Staging Modernist Lives: H.D., Nancy Cunard, Mina Loy

World Literature, Research

“Learning to Tell Our Academic Stories in Different Ways”: Dr. Sasha Colby on Research, Autobiography, and the Dramatization of Three Modernist Lives

April 03, 2014

To say Dr. Sasha Colby has been busy of late would be an understatement. An associate professor in SFU Surrey’s World Literature Program, Colby was recently appointed incoming Director of SFU’s Graduate Liberal Studies Program. Her new book, Staging Modernist Lives: H.D., Mina Loy, Nancy Cunard, consists of three solo-performance plays, three critical introductions to the plays and a broader critical introduction on the project of dramatizing modernist history. The manuscript goes to peer-review in August 2014, and another manuscript, Matryoshka: On Memory, Motherhood, and Migration, is also under review with a university press.

In addition to written material, Staging Modernist Lives will feature electronic excerpts of each of the three plays performed by professional actors. Dr. Colby says she hopes it will be a “dynamic publication and something that brings together two strands of my research interests together: the critical and the creative with a productive tension between the two.” She explains that the critical book didn’t begin as a “broadly conceptualized, unified project.” Rather, it began with H.D.: A Life, a play Colby adapted from H.D.’s autobiographical writing.

H.D., or Hilda Doolittle, was a writer involved in modernist avant-garde movements. Colby explains that after completing her Ph.D. dissertation on archaeology and modernist poetry at the University of Sussex, and having “experienced a lot of wonderful modernist worlds,” she somehow felt something had been left out: “a vibrancy of the lives behind the works that I was writing about critically.” She adds that much of H.D.’s autobiographical writing seemed to be asking to be read aloud and she thought: “this sounds like a stage play—it sounds like a play!”

Working with letters, memoirs, and romans à clef, Colby explains, gave her a “visceral drive” to do something emotionally charged. She drew on her background in theatre (Colby wrote and produced six plays prior to H.D: A Life.) to “share these terrific stories” as well as contextualize a body of literature. Hilda Doolittle, Colby says, grew up in “a fairly small town [Bethlehem, Pennsylvania], and didn’t, in her early life, have broad artistic horizons.” Yet, H.D. traveled, lived and wrote abroad as part of a coterie of writers including Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington—both of whom she worked with to found the Imagist literary movement. Colby adds the interesting fact that H.D. sought psychoanalytic treatment with Sigmund Freud (H.D. wrote a memoir about the analysis, Tribute to Freud, which Colby drew on for the play).

Integrating such biographical details with literary criticism is a difficult balance to strike, but Colby says that H.D.: A Life was well received generally in 2006 when she performed the twenty-four character, one-woman show at the Vancouver Fringe Festival. The piece was also well received in 2010 when she performed by invitation at a series of conferences and events in Japan and at the Modernist Studies Association Conference. In considering whether other modernist writers could be similarly approached, Colby explains that the driving force for the plays in Staging Modernist Lives was about finding material that marries this critical voice with that of the creative—merging modernist history and scholarship with successful dramatic presentation.

Choosing which figures to portray, Colby says, is “really about having an interest in the work and having a great deal of autobiographical writing to satisfy that idea of performance and an interesting life story: something that you want to tell.” The two dramatic performances she adapted for Staging Modernist Lives in addition to H.D. channel the autobiographical voices of other modernist literary women: Mina Loy and Nancy Cunard. Similar to H.D., Loy and Cunard were connected with the literary and artistic avant-garde modernist movement, and also led politically charged and often tumultuous lives.

Loy, Colby says, “grew up in a fairly conventional Victorian home” and later spent time in Germany before moving on to Paris, Florence, and then New York where she joined with the artists of New York Dada. It was here, Colby says, Loy began a passionate affair with “boxer-poet Arthur Cravan, who was—for lack of a better term since he rejected the phrase ‘conscientious objector’—a draft dodger during World War I.” The lovers married but the relationship ended rather tragically as, after fleeing to Mexico together so Cravan could avoid conscription, the couple sought passage to Buenos Aires with enough money for only one ticket. Colby explains that because Loy was pregnant, “she took the steamer and [Cravan] took [a] sailboat and disappeared… never to be heard from again…” This loss deeply influenced the tone and content of Loy’s subsequent literary and visual work.

Nancy Cunard, the third modernist personality dramatized in Staging Modernist Lives, was a poet involved with the modernist literati via publishing. Colby explains that unlike H.D. and Loy, Cunard came from an “incredibly wealthy family” who owned the Cunard Line shipping company—now known as Cunard Cruise Lines. Leaving her family’s wealth, Cunard joined the Dadaist circle in Paris and then the Surrealists. While Cunard wasn’t necessarily a “top tier poet,” Colby explains, it was through her publishing venture, The Hours Press, out of her home in Normandy [and later Paris] that she established herself: “she bought a printing press and learned how to print books herself…she talks about this: the ink stains on her hands and how she was doing the printing by hand. She worked beside her lover Louis Aragon [the surrealist poet]. It’s great, wonderful stuff…”

Colby explains the details of Cunard’s life: she pursued a romantic affair with African-American musician Henry Crowder, became “something of a crusader for civil rights,” published a volume of writing by black writers and subsequently dedicated herself to documenting both the Spanish Civil War and the “atrocities in the refugee camps” in France thereafter. Cunard became so consumed with political activism, Colby says, “so impassioned, some would say, she alienated her friends and family.”

After returning to her Normandy home after WWII, Cunard found it pillaged and ransacked, Colby notes, “first by the Germans and then by her neighbours.” Colby believes it was the latter that “broke” Cunard: “at a certain point after this return, she becomes increasingly addicted to drugs and alcohol […] she became very ill and was eventually found in the streets of Paris, weighing about 66 lbs. Before this she had been ranting in the streets against the fascists […] she died two days after being found completely alone.” Colby muses that Cunard’s life was “devastating but also really interesting and, to contextualize her poetry and her publishing: it was unusual for a woman, in particular, to be in publishing at that time. The same goes for her journalism, which has not been terribly well studied.”

Overall, Colby notes, part of what is so exciting about Staging Modernist Lives is how, coming out of years of being personally invested in one’s own academic, critical research, one can not only pursue “an actual expression of yourself, your interests and your thoughts,” but a piece of work that “reflects the state of the discipline and the ideas that you are encountering and you can do it in a way that you can really feel passionate about and which expresses all sides of you.”