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Charles Henri Ford: Association and America's First (Queer) Surrealist Artist

In 1986, BOMB Magazine’s Bruce Wolmer interviewed the first American surrealist poet and artist, Charles Henri Ford. Ford—not content with keeping only to poetry or art-making, but also an editor, novelist, filmmaker, and photographer—chronicled his life for Wolmer, claiming nevertheless (like one of his primary influences, Jean Cocteau) that poetry was a kind of “everything,” an ecstatic lens that was for Ford the central conception of a surrealist mission. This is one kind of association, of art-making, and how you get at it.

BOMB’s feature is not unlike a lunch poem by Frank O’Hara, if it were to encompass a life. Tracking Ford (1908 - 2002) through the dates and details of years as if they were footsteps through New York streets; O’Hara even gets a mention as Wolmer writes:

“It also struck me that there was a connection between what you were doing and what younger poets like Ginsberg or, in a different way, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara would later do. You were taking those French influences and making them very American.”

This is another kind of association—one of people and reputations—and you can’t understand Ford or his era without it (not unlike O’Hara’s name-dropping in Lunch Poems). Ford knew everybody. Of Gertrude Stein, Ford calls himself her “last protege”; Stein called Ford’s Blues—his magazine of “new rhythms,” which he published at 17 from his parent’s home in Mississippi—"the youngest and freshest of all the little magazines which have died to make verse free." He published Ezra Pound and Kenneth Rexroth, Kay Boyle and Erskine Caldwell; William Carlos Williams was his associate editor. He befriended Man Ray, Tennessee Williams, Peggy Guggenheim. In 1932, Ford was lover to Djuna Barnes and helped her type the finished manuscript for Nightwood in an apartment in Tangier.

Looking over Ford’s life, which ended in 2002 at age 94, there’s hardly the ability to compile an exhaustive list of the artists, writers, and cultural landmarks he knew and influenced. (As you’re reading, I’ve hardly reached 1940 with his accolades.) In Ford’s second magazine, View, which The Telegraph would call “America’s leading art and literary magazine” in a 2008 obituary for Ford, he could claim to be the behemoth cultural touchstone of the 1940’s and would boast:

“...covers...designed by Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Man Ray and Yves Tanguy; inside, it featured the work of young artists and poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Pablo Picasso, Henry Miller, Paul Klee, Lawrence Durrell, Georgia O'Keefe, Joan Miro, Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall and Rene Magritte. [View] also published the first English translations of Albert Camus and Jean Genet, and the first monograph devoted to Marcel Duchamp.”

View housed Europe’s most influential surrealist salon in its American exile during WWII, fueling a generation of artists. Later, Ford would introduce Andy Warhol to underground film. Allen Ginsberg would star in his 1971 film, “Johnny Minotaur.” My brain doesn’t know what to do with so much celebrity: it’s beginning to sound like grandstanding!

My own understanding of Ford is feebly, painfully new. I bought his diary, Water from a Bucket, published in 2001 by Turtle Point Press, little more than a month ago. The book was sitting on an endcap at Powell’s in Portland and—because I owe you my honesty—it was the cover photo that caused me to pick it up at all: Charles Henri Ford as a young man, disarmingly handsome. (He would have loved that, I think…) An investigatory glance over the back cover revealed blurbs by writers, Edmund White and Matthew Stadler, who, if you’re unfamiliar, are some of queer literature’s best novelists; however theirs were not the final nails on the coffin of that particular $16.95.

In truth, book cradled in my arms, I couldn’t move. Not back to the shelf. Not forward to the cash register. Instead, I simply stood in the middle of the Powell’s Blue Room, turning the book over in my hands. I kept asking myself: Who was this man? Why were Edmund White and Matthew Stadler blurbing his diary, of all things? Why did Ford’s portrait somehow remind me of Rupert Brooke? Basically the first 500 words of this post—all of the above biographical information—I’d learn by research or by reading the diary itself, later. The only thing pricking me incessantly, standing by the endcap in Powell’s that day, was why I couldn’t think to put the diary down. White called the book “gripping,” it has been, but right then I hadn’t read a single page.

I suppose, if I am getting at anything by relating my shopping experiences, I’m getting at this: there are associations and then there are associations.

The blurbs call Charles Henri Ford “unique: America’s first surrealist poet.” Yet I knew nothing about him. I’d never heard of him at all. That the diary reads like a work of literature—refined in its flights and movements, insightful, structured and characterizing—makes it astonishing, at the same time that its content makes clear the influence Ford had over his time as artist, writer, and curator. But what strikes me most? That Ford can so artfully, honestly, mundanely discuss a blowjob. No, I’m not joking: this diary is saucy as fuck!

