Out of Nothing – Mark Ford
Renowned Faber poet MARK FORD on his love of oddities, fear of clichés and a swimming pool full of peanuts.
Mark Ford is a critically acclaimed poet, essayist and professor. His debut collection was Landlocked (Chatto & Windus 1992) and his second book, Soft Sift, came out in 2001 from Faber. He regularly contributes poetry, reviews and articles to the TLS and the London Review of Books. A pamphlet of new poetry entitled Six Children will be out “probably” this Autumn. He is a professor at the UCL English Department.
A recent review of a poetry reading given by Mark Ford at Plymouth University calls him, without any hint of disdain, ‘an entertaining chap’ who was ‘casual and chatty’. The reviewer, who confesses that she knows ‘very little about poetry’ reports delightedly that his poetry seemed to her, ‘not at all the sort of stuffy literary waffle I was expecting.’
Yet Mark Ford’s poetry is certainly not easy. He is the sort of poet who says honestly that he thought the poet John Ashbery, who often gets lumbered with the epithet ‘difficult’, was ‘sort of semi-accessible’. The favourable review is, I expect, not only because his poetry is simply good enough to be enjoyable even without complete comprehension by someone who has made poetry their business – just as a symphony can be enjoyed without knowing which key it is in – but also due to his manner, which is often humorously candid.
When I mention that he has been called an ‘American Philip Larkin’ in a lead-up to a question, he says with a smile, ‘I think my agent said that. I’m not sure if that counts!’ Despite this seeming frankness, or perhaps because of it, he confesses himself wary of saying ‘stupid things’. He has a distinctive voice: clear and sharply enunciated, which suits an equally sharp and angular face.
Ford notably lacks the sort of deluded self-importance that sometimes seems an occupational hazard of writers. Asked if it were important to him that many people read his work and understand it, he responds: ‘I wouldn’t know about that. Certainly not many. I don’t feel my work has a wide audience.’ He continues: ‘You have two monitors in your head I guess. Your own sense of what works and what pleases you when you write it and the key thing – the thing poets ask themselves – or at least what I ask myself – about any line or image or poem, is that it works and hopefully that’s fairly black and white. If it then goes on to work for other people, that’s nice. Particularly when you’re young. As you get older you tend to care less.’
Does he have no desire to become a widely read popular writer then?
‘Well I never could you know. That sort of reminds me of when my friend John Lanchester was asked whether he could write a detective novel, but genre fiction is very hard to write and you have to have a knack for it. And very few writers are that versatile. You cut your coat according to your cloth. But Ashbery is a good example of someone who – if anyone had said in the ‘60s he’s going to be a famous poet you’d have been laughed at – and he’d probably have laughed at you too. So one never knows, and the whirligig of time brings in strange revenges in some ways. I think my recent stuff is less…baffling maybe. People could read it without feeling they’re particularly missing something, I think.’
I ask him whether there was a moment when he realised or decided he was going to be a poet, and he replies seriously: ‘There was really. I had finished my undergraduate degree and was in America and I had this dream about a swimming pool full of peanuts.’
The response is not, I hasten to add, as absurd as it may first seem. But one senses he is keenly aware of its humour. No Cædmon he, God visiting in a dream blessing him with the gift of poetry. Instead of God, Mark Ford gets a swimming pool full of peanuts divinely inspiring a poem about…a swimming pool full of peanuts.
‘I was twenty-one and I woke up and wrote the poem in about twenty minutes, apart from the first four lines and it seemed terrifically easy. I then didn’t think much about it until a couple of weeks later when I wrote the opening lines to it. And that was the first point I thought of writing a poem and I didn’t set about trying to do it or have a long apprenticeship – which I think I should have done really – but it just didn’t happen that way. I didn’t try out lots of different styles and get better, I just wrote that one, which is the only one of my poems that anyone ever likes. It’s my ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, my ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’…and it’s been downhill ever since!’
‘A Swimming Pool Full of Peanuts’ may not, despite his flippant modesty, be the only one anyone likes by him, but it is certainly the poem by him that would, one suspects, appeal to the widest audience thanks to its accessible and bizarre humour. It is a soliloquy – though that word sounds unsuitably grand – by a door-to-door salesman who comes across a swimming pool full of peanuts (salted) and ‘without a thought for my own safety’ he grabs a golf club from his car and starts to ‘scatter peanuts like a madman’. It is amusing but there is a discomfiting sense of menace about it. Perhaps the narrator is not just ‘like a madman’ but is one and the sight of them, we are told, is ‘disturbing my eye won’t focus in case in an instant/ they turn into piranha fish and green mambas/ or anything else that might be hiding down there.’
