This interview took place at Mark Ford’s office at UCL, where he is a Professor in the English department. Impressively alphabetised bookshelves flanked us and offered a couple of opportunities for Mark to cross-reference quotations during our conversation. Mark was gearing up for the start of a new term, and his first of several personal tutees was due later that afternoon. Suitably for a book which features ‘catastrophes / waiting so impatiently / to engulf us’ my walk from Warren Street to Gower Street took me past three separate fire drills and several wailing sirens, adding a sense that I was walking around one of Mark’s new poems before we sat down to discuss them.
My first acquaintance with Mark came when I was one of his tutees myself, during my third year as an undergraduate at UCL in the early 2000s. Mercifully, I hadn’t had to write an essay to visit his office this time, but rather came to discuss Mark’s fourth book of poems, Enter, Fleeing, published earlier in 2018. My memories of Mark’s teaching are founded on our old tutorials, in which he tried to salvage some sense from my callow witterings and from a course on American Poetry he taught and – I believe – still teaches, which once opened my eyes to poets such as Hart Crane, Weldon Kees and Robert Frost. Aside from publishing his own poems, Mark is an essayist, reviewer and biographer, writing regularly for the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, as well as having published several critical works, on figures including Raymond Roussel and Thomas Hardy.
With approximately a decade between each of Mark’s collections to date – leaving aside a US Selected poems, published by Coffee House Press in 2014 – it’s been possible to witness a development and refinement of his style from a freewheeling, somewhat New York School-indebted debut Landlocked to this latest book. Much was made early in his career, especially around his second book – Soft Sift – of a John Ashbery influence, something we would touch on in our interview. Mark and Ashbery became close friends, reading and working together on several occasions, and the critic Helen Vendler was one of several who figured Mark as something of an heir to Ashbery. While Mark undoubtedly learned from Ashbery’s work it has by now been thoroughly absorbed to the point of near-invisibility to a reader. Mark has written on British poets such as Philip Larkin, Thomas Hardy and A.E. Housman and there can also be detected in his writing influences from poets such as Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman – in short, Mark’s is a somewhat magpiesh style, allusive and literary but somehow, for all its syntheses and noises off, singular and – even as it ranges and pushes itself into new forms and patterns – recognisably, delightfully, his own.
Enter, Fleeing seems like a more urgent and anxious book than its predecessor, Six Children, but no less diverse in its forms, addresses or range of material. It has a newfound personal, or at least elliptically personal, thread running through it, especially in a series of short poems about the many places Mark’s global childhood saw his family living, taking in Lagos, Chicago, Nairobi and Colombo, among others. The poem under discussion, Trial and Error, is the final poem in the book and feels like both its highpoint and crescendo, synthesising many of the concerns and ideas which have run through the book into moving, allusive and globetrotting monologues and addresses which, as we discussed, lean on everything from Japanese hokku to late Robert Lowell. So we enter, seated…
I thought we might start off with the John Donne quote that you have as an epigraph: ‘I am not all Heere’. I discovered it came from a sermon that he gave; it seems to speak in an interesting way to the poem as a whole, so perhaps I could ask first what drew you to it.
As I recall, I came across this phrase in a book on T.S. Eliot, and while it was no doubt being deployed by Donne in order to express some religious dilemma or anxiety, it struck me as summing up what is also encoded in my book’s overall title, Enter, Fleeing – which, incidentally, is borrowed from Walter Benjamin. I frequently myself have the experience of feeling present and not-present at the same time, as I imagine many people do, of being ‘on the run’ from one set of circumstances but never quite arriving or feeling able to say ‘I am all Heere’! Do writers feel like this more than other people? Perhaps … One receives a number of complaints. There’s a delightful poem called ‘Sushi’ by Paul Muldoon set in a sushi bar; he’s there with his girlfriend, and she is bitterly complaining about how he won’t talk to her, but rather than respond to her complaints he meticulously observes and describes the skills of the sushi Master chef. It sums up quite well how annoying it can be to live with a writer.
On the subject of eateries, the first section of ‘Trial and Error’ is set in a café in the 1980s – in many ways it’s something of a retro poem. It narrates in an oblique way a trajectory that I went through in the 1980s – that is I went from being someone living in London to someone living in Japan (in Kyoto, to be precise); the last section is made of hokku or haiku poems, which are 17 syllables each. I moved to Japan in 1991, and stayed there until 1993, and what I was trying to do in this first section was to recover what it felt like living in London in my twenties. I wanted to capture an exciting but also threatening sense of different kinds of possibility looming or lurking – and a latent anxiety that possibly none of my projects or ideas would come to anything. Living divided in this way can make you feel very much not ‘all Heere’ – endless amounts of entering and fleeing.
