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 no