This uneasy balance of humour and fear is present in many of his works. To cite another, the more recent poem ‘Invisible Hand’ (published in the London Review of Books in October 2006) has the humorous line ‘He called me better looking than a newborn canary’ in the same section as ‘In a wing-beat we’d agreed on what/ We’d need to learn to love: guilt, / Unending guilt…’ Could he tell us about the relationship between laughter and fear in his work?
‘ I suppose most of the things I like have that sort of quality. The lines you are quoting out of ‘Invisible Hand’ – the poem is about feeling elect or different in various ways. The last one is a kind of Bonnie and Clyde duo and they get together and go out on a kind of spree. Bizarrely the new born canary line comes from Yeats. Yeats said that about his son Michael after he was born, said he looks just like a newborn canary.’
He pauses and considers what he has just said. ‘I’m not saying that Yeats was a psychopath,’ he deadpans, ‘it’s not particularly original to be drawn to humour and menace – the Coen brothers are very good at that in their films. When you’re writing, one thing you’re trying to be all the time is original. So in terms of whether things work, one thing you’re always asking yourself is, has this been done before? Is this a cliché? How is it a cliché? How do I stop it being a cliché?’
In his latest pamphlet of poems, there is one “prose-poem”- for want of a better word for it- which has a completely different format to the rest. It is in the form of a letter to an editor of a magazine, which recounts a meeting with an old Hart Crane in a bar who ‘had somehow survived his supposed death by water’. What prompted him to change structures so drastically in the strange ‘The Death of Hart Crane’?
‘Actually that was another dream poem. Very lucky when you get a dream poem. I had a dream about meeting Hart Crane when he was quite old and then the next day – I did it in the form of a letter to an editor of a magazine and so it’s in prose. It’s just a literary letter the idea…Those poems are great to write because if you’ve got a concept it’s much easier’, he says happily, and expands on the theme of these “easier” poems warmly. ‘I divide poems up when I’m writing into concept poems, which have a kind of donnée or a concept like “Hart Crane’s alive” or “Whitman had six children” or the poem ‘Early to Bed, Early to Rise’, which has people with same surname but different Christian names in each couplet…you get a concept poem like that and they’re very appealing because they’re easy to do whereas the other poems are a lot more agonising to write for me, they’re a bit like spinning it all out in your insides like a spider and inching from – not even line to line but from word to word – you’re making it all up out of nothing.’
‘Recently these poems have taken me months and months even a year to get them- just to get from…to get them. To get them out! …To spin them out because they’re made up out of nothing… so I wish I could do more concept poems.’ He then adds with a characteristic self-deprecating bluntness: ‘Also people like concept poems and they don’t like the other ones so that’s another advantage of them.’
‘The Death of Hart Crane’ is only one of his latest batch of poems, which has death as an over-riding theme. Of course death is hardly an uncommon topic for poets but sometimes, I tell him, they read like a collection of elegies. He responds,
‘Some are quite explicit, some less explicitly about death. ‘The Gaping Gulf’ is a title borrowed from a pamphlet by John Stubbs, which advised Queen Elizabeth I not to marry a certain French person and the queen wasn’t pleased by this and she had his right hand chopped off with which he had written this. But having had his right one chopped off he used his left hand to raise his hat and say ‘God bless the Queen’ which struck me as a fairly gallant, stoical gesture. But in terms of the title I was also referring to the gulf left by the death of my father in 2007 which it talks about in the last stanza. So there are quite a few poetic attempts to…’
He trails off and one senses the poet shying away from the cliché of the phrase “come to terms with it”. Instead he continues ‘That one is an elegy and the others have elegiac aspects to them. I chose as an epigraph to the pamphlet something by Thomas Lovell Beddoes about dying. Most of Beddoes is about dying. And also a good friend of mine Mick Imlah died January this year. Those two deaths certainly crept into the poems in that pamphlet.’
Leaving these painfully personal subjects behind, I ask him about the position of his poems in each book, which appears to be important. The poem ‘Arrowheads’ in Soft Sift for example is followed by ‘Snags and Syndromes’ which have the line ‘our schemes sink into the marl like arrowheads’. Should then one read his poems in order?
‘That is something which, as a poet, you do think about a lot because you are trying to write a book that people will get through and want to read. They’re terribly thin these volumes of poetry but they can seem to go on for a long time’, he laughs drily.
Mick Imlah’s recent death has plainly affected him deeply and he recalls things he has said a couple of times in the course of this interview. ‘I remember talking with Mick and him saying that that takes care of itself, in that your psychological flaws or configurations emerge again and again. So in terms of finding a unity, your own problems surface in poem after poem, just in different styles. It’s like putting together a bit of music, just getting a thing so that it works.’
So it’s an instinctive process rather than a cerebral one?
‘Yes, it’s instinct, so much of poetry is instinct. Mainly instinct.’
