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Karla Kelsey on Mina Loy’s Lost Writings

Lost Writings: Two Novels by Mina Loy includes two never-before-published manuscripts by the groundbreaking writer, artist, and feminist. In this Q&A, we talk with the book’s editor Karla Kelsey about the process of editing and Mina Loy’s enduring legacy.

What was your first encounter with Mina Loy’s work?

In the small photocopy room of the department where I was working on a graduate degree, Eleni Sikelianos, one of my mentors, was copying multiple pages from a large, fat book with a peacock-blue cover. When she finished, she stapled the stack and handed it to me, telling me I needed to read it because I was working on a long poem of my own, and, furthermore, would love it. It was Mina Loy’s verse-epic, “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose,” which had been published in its entirety for the first time in Jargon Society’s 1982 The Last Lunar Baedeker, edited by Roger Conover. I was immediately drawn to Loy’s fresh, innovative language. Even though the poem was written in the early 1920s, the boldness with which the poem addresses the impact that gender, ethnicity, and class have on self-identity and artistic pursuits continues to feel necessary. Like the novels of Lost Writings, the poem is based in autobiography, and Loy revisits many of the themes and scenes of the poem in the novels.

Aside from its publication in The Last Lunar Baedeker, which has long been out of print, this groundbreaking poem has never appeared in its entirety. It was originally published in installments in little magazines and an anthology alongside work by writers like Gertrude Stein, H.D., William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound—Loy’s friends and peers, all of whom are substantially more known. Like the contents of Lost Writings and so much of her work, “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” is both astonishing and tenuously transmitted.

Lost Writings includes two of Loy’s never-before-published manuscripts, The Child and the Parent and Islands in the Air. You note that Loy rarely put dates on her manuscripts or indicated when a work was finished. Could you describe the process of piecing together these manuscripts and editing them for the collection? Did you feel a sense of responsibility, trying to bring this work to audiences for the first time?

The process of piecing together Loy’s manuscripts began on a summer afternoon with her papers at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which holds the largest public collection of her materials. While Loy is most recognized for her innovative poetry of the late 1910s and early’20s, she also wrote novels, manifestos, plays, stories, and uncategorizable prose. The Mina Loy Papers, a relatively small collection, includes all these genres, and four of the eight archival boxes preserve drafts of six of her seven known novels. This autobiographical cycle, which she referred to as her “Book,” draws on her childhood, student days, and artistic literary life. On this initial encounter, I was immediately electrified by the language of The Child and the Parent and Islands in the Air but quickly understood that to really read them I’d need to piece them together and transcribe them. I was also intrigued by their relationship to each other: they were clearly connected, but how? While both manuscripts exist as typescripts with Loy’s hand-corrections alongside multiple other drafts, none of the copies are complete.

All of Loy’s papers in the Beinecke are scanned and available online, but it was crucial to work with the physical manuscripts. Loy was also an accomplished visual artist and designer, and the materials of the page, the typewriter, the pencil scrawl, are all important. In addition to working in the reading room, studying the scholarship that has developed around the manuscripts was essential to my process. Particularly indispensable was Sandeep Parmar’s Reading Mina Loy’s Autobiographies: Myth of the Modern Woman, as was grasping the way other editors have approached her work, including Conover, who edited her poetry, as well as the editors of her prose. Sara Crangle’s 2011 Stories and Essays of Mina Loy works primarily with previously unpublished work,and from Loy’s papers Elizabeth Arnold edited Insel in 1991, which was reissued in 2014 with further materials from the archive edited by Sarah Hayden.

None of Loy’s “Book” was published in her lifetime, despite efforts by her and her daughter in the 1950s and early ’60s to interest editors. My introduction and afterword flesh out the historical and archival contexts of the manuscripts alongside my process of bringing them into print. I feel a great sense of responsibility, privilege, and pleasure in introducing this work to audiences for the first time.

Could you explain what you call “the intimate connection” between the two novels in Lost Writings?

Thought to have been written in Paris in the 1930s, The Child and the Parent is enigmatic and philosophical. It begins with infancy and early childhood before branching off into a lyrical meditation on the repression of women. Islands in the Air, thought to have been written in New York City in the ’40s and ’50s,reshapes passages from The Child and the Parent into the story of Loy’s alter ego, Linda, and follows her into her teenage years as she strives to become an artist and independent woman. The novels not only share a theme of coming into selfhood but, in early chapters, share material. Presenting them together provides insight into Loy’s writing process and invites discussion about genre: What do different approaches to writing a life allow one to say, allow one to be?

Loy herself foregrounds these questions, most pointedly at the beginning of Islands in the Air. The novel opens as Linda returns home to find one of her abandoned manuscripts scattered across her apartment. She recognizes this as part of the “Book” she had once “felt impelled to write.” Compelled to resume her project, Linda goes to the closet to “pick the first chapter” from a valise of papers she has stored there. It is titled “The Bird Alights,” which readers of The Child and the Parent will recognize as the first chapter of that earlier manuscript. World has become text, and text has become world: The Child and the Parent is the very manuscript Linda will develop into Islands in the Air, offering “A life for a life. My experience to yours for comparison.”

Mina Loy lived in several cities, having been born in London and then later moving to places such as Paris, Munich, Mexico City, and New York. How did these different settings impact her writing over the years?

