Charles Henri Ford
Catalyst Among Poets
Interview by Asako Kitaori
Whenever Charles Henri Ford is mentioned, his name evokes the image of one whose creative genius comes in and out of focus: when, where, how and in what context. The name is easily remembered, yet what he's exactly known for has eluded even the most erudite observer. As Jean Cocteau once said of him: "He is a poet in everything he creates."
Charles Henri Ford blazed his way onto the literary scene in the early 1930s with the publication of his poetry in some of the most prestigious periodicals of the day, including Hound and Horn, Transition, New Directions Annual, The New Yorker, and Poetry (Chicago). He is considered by many to be America's first Surrealist poet. His selected poems, Out of the Labyrinth, published by City Lights Books, covers a remarkable six decades.
As a teenager, Ford launched an experimental literary magazine Blues, published in Mississippi, and followed nearly a decade later (1940) with View, a glossy magazine devoted to a cultural avant-garde that sprang up in New York as a conduit for the Surrealist group spearheaded by Andre Breton.
View was the pioneer magazine for the arts in its time, simply because of Mr. Ford's all-encompassing editorial flair and vision as publisher/art director. It would not be surprising to see works by Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Dali and Magritte face to face in one issue with the writing of Albert Camus, Henry Miller, Tennessee Williams or Paul Bowles--that is what View was all about: being extraordinary in the subtlest of ways, but with no pulled punches. You simply didn't know what hit you. The 1940s may one day be considered the 20th century's--and especially America's--richest artistic decade.
Then as now, Charles Henri Ford always seemed to be one step ahead in the arts for tapping new talent, arranging gallery shows for Pavel Tchelitchew, and introducing the young poet Gerard Malanga to Andy Warhol in the early 1960s--a meeting that would have indelible influence on the works created at the Warhol Factory for the remainder of that decade. Mr. Ford is regarded as a catalyst--that of a magician who needs no wand.
With an amazing prodigious output in poetry, photography, film and the art of collage, it is ironic, then, that he has never sought out publicity. Let the work speak for itself has been his unspoken credo from the start. And yet his personality continually shines through, shedding light on all aspects of his work, then and now. All the more reason that the impression is one of a virtual recluse, when, in reality, he remains remarkable accessible and active. He's out there, but he also knows when to escape. In this respect, he can be considered an unselfconscious romantic.
It was felicitous, then, to have Gerard Malanga along for guidance and support. In bouncing off Gerard, Mr. Ford's candidness made for easy and immediate rapport.
A light drizzle filled the air as we approached the Dakota on Central Park West. Gerard led the way, quickly turning into the arch-enclosed driveway and up a few steps to the reception desk. Once we were buzzed into a long hallway, the world just a moment ago slipped away. Time receded with the elevator's ascent. Charles Henri Ford and Indra Tamang, his friend of many years, reside in a top-floor aerie with a view--a high-ceilinged studio of approximately 800-square feet, with a small nook-and-cranny bedroom off to one side.
The space is sparsely but comfortable furnished, labeled boxes and files are neatly arranged in piles on the floor, as if waiting to be shipped to some far-off archive. When asked about the conspicuous lack of bookcases, Mr. Ford replies, "Books should be read but not seen," followed by a smile, as if to underscore his sense of humor about those things we take seriously, or take for granted. He is reserved and casual and full of life. His blue blue eyes sparkle.
The studio is decorated with a couple of portraits of Charles--the "young poet"--by Pavel Tchelitchew along with a scattering of his own artwork, black and white vintage prints of magic milieus in Italy in the 40s. And by its isolation Charles's precision silkscreen op art portrait of Andy Warhol is the focal point in the room.
By now the rain has let up, but the spell continues. Sound engulfed by the silence. A mist fills the air outside. The window facing west is covered with sunlight which projects onto the opposite wall a rectangle of washed light. Indra offers us tea and pastries. Gerard opens up the box containing the fresh apple pie. I can see that Mr. Ford is aglow. It's high tea at the Dakota again.
ASAKO KITAORI: Were you a dreamer at an early age?
CHARLES HENRI FORD: The memory that I have is that you dream even in the womb. That's when you kick your mother. My curiosity was greater than my dreams. IN other worlds, the curiosity led to discovery and dreams are more revelation that discovery.
AK: Why would that be?
