From Blues to Haikus: An interview with Charles Henri Ford
by Rhonda Roland Shearer and Thomas Girst
In addition to writing surrealist literature, being a photographer and creating art objects, Charles Henri Ford (b. 1913 in Mississippi) edited such avant-garde magazines as Blues and View. As Alan Jones wrote in Arts Magazine, "Ford opened the pages of his Ďnewspaper for poetsí to the swarm of European surrealists (Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp) and the returning native sons and daughters all fleeing Europe for New York. Bridging the worlds of literature and art, View rapidly grew into an art magazine the likes of which the United States had never seen."
Charles Henri Ford, together with Parker Tyler, authored the omnisexual novel The Young and the Evil, published in Paris in 1933 and banned in the United States and England for fifty years. His ambitions as a writer and editor brought him in contact with authors like William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Jean Cocteau and especially Djuna Barnes, for whom he typed up Nightwood in Morocco while visiting Paul and Jane Bowles. Ford became an early supporter of Pop Art and a crucial influence on Andy Warhol and his circle. Active as ever, he has recently shown his poster designs at the Ubu Gallery, New York and is preparing a publication of his latest collection of haikus.
On May 2, 2000, we met with a lively Ford, and his close friend, performance artist Penny Arcade, in Fordís New York apartment to discuss, among other topics, a 1945 issue of View magazine devoted to Marcel Duchamp, which contained Fordís poem about the artist, "Flag of Ecstasy." We brought our copies of View to ask him about several curiosities.
Rhonda Roland Shearer: Do you know who took the photograph Duchamp at the Age of 85 that was published in the back of Viewís Duchamp issue of March 1945?
Charles Henri Ford: You see that was an oversight, one never knew. The one to its left, showing Duchamp in 1922 is Stieglitz, isnít it?
R.S. Yes thatís what it says but it doesnít say who took the other one.
C.H.F. Thatís right.
R.S. Some people said that this was a double, somebody that looked like Duchamp. But I think itís Duchamp, and you know it is.
C.H.F. Oh yeah, of course it is. Otherwise it wouldnít be, it wouldnít ...
R.S. ...mean anything?
C.H.F. ... it wouldnít work. Duchamp was heavily made up to look old.
R.S. But you donít remember who took the photograph?
C.H.F. Maybe I never even knew.
R.S. Page four of View magazine reproduces your poem "Flag of Ecstasy," an homage to Duchamp, superimposed on a detail of Man Rayís "Dust Breeding", showing the lower part of the Large Glass. How did this come about, "Dust Breeding" with your poem on it?
C.H.F. Well, itís something that the printer superimposed.
R.S. Did you pick it out for your poem or did Parker Tyler who did the typography of your Poets for Painters, published in the same year and also reproducing "Flag of Ecstasy"?
C.H.F. I donít remember ... so much water under the bridge, I canít remember.
R.S. Itís a fabulous poem.
Thomas Girst: Your poem on Duchamp is a great one.
C.H.F. You like it?
T.G. Yes, I do.
R.S. Could you read it for us? Do you read your poetry still?
C.H.F. Why, yes.
Over the towers of autoerotic honey
Over the pleasure of invading sleep
Over the voix celeste
Over the unendurable sensation of madness
Over the spirit of uprisings
Over ambivalent virginity
Over the tormentors of Negresses
Over a stactometer for
the tears of France
Over the rattlesnake sexlessness of art-lovers
Over the sonís lascivious serum
Over the saints of debauchery
Over the princes of delirium
Over signs foretelling the end of the world
Like one of those tender strips of flesh
Penny Arcade: Marvelous.
R.S. Great, wonderful, beautiful. Thank you
C.H.F. Iím out of practice, I donít read. People ask me to read and I donít usually read. But you win.
R.S. I thank you, we love your work. Tell us about the Frederick J. Kiesler fold out in Viewís Duchamp number. You said that was very expensive to do. Itís beautiful. Do you like it?
C.H.F. Yes, sure. It cost a lot of money. I think it broke our budget.
R.S. So what do you remember in terms of Duchamp and Kiesler doing this? Were they pushing you to, saying it had to be done?
C.H.F. No, they just turned it in.
R.S. Yup, and you just liked it and had to do it.
C.H.F. Yeah, I thought that I would risk all.
R.S. Yeah, thatís what art is about, isnít it? Who is Peter Lindamood that wrote the "I Cover the Cover." as an introduction to the View magazine of March 1945? Is that just a pseudonym?
C.H.F. No. Peter Lindamood was from Mississippi, he was a corporal in the military and so on.
P.A. Was he a friend of yours from Mississippi?
C.H.F. Yes he was, yes. He edited a special Italian number, didnít he?
P.A. I donít know.
R.S. And so he apparently worked very hard on this issue, the Duchamp issue, it says. What this talks about is that he heard that Duchamp went through a lot of trouble to make this special effect for the cover and apparently thereís all sorts of levels of trick photography in making this cover. Do you recall?
R.S. But itís beautiful.
C.H.F. Yes it is.