Ford has however led a cerebral life. He has an impeccable scholarly record, gaining a First in Oxford and being selected for the prestigious role of Kennedy Scholar, which sent him to Harvard.
Has his scholarly record helped or hampered his ‘instinctive’ poetry in any way?
‘It’s hard to know how it would have been if I hadn’t had a scholarly life as my main life. Poetry happens in the interstices when I get an idea or find time for it or when I just get determined to do it – and you can do it just by determination. It’s horrible but you can do it that way. Landlocked is a fairly unliterary book. There’s only one allusion to Charlotte Bronte, otherwise it doesn’t have allusions to any scholarly or literary figures. But the poems I’ve done recently make references to people in books and things quite a bit, which someone like Larkin thought was illegal, putting your hand in the myth-kitty. But then you look at the oeuvre of the poets like Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot who have lots of allusions, so it can’t be that fatal. I guess the poem has to work regardless of whether or not the reader knows that stuff. It’s a risk.’
But of course it is Ford’s job as a professor to know these things – when I ask how he thinks the job has affected his poetry, he tells me that the title poem of his latest collection ‘Six Children’ was directly inspired by a course essay he was marking, which quoted Walt Whiman’s curious claim: ‘Though unmarried I have had six children’.
However he is doubtful that his job as a professor has helped his poetry in the long run. ‘I mean, I don’t know, it’s probably been disastrous. Maybe if I’d been like Rimbaud and gone and trekked around Europe and then gone to Africa or something it would have been better,’ he muses morosely.
He does not believe that teaching literature has any ‘actual bearing on the business of writing poetry.’ To him, it is ‘slightly depressing’ that ‘every poet bar one or two teaches in a university.’ A consolation is that he does not ‘teach creative writing, which seems worse.’ However he is quick to moderate this opinion: ‘But maybe that works. Maybe I’d be a lot better if I taught creative writing and then I’d be thinking about enjambment and – I don’t know – terza rima all the time, rather than thinking about Keats and Dickens.’
Despite what he says, he spends most of his time teaching 20th century poetry at UCL and, unlike the works of someone like Heaney, it is hard to detect in his poems any obvious influence from earlier poets.When I ask him about this, he responds again with a quotation from Mick Imlah who said ‘to claim Shakespeare as an influence is redundant or facetious.’ To claim influence from Donne or Keats, he feels, is similarly pointless, partly because ‘you absorb them when you’re so young’, but also, more revealingly, because he feels ‘one doesn’t measure up to them in any way. Obviously they’re the benchmark which secretly, deep down…every poet has the ambition of writing poems as great as ‘To Autumn’ and you try to do it in your own way and your own idiom because that seems to be the only thing worth doing.’ He seems to immediately regret this rare slip of his laconic mask. ‘I shouldn’t have said that’, he laughs self-consciously.
He can claim influence from shampoo adverts however. The poem ‘Rinse and Repeat’ consists of lines of facts about the Zabbaleens (a tribe in Cairo who act as rubbish collectors) alternating with lines from a well known shampoo bottle. These two seemingly disparate strands come together rather ingeniously at the end.
‘Actually that was another example of a concept poem,’ he says, and tells me of its inspiration, namely a Radio 4 program about a couple who won a trip to go anywhere in the world and chose to go to Cairo to meet the Zabbaleens. His partner Kate had heard it first ‘and said she’d like to write a poem about it.’ He pauses. ‘And so…I said I would.’ We laugh and he carries on apologetically, ‘Well she doesn’t write poems. I worried that the facts weren’t right but I got them off the radio so I hope they are.’
I name the shampoo brand that he had lifted the adverts from and he asks me with a frown how I know which one it was, as if it were some mysterious knowledge on my part. I tell him honestly that I used to use that shampoo. He becomes worried. ‘I’m not sure if we should engage in this. She [his partner Kate] was worried about copyright issues.’ Perhaps he is right but I cannot help laughing. ‘You’re not a rival shampoo company so it’s probably okay.’ I say. He seems unconvinced.
The poem ‘seems specifically political and it doesn’t really sound like me. But then,’ he concedes with laudable candour, ‘it isn’t me. Most of it.’
Some of his latest poems show a conscious departure from sounding like himself in that they are translations, poetic ‘versions’ of classic works. ‘The Death of Petronius’ for example, is from a section in Tacitus’ Annals and consequently the style is far plainer and more prosaic. Ford is excited about writing these versions; he has ordered some works by Pliny the Elder in the hope of giving the same treatment to Pliny as he did to Tacitus. (‘It won’t happen now I’ve talked about it’, he says superstitiously and I wonder whether I ought to apologise.)
