TENDER OMNIBUS: Introduction


"A way to think about women & language"

—Harryette Mullen

I created Tender Buttons press in 1989 to publish the work I love and am inspired by and need to see in the world. To be a poet-publisher is to make a nest for one’s own and others' poetry, and this on-going act intertwines with the poetry I write.

I chose Tender Buttons for the name of my press in tribute to Gertrude Stein’s radical masterpiece of everyday life. In 2014 we celebrated the 25th Anniversary of Tender Buttons Press as well as the 100th anniversary of the 1913 publication of Stein’s Tender Buttons. To “Tend Her Buttons” is to tend the buttons of books, each book to be born a complex object forever opening outwards.

I think of books as multi-faceted objects, written from many angles, and unfolding in different ways each time we read them, like Stein’s “cubist” writings. I look for work which simultaneously re-imagines and pushes envelopes of form and content, content and form.

If I had to choose one word that points to the trajectory of the press, it would be “multiplicity.” Multiplicity is here how language can bloom into meanings that express multiple realities, sexualities, genders, racial identities and all kinds of subject positions.

The poem is the subversion of duality.

The poem is the third term where multiplicity can exist.

“Write in as many ways as you can imagine” Bernadette Mayer said to me. The parallel projects of my press and my own poetry aspire to write in ways never before imagined, in the belief that the ways we use language can change the world.

* * * *

I remember the physically painful sensation of walking into a good bookstore and not seeing the books on the shelf that I thought should be there.

I remember reading Gertrude Stein for the first time at Naropa in the summer of 1985, and Anne Waldman talking about going to the Beinecke Library at Yale to read the many original manuscripts and learning that so much of Stein was out of print.

I remember reading poetry and theory as a student at Brown University and wondering where the poetry was that did all of the things that theory claimed language could do. There seemed to be a gap somewhere.

I remember writing this poem in high school:


Weren’t enough for her.

She often made high cat cries

and danced hard on the blue carpet.

I remember wanting to express the inexpressible – to stamp out (as in dance) the sexual syntaxes of bodies not “normally” expressed. I want to take the lid off of that repression, that oppression that comes from seeing everything as a dualism.

It bothers me that poetry or even words themselves aren’t “enough” to express the realities I feel or the way I think. But what if we could write poetry that could bridge that gap between the way we think and what gets onto the paper? Sometimes my mind works in straightforward ways and sometimes like this:

the night time activity the erotics of writing after and before the other kind of button tending as in Tender tending her nether double buttons and again writing. So connections were surfacing with a new way of writing I saw as multiple and expressing my monde I mean my mind which was an other way women used writing, how women used writing to say all sides of a thing of a feeling all sides of the ways to approach like a flock of birds like an accordion form which rejects closure

I remember moments when everything I read or hear sounds like poetry. I remember moments when nothing does.

I remember reading this quote by Robert Scholes: “A writer is always reading and the reader is always writing” and thinking “Yes, that’s true.”

I remember reading Larry Eigner’s Stein imitations with friends in a reprint of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine and feeling I was getting somewhere.

I remember reading Lyn Hejinian’s “Two Stein Talks” in the big yellow Temblor when I volunteered at Small Press Traffic on my “year off.”

I remember reading these sentences in Richard Kostelanetz’ 1980 introduction to the Yale Gertrude Stein:

There are echoes of Stein’s writings in her friends Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder and Ernest Hemingway, as well as William Faulkner…E.E. Cummings…John Dos Passos…Allen Ginsberg…John Ashbery…Clark Coolidge, John Cage, bpNichol…One curious fact that I will let others explain is the absence of visible influence upon subsequent women writers.


I remember reading those lines in my dormroom as a freshman in college and thinking "I've got my work cut out for me."

I remember upon arriving in New York City at what I thought to be the center of the forward-thinking world and encountering sexist hippie poets who couldn’t distinguish between other poets who were women.

I remember looking up Bernadette Mayer’s phone number on the "anti-copyright" page of her self-published, free book, Utopia at St. Mark’s Bookshop. It said: “If you need help with this, call me.”

