I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of building collections recently. As much as I love to see a cupboard (or an apartment or a house or a life) full of books, an empty bookshelf holds such wonderful possibilities. I’ve never had to build (read: populate) a bookshelf from scratch until this last year. As a child, I first began reading by dipping into my parents’ books—with or without their permission—and adding my own to their collection. I wasn’t allowed to read any books my parents wouldn’t read themselves. Our books were shared and thus, so were our tastes in reading material.
So many people talk of finding their voice at college but I found my ears. Finally, the chance to have a bookshelf of my own helped me develop a reading sensibility informed by my own identity, experiences, and preferences. Between readings at the Rose O’Neill Literary House, visits to the Dodge Poetry Festival, and research trips to New York, East Anglia, and Havana, I picked up an extensive collection of books that could serve as an introduction to me on its own.
Until May 2020, when I received a call from the Indian Embassy. They said they would be airlifting me from the States back to India. My flight was to take off in five days. My first thought: what am I going to do with my extensive book collection? So, I painstakingly chose a handful of books to bring with me that have since created the foundations of my current bookshelf. (The rest are safe in storage, don’t worry).
The first three books I chose because of my admiration of both the contents and its creators: A Brief History of Fruit by the inimitable Kimberly Quiogue Andrews, The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin and translated by the inspirational Anton Hur, and finally, Bla_k by no other than M. Nourbese Philip. A book of poetry, a translated novel, and a collection of nonfiction. I was clearly working hard to curate as varied a list of texts as possible written/translated/created by folks of extraordinary character.
If there is one thing I can confidently say about my current book collection (other than its diminutive size), is that it continues to speak to my identity and current lived reality. I read books almost immediately after acquiring them, and thus, my book purchases reflect my priorities. Given the socio-political realities of the pandemic in India and the world writ large, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents have become Afrofuturist necessities. So has Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, trans. Stephen Snyder. I have also taken to engaging with my books on a more involved level by writing them out longhand so you will find a stack of notebooks containing (part of) Toni Morrison’s Beloved written in my hand on the bottom shelf. A benefit of repatriation: my shelves now also hold classic books from my homeland that are hard to find in the US, like फ़ैज़ अहमद “फ़ैज़” जी की मेरे दिल मेरे मुसाफ़िर (My Heart, My Traveller by Faiz Ahmed Faiz).
I must admit, I am cautiously enjoying this short liminal period of having a half-empty bookshelf. It’s so full of possibilities and wonder. Every so often, I feel a jab of resentment or irritation, finding myself wishing I’d packed a specific book or wishing I hadn’t had to leave my life behind. The thrill of curating a new collection tempers the loss of the old but it never truly resolves it. Someday, I will open those boxes again and perhaps rediscover a younger version of myself in those pages. Perhaps even combine these collections despite the Pacific Ocean in the way. Until then, on to the next one!
Saoirse‘s name and passion are the same: freedom. As an exophonic writer, their academic interests revolve around linguistic power dynamics, especially in connection to the land. They are always trying to write, and find, poetry that breaks the English language into articulating its own colonial violence. They are a freelance editor and serve as the Guest Editor for Emerging Voices in Poetry at Oyster River Pages. They are a 2021 Brooklyn Poets Fellow and a finalist for the Sophie Kerr Prize. They find excitement in travel, comfort in a good cup of coffee, and love in their newly adopted puppy, Malaika. Find them at saoirseedits.com or on Twitter @saoirseedits.
Welcome to our first installment of Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf, and who they are, as a writer. Today April Michelle Bratten reads the first five parts of Mina Loy’s “Songs to Joannes”.
Sundress: April, before we take a listen, let’s put this poem in a little context. I know Mina Loy was a contemporary of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams (I just love saying his name), but what else can you tell us? Who was Mina Loy?