It is perfectly fair to ask upon reading, as does Lynne Tillman in the book’s introduction, “Was it written to be read? Maybe. Probably.” It is that wrought. That chock-full of important people. That so-perfectly-explicit about blowjobs. Yet lucid and mundane and unassuming. Ford calls it his masterpiece, yet according to Tillman never considered publishing it till after the 1980’s: he thought publishing the diary was too much of a bother. Yet the close of the diary says this: “I shall continue this document until the end of the next year, then I vow to continue it no longer. It’s a secret vice. Vices should be public.”

I think, when I was standing in the middle of the bookstore, diary in hand, what I was really sensing was a kind of nagging memory from childhood—that I was holding something that could explain me to myself. The same nagging sensation is invoked when The Telegraph says “companion” when referring to Ford’s long-time partner, the painter Pavel Tchelitchew. The Telegraph never says “lover”; nor does BOMB Magazine, nor even does the diary’s back jacket. But pregnant in the sleight of hand, is an echo of the truth: there was something here that would speak to me, speak to who I was, yet without naming how. A kind of knowing before knowing.

After I bought the book, I discovered that a man, Pavel Tchelitchew, was one of Ford’s great loves. Pavel’s reflection on Ford and their relationship is exponentially more shaping to the work as any other association we, through the lens of literary history, might force. Pavel’s work, speech, insights, flights of illness or fancy, are literally peppered throughout. His seriousness weighs seemingly into Ford’s thought; his life with Ford the diary’s fascination and foundation. There are many other trysts, implicit and otherwise—as an example, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with this many blowjobs in it—yet Pavel’s centrality in Ford’s life is utterly evident and established.

Here are a few of Ford’s thoughts, overrun with Pavel’s influence:

“Pavlik’s summary of how I spend my time: ‘fornication and fabrication.’”

“Pavlik told me—in 1933—that I had been sent to him because his mother died.”

“Pavlik had quoted, at the end—which brought a sigh from the audience—my lines from ‘Ballad for Baudelaire’: ‘A wingless horse heard the story one day / Of a horse with wings, and flew away!’”

“I have certainly tested Pavlik’s love—to the breaking point—and it didn’t break. Let me strengthen my love now—and his for me will be strengthened—for life.”

Tchelitchew died in 1957, while he and Ford were abroad in Rome. Tchelitchew was still painting and showing work; Ford had moved, in part, away from poetry and into photographs—much, to my surprise, as I have done. Maybe Ford’s utter absence from my awareness was a result of his queerness: his infamous proto-queer novel with Parker Tyler, of expansive underground queer life and sex in 1930’s Greenwich Village, was banned for obscenity by American and British publishers in 1933. Maybe Ford was absent because the right people took a dislike to him at various auspicious times through his career: he fell out of favor with Stein due to Alice B. Toklas’ extreme dislike for Tchelitchew, who was admittedly querulous; and Ford fell out of favor with Edith Sitwell precisely because Tchelitchew loved him instead of her. Perhaps some combination, I don’t know.

I like what Matthew Stadler says in his blurb on Water from a Bucket’s back cover: “To call [this book] gossip is to misunderstand how radically wed the private lover and the public artist were in that time, in that milieu.”

It must seem impossible to our eyes: Ford was unapologetically bisexual, however neither flag-waving nor secretly self-hating; he expresses middling views (we might say “sex-negative”) on masturbation while in the same breath extolling the virtues of adolescent male ass. In the end, it is my assumption that his sexual life was plainly associated, part, part performance, but not “a part of me” in the way we use the phrase today. Stadler’s term is “radically wed,” and that seems right: it seems less activist and more artist, at a time when the artist was paramount—just as our time and milieu is now dominated by the activist.

Stadler continues, “[This radical wedding] is perhaps the book’s most astonishing lesson: somehow we have lost that capacity, that milieu, that whole world.” And maybe that, more than anything, is why Ford has disappeared from literary history: with the best of intentions, identity politics have made this kind of meaningful fluidity impossible. Instead, everything is defined, compartmentalized, cleansed of its problematic particulars, because everything must be named—standardized and fixed into a dominant narrative.

Is it wrong, even short-sighted, to long for that capacity, that milieu again? Speaking again of his hero, Jean Cocteau, Ford told BOMB that “everything is related to the concept of poetry… Jean Cocteau used to talk about the poetry of the novel, the poetry of the essay, the poetry of the theater—everything he did, he said, was poetry.” To make meaning associatively, through art-making, fraternizing, even love-making: Charles Henri Ford did that, was maybe one of the last to do so.

Still I hope it’s not a power we’ve lost forever.

Stay Backwords!

Matthew D. Kulisch

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