CHF: When you're curious you discover. When you dream you're a spectator. Like a movie, it doesn't mean that it's that personal. It's something that is not you but you as an audience. With curiosity you become involved, and when you wake up from a dream you're no longer involved.
AK: And do you think in hindsight the way you're interpreting this, are these the seeds that were planted that caused you to become a poet later on?
CHF: What sparks poetry, I think, is poetry, just as a musician is inspired by the sound of music, he wants to do the same thing. It's difficult to be a poet without having read poetry. It's a double entendre.
AK: So why did you pick up poetry rather than music?
CHF: I wasn't exposed to classical music, and that's what composers are noted for, their receptiveness. I was exposed to blues and jazz, that's why I named my magazine Blues. Now, in the haiku that I'm writing, sometimes the words from the old blues songs come back and get put in.
AK: Does it all fit together?
CHF: Yes. I can pick one out later and show you what I mean.
AK: You have remarked that when you were a teenager you had a vision to become "famous." Was there a set plan at that time?
CHF: No, but I was sort of given an injection by the reading of Marie Bashkirtseff.
AK: Who is she?
CHF: She was a Russian writer who said that she was going to become famous in one year, and she did. When I read that I said to myself, Well, if she can do it, I can do it!'
AK: How old were you at the time when you read her work?
CHF: In my teens, and that's the theme of my book coming out, I Will Be What I Am. That's where the title is derived.
AK: That was the name of her book in Russian?
CHF: No. That's the name of my manuscript.
AK: But it's the same idea.
CHF: It's the same idea. The potential is in you. You already are and you will be what you are, is another way of saying it.
AK: But "famous" is quite an ambiguous idea, so when you say "I will be famous," what was your goal?
CHF: Famous for what? Well, it was poetry. Shortly after, I had a poem accepted by The New Yorker; I was still a teenager. At that time, I had been reading Yeats. From that poem in The New Yorker I can recite one verse:
And when you go, for you will go
I'll buy a scarf to hide
My shoulders white and lips as white
I sent The New Yorker more poems later on but I never got accepted again so I said, well, The New Yorker is not for me. I went on to other magazines. Finally, I broke Poetry (Chicago)--very difficult. The editor at the time was Harriet Monroe. She was hard to bust.
AK: Growing up in Mississippi in the 1920s, so far removed from the art centers of the world, how did you become aware of French Surrealism for it to become a major factor in your writing, or did that come later?
CHF: Somehow I got hold of the Paris magazine, transition, which was publishing the Surrealist, it was transition's editor Eugene Jolas, who was writing his form of Surrealist poetry. I can't remember being turned on by any Surrealist in transition--it was Jolas who gave me the guideline, I suppose. And I sent him poems and they were accepted.
AK: I discovered in my research your first letter Gertrude Stein, dated March 27, 1929, inviting her to contribute to the "Expatriate Number" of your magazine, Blues. What did you feel when you first wrote to her and did she send you something?
CHF: I wondered if she would send me something--she did. It was a very short poem dedicated to Georges Hugnet. I don't know whether I meant what I said, but I was so happy to get something from Gertrude Stein, I wrote her saying "Thank you for your manuscript--it's one of the best things you've ever written." It was about six lines!
AK: What was your feeling when you got that letter from her with the manuscript?
CHF: Once you're in orbit you feel you're the magnet and if you don't attract something there's no thrill to acknowledge. When it works, it works. That's the way View was too, because I go all these famous artists to do covers, created expressly for View. View couldn't exist like that today, except maybe it can. Somebody wants to revive View. I plan to invite collaborations as I did for the early View. I'm going to ask Red Grooms and Larry Rivers to do special covers--maybe they will--who knows?
AK: How did your friendship with Gertrude Stein develop in the ensuing years?
CHF: Well, if you want to hear about Gertrude, she was famous for taking up and accepting people under her wing, so to speak, and then dropping them because she was made of jealousy. She dropped Tchelitchew when became friends with Edith Sitwell. She dropped me when I became friends with Tchelitchew. I'll tell you how that happened. My first visit to her in the country was when I came back from Morocco on my way to Paris. Then she invited me back again.
AK: When was this?