April: I “accidentally” discovered Mina Loy several years ago. I imagine this is how a lot of people find her now: accidentally. I had fallen into a Wikipedia black hole, which is much like a You Tube black hole; you continuously and obsessively click links, delving further into a topic until you land somewhere drastically far away from where you originally began.
I found that Mina Loy was not only a top writer during the Modernist era (early 1900’s) but she was also an artist, mostly specializing in strange lamp shades and light fixtures, but also illustrations and found art. I learned that she was famous, now, for having been forgotten. She was never written into the history books even though she was deeply connected to many writers and artists from that era; she hung out at Gertrude Stein’s salon, she met WCW through a theatrical production they put on together (she had a brief affair with him and apparently broke the doc’s heart) she was close friends with and was photographed many times by Man Ray, and she was friends with Marcel Duchamp during the years he created the infamous “Fountain.” The list of her contacts truly goes on and on. However, she did not merely circle this group of people. She was also being published and featured in art galleries. She was their contemporary. Her friend Ezra Pound wrote to Marianne Moore, “Is there anyone in America except you, Bill [William Carlos Williams] and Mina Loy who can write anything of interest in verse?”
Portrait of Man Ray – inscribed, Never say I don’t love you, circa 1925
La Maison en papier – 1906
Consider Your Grandmother’s Stays – 1916
Loy’s tumultuous and deeply compelling life story ended on a strange note. She wound up a penniless elderly woman rooming with several young people in their 20s, rifling through garbage cans (her roommates called her “The Trash Lady”) finding pieces for her found art. She gave one last gallery showing in 1959, which was attended by many of her old friends from the Modernist era.
Communal Cot – circa 1950
Christ on a Clothesline – circa 1955-59
My fascination began with the mystery of Mina Loy. How does one so important to an entire movement of writing and art completely fall off the map? My admiration and respect for her was found in research and of course, by reading her work.
Sundress: If you had to guess, why do you think she “fell off the map”?
April: It’s a provocative question. I think there are a couple of possibilities. One of the most defining moments of Loy’s personal life was when her husband disappeared. The story is a complicated one, but the summation is that Arthur Cravan bid farewell to his wife and set out on a sailboat to travel from Mexico to Argentina. Mina took a different boat, expecting to meet up with her husband at the end of their travels, but he was never seen or heard from again. The devastation and grief that followed Mina around for the remainder of her life turned her into a recluse. She dropped out of the artist “scene” and mostly kept to herself after Cravan’s disappearance.
However, one could also simply suggest that the reason she “fell off of the map” was because she was a woman. There are already a few prominent women to cover from that period and school of thought: Adrienne Rich, Gertrude Stein, and to a slightly smaller degree, Djuna Barnes. God forbid another woman should happen into the text books. The Modernist era, like every other period of time we have experienced, was male dominated, and therefore the study of this period tends to be more focused on men.
Sundress: The cannon does tend to favor white males. Speaking of which, Enclave has a new project, The New Canon: A Redefinition Project—a great idea to help rewrite the canon. Which book would you petition them to add?
April: I have heard about this exciting project! I have a wealth of possibilities, but for brevity, I will stick with my two favorites. First, I would immediately add Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I feel it is one of the most important novels, not to mention one of the best novels, I have ever read. It is striking in its content, brutal in its delivery, and is tremendously affecting on the spirit. If you haven’t read it, please do.
Secondly, I would add Mina Loy’s collection of poetry and essays, The Lost Lunar Baedeker. My copy is a little bruised and beaten up. It is one of those books that you return to repeatedly, for inspiration, for insight, for the joy of language. Loy manipulates language in a way that I have never seen before. I envy her crazy skills. She is not an easy read, but she is definitely a poet that should be critiqued, examined, and studied. Also, you might fall in love with her.
Sundress: I’m open to falling for a love poem. Loy’s most famous work, published in 1915, “Songs to Joannes”:
Sundress: What I immediately notice is a very strong, self-assured sexuality; Pig Cupid his rosy snout/rooting erotic garbage is both grotesque and sexy—a pleasant surprise considering “Songs to Joannes” was published five years before women had the right to vote. Was it this sensuality or something else which drew you to this poem?