A sense of not being fully formed…
Of not being fully formed, or at least of still having to deal with issues inherited from childhood and adolescence. When I look at my books they all seem to be retro in a sense: Landlocked, for instance, which came out when I was thirty, is very much to do with adolescence and paralysis; and the three books I’ve published since all, to a somewhat alarming extent, given that I’m in my mid-fifties now, show me dealing with the legacies of experiences that made me feel not ‘all Heere’ … Actually, using epigraphs, as in ‘Trial and Error’ for individual poems is a new departure for me, and indeed the kind of thing I would have sneered at in my twenties, the most shameless way of dipping one’s hand into what Philip Larkin called the ‘myth kitty’. I’ve got over that now, as indeed I feel I’ve got over many of the self-imposed taboos that inhibited, or perhaps that should be shaped, my early work – I had a ban, for instance, on using autobiographical experience as material for poems. Anyway, in Enter, Fleeing I’ve got epigraphs from Karl Marx, Jules Laforgue, this one from Donne … also epigraphs before each of the book’s two parts, the first by Walter Benjamin, which includes the ‘enter, fleeing’ phrase (a stage direction that never, incidentally, appears in Shakespeare), and the second from Wuthering Heights. In this Enter, Fleeing mirrors its two predecessors, Soft Sift and Six Children: these three books all contain two parts of fifteen poems each – with Part One introduced by an epigraph by a man and Part Two by an epigraph by a woman.
Is that an Oulipo hangover?
Maybe – in fact the epigraph to Part One of Soft Sift comes from Georges Perec’s La Vie: Mode d’Emploi. But it also answers to an inner urge for tidiness, and wanting to be even-handed.
This poem, ‘Trial and Error’, shifts its various perspectives, maybe in a trial-and-error sort of way, so the voices feel like distinctly different characters: there’s an I, a you, there’s the direct address to an Agony Aunt character…
I was never ‘in my youth’, to quote Father William, able to write long poems, but I have, in recent years, managed to get them a bit longer by making use of the idea of the ‘sequence’, which is a great way of getting one’s stitchings of things to cohere, or at least to give the appearance of cohering. One has good precedents for this – Eliot’s manuscripts, for instance, reveal the fascinating extent to which his poems were made up of fragments gathered together over long periods. I don’t work like that, since I proceed from beginning to end and scraps or fragments don’t hang around waiting to find their place, as they did for Eliot. There is, as you note, a composite nature to the textures and voices of the poem, which is, I suppose, the other side of the ‘I am not all Heere’ coin; in other words, what is here is not all ‘I’, since some of the I’s phrases are stolen from other people. The third line, for instance, is a borrowing that I felt to be rather cheeky, hopefully in an endearing way – it comes from Robert Lowell’s elegy for John Berryman in Day By Day, in which he refers to how he and Berryman thought of themselves as ‘Les Maudits – the compliment / each American generation / pays itself in passing’. My ‘joke’ was that, for as long as I can remember, there’s been an ongoing ‘crisis in masculinity’, but actually when people use this phrase it’s a way of feeling self-congratulatory… or perhaps I’m overthinking all this! Probably I was just remembering what someone I was briefly involved with in this period said to me on a date, and to which I didn’t know how to respond, which is why it stuck in my mind – ‘I’m interested in the crisis in masculinity’. It somehow seemed to sum up the 1980s.
I wondered if we could talk a little about masculinity in your poems, especially here where you’re rather more autobiographical than in previous collections. A lot of your touchstones, poets like O’Hara, Ashbery, Hart Crane, have many things in common, one of them being queerness. I wondered if that had any impact on how you’ve thought of the male figures in your poems, or in poems more generally?
For whatever reasons, when I was in my early twenties, I was particularly excited by poets who were gay, and I’ve written quite a lot about Whitman, Ginsberg, Ashbery, O’Hara, Crane, Bishop etc. Isn’t there an element in every man – even Philip Larkin used to wear pink socks – which isn’t heteronormative? For me it probably connects to a sense of imaginative possibility, a longing to escape the expected or given. Actually this particular character in the first section is more worried about generation than masculinity – he’s more like the narrator of Larkin’s ‘Dockery and Son’. In your twenties, and in my case my thirties too, you do wonder if you’ll ever have children and what’s involved in it; that sense of rootlessness and not being all there can be a sense of freedom but also of not belonging. Eliot’s Prufrock is probably also subliminally in the background in this first section; like Prufrock the narrator is depicted going about his quotidian urban business, in his case getting a macchiato, but then starts working in religious imagery, or at least indulging in vague gestures towards the metaphysical, as in the phrase ‘the grinding / of beans he heard as souls / departing’. I wouldn’t mind glossing this person as a descendant of Prufrock.
