Mina Loy (Interview of Biographer Carolyn Burke)
Pam Brown Interviews Mina Loy Biographer Carolyn Burke
Jane Heap, Mina Loy, and Ezra Pound
Paris, c. 1923
Carolyn, you have been writing about Mina Loy's work since 1980. Could you recount your discovery of her work?
I discovered Mina Loy in Paris in the seventies. Because of my interest in the expatriates, I was reading memoirs like Robert McAlmon's Being Geniuses Together and Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, where the name Mina Loy kept appearing. I began wondering who she was and tried to find her poetry -- which proved to be difficult because it had long been out of print. The search soon took on something of an obsessive quality, or perhaps it was like detective work. By the time I found her Lunar Baedecker I was so taken with it that I thought "this woman is remarkable -- she's very much ahead of her time." She was into everything new and interesting.
What prompted you to write her biography? Did you want to redress the neglect of her work, or were you more interested in telling the tale of her extremely complicated life?
Some of each. It didn't occur to me to write a biography at first. I was going to look at her poetry as a painter's poetry, because I've always been interested in exchanges between artists and writers. When I returned to the U.S. in 1978 it dawned on me that I knew more about her than almost anyone, because the sheer digging around had unearthed quite a lot.
Where did you dig?
I began by looking up all the remaining expatriates and Surrealists in Paris. It was fortunate that I was on the spot and knew some of them. After that I had to find her two daughters and start digging in the U.S., England, Munich, and Italy.
She was at first a painter. From what I can gather, it seems she began to write poetry when inspired by the wild energy of the Futurists in Italy. Could you talk about her context in the decade leading up to and including the First World War -- her association with the avant-garde, the Salon d'Automne and the Futurists?
La maison en papier
Drawing and gouache
by Mina Loy, 1906
It was a crucial period in her life and one that took years to unearth. Although the Salon d'Automne was held in Paris, there were only the slightest references to her showing there and to the art school she attended in the 1900s. I tried to find the records for both places but they didn't exist any more -- so I had to go about it in a devious fashion. I was able to get the titles of all the paintings that she'd shown, because the catalogues still exist, but I had to research the rest through the memoirs of people who lived in Montparnasse at the time.
Mina was not a daring painter in those days. She was an accomplished Post-Impressionist who did quite well for an English woman of 23 in that she was elected to the Salon d'Automne. This meant that you were a life member and could show your work without going through the selection process. But she was not as bold a painter as she would become a poet. Which is not surprising; she always said that she went into a sort of backwater, a genteel backwater, when she and her husband left Paris and moved to Florence in 1907. That cut short her career as a Post-Impressionist.
And this was her first husband, Stephen Haweis. They met at art school in England?
They actually met in Paris.
Oh, did they?
Stephen Haweis and Mina Loy,
Paris, c. 1905
Yes. They met at the Académie Colarossi. I was able to find out more about their art school -- which pleased me no end. They met in painting class. She called him "the horror of the night class."
Mina was always acerbic on the subject of Stephen Haweis. He was flamboyant and self-dramatizing. He would come into the night class wearing black capes and beads -- artsy costumes to distinguish himself. According to her memoirs, which have to be read with a grain of salt, she took an instant dislike to him. So there's the complicated question -- "Why did she marry him?" -- which the biography takes up at length. In any case, they had very little money. He married her in part because of her great beauty and talent, and in part because of the income that her father promised them if they would marry. And on that little income they found that they could live better in Florence. They were not doing well in Paris -- their marriage was already falling apart only a few years after they wed.
She had a child die.
Yes. Which was probably the reason for the marriage -- she was pregnant. After the death of their daughter, she may have had a nervous breakdown. There's not much information about that but she did enter treatment with a young doctor at the time -- whose widow I was able to find in Paris.
People didn't move so much there, so you could track them down -- those who were still alive. I also met two wonderful women in their nineties: Gabrielle Picabia and Juliette Roche-Gleizes, who was a painter. They had known her in New York. They had wonderful things to tell me -- both about the New York Dada days and about the earlier days in Paris. That was invaluable.
So the Haweises moved to Italy in 1907 for economic reasons?
Also because of the disarray between them -- yes. They went to try to salvage things between them as well as live on her little income.
And this is where she encountered the extraordinary Futurists and had affairs with Papini and Marinetti. She found some intellectual excitement with the Futurists that had been lacking for her previously . . .