April: Loy’s sensuality is apparent in every piece that she wrote. She oozed with a freedom and an honesty that was shocking to readers at the time. In fact, the story goes that the poet Amy Lowell was so offended by “Songs to Joannes” that she refused to be published in the same journals as Loy.
This poem first drew me in because of its incredible use of language, line breaks, and pacing. I was immediately drawn to the strange and wonderful rhythm the poem created. What is even more enticing, is that this poem is about a sexual affair and the abortion that followed. This poem was written in the 1910s. For a woman from this time period to write so boldly about this subject matter both surprised and delighted me. She was certainly a force to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately, I only recorded the first five parts. This poem is an epic—34 parts in its totality, all just as spellbinding as the first five. There is sensuality in this poem, indeed, but there is also sorrow, uncertainty, loss, anger, wonder, love, mystery, and hope. Tonally, “Songs to Joannes” seems to sum up a great deal of Loy’s complicated life:
When we lifted
Our eyelids on Love
Of coloured voices
And laughing honey
At the core of Nothing
In the milk of the Moon
Sundress: You’ve convinced me—I must hunt this poem down to read it. Which other ones do you recommend?
April: Mina Loy’s poems are difficult to find online, so I would recommend buying The Lost Lunar Baedeker to read some of my favorites. From this collection I adore “Omen of Victory,” a very short and intensely visual poem about a group of women sitting for tea. Her poem “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” is another favorite of mine with the lines, “Love is a God / Marriage expensive / A secret well kept.” Her essay, “Feminist Manifesto” is another must read, and should be somewhat easier to find online. You can also check out a small taste of her work at The Poetry Foundation.
Sundress: What have you, as a poet, learned from Loy?
April: Mina’s work, both her writing and art, has been a significant part of my experience as a writer. I was a young poet when I “found” her. She was the guiding hand for my exploration into experimental language and the usage of visual art as an instrumental inspiration for poetry. I felt compelled to write several poems inspired by her artwork. By my own volition I studied Modernism, Futurism, and Dadaism, and eventually minored in art history in college. The mixture and collaboration of poetry and the visual arts is still a passion of mine, which is evident in the journal I edit and hopefully, in the poetry I write.
Most importantly, Mina Loy taught me that vulnerability and boldness are permissible hand-in-hand, and I should never be timid about sending that story out into the world.
What is essential to you as a writer or poet? What piece changed your life? Gave you hope, validated and voiced your fears, was there while you triumphed over them? What piece brings you joy? Made you laugh or grin like a fool? Who was it who made you sit back in wonder, inspiring you to be a stronger writer? We want to know. Send us a recording (or packet of short recordings) of you reading your Lyric Essential—a short story, a handful of poems, an excerpt or two—to SundressLyricEssentials AT gmail DOT com. Then we’ll talk.
April Michelle Bratten has been editor of Up the Staircase Quarterly since 2008. Originally from Marrero, Louisiana, April has a BA in English from Minot State University in North Dakota. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southeast Review, Zone 3, Thrush Poetry Journal, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Gargoyle, among others. She is also a contributing editor at Words Dance Publishing where she writes the article “Three to Read.” April has a chapbook, Anne with an E, forthcoming from dancing girl press in the fall of 2015. You can learn more at aprilmichellebratten.com.
Mina Loy, born in England in 1882 as Mina Gertrude Löwry, worked as a poet, model, playwright, novelist, lamp designer, model, and visual artist in Paris, Florence, and New York City. A feminist, she was part of both the modernism and futurism movements. “Songs to Joannes” was originally titled “Love Songs”. Its avant-garde lyricism and erotic sexuality shocked readers. Loy died in 1966 in Aspen, Colorado. Her most famous book is The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems; her novel Insel was published posthumously.