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The legacy of Mina Loy

Painter, printmaker and editor Melissa Gordon is interested in addressing the exhibition as a ‘theatre in the round’: highlighting shifting perspectives when staging her work.  In January 2016 she launched Fallible Space, a week long exhibition in Bluecoat's Performance Space with the first ever staging of Mina Loy's 1916 play Collision.

Loy's experimental script, which sees the total transformation of a space as lights blaze and “the angle of floors and ceiling change kaleidoscopically”, determines the hang of Gordon's canvases.

The installation provided the backdrop to an afternoon of readings and discussion dedicated to Loy. The event, ‘Myths of the Modern Woman’  features Melissa Gordon and poets Sandeep Parmar, Zoe Skoulding, Sara Crangle, Joanne Ashcroft, Robert Sheppard and is curated by Parmar. 

In the first of two parts, Head of Programme Marie-Anne McQuay discusses the significance of Loy’s legacy with Sandeep Parmar, academic, poet and author of The Reading Mina Loy's Autobiographies: Myth of the Modern Woman.

Marie-Anne: Mina Loy (1882-1966) had many guises– Futurist artist, Modernist poet, playwright and novelist, actress, costume designer…what else could be added to this list? Was it unusual for an early twentieth female artist and writer to have so concurrent careers?

Sandeep: As your question implies, it was not at all unusual for modernists to spread themselves across artistic and literary disciplines and genres. But it’s a good question and it’s an interesting question, mostly because it relates more to the processes of canon formation and, possibly the role of gender, and our latter day assumptions about the professionalization of the artist than it does about Loy. One of my many concerns about Loy’s posthumous reputation within modernist studies is the fetishization of her ‘uniqueness’—lampshades and hats usually figure in this, as does her love life and her physical beauty (oft commented on by her contemporaries). Loy was not trained as a writer—there was no such training—but she was trained as an a visual artist and necessity, poverty, and an entrepreneurial spirit led her to open a lampshade shop in Paris with the backing of Peggy Guggenheim. Loy's father was a tailor. Loy was very resourceful: one senses even from her manuscripts that she was repurposing all the time—whether that meant reusing old address books or calendars turned upside down and written on in reverse or the re-writing of previous versions of her biography (of which there are about 5 or 7 drafts, depending on your view). 

Loy was not unusually good at many things as much as she was willing to adapt to earn a living and respond to the artistic moment (hence her about face once Futurism fell out of favour). There’s a folder of designs for inventions and patents in her archive—for things like a 'Build Your Own Alphabet' board game and a painter's palate bracelet. Maybe women are more susceptible to this if they’re relying on their own income, as Loy was? Nancy Cunard also has a long list of roles (muse, heiress, model, publisher, poet, playwright, hopeful screenwriter, photographer, war reporter, activist, anthologist, Africanist…). The Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven was what we’d now call a performance artist. But she was also a writer and a poet and a designer of fabulous costumes—these things get lost in the vignettes of her chasing William Carlos Williams round Greenwich Village. Also, just thinking about your word ‘career’. We’re so much more likely to assign a literary career to someone like Eliot, even though he was a banker then a publisher. Gertrude Stein! Now there’s someone who really only did one thing well. There’s a literary career.

Marie-Anne: How significant was Loy to other writers in her most active period and how has her reputation developed over the years?

Sandeep: It’s difficult to judge significance. For example, because Loy wrote a beautiful poem about Nancy Cunard, I fully expected to find traces of Loy in her archive. There were none. Why? Well, much of Cunard’s books and papers in her house at Réanville were destroyed by SS troops during WWII so it’s possible that diaries and letters haven’t survived. It’s clear they were friendly and in Paris at the same time in the same circles. But did Loy’s poetics inspire Cunard’s? Judging from Loy’s poem, she admired Cunard’s character and her strength—a fellow British expat like herself adrift from British life in Europe and America. If significance can be interpreted as direct influence on style or aesthetics then one might hear resonances with Pound, Djuna Barnes, perhaps even Joyce or Duchamp. Joseph Cornell, a little later on, was clearly influenced by Loy’s crystalline linguistic structures which he somehow transmuted into his material creations. Gertrude Stein had a measureable impact, like Marinetti, on Loy’s poetics. Loy appreciated Williams, Pound, H.D. (a little). But nothing quite compares to the appreciation of Loy by American poets like Kenneth Rexroth, Ivor Winters, Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, Barbara Guest and the British-born Denise Levertov. 

It’s worth remembering that as a poet Loy was ‘inactive’ from the late 1940s until her death in 1966, but attempts were made to recuperate her voice even then. Since the end of modernism—and its canonisation by the American academy in the 1960s and 1970s as well as its re-admittance of women by feminist scholars—Loy has enjoyed a revival strongest felt by Language and post-Language poets in the US. Her reputation in England is slight by comparison, though the British ‘avant-garde’ poets can identify her in their constellation.

Marie-Anne: "Your publication which re-reads Loy's autobiographies makes a case for an understanding of her work through feminism. What drew you to Loy's work and can you describe the relationship she has with our contemporary understanding of this movement?"

Sandeep: I first encountered Loy during my MA study in creative writing—her Lost Lunar Baedeker was sticking out of a bookshelf in the UEA library and stopping to take a look changed the course of my life. I felt huge despair over the conservatism of British poetry and Loy was transformative for me. Her language, her use of the line, breath, caesura, sound—it was like nothing I’d ever read. And then I got a whiff of the unpublished autobiographies from Carolyn Burke’s biography and resolved to study them for my PhD. No one else really had before then—and certainly not in a sustained way.

Loy was not entirely on board with the feminist movement as it was in the first decades of the twentieth century. Her letters from the time of her ‘Feminist Manifesto’ suggest a real political and spiritual impatience with women, which is endearing and perplexing. I think Loy wasn’t exactly fighting politically for ‘sisterhood’ but she was keen to transcend the barriers of her gender and to point out where they existed. For example, her poems from the time of her first (devastatingly bad) marriage to Stephen Haweis are extremely sensitive to the suffering of everyday women in Europe. 

Her autobiography ‘The Child and the Parent’ is hilarious on the hypocrisies of Victorian women and sex and devastating on her own relationship with her Evangelical Christian mother. Like Barnes, Loy could be brilliantly satirical about her society. Her feminism is barbed and individual and linked up interestingly with genius. But it’s not a collective activist solidarity with women generally as is more commonly our definition now, however problematic that becomes in terms of difference.

Marie-Anne: Finally, can you pick a Loy poem or text that you’d like more people to know of? 

Sandeep: For beginners, I’d suggest Loy’s ‘Feminist Manifesto’—unpublished during her lifetime—or her magical neologistic ‘Lunar Baedeker’ 


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