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Mina Loy’s Shifting Oral History: Commemorations by an Artist in Later Life

In 1957, Johnathan Williams took a photograph of Mina Loy staring straight into the camera, chin lifted, wearing a dusky blue tunic to contrast against the earthy wall behind her (fig. 1). She looks every inch the artist, trimmed in pink beads and a high collar. The gaze of the poet is strikingly emphasized, as Loy looks down the lens in a potential position of power. However, this portrait didn’t quite live up to Loy’s expectations. Harriet Monroe had once described Loy as “beauty ever-young” and many memoirs of the period specifically recall her youth.[1] Loy understood what this type of value might mean as she commented: “The trouble with women, well look at me—we don’t last.”[2] On seeing the portrait by Williams, Ronald Johnson remembers how Loy exclaimed: “Only the eyes are left” and insisted on cropping the image for the back cover of Lunar Baedeker & Time-Tables (1958) (fig. 2).[3]

Mina Loy, back dust jacket, Lunar Baedeker & Time-Tables (1958)
Fig. 1. Mina Loy, back dust jacket, Lunar Baedeker & Time-Tables (1958). Reprinted with permission Thomas Meyer, Jargon Society.
Mina Loy, portrait taken by Johnathan Williams (1957)
Fig. 2. Mina Loy, portrait taken by Johnathan Williams (1957). Reprinted with permission Thomas Meyer, Jargon Society.

This essay suggests that Loy’s comment “only the eyes are left” might also be read in regard to the way in which she became an “eyewitness” of the modernist past. When Williams returned to Aspen in 1965, as a poet in residence, he programmed Black Mountain College associates Paul Blackburn, Robert Vas Dias, and Robert Creeley in a series of events across the town. As a younger generation of avant-garde writers sought the influence of their modernist forebears, it is perhaps unsurprising that Blackburn and Vas Dias took the opportunity to meet and record Loy. Indeed, in his own late life, Blackburn became known for his numerous recordings of midcentury poets for posterity.[4] The interview with Loy is an example of the strategies used to commemorate modernism, as the interviewers ask her to read early poetry aloud and recall her meetings with the likes of James Joyce and Sylvia Beach. Taking Loy’s move to Aspen as a starting point, this essay questions our expectations of modernist commemoration through Loy’s conversation with Blackburn and Vas Dias.

A preoccupation with the past, as this special issue on commemoration suggests, can be an important part of making sense of our shared histories. However, in the context of older people’s oral histories, this value can often be contingent on the stories shared being perceived to have historic value: a value often assessed by the researcher or interviewer rather than the subject of the interview. As an ethnographer, Catherine Degnen has examined how far older people’s related experiences are “broadly speaking, taken to mean a stepping out of the flow of time, and in particular, to have one’s back to the future and be preoccupied instead with the past.”[5] Degnen outlines three stylistic traits that interviewers might impose on older people’s orality, including noting “shifting temporal frameworks, ‘irrelevant’ information, and the decoupling of background information from narrative accounts” (53). Degnen is alert to how the responses given during an interview “are not unitary nor fixed, but rather fragmented and partial as well as perpetually under construction” (51). Using Degnen’s methodological framework to read Loy’s interview makes space for analysis of the intergenerational and relational dynamics between interviewer and interviewee. Loy’s interview demonstrates tensions between the commemorative impulses of Blackburn and Vas Dias and the complications to this process represented by Loy’s lived experience, potential memory loss, and “irrelevant” asides. We are left with a sense that Loy does not quite fulfil the expectations of a generation seeking to get back to modernism’s past but that she offers instead an account of her lived present.