Loy’s remarkable life maps onto many of the most important locations of European modernism, and following her around the globe charts a story of the avant-garde. Some of the highlights include Paris in 1905 where she showed work in the Salon d’Automne, which would become famous for its Fauves. In Italy before the First World War, she ran with the Futurists and was the only British artist to show work in the 1914 First Free Futurist International Exhibition in Rome. Loy’s literary debut, a manifesto titled “Aphorisms on Futurism” (1914) published in Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work, leveraged Futurist techniques toward the liberation of creative consciousness. When she arrived in the United States in 1916, she was embraced by the New York Dadaists. She exhibited a painting in the 1917 First Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists (famous for its rejection of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain), performed in avant-garde theater, and published in little magazines. Lunar Baedecker [sic], her first book of poetry, was released in 1923 by Robert McAlmon’s Paris-based press, Contact Editions, alongside volumes by Bryher, William Carlos Williams, Ernest Hemingway, and Marsden Hartley. In the mid-1920s she designed and produced lamps and lampshades, which she sold in her own shop, partially funded by Peggy Guggenheim. After selling the business in 1930s, she was the sole “Paris représentante” for her son-in-law Julien Levy’s New York City gallery and was instrumental in his introduction of Surrealism to the United States. At this time, she was living in the same apartment building as her good friend Djuna Barnes while working on her “Book” and generating at least two distinctive suites of paintings. In the 1940s and ’50s, she lived on the Bowery in New York City, where she had emigrated before the Second World War. There she gathered trash, which she made into assemblages, continued to work on her “Book,” and wrote documentary-style poetry about her neighborhood.

In all of these cases, Loy wasn’t just in the right place at the time but was an essential part of literary and artistic communities and movements. Yet her work remained unique and her creative practices never derivative and always distinctive. Key to this was her curiosity and engagement balanced by self-awareness and a strong aversion to conformity.

Loy was a Jewish writer during a time of rising anti-Semitism and Fascism in Europe. What was her relationship to her Jewish identity, and how did it reveal itself in her work?

Loy was born in London in 1882; her father, a Jewish Hungarian tailor, had emigrated from Budapest as a young adult, and her mother was Protestant, the daughter of a cabinet maker. Loy was raised Christian, and her parents’ different backgrounds seems to have been a great source of conflict. Across her writing, the characters that Loy base on her mother are depicted as anti-Semitic. The mother figure is ashamed of her husband (although appreciative of his income) and bent on forcing Loy to conform to middle-class, Victorian feminine standards. Loy writes into this conflict, using it as an opportunity to explore not only the interpersonal dynamics of a fraught household but also as an allegory for imperialism and religious identities. Titles like “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” and “Goy Israels” (another of her autobiographical novels) speak to Loy’s relationship to her identity: always partial, always mixed.

You call The Child and the Parent a “a work of feminist lyric philosophy” that was revolutionary in its examination of domestic life and female sexual pleasure, long before the feminist movements of the 1960s. Could you expand on feminism in Loy’s writing?

Loy’s feminism stands out for her keen awareness of the power of social forces to shape individual psyches and for her critique of the way those forces perpetuate conditions hostile to human flourishing. Both novels challenge the imperialist, patriarchal culture of the late Victorian era of her youth, but her critique is applicable to our own time. In a passage that she repeates in both novels, she writes, “Not realizing that my very survival depended on submitting to that psychic pressure that church and state and even the police force would see to it that I should, and that failing their protection, the economic system would throw me out of life itself if I tried to escape, I decided to ignore it.” Of course, as Loy’s narrator well knows, she cannot ignore it, and the novels examine the internalization of these structures and the struggle against them.

Islands in the Air explores these structures narratively; The Child and the Parent explores them symbolically. For instance, the second half of the book critiques marriage and the grave individual and societal consequences of a sexual dissatisfaction that consigns women to a “terrain vague,” a wasteland. As a chapter boldly titled “The Outraged Womb” explores, consignment to the wasteland is an “act of violence” that ensures women remain sexually, psychically, and intellectually unfulfilled. It guarantees that they will never know who they truly are. Furthermore, women are not merely victims of this violence: they perpetuate it and turn on each other, with a particularly vicious tendency to cut down the fallen woman, who, in the end, is a causality of a cruel economic and social system that thrives on the very inequalities that poison us.

In the prologue you write, “If the entire range of Loy’s output has not been as available as it should be, each period seems to find its own Mina Loy or to find in Mina Loy the writer and artist it urgently requires.” Who are some contemporary writers and artists that embody Mina Loy?

Someone like the visual artist and writer Etel Adnan, who innovated across forms and throughout a long life, comes to mind. Or Laurie Anderson: uncategorizable and out-of-this-world brilliant. Loy’s depth of accomplishment and commitment to both writing and visual art, coupled with her lifelong practice and ardent nonconformity, is rare. Lost Writings allows us to see her as a writer at work past the time she is assumed to have fallen silent. Mina Loy: Strangeness is Inevitable, the extraordinary monograph exhibition launched at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art last year and continuing at the Arts Club of Chicago this spring, similarly brings the span of her work into view.

Loy succeeded in building a multifaceted creative life in the face of a harsh Victorian upbringing; the meagre education allowed to a woman of her time; divorce when this could ruin a woman; the loss of her beloved second husband, Arthur Cravan; the death of two of her children; and the raising of her two other children. Although born with more advantage than many, she did not have a large inheritance, and what she did receive evaporated during the Depression. She sustained herself through two World Wars, a global pandemic, a worldwide economic depression, continual personal economic precarity, and immigration in her fifties as part of the wave of refugees fleeing Europe before World War II. In search of generative environments, she traversed the globe, frequently with very little money, and in her impoverished later years, public attention to her work increasingly declined until she was all but forgotten. Yet Loy persisted, created, and thrived as both a writer and visual artist, using what was at hand—a crushed tin can, an autobiographical fragment—to break new ground.

Karla Kelsey is professor of English and creative writing at Susquehanna University. Her recent books include Transcendental Factory: A Poet’s Novel for Mina Loy and the poetry volumes On Certainty and Blood Feather.

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