CHF: It was in the early thirties when my novel The Young and Evil was about to be issued by Obelisk Press. That's the reason why I was returning to Paris. So when I left Tangiers it was Gertrude Stein-Paris. Later I returned to Bilignin for a second visit--that's what she called her house--and Alice [Alice B. Toklas] said to me, "You're looking so healthy, because you were thin when you came from Morocco." I said, "Yes, Tchelitchew's sister is a very good cook." Then Gertrude said, "You've been visiting Tchelitchew?" I said, "Yes." She said, "Well, if I had known that I wouldn't have invited you." But I stayed on ten days and had a very good time!
GERARD MALANGA: She was a control freak.
CHF: Yeah. But one night during that last stay, she was picking out notes on the piano, like words--they didn't mean anything, but she was sitting there in the candlelight. I said, "Oh, Miss Stein, you look so handsome in that light," and she turned to me and said, "Yes, we're both very handsome."
AK: Weren't you in awe of Gertrude Stein?
CHF: No, because I wrote to Parker Tyler, "Have I told you about Gertrude's breasts? They're so big that when she bends over you think they're going to pull her down."
GM: She became incensed by the fact that you sparked a friendship with Tchelitchew
CHF: . . . and so, I was dropped by her.
GM: Tchelitchew was already dropped by her at the time
CHF: . . . because she was jealous of Edith Sitwell. Edith met Pavlik at Gertrude's salon and just flipped for him and she arranged his London show.
GM: So there was a real competitive nature about Gertrude Stein.
CHF: Everybody seemed always jealous. Gertrude was jealous of Edith and Edith was jealous of me. Edith and Edward James burned The Young and Evil in the fireplace. But later on we became reconciled and she wrote an introduction to my book of poems, Sleep In A Nest of Flames. I took Cocteau to meet her. They both happened to be in New York at the same time and had never met. Osbert, her brother, was present and they served us whiskey. Edith was saying " and to think, one had whiskey only for a toothache." But she reached a point where she had it every day. That kept up through her last days. She always had a whiskey.
GM: What was Cocteau's reaction of response from having met Edith Sitwell?
CHF: Cocteau's reaction was making sure everybody know he was Jean Cocteau. He was a firework of speech. Do you know what Diaghilev said to him when they met? "Astonish me." [Etonne moi] I don't know if that happened.
AK: What effect, if any did Gertrude Stein have on your writing?
CHF: She definitely did, I think it shows in The Young and Evil. All these influences--if they don't merge and make a different reality which is you they're hard to trace. The giants in literature, like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein--they all have to have some influence. In her autobiography, she mentions that I'm one of the two younger writers with an "individual sense of words"--what she meant I don't know.
GM: Obviously, the work made an impression on her for her to have said that.
CHF: I remember recommending to her how I admired a young new writer whose first book had just out, called As I Lay Dying. You know who wrote that--William Faulkner. He sent me a short story before Blues closed. It was called "Death in Naples," an echo of "Death in Venice," and later it was published in his collected stories and I'm sorry I missed that one--Blues closed before I could publish it.
AK: Are you aware of any views that Gertrude Stein might have had on the Surrealist circle?
CHF: She welcomed them. I remember meeting Andre Masson, Rene Crevel, two of the major Surrealists. At one time she had Rene Crevel and me for tea and she said to Rene about me, "he has something that you don't have--a sense of history." Nobody knew what she was talking about. [Everybody bursts out laughing] She knew, I'm sure.
GM: It's sort of a put-down on Rene Crevel
CHF: Her entire writing was autobiographical. If she wasn't autobiographical she identified anyway. She identified with Alice by becoming Alice--The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. I started another book which I left in Katmandu--and absolute take-off on Gertrude Stein, titled The Autobiography of Indra B. Tamang. I was writing it as though Indra were writing it . . . he was telling his story about Charles in Katmandu and this, that and the other. I don't know if it's something that could ever be finished, but I'll pick it up and see, it's a tour de force.
AK: Do you remember you first impression when you encountered Tchelitchew's paintings in Paris for the first time?