When she moved to Florence she had a period of doldrums, because she lived for about the next five years among these very genteel English and American expatriates, the most eminent of whom would be Bernard Berenson, and people like Gordon Craig and Mabel Dodge Luhan -- a wealthy American who became her best friend. These people were leading a fin-de-siècle life, as if the nineteenth century had not yet come to a close. They were given to costume parties and renaissance festivities -- unlike Mina, they were able to play out their fantasies in a grand way. Nonetheless, it was an aesthetic backwater as far as she was concerned.
In the meantime, she had two more children, a girl and a boy, and she was leading a life that did not stimulate her much -- a round of social events, tea-drinking, gossip about people's affairs. It was meeting Gertrude Stein, whose friend she became and whose manuscripts she read, and then Marinetti and his gang, that woke her from this period of lassitude.
Also Mabel Dodge played a role in that she was very much given to intellectual pursuits. She and Mina read Freud, Bergson, some of the Eastern philosophers -- they were immersed in what was called the New Thought -- so you put all that together and it was a climate ripe for something new to happen. But I think the direct influence of Stein and Marinetti was what impelled her into poetry.
Marinetti was aware of her first as a person rather than as an artist and much later Ezra Pound knew her work -- both those men had terrible beliefs about women's lack of ability to make art. Do you think that her encounter with Marinetti (whose philosophy she later rejected completely) was a reason for her early feminism?
Yes, in part.
She was so much ahead of her time in that regard.
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, 1910
She wrote her Feminist Manifesto in a kind of intellectual dialogue with Marinetti -- in response to some of the debates within Futurism on the issue of the Futurist woman. And in response to his disdain for "ordinary" women. He told her that she was an exception, but she refused the role of the exceptional woman, for which I've always admired her. She wrote in response to this situation. Indeed, she showed her paintings in the first international Futurist art exhibition in 1914, but also told Marinetti that she felt too much solidarity with her own sex to agree with his ideas. She was very thoughtful on that subject -- at the same time, she always credited Marinetti with waking her up. He had a beneficial effect on her. He was one of those people who had an invigorating effect on others. So, like his Futurist movement, he was kind of a mixed bag. But since Mina was a person who reacted to what others did, it was actually good for her to have to respond to Marinetti's misogyny -- in her wonderful poems on the "sex war" as she called it and her satires of Italian males like Marinetti.
In 1914 she told Carl Van Vechten: "I have a fundamental masculine conceit that ascribes lack of appreciation of my work to lack of perspicacity in the observer." Do you think she was being ironic or do you think she was actually that confident -- or is that perhaps something that women do?
Ah, that's a difficult one. She could be very ironic. Her correspondence with Van Vechten has this teasing account of her mixed nature described in the terms of the time as partly masculine and partly feminine. Sometimes she was quite serious about that, because she had such a good brain, and she tended to identify logic with something more masculine. So she was probably being both. When one's in doubt about the tone of a poem, she's usually doing several things -- so I would say in answer to that question, she's probably doing some of each.
Arthur Cravan, Paris c. 1910
Mina Loy's second husband was the Surrealist boxer Arthur Cravan. They were together only a year or two when he disappeared in Mexico in 1918. She was still searching, hopeful that he was alive, two years later.
I should say that she rejected the idea that he was a Surrealist. She was a bit cross about his elevation to the Surrealist pantheon by people like Breton, and she took a long time to cooperate with Breton when he wanted to publish Cravan's writings. She felt that he and she were two of a kind, but were not part of the Surrealist movement. He was adopted into it after his death -- posthumously . . .
Ah . . . I thought that perhaps he was more of a Dadaist because of his publications . . .
That's right, but he also didn't want to associate with Dada. He didn't want to associate with any "ism," and he rejected Duchamp and those connected with Dada in New York. He's a bit hard to place. Although the Surrealists adopted him as a precursor, from her perspective it would be misleading to label him. She wanted to believe in his individual genius. She really loved him. Deeply. And she came around to seeing the world through his eyes. It was a bit of a folie à deux. She suffered greatly because she never knew what happened to him. It was likely that he had drowned, but the situation was so chaotic during the revolution that any number of things could have happened.
They had planned to go farther south. Many draft-dodgers and nonconformists went to Mexico after the U.S. entered the war in 1917, and then when things got too hot for them because the Mexican government was engaged in surveillance, some decided to go on to Buenos Aires. That was their plan, but Cravan disappeared along the way, probably off the Pacific coast.
You visited Mexico to research this section of the biography and feel that drowning is the only possibility?
Yes, now that I've been to Salina Cruz, the town on the bay mentioned in both the remaining correspondence and a roman à clef by one of their friends. The bay is called Bahia Ventosa or Windy Bay, and the tides there are treacherous. He must have drowned.