He has some daydream moments, too, not so much mermaids as these pink-faced, baby figures…
Yes, and like many of Prufrock’s descendants, this protagonist is erotically unsure of himself. I’ve always been fascinated by alternative cultures, holistic therapies, people who try acupuncture or Chinese medicine (in fact I tried both myself in the 1980s, though I can’t remember now exactly what I was trying to cure)… Like this narrator, I am drawn to people who carry around purple yoga mats. At one point I thought about trying to write about 1960s cults and the ways in which they created their own internal worlds, their own criteria that were different from those of the larger world. This poem reveals quite a bit of that fascination with alternative therapies that try to make us feel authentic, alive, present, ‘Heere’, and which are, of course, undertaken in the spirit of trial and error.
There are a number of ways this section suggests the interface between the spiritual and quite ordinary kinds of experience, but these also seem to me to point to bigger, more metaphysical concerns, a sense of looking towards something external for answers. Is that connected with the idea of not being all ‘Heere’.
Yes, especially if you think of this turn towards ‘metaphysical concerns’ as a way of dealing with one’s inherent limitations – of trying to make the best of the hand one’s been dealt. The end of the first section strikes me, alas, as quite true, ‘Why / is it the healthy in body and mind / discover each other’ – in other words there is a kind of hierarchy of attraction; rich and/or good-looking people get together and propagate themselves, and perpetuate their good looks and wealth. There is a brute reality to the means by which those of the same class and education and financial potential find each other. I was also thinking, towards the end of this section, of how the unhealthy and unhappy perpetuate their own unhealthiness and unhappiness, through a kind of self-victimisation: ‘dollops / of unfairness are gathered, braided and put / to use’. That might be glossed as repressed anger or rage, and I think connects with an earlier poem in the book, ‘Stigmata’, which is the one that has an epigraph from Laforgue, an epigraph that translates as – ‘oh, who wants to flay me’.
There’s something of Robert Lowell’s ‘Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small’ to the end of this first section – a self-diagnosis of brokenness.
I suppose there is – and the question then arises of why I get poetically excited by this particular quandary or dilemma or experience. To an extent – do you not agree? – one’s poetic mechanism is like an electrical appliance, and you have to find out what you can plug it into that will give it electricity. The search is for experiences, or ideas, or sets of words, or images that stimulate strong enough feelings to get the appliance going – or ‘humming’ as Frank O’Hara would put it.
How does it work for you generally? Do you start from images?
If the first line is OK, or if there is at least something in it that allows me to ‘believe’ in the poem, then, well, I’m in a kind of ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’ situation.
You write in a linear way, not like Bishop hanging words in air?
I write in a linear way in notebooks. My modus operandi is this: I scribble away and cross out and redo etc, and when eventually I’ve got about four or five lines that seem OK, I print them out, then cut them out with scissors, and stick them in the book – so each bit of printed out poem looks kind of like an oasis at the end of a desert of scrawls and crossings out. In other words I make it all a bit like a Blue Peter-style project.
I think I remember you saying most of the poems in Landlocked were written in about half an hour?
That may have been an illusion… I was going through some old papers recently and found lots of different versions of those poems, as well as lots of drafts of poems I’d completely forgotten about. But back then, once I got going, I felt able to finish a poem in a fairly fast and unerring way. Whereas now the whole process is often agonizingly Flaubertian, and that mot juste gets harder and harder to find.
Larkin once compared the business of writing a poem to laying an egg…
Yes, and he also says, which is certainly true for me, that you feel great afterwards. In terms of my tics and habits, which in fact I think it’s not good to be too conscious about, I notice that to make the line work I often do things like split words – as in ‘dooms- / day scenario’. I tend to agonise ridiculously over where the line-break should come, which seems of absolutely crucial significance at the time. Later on, when the poem is done, you wonder what all the fuss was about.