CHF: I wrote back to Parker Tyler in New York about Tchelitchew how I was completely taken. I used a work that other people have used since, but I think it was a mistake, the word "morbid" came in. A lot of people have found some morbidity in his work and Alice Delamar who knew him intimately and who was a great patron and gave us houses to live in, she told me one day, "Well, Pavlikis a mental case." Can you believe it? She gave us one house and Balanchine gave us a Ford. He paid $250 for it--a secondhand Ford. But the next car was a Mercury which we bought. It was a black convertible with red leather seats and a pushbutton top and that's when you could pick up a deluxe can like custom-made. I'd drive through the country, all those filling station attendants would say, "where did that come from?"--nine hundred and ninety-nine dollars. That's what prices were. And the same goes for apartments. You know how much we paid for a wonderful penthouse, ninety-foot terrace, high ceilings, eat-in kitchen. A hundred an thirty-five dollars a month--for ten years.
AK: Why did you choose Cocteau as a role model?
CHF: Simply enough I don't know if I was a multimedia artist then, but I must have felt the idea of being one. Jean's the one I think of most when I think of someone who has done work in so many mediums. He did poetry, novels, painting, plays, cinema--so I coincide in some of those media--poetry, novel, cinema. He used to say--that's when you could use the word poet without blushing--"I am a poet in everything I do. I'm a poet in the novel. I'm a poet in the theater. I'm a poet in the cinema." You name all his works and he considered himself a poet in whatever he did. That sort of sunk in, when I read that. I felt that if he could do it I could do it.
AK: You were thinking of all you work as a poet's work. So your base is that of being a poet first.
CHF: Yes. That defines the activity which one can practice, just as Gerard also is not limited to one medium. What have you done? [Turning to Gerard]
GM: Photography, film, poetry
AK: . . . dancer . . .
CHF: Is that as far as it goes?
GM: . . . and editing magazines.
CHF: Oh, yes, editing. Although I don't think Cocteau ever was an editor.
AK: Could you describe the character of Andre Breton?
CHF: Your mean my impression of what he was?
CHF: When I became more and more immersed in Surrealism, naturally he was the model. He also experimented in other forms. He did these little assemblage. Many people found him charismatic. He was always shameless about his anti-homosexuality, but that didn't keep him from saying about me, "This American poet, Charles Henri is le poete prototypique.
GM: prototypical poet.
CHF: Yeah. That's what he said about me. I gave him the only interview that he ever had in America in View. Going along with him was an open collaboration. It's hard to translate things that he would say. I invited him to the View office one day and I said, "Andre, I would like to publish a book of your poems " So he looked at me and said, "vous etes malin." Now that's hard to translate. "Malin" means something like I was undercutting him. "You got me by the balls," so to speak. He knew it would be a feather in my cap, but he also knew that he couldn't resist because nobody else had asked him. You see, I didn't twist the rope, I had asked Duchamp to do a cover. It was the Statue of Liberty with Breton's face superimposed. Duchamp turned him into a drag queen. (Everybody laughs) But, anyway, Duchamp had already turned himself into a drag queen, Rrose Selavy, and there he is [pointing to one of his poem-posters tacked up on the closet door]. That's his face, he's in drag--I put him in there as La Papesse Jeanne, the female Pope. Most people never heard of a female pope.
AK: Can you describe the tension of conflict between Breton and Cocteau?
CHF: Chiefly, because of Cocteau's accomplishment as a figure, an artist multi-productive and his homosexuality. I guess I'm one of the few that Breton accepted.
GM: But Breton made himself out to be an island surrounded by a sea of homosexuality. How could he escape the fact that there were so many artists and poets in Paris who were homosexual?
CHF: One in the Surrealist group was Rene Crevel. There was also a veiled bitch, Louis Aragon. It came out after his death. Nobody thought of him as a homosexual in his lifetime. He was living with a woman. He was dropped by Breton because he joined the Communist Party. Anyway, Aragon was very good-looking and always dressed in white. He was just doing a masquerade. Breton didn't live in vain.
GM: But Breton dept this tension going, as Asako says, because he was so authoritarian, wouldn't you say?
CHF: He would try to be dictatorial and ex-communicate. He ex-communicated Matta, you know.
GM: Well, he was always on ceremony.
AK: How about Cocteau himself relating to Breton?
CHF: I'm sure he never expressed himself the way that Breton used to do, because Cocteau was generosity itself and he didn't feel that he had to make enemies because he had so many friends. He didn't have to envy anybody. People envied him.
GM: He was a very good-natured, generous person.