I remember sitting on Anne Waldman’s couch in Boulder and her saying to me “You should start a poetry magazine.”

I remember realizing I wanted to make books. They would be more permanent I thought.

I remember upon hearing my questions on publication, Bernadette Mayer urged me to publish my own book —like Walt Whitman did.

I remember the initial thrill of realizing I could make real one of my favorite things in the world: a book (!) and then realizing that I not only had to type in the poems, lay out the book, proofread it, get the blurbs, piece together the money for printing, send it to the printer, send it to the distributor, place it in bookstores for consignment, find reviewers, plan a book party and then do it all over again for the next book. So I started enlisting my friends.

I remember reading the hilarious mimeo book with Anne Waldman characterized as the Little Red Hen, asking for help from a series of male poet animals who all replied: “Not I.” So she went ahead and did it all herself.

I remember proofreading Sonnets with Bernadette at 172 East 4th Street —she showed me how she read everything backwards so as not to miss a word.

I remember the exquisite irritant of reading the book called An Anthology of New York School Poetry from 1970 which included only one woman poet.

I remember muscling my way onto the bill of the 1993 Writing from the New Coast Conference in Buffalo. I am and was no stranger to being slightly “off the radar” and having to say “Hey! What about me?” That’s what poets have to do it—be in touch with what’s going on and either push to be included or just Do-It-Your-Own-Self. I have chosen to do both.

On my panel, “Small Press Publishing,” I staged a kind of intervention with Robert Duncan’s A Fairy Play, A Play (one of his Stein imitations.) When asked, “But what does that have to do with Small Press Publishing? I answered, “It’s about getting the work out there!”

I remember that after spinning out my vision for the press which so far included the first three books and a series of Tender Broadsides, I said I wanted to also produce Tender Films, Tender CDs, Tender Discs, Tender Kids books and more. A (male) panelist said something to the effect of “And you could make Tender Pornos too!"


And this was not a sigh of pleasure.

I remember getting an email this morning; a quote from a Joe Brainard letter to Anne Waldman:

I am still reading [Stein] on the toilet and I still find her very difficult and I was thinking how great it would be to hear Gertrude Stein out loud…I am way, way up these days over a piece I am still writing called I Remember. I feel very much like God writing the Bible. I mean, I feel like I am not really writing it but that it is because of me that it is being written. I also feel like it is about everybody else as much as it is about me.

I remember asking Joe Brainard for a logo for Tender Buttons Press. I remember that I thought he would just draw a little button in a special Joe Brainard way. I was surprised when he generously presented me these little drawings as possibilities:

He then suggested that I use this one:


This image is very strange: what on first glance may come off as cute is in fact a hybrid being.

Notice how the image is doubled in several ways to make a multiplicity: the little double coat and dress splice together to make one outfit with many little folds and pleats. The double (non-human) pansy faces have multiple petals and allude to labial flowers as well as to a being “pansy,” playing with and reclaiming the term for a feminized gay man, or one who chooses to perform a feminized gender.

I remember the poetry of the title of Luce Irigaray’s essay,

This Sex Which is Not One

which articulates how even though society views “feminine” sexuality as “not one,” or non-existent, the reality is it's multiple: not-only-one. I see Joe's drawing as an emblem for the multiplicitous feminine evoked in Irigaray's theories and in Gertrude Stein's poetics. A wild menu.

It’s the way new meaning is made in this stanza of Bernadette Mayer’s sonnet:

Tell like so cause me Bill loves you to not to know

Turn the hear to why over Bill me cause I’ll know I you

Say and am to exist I not entranced pretty

Can’t Bill with startling say Shakespeare myself that

It’s the flowing power of free association that arises from the unfurling of the list poem (my maternal grandmother Agnes Lee’s “Things I’d Like to Do Again”) or the cutting-up / cunting-up of sex and love letters re-appropriated from a fiery, then negated relationship: Dodie Bellamy asking “is the Cut-up a male form? ”

It’s the history of relationships that do not fit into normative views of what happened between humans —counter-narratives between the walls of gay and straight definitions of what defines the realities of loving.

