Puzzling Out Tender Buttons

2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the original publication of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Described variously as “explosive, tantalizing, and delicious” and “the fullest realization of the turn to language,” Tender Buttons is a modernist masterpiece of unpredictable delights. And it’s also a famously difficult read—Stein claimed she was attempting to “make words write without sense,” and many readers come away from a Tender Buttons encounter shaking their heads at what can seem like a “maddeningly opaque” jumble of words.

Given its rather challenging reputation, Tender Buttons might seem like a tricky work to share with an audience of poetry lovers—but poet Daniel Carter can pull it off in fine style. Daniel has designed a puzzle-based edition of Tender Buttons that provides readers “with new models of engagement and the infrastructures needed to enable them.” And last Thursday Daniel (below left) and musician Chris Ledesma (right) stopped by Malvern Books to treat us to an interactive evening of Tender Buttons escapades, featuring tales of a failed salad cake, an ode to Encino Man, and a performance from a distorted banana.

Daniel Carter and Chris Ledesma

As well as puzzling out a little of Stein’s enigmatic goodness, we also celebrated the release of City Lights’ new centennial edition of Tender Buttons (fanned out below). This is the first version to incorporate Stein’s own handwritten corrections (discovered in a first-edition copy at the University of Colorado), as well as corrections discovered among her papers at the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

Stein Books

We had a packed house (thanks, in part, to a lovely preview in the Austin Chronicle), and I think we can safely say that the audience enjoyed their guided journey through the intriguing world of Tender Buttons. Hearty thanks to Daniel and Chris for providing us all with a fascinating introduction to a work that now seems a lot less scary and a lot more fun.