CHF: . . . except, he was not generous in the case of Tchelitchew, because at one time Tchelitchew and Berard had the same gallery, but one of them had to go for some reason or other, and Cocteau was called in and he said, "Keep Berard," and Tchelitchew lost his gallery, so that was a great blow and one reason why Tchelitchew might not have forgiven him but he did somehow, because they were very friendly when we saw Cocteau in Rome years later, as though nothing had happened. I bought from the Rome exhibition a beautiful pastel of a clown--for Ruth and Zachary [Ruth and Zachary Scott, Charles's sister and brother-in-law]. They always gave me money that I would spend for works of art because the works were for them, and it was a hundred-and-sixty-dollars. There was another work of art that they lost out on. I wrote them from Paris that I had found an American painter for them to collect. Ruth rejected Andy because she said, "I don't want Marilyn Monrow on my wall." That painting was two hundred and fifty dollars. Anyway, I found in a big Paris show a painting, and I said look at that. I should write Ruth and Zachary about it. Eight hundred dollars. Two black and white flags, one on top of the other. Jasper Johns. I don't know why they didn't send me the money. His name didn't mean anything to anybody. He was just one of the gang--not where he is today.
GM: That painting would be worth three hundred, four hundred thousand dollars now.
CHF: . . . no, a million! Well, you heard about Andy's horrible Campbell Soup can selling how much?
GM: Three point two million I think.
CHF: More than three. It was estimated at two million, and sold for three million. Can you believe it? I'm think they're hideous.
GM: Well, this was one soup can with a torn label.
CHF: It was not just one alone but it was several on the same canvas.
GM: No no no, it was just one.
CHF: Just one?
GM: One big painting. The way it was rendered he made it so the label was torn off the can itself part way.
GM: No, he drew it that way by hand.
CHF: Well, Andy made his mark and took it with him.
AK: What was your position regarding the tension between Breton and Cocteau?
CHF: I chose Breton because I wanted all the Surrealists for View, and I couldn't publish Cocteau without antagonizing Breton.
GM: So you made a political decision.
CHF: Yeah, but, then, before View stopped I decided to publish Cocteau anyway. Not publish him directly, but I had a brilliant essay on him by Charles Glenn Wallace. Had another View come out, it would have been in. And who did me a cover. I was the first one in America to recognize him--Jean Dubuffet.
GM: But that issue never came out?
CHF: I think the cover must be at Yale. I sent them the entire View archive.
GM: Really. Yale has all the View material?
CHF: I gave it to them like an idiot! It would be worth lots of money now.
GM: all those covers.
CHF: Oh, no. The covers I kept. It was only the typescripts. Like an idiot I threw in the Jean Dubuffet. When do you kick yourself when you lose money you didn't have to.
GM: When do you kick yourself for losing money you didn't have to?
CHF: For what reason do you ever kick yourself because you lost money you didn't have to lose.
GM: That's true.
AK: The reason Breton hesitated to bring Tchelitchew into his group was because of Tchelitchew's homosexuality. Is that the only reason?
CHF: No, not exactly. He didn't consider Tchelitchew's work surrealist. One day I took Breton to see Tchelitchew's big painting, "Phenomena." He didn't find it surrealist and it isn't.
GM: But there are major elements of surrealism in Tchelitchew's work.
CHF: Here's the distinction that somebody made, that the surrealists painted the dream and neo-romantics painted the dreamer. That has some truth.
AK: What made you come back to New York from Paris?
CHF: I had the definite feeling that everything was beginning to happen in New York and that Paris was phasing out. But to get Tchelitchew to come with me I had to go alone first and I crossed the Atlantic on a freighter. It cost eighty dollars and it took ten days. But I ate at the captain's table and had a cabin of my own.
GM: But Tchelitchew had a lot of paintings to bring over to America with him?
CHF: Yes, because he was going to have a show at the Museum of Modern Art. His friend, Monroe Wheeler, very powerful there, was the curator. They bought "Hide and Seek." Some millionaire patroness bought the painting and donated it to the museum. She just shucked in the large amount of four thousand dollars. Now you can'' buy a Tchelitchew drawing for that amount.
AK: What made you a surrealist poet?
CHF: What made a surrealist poet was because the Surrealists existed before me. They electrified my output.