Aspen Connections

In 1953, Loy relocated to Aspen at the behest of her family and swapped the urban landscape of New York’s Bowery to live near her daughters, both married to prominent architects seeking to turn the mining town into a ski resort. By all accounts, Loy cast an odd figure to locals, continuing her habit of trash-surfing to find materials for her assemblage in wearing velvet pinned with antique broaches (Burke, Becoming Modern, 426). Loy’s daughters viewed their mother’s relocation as something of a burden and Joella wrote to Julien Levy in 1964: “Mina is not ill—just senile. She has not done any writing or pictures since she has been in Aspen. She does dabble in the collage but never finishes anything.”[6] Through the eyes of her daughter, Loy’s continuing artistic pursuits are reduced to a hobby. Even so, Loy continued to make assemblages in both New York and Aspen in which she depicted everyday scenes. In one photograph of an untitled construction, a background of ripped cardboard and paper hosts a meeting between two figures (fig. 3). It might be read as an intergenerational encounter: a seemingly younger figure squints up at an older one, whose gaunt face peers down in an expression that seems compassionate yet confused. Dawn Ades reads the shorter figure as potentially a self-portrait of Loy, noting the meticulously cut paper-ribbons of dark hair.[7] The assemblage’s setting of a chance street encounter recalls a  letter from Loy to Joella, in which she mentions seeing ‘a man my age the other day – hadn’t seen him for a year, when he had looked an interesting drawn elderly but slim man’ only to reveal it was ‘Marcel [Duchamp] by the way’.[8] Duchamp does bear a passing resemblance to the taller figure in the work. Whoever the figures are, the materiality of the piece emphasizes Loy’s interest in representing ageing: the folds in the fabric echo the contours of the face ‘drawn elderly’, with wrinkles empathetically forming across both figures’ faces. Their eyes are deep, black holes that seem to be searching for something in one another, perhaps acting as portals to a past where ‘[o]nly the eyes are left’.

Photo of an untitled Loy construction
Fig. 3. Photo of an untitled Loy construction, formerly owned by Goodie Taylor, Aspen, Colorado; photo in Carolyn Burke collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, Yale University. Original work in the collection of Roger Conover, reprinted with permission of Roger Conover.

In Aspen, Loy connected with a young woman, Esther Jane Herwick, who was employed to assist her and who was interested in her assemblages. In Loy’s biography, Burke shares an anecdote from Herwick who recalled spending time with Loy and being impressed by her creative process:

What began as “a mess” in the early stages would come together at the end, when the tin cans and eggshells vanished into the composition. Once she could see these projects through Mina’s eyes, she understood her choosiness: the right eggshells, used texturally in a figure’s clothing or as part of the earth, became unrecognizable[.] (Burke, Becoming Modern, 429.)

By seeing the creative process “through Mina’s eyes,” Herwick could understand the deliberate decision making that went into her assemblages. Empathetically viewing the work through Loy’s perspective allows Herwick to see their value. To others in Aspen, Loy’s penchant for trash picking was looked on as an eccentric pastime, but, in spending time with Loy as an artist, Herwick saw that each eggshell had a place and that through texture and color the organic material would find its place in the whole composition. Joella reports on Loy’s creativity in the context of her late life as lacking compared to her poetic output in what she deemed more prolific years. In contrast, Herwick has the perspective (and perhaps relational distance) to see the late-life creations turn from mess into art, allowing for Loy’s creative life to make sense in her present context.

In later years, Loy continued to offer an artistic practice that was useful, experimental, even ahead of its time. Loy still felt up until the year of her death that she might see her work again presented in the Société du Salon d’automne. Loy wrote during her time in Aspen: “I want to feel calm enough to work steadily. I am sure my work is better than it was ever—and I enjoy it—when I am not worried by the past.”[9] Past anxieties, or what Amy Morris claims is “a painful lack of self-esteem,” are certainly a facet of Loy’s later years.[10] Still, there is also the enjoyment and work ethic she found in making assemblages, which saw her retain and build on the ideas and techniques of Dada and surrealism, echoing the practice started in her Parisian lampshades and succinctly refined in her Bowery works.

Despite her interest in making art, as Joella’s perspective intimates, it was Loy’s poetry that continued to have value attached for a younger generation. When Williams published Lunar Baedeker & Time-Tables (1958) he included testimony and essays from a both an old and new generation of avant-garde artists, including Denise Levertov, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, and Alfred Kreymborg. Zukofsky felt the fact that “Mina remained a poet decades after dropping out of sight . . . was proof of her significance” but that it did not help her cause to be so under-published and under-performed (Burke, Becoming Modern, 433). Indeed, Loy’s status as a poet and artist in her later years has often been characterized as a career of diminishing returns. Burke’s biography notes that the proofing of Lunar Baedeker and Time-Tables (1958) fell to Loy’s daughters. Instead, Loy had a “desire to finish her constructions” (432). This added to the sense that Loy had fallen out of view and, as Morris notes, when poetry goes unperformed it “doesn’t break silence”; in remaining unpublished the poetry becomes even more sheltered from an audience. (Morris, “‘You Should Have Disappeared Years Ago’,” 91). Although Loy might not have been the most active participant in seeing her poetry republished, she did break the silence to perform some poetry in the year before she passed away.