‘I’ve never thought of doing it before’, he says, ‘It’s beyond name-dropping. In term of the trajectory of my career, I started out pure and pristine with no allusions. And after that the allusions increase and in the end you give up, you don’t even bother with allusion. You just take other people’s works altogether.’
‘Well,’ I laugh, ‘Mature poets steal.’
‘Yeah. If they work on their own terms…’ he shrugs, serious once more.
Ford’s ‘versions’ also often show evidence of his attraction to ‘bizarre belief systems’. The first section of the poem ‘White Nights’ (from nuits blanches, the French phrase for sleepless nights) is a collage of some of the weirdest bits from the many weird “facts” in Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, including the notion that if a man’s spittle falls on a snake it will bite itself to death and that the musk of a beaver will cause a menstruating woman to faint. Such beliefs attracted him because they are ‘quite offbeat’ and ‘not scientifically accurate….I…guess. They’re things you might think about during a white night.’
I ask him if it is possible for him to talk me through how he came up with such memorable but not ostentatiously poetic phrases such as ‘off I samba’ (from ‘Christmas’ in Landlocked) and ‘Barman, these tumblers empty themselves’ (from ‘Twenty Twenty Vision’ in Soft Sift).
‘Well that’s a nice question to be asked!’ he remarks. ‘The “off I samba” phrase – when I wrote that I was on a kind of Frank O’Hara kick. I think there’s an early poem by his in which he says ‘I sashay’ and another in which he talks about doing a “rumba” so maybe I was combining the two and got “samba”.’
‘It is a word isn’t it?’ he asks, suddenly looking rather worried.
Yes, yes I assure him, it is a word.
He regains his composure and carries on, citing the title of a book by Helen Vendler The Given and The Made: ‘Some phrases you get given, you know they just come into your head; from your subconscious or you overhear them or they’re said by someone. They just have a sort of electricity, a charge for you. You can’t say why some phrases do have this charge and others don’t.’
When he finds he cannot remember how he came up with the phrase ‘Barman, these tumblers empty themselves’ beyond saying that the poem is ‘about an alcoholic’, it appears to conjure up a familiar ghost.
‘I may have borrowed it from somewhere. That is the slightly awful thing about poetry generally. Sometimes you come up with what seems like a good phrase or you’re delighted with something and then it turns out to be a kind of unconscious borrowing from something way back. I’m forever googling phrases to see if they’ve been used before. You mentioned ‘White Nights’. I googled ‘White Nights’ to see whether that title had ever been used before. All I got was…was……’
‘Dostoyevsky?’ I hazard. Sadly this was the wrong thing to say.
‘Is there a poem – no not a poem – a short story?’
‘Yes a short story.’
‘Called White Nights? What’s it called in Russian?’
‘Is it referring to when the nights go all white in the north?’
‘Perhaps but I think it’s referring to sleepless nights as well because it’s about a man who goes for walks at night and meets a woman and falls in love with her.’
‘See now all I’m thinking of is does that somehow disqualify me from using the words. But then again probably not. Being in the lit-crit business, someone might think “oh is that an allusion to Dostoyevsky” when in fact…there’s only so many words.’
He recalls an interview with someone from Poland who had a whole theory that a poem of his called ‘Jack Rabbit’ was alluding to a Wallace Stevens poem of the same name. ‘When actually,’ he says, ‘I had completely forgotten there was a Stevens poem called that. On one level you could call it inter-textuality but on the other you could think…there’s only so many words and so many combinations. It amazes me that there’s life in the old dog yet in terms of poetry, the amount that has been written already that is so good.’
When Mark Ford’s latest combinations of words is published later this year, it should, I believe, prove to be a remarkably effective anti-ageing cream for the old dog, even if he does not anticipate ever becoming a “popular” poet.
As I am about to leave, I say, ‘Oh I forgot to ask…you know John Sutherland tipped you to be the next poet laureate in The Guardian…’
He groans and looks visibly pained. ‘Oh I’m glad you didn’t ask me that!’ he exclaims. ‘I suppose he was being sweet.’ (John Sutherland is a UCL Professor Emeritus so they are acquainted with one another.) ‘But it does make me wonder,’ he continues, ‘whether everything the papers write is that casual. He must have been up late at night or something and when someone phoned him suddenly, said my name because he couldn’t think of anyone else at that precise moment.’
‘But say you were asked?’ I insist.
‘Say Fabio Capello asked me to be the next striker for England! They’re just as likely as each other!’
Incidentally, a quick search on Wikipedia reveals another ‘Mark Ford’ who is a professional footballer. Ford as next poet laureate is certainly unlikely. Quite apart from anything, he does not yet have a large enough oeuvre. But perhaps in another ten years, in 2019, he may find himself fielding a phone call from the Department for Culture. After all, as he himself quoted earlier,‘The whirligig of time brings in strange revenges.’