A couple of years later in New York there were rumors . . .
There were different stories about him. Cravan was one of those legendary characters who inspire stories, and lots of contradictory ones were passed around. Everyone likes to speculate and speculation sometimes turns into quasi-factual accounts. To this day people ask me what happened to Cravan. I recently learned that a novel based on his Mexican adventures, The Hotel in the Jungle by Albert Guerard, will be published this year.
She had a daughter with Arthur Cravan?
Yes, she was born after his death. Mina made it back to England from Buenos Aires and had this child, Fabienne, in her mother's house. Which was surprising, since she was very bitter about her mother, but it was the one place she could go, I suppose. She was in England just after the end of the war and then took Fabienne to Italy to join her other children.
She moved with her daughters back to Paris in the twenties and published poems in the Transatlantic Review.
Yes, and with Contact Editions, which was Robert McAlmon's press.
Calla lily lamp
by Mina Loy, c. 1927
She also began to design lamps, like the beautiful calla lily lamp. Apparently Peggy Guggenheim set her up in this venture?
That was a crazy business relationship. Peggy Guggenheim liked to sponsor people but she didn't like to follow through. So there was never any contract. Everything was done in a casual fashion, and whenever Peggy changed her mind Mina would find herself in the lurch. The correspondence on that subject is sometimes painful to read, but it gives all the details (which I've put into those chapters). It must have been difficult to have someone like Peggy Guggenheim as her patron. For example, about a year after they got started Mina needed money for supplies and to hire workers, because she and Joella, her daughter, had been doing all the work. She appealed to Peggy and Peggy said, "Oh, I'm terribly sorry, I've just given all my money to the striking English trade unions!"
For a time Mina was quite successful, because her designs were good and her prices were moderate. Had she been a better businesswoman or had a better business partner, she might have done really well. But she began to fear that people were stealing her designs (which they probably were) and she got quite paranoid about this. As is often the case with people who are paranoid, things really are happening as they imagine -- but then it gets worse and worse. She sold the business because she felt that it was hampering her and she could no longer paint or write.
Djuna Barnes and Natalie Barney, c. 1930
This was also the period of her friendship with Natalie Barney, Djuna Barnes and the other expatriate writers in Paris -- but during this time she published or perhaps even wrote very little . . . is this the case?
Well, as she said, she was so busy running the lampshade business that it took all her time. But I also feel that after her first book of poems was published in 1923, and then segments of her long autobiographical poem Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose came out in the next two years, that she had temporarily run out of material; she had come to a standstill. She began writing about Cravan during that time, as far as I can tell. When she started writing again it was prose rather than poetry, but she didn't get the necessary leisure or the peace of mind until she sold the shop. By the early thirties she was immersed in what she called her novel -- which was really many versions of a highly autobiographical account of her upbringing.
However, she was present at those salons. They must have been extraordinary . . .
Yes. I was fortunate in that I was able to interview Berthe Cleyrergue, Natalie Barney's "gouvernante" -- the woman who looked after everything, in Barney's house. I also talked a bit with Djuna Barnes about those days and drew on her Ladies Almanack -- an extraordinary roman à clef about that salon. I've reconstructed Barney's Académie des Femmes as Mina participated in it, and hope that I've gotten a bit of the teasing tone that went on there, as well as the sexual high jinks. It was quite an atmosphere. Mina Loy read there -- a few of her poems. And she was probably the only heterosexual member -- an interesting position, which she was teased about.
I thought that you had written the description of Mina Loy as having had an "accidental aloofness" . . . which is something identifiable for many women writers. It's a very clever description . . . sort of "light" . . .
Drawing of James Joyce
by Mina Loy for Vanity Fair,
I picked up the phrase because it seemed to fit both Loy and Barnes; it is taken from Djuna Barnes' interview account of their meeting with James Joyce. She and Mina were good friends. They went to meet Joyce in 1922 -- Mina to draw his portrait and Djuna to write the interview for Vanity Fair. He was already quite famous. It was Barnes' phrase for Joyce's stance toward the world, but I thought it applied equally well to the two women.
Mina returned to New York in the late thirties. Did she begin to frequent the Bowery then?
No, she didn't really get to the Bowery until the late forties. She had lived in New York in the middle of World War I, and always said that it was the only city where she had been happy. So she returned to the U.S. just before the outbreak of World War II because her daughters had settled in New York and were terribly worried about their mother in Paris as Hitler was taking over. She had a very low period for about the next ten years -- from '37 to '47. She no longer felt at home -- so much time had passed -- she had in her head memories of the 1910s, the Dada group, and the Arensberg circle, and these people had scattered. She no longer felt adequate to the social and artistic scene. She did write a bit, but it wasn't until she moved close to the Bowery, after her daughters both went to Aspen, Colorado, that she came out of this ten-year slump.