Intergenerational Interview

The interview by Blackburn and Vas Dias is the only known tape recording of Loy’s voice and is a document that includes memories of her earlier years alongside readings of her poems. The interviewers remember finding Loy “frail but bright-eyed and charmingly loquacious” and, contrary to the rumors about her mental deterioration, “perfectly intelligible.”[11] The intelligibility that Loy displays in the recording draws on an intergenerational dynamic that frames any agency as a surprise—she is interesting and coherent despite her frailty and age. Loy’s interview enacts a series of shifts that highlight Degnen’s sense that younger and older interlocuters might speak at cross purposes, and, at times, misunderstand one another.

Throughout the interview, Loy seems aware of being positioned to look backwards, saying “I always feel I’m going to blush when I read my poems . . . because I’m getting old, you see, it was a long time ago” (Loy, interview transcript, 214). The shifting temporal frameworks Degnen identifies occur as the interviewers ask Loy to look back on the past, as she tries to remain in the present. Within the framework of “reminiscence” Loy is keen to claim that she is separated from her early work by the intervening years. Sometimes, she seems to concisely sum up her poetic practice, commenting “I’d only written these things for the sake of the sounds of the words” (214). Other times, Loy comments on her poems as if she is a stranger to her own work as she interjects on her own reading:

The business of the bland sun

Has no affair with me

In my congested cosmos of agony


Well, that’s a good description of what real pain is, isn’t it? {laughs} (215)

These interjections accompany nearly every reading Loy gives and the comments imply her distance from the work. In “Pig Cupid,” Loy reads part of the poem before responding:

I would an eye in a Bengal light

Eternity in a sky-rocket

Constellations in an ocean

Whose rivers run no fresher

Than a trickle of saliva


Yes, that’s quite good, isn’t it. But that’s why they said I was so frightfully immoral. Fancy talking about a trickle of saliva [. . .]


Oh . . . how did I manage to think of all this . . . (219–220)

Loy returns to her old work like a new reader. As she reads the poems she is left to “wonder what I meant by it all” (225). The “trickle of saliva” drips afresh into the present moment, still holding all the immorality and shock factor intended in the first writing. Being in conversation with a younger generation allows Loy to reclaim a perspective and find a new audience for her work as she admits “how surprised I was that you didn’t shriek and run away when I read you that stuff” (213). In asking Loy to read and respond to past work, the interviewers inadvertently create a new, generative experience towards the poems that allow Loy’s relationship to her early poetry to be reconstructed via the conversation. Loy demonstrates a surprised, renewed pleasure at rereading old work, and satisfaction that the sounds once chosen continued to still resound into the present moment, offering unique insight into her poetic practice.

In the expansive space of the non-unitary, unfixed, and ever-changing mode of the interview, as Degnen might understand it, Loy is afforded the opportunity to resist the expectations of commemoration. If one aim of the tape was for Loy to be recorded reading her poems to cement her legacy as a “modernist,” then it is an aim often undermined. On the one hand, the document offers an invaluable contemporary portrait of Loy’s present experiences (lighting of cigarettes, exchanges about yoghurt), as well as memories of her younger days (a focus on Arthur Craven and her time in Italy) and a lasting document of her poetry. On the other hand, there are many moments in which specific memories of the “modernist period” are missing. Following Degnen’s framework, Loy decouples background information from narrative events, often avoiding capitalizing on or contextualizing the resonance of famous modernist names—“I met a Frenchman,” she says, “somebody very famous”—to which the interviewers interject “Andre Breton?” to no response (211). Later, Loy mentions “somebody, some female poet, said that I was the most immoral creature that ever lived” and the interviewers respond, “Who was it by the way, curious?”, to which Loy replies “Haven’t the slightest notion” (214). There are exchanges like this throughout, with the interviewers prompting for context that remains hidden.

The question of what can be deemed important information for a document such as this—an interview with a poet about the past—is called into question. Often, an older speaker might “challenge narrative conventions and temporal ordering” when asked to relate specific moments in the past (Degnen, “Temporality,” 50). Loy talks in tangents and instead of a linear presentation of her past, the interview is peppered with what might be deemed “irrelevant” information. For example, her opening salvo is an anecdote about her false teeth, as she begins the interview without her dentures, which quickly elides into memories of her missing husband, Arthur Cravan. As Degnen’s ethnographic perspective suggests, intergenerational conversation can become fraught with miscommunications as the older speaker might use “certain stories… to say ‘this is me’” but younger interlocutors associate certain “stylistic attributes […] as characteristic of ‘old age’ itself” (Degnen, “Temporality,” 60). Loy insists on looking backwards, not to her modernist connections but to her personal losses and ambitions and, in doing so, changes the tone of the conversation by centering herself and refusing the “obvious” connections suggested by the interviewers. In the interview, two Loys exist at once: Loy says “this is me” by telling her interviewers “irrelevant” information from her personal past but the interviewers suggest “no, this is you” by focusing on her literary past.

