a lame and strenuous repetition at first, but gradually invites the reader into it through the other person’s appearance. The speaker does not shy away from looking, although she obliges her actions, on the teleology of pleasure and poesy. The collective in the lecture hall, the public shimmering and enhanced reality is an illusion. One that stops soon after the lectures, but the spirit of which can be reinvented in practice through reading and writing, leaving the student with longer-lasting impressions.