R.S. Another of Duchampís covers for View Editions, "Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares," André Bretonís collected poems, shows the Surrealistís face through a cut-out, thus posing as the Statue of Liberty. Did you ask Duchamp to make this cover?
C.H.F. Yes. Duchamp always liked to be surprising and Breton of course was noted for not cherishing homosexuals. Thatís why André Breton was put in drag.
T.G. Breton supposedly liked the cover.
C.H.F. He liked any attention that was paid to him. I mean nobody was publishing his poetry in America.
T.G. That was the only translated volume of poetry resulting from his time in New York.
C.H.F. And then he came out with another edition too and they didnít use his cover somehow. But its all water under the bridge...what Iíve been doing for the past few years is taking up where Matisse left off, doing cut outs and things but it was limited to the female sex so Iíve been making up for his neglect. Iíll show you an example.
R.S. Originally youíre from Mississippi?
C.H.F. Born in Mississippi, raised in Tennessee, if you donít like my peaches, donít you shake my tree.
T.G. From Columbus, Mississippi you started Blues in 1929, the short-lived poetry magazine which Gertrude Stein once praised as "the youngest and freshest of all the little magazines which have died to make verse free." You were only 16 when its first issue came out.
C.H.F. Now Iím 87, about the same as Balthus and Cartier-Bresson.
T.G. And Balthus is still doing as well as you are.
P.A. Did you know Balthus?
C.H.F. I met him, once.
T.G. Heís very reclusive, Balthus. He lives in a tiny village in Switzerland, Rossinière, in a little chateau, with a beautiful wife maybe 40 years his minor.
P.A. Fascinating ... we should send a message to Balthus, "Charles Henri Ford says ĎHi.í Still alive..."
T.G. "...weíre still standing, alive and kicking."
R.S. Did you know the librarian at the Morgan library, her name was Belle Greene? Did you know her?
R.S. She was the woman that put the library together for Morgan. And she knew a lot of the artists, she posed nude for a lot of the artists and actually wrote an article in 291 and was hanging out with Stieglitz. I donít know if you ran into her.
C.H.F. No. If she ran into me, I didnít feel it. (An air of flirtation ensues.) Penny looks always surprised when sheís not at all surprised.
P.A. Not at all surprised. Itís your latent bisexuality.
C.H.F. Not only latent, it was executed.
P.A. Oh, yes. You can join the ranks of women like Frida Kahlo.
R.S. So does this mean that I have a chance?
P.A. He doesnít want to understand you.
R.S. He pretends he doesnít. Does this mean I have a chance?
C.H.F. Oh. Yeah.
T.G. Your entry for the Dictionary of Literary Biography mentions your submission of a poetic prose piece to Readies for Bob Brownís Machine. Your contribution of 1931 was intended for a Reading Machine that allowed readers to speed the words past their eyes via reels and a crank. The streamlined sentences should be as far away from conventional books as sound motion pictures were from the stage. You simply eliminated all punctuation and capital letters.
C.H.F. e.e. cummings did that too
P.A. One of the things thatís unusual about Charles is that he actually acknowledges other artists. Once I said to Charles, "One of the things that I really love about you is that you promote other artists." And you said, "I donít promote other artists," and I said, "But you published other writers, you promoted other writers," and you said, "I wasnít promoting other artists, I was exercising my taste."
T.G. And you still write poetry, right? You write haikus.
C.H.F. Only haiku... I have a thousand page book I think of haiku and a friend of mine is going to make a typescript for that book.
T.G. Do you write them daily, haikus?
C.H.F. Yeah, I guess so, but I donít make a point of it. If they come to me, I have to write them down quick, otherwise they fly out of my head.
R.S. Would you read a couple?
C.H.F. Good with the bad
Unbelievable! Somebodyís going to type up all of those for a big book.
Let the other people be homosexual,
R.S. How about this one?
C.H.F. To my unexpected
T.G. In 1924 Duchamp published something more longingly on the themes of nieces: "My knees are cold because my niece is cold."
C.H.F. Oh yeah.
T.G. I actually have another question about him for you.
C.H.F. Well, letís see if I know the answer.
T.G. In recent years, Duchamp scholars like Amelia Jones and Jerold Seigel have discussed Duchampís possible bi- or latent homosexuality, a claim that seems solely supported by Duchamp in drag as Rrose Sélavy and other androgynous themes running through his oeuvre. Bisexual? Marcel?
C.H.F. Well I guess no holds were barred.
C.H.F. Yeah, heís really a real actor.
Picture Gallery: Charles Henri Ford
Four more haikus by Charles Henri Ford
Weeping and wailing
I donít know if Iíve
You havenít changed she
If itís worth reading
We are grateful to Penny Arcade and Indra Tamang, Fordís longtime personal assistant and frequent collaborator, for making this interview possible. For more information on View, we recommend Charles Henri Ford (ed.), View: Parade of the Avant-Garde, 1940-1947 (with a preface by Paul Bowles), New York: Thunder Mouth, 1991
The interview was conducted at Charles Henri Fordís New York apartment on May 2, 2000. It is preserved in part as a digital videotape (filmed by Martin Samsel) and available in full on audiocassette. © ASRL, 2000.