Recalling Joyce

The presence of James Joyce looms throughout the interview. In 1922, Loy met Joyce with Djuna Barnes, who was interviewing him for a Vanity Fair article in which Loy sketched his portrait (fig. 4). This meeting would later be repeated to Charles Henri Ford as something of an escapade by Barnes, who recalled how she and Loy each drank “three or four” glasses of Pernod (Joyce’s favorite drink) leaving them to “wande[r] all over Paris trying to find their way home and she woke up next morning home and Mina sleeping on the floor.”[12] It is apocryphal stories like this one might hope to hear from the “eyewitnesses” of the past, which can lend a kind of cachet to the teller. As Sandeep Parmar suggests, in writing the poem “Joyce’s Ulysses” Loy might have been aware of this cachet herself and “it is tempting to read [the poem] as an investment in Joyce’s reputation . . . Her inclusion of Joyce’s title in her own aligns the two authors primarily through their artistic product and not their personal acquaintance.”[13] Forty-three years later, it is this personal acquaintance that is sought out by the interviewers to finish the recording.

Index entry for the Mina Loy interview in the Paul Blackburn Tape Collection
Fig. 4. Index entry for the Mina Loy interview in the Paul Blackburn Tape Collection. Reprinted with permission of UC San Diego Library.

In the Paul Blackburn Tape Collection, the entry for Loy’s interview presents the content in a chronological, orderly fashion (fig. 5). On Tape 67, we are told we will find an interview with Mina Loy from 1965. The listing outlines the various poems she reads, and the last entry indicates: “Loy reads her poem, ‘Joyce’s Ulysses’ proceeded by her remembrance of Joyce” (see fig. 5). The sparseness of this entry belies how the conversation plays out. To begin, Blackburn and Vas Dias ask Loy at least four times if she will read “the Joyce poem” (Loy interview transcript, 238), which she evades via speaking instead of her poems being republished, eating yogurt for the first time, and memories of her first and second husbands. Between these comments, Loy replies “Do you know anything about Joyce? He must be dead now” (239). Next, she remarks:

I knew Joyce quite well, this was the time—I don’t know how they managed to get any printed. I’ve forgotten all that story. [Isn’t that the Sylvia Beach story? Yes, and . . . ] He had a terrible wife . . . (240)

And later:

What was Joyce like? He had a nice gentle smile, and I don’t know what basis our friendship was on. (240)

The interviewers, interested as they are in recording modernist history, keep prompting Loy for her recollections. The focus on Joyce is unsurprising, particularly considering what Aaron Jaffe calls the “reach of the name James Joyce” after the publicity brought on by the infamy of Ulysses and his status as a canonical modernist.[14] This reputation is, in part, seen as responsible for Loy’s own reclamation into the modernist canon as her “name is most often found in a string of names” not least Joyce’s.[15] But this is the power of commemorative hindsight. For Loy, Joyce is not a particularly present figure in her late life memories, she doesn’t “know what basis our friendship was on” and the interviewers seem to know “the Sylvia Beach story” better than their “eyewitness” herself.

So, what are we seeking when we examine the memories of famous poets? Are we looking for recollections of other modernists? If so, Loy disappoints—particularly on the topics of Stein, Joyce, and Cocteau, whom she also wrote poems about—who make little appearance in the interview as she resists the implied requirement to recall this particular milieu. Instead, Loy defies the chronological construction of modernist history that might be sought in such an interview and instead offers an alternative temporal framework with which to view the history she relates. The entry in the tape’s archive does not consider or report on the multiple and shifting oral histories present in her account. Indeed, the Loy tapes offer something else if we view the overlaps and avenues of memory as just as fruitful and important as the aims of the interviewer. Although the researcher seeking out the anecdotal memories of one writer by another will be disappointed, this tape tells us so much more about intergenerational communication. Finally, the tape ends in a splutter and turns to white noise in the middle of Loy trying to remember another anecdote:

I’m trying to remember something, it was a girl of somebody important, she came to me when I was visiting at their house and whispered to me whether I would smoke a cigarette with her, somewhere in secret, because her mother didn’t allow her to smoke. Oh, I know—Oh think it was, but I can’t remember—it was a duchess who was very interested in artistic things . . . people used to get terribly jealous of me, so she invited me, but she only had her apartment in London and it was all full up. So, she hired a room for me somewhere near, and then when I was to sleep there, and that was my address, it was where I put my baggage {laughs}. And then she said somebody was told to take me to her house in London, and well for my lunch, I suppose . . . xxxx (tape ends here) [sic]. (243)

At this, the centenary of Joyce’s Ulysses, this final memory offers little in the way of commemoration or the opportunity to capitalize on cachet. But when we look closer, what Degnen might frame as a “decoupling of background information from narrative accounts” also contains hints of Loy’s preferred style in her writing and poetry: elusive, gestural stream-of-consciousness, filled with gaps, and ending on an ellipsis (Degnen, “Temporality,” 53).