AK: You said you came back to New York because nothing was happing in Paris
CHF: Everything was happing there, but then it faded out. There was Le Boeuf-sur-la-toit, named after Cocteau's play, people would congregate there. It was a nightclub. Everything was exciting at that time because you could live on practically nothing and you could meet everyone. They would gather at different cafes. The queers at Le Select, the Surrealists at Les deux Magots. It was a life that nobody knew in New York. It was exciting to be there if you were an artist. The Montparnasse zone was even a protected zone. The police were instructed "hands off. This is not for you." I gave the last party in Montparnasse. Mayo, who did costumes for Marcel Carne's film, Les enfants du Paradis--Mayo and I took over a deserted building and invited everybody we knew to a bottle party. Everything was lit up by candlelight. Julian Levy arrived with Lee Miller whom I had just seen in Cocteau's Blood of a Poet. Kiki was there. So much noise was made that the neighbors called the police. So the police barged in, with the intention of putting the quietus on this rowdy scene. But when they were told that Kiki was there they joined the party. Kiki happened to be the mistress of the chief of police! Anyway, it really was sort of the last party in Montparnasse.
AK: When you started View magazine, did you already have in mind to focus on French Surrealism as a broad editorial base?
CHF: I didn't already have in mind to start View in that direction, but that became its raison d'être.
AK: Are you aware of Breton's feeling regarding a differing approach with what View and his magazine VVV were advancing as an agenda for Surrealism in America?
CHF: Yes, I was aware of Breton's feelings. One thing about him. He never kept his feelings a secret--not that everybody shared them because most people didn't. He was his own man.
AK: What were Breton's feelings?
CHF: He felt that he wanted to be the director. That's why he wanted to recruit me as the editor of VVV and for me to give up View, so he could be looking over my shoulder and have some control. He was a displaced person in America. He never learned English. He was like one of those holy men who go underground and stay there till they come out. His underground was America.
AK: So you refused.
CHF: I said, "Thank you very much but I think I'll continue with View.
GM: You remember what his reaction was to that decision?
CHF: He was beginning to accept so many things that he didn't want to accept, that he accepted it. In New York, he was at a disadvantage. He didn't speak English, as you know. Well, you know how much pleasure one gets out of being in control. So when I invited him to the office I said, "Andre, I would like to publish a book of your poems." Naturally it was an irresistible invitation. It came out with this wonderful cover by Duchamp. Duchamp made Breton into a drag queen--he stuck his face onto the Statue of Liberty.
AK: How was Breton looking at that?
CHF: He approved of everything that Duchamp did, because Duchamp was really the predecessor. Duchamp got there first and Breton followed.
GM: How many issues did Breton publish of his magazine?
CHF: Just a few. I don't think it lasted but six months, not even a year. View lasted eight years.
GM: So his magazine was very short-lived, but he was here for four or five years.
CHF: But, anyway, that's the story of Surrealism in America. Surrealism outlived its time as a spearheader because when Breton went back to Paris after the end of WW II, Existentialism had taken over.
AK: I'm pretty curious about the position of Duchamp because he was collaborating with you and he was helping Breton with VVV too.
CHF: That's right. VVV. That was one of Duchamp's puns--he was full of puns. Pun was his middle name
GM: What was your relationship with Duchamp like? Do you have any reminiscences?
CHF: Duchamp was a very open person and when I came along with the idea of a Duchamp number, at that time no monograph had ever been published on Duchamp. So View published the first monograph ever on Duchamp who had been functioning and admired for many years. Apres mois le deluge. Since then, book after book on Duchamp has come out and there still coming out. He's on eof the most recognized French artists who ever lived lived in our time, in any case.
AK: Being an American poet living in New York in the 1940s, did you encounter any resistance from academic circles as to the kind of poetry you stood for?
CHF: Neither resistance nor acclaim. Academic circles didn't encircle Surrealism.
AK: They just didn't care.
CHF: The groves of academe had no surrealist sheep grazing. (Gerard laughs) John Crowe Ransom who was the editor of The Kenyon Review and who was a sort of symbol of academe always rejected my poems, and he always had some excuse but I've forgotten what excuses he had. He rejected the poem that gave the title to my book, The Overturned Lake.
GM: So you would send poems to him from time to time . . .
CHF: . . . not from time to time. When I got his message I stopped. Maybe I just sent one or two. But I think I even got a letter his rejection of The Overturned Lake. It didn't hold water.