Joseph Cornell box
with Man Ray photo of Mina Loy
She met the artist Joseph Cornell, and although she had literary supporters in Kenneth Rexroth and, later, Jonathan Williams, she seemed to be ignored by her American contemporaries -- which is astounding after her European experience.
Several things had happened. One was that her work had gone out of fashion by the thirties -- the emphasis was on poetry with social content. High Modernism had begun to seem old-fashioned by then -- it was a time when her kind of writing was not what people were interested in. And then she was out of print -- the usual fate or thing that keeps people from reading you. And, in any case, when New Criticism came in after World War II, people in the U.S. turned to T. S. Eliot as the model Modernist. He favored Marianne Moore to such an extent that Mina Loy was somehow eclipsed. There had been since the 1910s a peculiar kind of comparison between the two women poets -- not anything of their making but rather the creation of Eliot, Pound, and William Carlos Williams -- as if to say, "These are the two best women poets -- which is better?" Eliot chose Moore -- so it's an unfortunate yet familiar and harmful structuring within the poetry world of Loy's reputation as minor in relation to Moore's.
That seems to happen all the time. Do you think that operated on a social level rather than a level of poetics -- a sort of social vying?
Well, some of each. Marianne Moore continued to publish whereas Mina Loy did not -- that makes a big difference. And Moore was in her own modest way rather good at creating her public persona -- by the late forties and early fifties she was seen as a sort of American eccentric.
Yes -- the hat.
Yes, and she liked baseball. She loved the Dodgers. So she did certain things that kept her being read and having a certain name-recognition, whereas Mina Loy didn't do any of that and was riddled by such self-doubt that she could barely manage to get dressed to go to social events, or would turn around and go home because she felt she was no longer the great beauty that she had been in earlier days. There was a certain amount of self-subversion as well as these changes in literary fashion, and the fact that if there was going to be one Modernist woman poet from that generation it was to be Moore, not Loy. Had she kept on writing and publishing it might have been quite different.
So it was about ten years later that Jonathan Williams published Lunar Baedeker & Time-Tables (1958).
Yes, partly because of Kenneth Rexroth's encouragement and recommendation. Rexroth had a great deal to do with the rediscovery of Mina Loy. He helped me a lot, especially at the early stages.
And when Lunar Baedeker & Time-Tables came out it was almost totally ignored -- met with a grand silence. What do you think about that?
It may have been a bit soon, it may not have been well-distributed -- it certainly wasn't well-reviewed; there was exactly one review. She had not yet been rediscovered by the readers who would find so much in her ten to twenty years later. She was read by a small coterie of poets including people like Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and Paul Blackburn -- people associated with the Black Mountain school read her. But these people were themselves on the fringes of the poetry world in the U.S. at that time, so having enthusiastic comments by them didn't necessarily get you a large readership. Then being published by a small press -- Jargon Press -- probably meant that there were distribution difficulties. Mina Loy remained a poet's poet until the seventies, when she was rediscovered within the context of feminist readings.
Househunting, Mina Loy assemblage c. 1950
You have one of Mina Loy's paintings -- could you recount how you came by that?
Yes. It's a wonderful piece -- the best of her Bowery constructions insofar as I can judge from photographs. I interviewed Peggy Guggenheim in her Venice palazzo not long before she died. She couldn't tell me very much, but she did take me to see this absolutely beautiful Mina Loy construction in a pink bedroom that was closed to the public. It was called "Househunting." Its imagery was very much that of domestic spaces -- it shows little bits of evocations of houses in the form of cut-outs of cardboard painted with bricks. It has in the center an almost Pre-Raphaelite head of a woman who has all sorts of domestic objects around her and even on her -- she's wearing them on her head. It's a very poetic piece -- quite unlike her other Bowery constructions, many of which are a kind of social satire or social commentary. I was able to order a black & white print of it -- so I had that.
Some years later I interviewed Peggy Guggenheim's son, Sindbad Vail. He told me that he owned "Househunting" but that it was in storage. Then he said that if I wanted to go to Venice, I could have it. That trip was like a pilgrimage. When I found the piece, after all sorts of difficulties, it had been damaged by some vandals who had gone into the warehouse hoping to find valuables. I was then the owner of a damaged Mina Loy construction. I shipped it back to California and was lucky enough to find a restorer who was so moved by the story that she said "All right, let's try." She restored it according to my photograph and the other evidence available, including some color photographs of contemporary constructions. The restoration of "Househunting" seemed emblematic of the work of writing this book. You end up with bits and pieces of what was once a whole and you decide how to put them together -- how do I restore the shape of this life? How do I let it convey its meaning?