It’s what I am describing in the last poem, “Crush,” in my book Polyverse (which was written out of reading Stein, especially the influence of the rhythms of “Lifting Belly”). It is my own manifesto of multiplicitous being-in-love and life’s work, written during the time I founded Tender Buttons press:

Reinvent love.

Can we reinvent love.

Why reinvent love.

Tender Buttons Press is one way I am working with others to reinvent love. And to break the obsessive old patterns, the conceptions of how you love, who you love:

How notions of ownership can kill love:

I don’t want to keep you.

Thinking through how sexuality is in the continuum of lived experience at the core of meaning and being:

Obsession can we talk about something else.

Get it out of the system.

It’s inherent to the system.

Systemic, we return to it.

Polysemous, multiplicitous, it keeps coming up.

Polyvalent, with many openings.

Anything can be alongside it.

and how inter-penetrable, linguistically innovative poetry disrupts and turns those meanings over and over to create new ways of thinking:

Nouns and verbs.

Noun verbs noun.

How “language is a real thing, not an imitation.” (Stein)

“What’s the use

in cutting up? What about explosives?”

(from “Coffee,” Polyverse)

“We all die” as Eiko said in last night’s performance. "As did C.D."

So now is the time for the works of our lives.


Tender Buttons was created in a time of radical awakening to feminism, and its complications in regards to race, class, sex, gender, and being “avant-garde“ each of which had complex truck with official literary culture.

I remember Harryette Mullen's Trimmings and how she played with the impulse of the source text of Stein's poem Tender Buttons to make it completely her own.

I remember the storms of necessary debate Trimmings stirred up, pitting the efficacy of straight-forward political poetry versus poetry which operates on the level of language itself. Like most things, I don't see it as two poles of “either or,“ but as an opening for multiplicity, as are all Tender Buttons titles in their specific way.

What happens when women get together and take the mode of production into their own hands to create their own terms for living and existing?

Multiplicitous in form,

I knew we could go on.

Gertrude Stein said "If you enjoy something, you understand it."

We are the daughters of enthusiasm

With tenderness and dancing.

With late night storming.

Excitement sisters.

Where are my excitement sisters.

At work they are at work.

I remember so many people who gave their time and labor to each Tender Buttons creation. We include here the original acknowledgement page from each book to trace the communal and "situationist" nature of the press over the years.

Multitudinous thank yous to all and especially to you, dear reader, who will take this work with you into the world.

I look forward to the birth of B by Julie Patton, one of the longest gestational periods for a book ever— over 15 years, a glorious pregnant B of visual and sonic language play, forming strong weaves of political import and love.

As I type Truck Darling’s “Artist Statement 2,” I imagine how would it feel to be newly changing one’s bodily and hormonal form, from girl/woman to man/boy and write these opening lines:

All paint is war paint when you’re newly stretched.

Nude of grace, I want to be seen with dignity

And Truck ends with a few lines that encapsulate the fiercely independent spirit of what I’m always hungering for, what I find in poetry.

No matter / How warped I

see the world, it’s my world, cracked /& salty.

“H.D. wrote: “Paint it today”

Truck Darling writes:

“Nude of grace, I paint it anyway.”

I look forward to further expanding Tender Buttons poetics into emerging areas of radical expression— linguist and socio-political.

I look forward to the wave of astonishment that will surely happen when a younger generation encounters these books, and when a wider audience of people realize all these amazing books came from the same small press.

I look forward to you reading this book, to you having it by your bedside to read hypnogogicaly and hypnopompicly and for you to open many new forms of poetry, of thinking and feeling, in and out of language, and in imagining and realizing new living, loving forms of being.

I remember last night’s dream: I got behind the wheel of a very large bus to drive it around a crowded metropolis. It felt like a huge responsibility. I drove it over an industrial bridge, over a river and back again to where I first got on the bus. I was fearful I would not be able to find a place to park it, so was vastly relieved and happy to find both sides of the street clear to parallel park against the overgrown curb.

Lee Ann Brown

Founding Editrix, Tender Buttons Press

New moon solar eclipse

March 8th, 2016

New York City

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