(Gerard bursts out laughing)
GM: You had a very close affinity with Rimbaud's writings.
CHF: Rimbaud fired my productions just as he did to surrealism, but for some reason which I forget and don't care to remember, Breton later on rejected him as a precursor.
AK: Why was that?
CHF: Breton was know for irrational rejections, so the irrational was his field. One rejection he made was simply puritanical because he shelved Matta when Matta committed adultery with Arshile Gorky's wife.
GM: So Breton was very conservative in many areas of social life.
CHF: Puritan, puritan, puritan. His stupid anti-homosexuality
AK: So what made him the head of Surrealist group?
CHF: The French, somebody pointed out recently, they all like to form groups. Breton wanted to do that. He was like honey for the bees.
GM: The interesting thing was that Breton was able to keep a hold on his position. He was able to protect his position. The thing that I find unusual is that because of his extreme puritanical outlook on the various levels of society, that he wasn't overthrown himself and the movement wasn't taken over by someone else.
CHF: A dictatorial mentality. Well, different people tried that I think, but they didn't get organized after--they just became ex-surrealists.
AK: What is the difference between good and bad surrealism?
CHF: Anything may be good or bad, whether it's surrealism or anything else. There are bad abstractionists. There's good and bad in every category.
AK: Breton was saying--because of this I don't like this and it doesn't belong to surrealism.
CHF: Breton rejected what he didn't consider surrealism. I took him to see Tchelitchew's "Phenomena," thinking that he might see some surrealist background, but he didn't. He had his own idea of what surrealism is. I guess he was never surprised.
AK: Who is you favorite surrealist?
AK: Oh, yeah.
GM: Dali was another one who was thrown out of the group.
CHF: "Avida dollars." It's an anagram of Salvador Dali by Breton. So anybody who got out from under the wing of the old hen was an independent chicken.
GM: My theory about Breton is that if any one member of the group received a lot of publicity for one reason or other, Breton was very jealous of that.
CHF: He felt he was in the shadow of this superstar. He's certainly not a hero of mine. You never want to be like him, in any case. He was not an icon to be emulated.
GM: It's really sad too, because Dali had such a great sense of humor, he was a very warm, generous person in his own way and I just feel that Breton treated Dali very shabbily.
CHF: Well, in a dictatorial way. So many facets to Dali. I'm always writing haiku about Dali. Different thoughts come to me about Dali, and one thought came to me, that Dali used to be very pretty, very good-looking. Garcia-Lorca fell in love with him. When pretty-boy Dali outgrew his pretty-boy looks he became "clown Dali." I'm no longer a pretty boy, I'll be a clown. The waxed mustache. The poses. The outrageous statements. You know his outrageous statement about the minotaur? "The minotaur is the clitoris of the mother!" (Everyone laughs) I think he got it mixed up with the unicorn.
AK: Was he always like that?
CHF: He was so inclined to be shocking that he just said anything that came into his head. He never thought of that before he said it. When I introduced him to W. H. Auden, he said, "Do you speak English?" (Everyone laughs) Dali was loveable because he was surrealist all the way.
AK: What was Gala like?
CHF: Gala was very seductive. Of course, she knew what she was doing when she left Eluard for Salvador.
GM: That probably added to the rift between Breton and Dali.
CHF: Also, Breton and Eluard there was a rift too.
GM: There was?
CHF: Oh, yes. When Eluard became totally totally Sovietic, that's when Breton gave him his walking papers.
GM: I was aware of that with Louis Aragon, but I forgot about that aspect between Breton and Eluard.
AK: What was your interest in editing magazines besides being a poet?
CHF: I don't know why but editing was in my impulsive behavior even when I was in grammar school. I used to edit a little typewritten paper and tack it on the wall for the other students and I called it The Brass Monkey.
AK: So that's your nature.
CHF: It's part of my literary nature. Words get through to some people more influentially than they get to others. It works for some people like water on the duck's back.
AK: I know that View magazine is to be revived. Will it continue the focus and editorial program you had envisioned for it back in the 1940's?
CHF: It will, according to the mentality of the new editor. I don't know what Karen Lehrman is going to produce? If I'm recruited as advisory editor I'll advise as time goes by. I couldn't conceive a year's production of View.
GM: Do you have any idea when the first issue is coming out?