When you write a biography of someone they must, in a sense, become a phantom part of your own life.
It's a strange thing, and it has many stages. Obviously, in the beginning there's an affinity or you wouldn't get drawn into it. I admired Mina Loy. My admiration for her and her poetry was very great. When I came to see what her annoying sides were, she then seemed more like another person, because my heroine-worship had given way to a somewhat more realistic sense of her. But this was a long process. In the early stages it was rather like a calling -- it was something that I felt called to do. I dreamed of her. She was so deeply in my subconscious that I felt related to her. My daughter grew up knowing about Mina as if she were a member of the family . . . [laughter] . . . so I've gone through all sorts of phases. I now feel somewhat detached. I don't think about her that often and yet I still find her extremely interesting. It's been a long acquaintance with very intense moments. I did get a bit cross with her at times when I saw how much she got in her way or when she wouldn't get on the train I needed her to get on to finish the chapter [more laughter].
You had heard her voice on some tapes, hadn't you?
Yes. When I first heard it it gave me goose-bumps. It was an absolutely chilling and remarkable experience to hear her voice because it was the closest I ever came to her physical presence except in dreams.
You were already writing the biography?
Yes. I think I heard it, oh, about ten years ago. It was hard to hear, hard to decipher -- a poor quality, reel-to-reel tape. I sat with the tape recorder on my ear and that too seemed like the work of this biography -- to salvage anything was remarkable. But I was pleased to have the interview and have transcribed it with the help of Marisa Januzzi, a Mina Loy scholar.
What were the circumstances of the recording?
Mina Loy, Aspen, 1957
Photo by Jonathan Williams
Jonathan Williams was poet-in-residence in Aspen where Mina was living in her old age. He was there for the summer of 1965. Some of the poets from Black Mountain College came to visit -- Blackburn and Creeley, along with Robert Vas Dias. They heard her read at a social gathering arranged by her daughters for people who might appreciate her work. And they did. So they came to interview her. She was charmed and delighted -- obviously very happy. On the tape we can hear Mina reading some of her own poems -- stumbling over the long words, laughing at them, saying "Wasn't I clever" or "Wasn't I wicked" in the middle of a poem. It's a very, very interesting document and the only one of its kind.
This interview will be published in a volume called Mina Loy -- Woman and Poet put out by the American National Poetry Foundation in Maine. They do a volume a year on poets like Pound and Moore and Loy -- that generation. It's being edited by Maeera Shreiber and Keith Tuma, two Mina Loy scholars, and includes critical essays, other poets' appreciations of her work, and this interview.
So there's that, the novel you mentioned, and a new edition of her poems . . .
The Lost Lunar Baedeker, edited by Roger L. Conover, her literary executor.
And then there's your Becoming Modern -- so 1996 will be a big year for Mina Loy.
Yes, a very big year for Mina Loy. After all this time.
It will be interesting to see the response after the neglect of the fifties. It's too late for her.
It is too late for her, but it does help us to draw a larger, more varied and richer picture of that generation of Modernist writers. I hope it will cause something of a shift in the way we talk about not only the women poets of that period but the poets of that period, and how we conceive of literary and artistic Modernism. I know that's a lot to hope for, but that's what I would like to see.
King's Cross, Sydney, Australia
December 12, 1995
Copyright © 1995-1999, Carolyn Burke and Pam Brown
Pam Brown is the author of twelve books of poetry & prose. Her most recent titles are This World/This Place, published by University of Queensland Press, and Little Droppings from Never-Never Books. She has also made short films and video. She lives in Sydney.
A Mina Loy Bibliography:
Mina Loy, Lunar Baedecker [sic]. Dijon: Contact, 1923
Mina Loy, Lunar Baedeker & Time-Tables. Highlands, N.C.: Jonathan Williams 1958
Mina Loy, The Last Lunar Baedeker. Highlands, N.C.: Jargon, 1982
Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker, ed. Roger L. Conover. N.Y.: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996
Carolyn Burke, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy. N.Y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996
Albert Guerard, The Hotel in the Jungle. Dallas: Baskerville, 1996
Maeera Shreiber & Keith Tuma, eds., Mina Loy: Woman and Poet. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1997
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