Does, then, this tape offer a prompt to ask: what does it mean to hear a voice from the archive, stretching across the intervening years? On hearing the tape, another Black Mountain poet, Robert Creeley, claimed it was one of the most significant experiences of his life. For biographer Burke, when she “first heard it, it gave me goose-bumps. It was an absolutely chilling and remarkable experience to hear her voice.”[16] Furthermore, what does it mean to hear the older voice of the poet—the sound separated from the image of an author who has had her youthful image replicated and who found her own portrait retained “only the eyes?” Loy’s connections to modernism’s incipient mythology make her memories of Joyce valuable, even as her own approach to oral history resists her younger interviewers’ expectations of the linear and familiar anecdote. A modernist commemorative impulse should allow for both Loy’s attempts to remember, and the information she deems valuable, as well as her guileful disavowal of the importance of memories associated with 1922. Her final interview takes a stance for the older “eyewitness” by refusing to chronologically commemorate the modernist past or to focus on one key year. Perhaps Loy’s interview is also a reminder to peek around the edges of our sources and to view her oral history as an exemplary source that celebrates evasion and ambiguity compared to other memorializing projects that seek to cement canonical literary value along centenary lines. As critics, we can begin to attend to how gaps and omissions, conversational cul-de-sacs, and misremembered events might point us towards other ways of reading and commemorating literary history.


Audio via "Interview with Mina Loy and Paul Blackburn, with Robert Vas Dias, 1960" (, with parallel permission having been granted by PennSound, University of Pennsylvania.

[1] Harriet Monroe, “The Editor in France,” Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 23, no. 2 (1923): 90­–96, 95. 

[2] Mina Loy to Julian Levy, 20 October, 1929, Julien Levy Gallery records, 005, Box 30, Folder 9.

[3] Mina Loy, quoted by Ronald Johnson in an interview with Carolyn Burke. In Carolyn Burke, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 436.  

[4] Paul Blackburn (1926–1971) was a poet, translator and editor who was also an avid supporter of an oral tradition in poetry. Access the Paul Blackburn Audio Collection at

[5] Catherine Degnen, “Temporality, Narrative, and the Ageing Self,” Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 25, no. 2 (2005): 50–63, 60.

[6] Joella Bayer to Julien Levy, 7 January, 1964, Carolyn Burke Collection on Mina Loy and Lee Miller, YCAL MSS 778, Box 3.

[7] Dawn Ades, “Mina Loy, Artist: From Rogue to Rags”, 2022, online lecture, 39:30,

[8] Mina Loy, letter to Joella Haweis Bayer, 28 January 1953, Carolyn Burke Collection on Mina Loy and Lee Miller, Box 1.

[9] Sandeep Parmar, Reading Mina Loy's Autobiographies: Myth of the Modern Woman (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 87. 

[10] Amy Morris, “‘You Should Have Disappeared Years Ago’: The Poetics of Cultural Disappearance in Mina Loy’s Late Poems,” Critical Quarterly 55, no. 2 (2013): 81–104, 83.

[11] Carolyn Burke, ‘Mina Loy Interview with Paul Blackburn and Robert Vas Dias,’ in Maeera Shreiber and Keith Tuma, eds., Mina Loy: Woman and Poet (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 2017), 208–209. The quotations taken from the tape are quoted from the transcript in this collection.

[12] Charles Henri Ford quoted in Phillip Herring, “Djuna Barnes Remembers James Joyce,” James Joyce Quarterly 30, no. 1 (Fall, 1992): 113–17, 116.

[13] Sandeep Parmar, “Not an Apology: Mina Loy's Geniuses,” The Wolf 17 (Spring 2008), 77–85, 81–82.

[14] Aaron Jaffe, Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 73.

[15] Roger Conover, introduction to Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), xii. Quoted in Jaffe, Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity, 100.

[16] Pam Brown and Carolyn Burke, “Interview: Carolyn Burke in conversation with Pam Brown about Mina Loy,” Jacket 5 (October 1998),