CHF: Karen Lehrman wrote me a little note saying she's been out still raising money, so I think View will come out eventually. It's taking a lot of groundplay.
AK: If the new magazine is started, have you got any idea what the content will be like?
CHF: I'm still attuned to what I consider surrealism. For the new View, I have at least two artists that I would like to see on covers. One is Red Grooms and one is Larry Rivers. Others will come as they're encountered. I'll have to get around more to the galleries to see what's being presented that might spark a cover or a page or whatever. The more one gets into it the more one will exercise one's preferences.
AK: With regard to your relationship with both Tchelitchew and Warhol, did you note any similarities inherent in your appreciation of their art?
CHF: No, definitely not. Apropos, I'm always coming up with some thought about Andy which I like to put in haiku.
All painted with silkscreen paint
On silk-screened photographs
You get the dig? He never painted a portrait. It was always a painted photograph. People are confused about that.
GM: What Asako's asking really, there must have been some kind of similarity inherent in your appreciation for their art.
CHF: I cannot think of any affinity.
GM: I don't mean that there was an affinity between the two of them, but your appreciation for Tchelitchew . . .
AK: What was your appreciation for Tchelitchew?
CHF: I remember writing back a letter from Paris to Parker Tyler saying "I have discovered a genius," and I didn't even know how to spell his name, and I used the word "morbid," apropos the effect his paintings had on me, but it wasn't anymore than Dostoyevsky. It was just Russian. My greatest appreciation for Andy was the very first Marilyn Monroe painting, because I considered the technical accidents a witty perversity. But it was actually only an accident. It had nothing to do with Andy's intention. But they're the ones that turned me on the most. The first ones . . .
GM: . . . the paintings with all the mistakes.
CHF: I thought they were intentional--that's why I liked it.
GM: It wasn't intentional, because technically it was a mistake. We just let it go.
CHF: But I didn't know that.
GM: and Andy accepted those mistakes.
CHF: Well, at the time he probably thought it was presentable just as I liked it for its presentability and I thought that was a witty comment in the painting. It's like Duchamp putting the mustache on the Mona Lisa. But when Andy got more correct I found it more boring. Big regret that I couldn't persuade the Scotts to invest two hundred and fifty dollars. Sister Ruth said, "I don't want Marilyn Monroe on my wall."
GM: That painting would be worth half a million easy today.
CHF: All those outrageous millions on a Campbell soup can. Who wants to look at it?
AK: It is now a well-known historical fact that you introduced Gerard to Warhol. Can you recall where your catalytic instinct may have been an influence in other areas as well?
CHF: Part of my nature as a catalyst I suppose is part of my editorial propensity. One goes through phases. The story of phases can be divided into two parts. Some are phased out and some go on to other fields.
GM: What was your notion at the time when you were hosting high teas at the Dakota?
CHF: Well, it was like an editorial job.
GM: Entertaining, of course.
CHF: If a magazine is not entertaining, what is it? The highest art is entertaining.
AK: You have expressed yourself through different branches of art in the course of your life as artist--poetry, which you are still predominately known for, and also photography, films and collages. Which is the one expression you've been most satisfied with and why?
CHF: The one I was doing at the time. The array, from one to the other. Now it's not poetry definitely, except for the haiku.
AK: So you are always satisfied with what you are using?
CHF: I'm using myself. I'm the dummy of myself. I'm the ventriloquist.
AK: Why did you abandon writing poetry as an expression of the self?
CHF: I did not abandon poetry. As Jean Cocteau put it, "I am a poet in everything I do"
AK: How did you pick up the haiku form as an expression?
CHF: Basho and Issu. I'm magnetized by haiku to this day. Every time I see a book of haiku advertised I get it. Haiku is my favorite form of poetry.
AK: . . . because for me haiku and surrealist poetry are quite different.
CHF: But a haiku can be surrealist.
AK: It's strictly form.
CHF: The thing about the haiku is it's very flexible as to content and the form is fascinating because of its brevity and it can be a very concentrated content. It's the most flexible form of poetry, much more so than the sonnet. I think the first thing that attracted me to the haiku, but it's not what attracts me now particularly, but it ends up being surrealist because of the superimposition--two unrelated things that make a whole which seems to be a collage.
AK: Looking back at your life's work, how would you sum up all that you have accomplished?
CHF: Don't look back--living well is the best revenge.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000