I wanted to ask about the shape of the ‘Agony Aunt’ section, there’s something of Herbert to that…
I suppose a lot of lyric poems are to some extent Agony Aunt letters, though in the case of Herbert his Agony Aunt was obviously God. The one in my sequence I was most pleased with is the one that starts ‘Dear Agony / Aunt, we keep finding / “Dear Agony / Aunt” notes all / over the house…’ I suppose Agony Aunt letters are also forms of trial and error, trial in both senses of the word: you’re going through a trial as well as trying things out and going wrong. I thought of it as a title for the book but it didn’t work – isn’t it funny how some titles work for poems but not for books as a whole? Anyway, poems that assume distinct shapes on the page, like this section of ‘Trial and Error’, are welcome because they create a sense of variety, and jazz things up a bit. These are six little vignettes of anxiety. Again, a lot of lyric poems are ways of transmuting anxiety into something that is witty or playful or patterned and musically or rhetorically effective. Writing a section like this one, in which the lines are so short, you can’t go too far wrong as long as you keep it ticking along. I was also rather pleased with my repetition of a phrase but with a different line break: ‘I can’t / tell them apart’ which becomes ‘I can’t tell / them apart’; it’s a pretty basic trick, but seems to me to recreate quite effectively a schism in a divided brain, as well as miming a sense of helplessness.
Enter, Fleeing seems to be a slightly more worried book than your others, from the mention of doomsday scenarios to other catastrophes. A feeling of crisis is always imminent.
Indeed – and a crisis in humanity – not just masculinity! Every day we’re negotiating, through a process of trial and error, things that range in terms of their critical severity from being late for work to feeling complete despair and outrage because Jacob Rees-Mogg is on the radio – and then there are the more life-changing kinds of breakup or disappointment. Poetry is an attempt to make experience matter, and even if it transforms that experience entirely, as a poem by, say, W.B. Yeats sets out to do, it still has its origins in the ‘foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’. And if it works, however much the transmuted experience is ‘changed utterly’ from the original, the whole process is uplifting because it’s an attempt to dignify and give shape to the chaotic, sprawling, inchoate nature of living. And experiences that seemed merely painful or upsetting or depressing suddenly turn out to be valuable as possible material for poetry, turn out to be potentially useful. For instance, the third section of this poem goes back to the 1980s, and to a holiday in Portugal with my first wife Xanthe (to whom Landlocked is dedicated); we stayed in small cheap hotel, the Pensão Liberdade in a place called Fusetta, on the Algarve. We didn’t, at the time, know that we were coming towards the end of our marriage, so the ‘catastrophes / waiting so impatiently / to engulf us’ were those that brought an end to our marriage in 1990.
This section, like a number of my other poems, dramatizes a to and fro between partners who are warring with each other, but using, as is my wont, terms that are often bathetic or comic, or referring to incidents that are a kind of parody of the theatrical and heroic behaviour that someone like Yeats enjoyed celebrating – in this case it’s a question of cutting one’s hair with sewing scissors or a potato-peeler. And you can’t really argue with someone who says that their chakras are fizzing – not that anyone has ever said that to me! In the larger terms of my diagnosis of how relationships work, I think this poem tries to capture a slightly Lawrentian notion of the dynamic as a power struggle of some kind, although in a comic way. This comes over in the protagonist’s eagerness to ‘strip / away the essential / me’ – or anyway, that’s what he’s accused of trying to do. And in the last line, there’s a buried allusion to a song that was very popular in the 1990s by The Stone Roses – ‘she’ll carry on through it all, she’s a waterfall’. It’s a wonderful song… I added ‘or waste- / pipe’ between ‘water’ and ‘fall’, which again somewhat undermines the heroic or epic nature of the simile. What if The Waste Land had been called The Waste-Pipe Land?
How about the last section of the poem?
The first and last parts of the final section are adaptations of Basho hokku: ‘an octopus pot / inside, a short-lived dream / under the summer moon’; and then his death-bed hokku: ‘on a journey, ailing / my dreams roam about / on a withered moor’. The hokku is a great way of combining everyday images with cosmic themes. I did rather brood in my wicker pot, while I was living in my traditional Japanese house in Kyoto. The middle section has no Japanese source, or at least not a literary one. I lived in Tojiin, in the North West of the city, quite near a Zen monastery, and I remember seeing an apprentice monk sitting cross-legged and periodically getting whacked on the shoulders with a bamboo rod – unless I dreamed this. Anyway, it seemed to me to capture the streak of self-punishment that runs through this poem, which, as I re-read it, strikes me more and more as itself a kind of self-flagellation.
Earlier in the poem the narrator is ‘wading through bodies’ but now he is wandering ‘through withered fields’.
Both, I suppose, are versions of entering, fleeing… my hope is that the comic elements in the poem licence these moments which seem to want to articulate something a little more serious.
I wanted to talk a bit about politics in the poems; there’s the mention of US gun law in the ‘Agony Aunt’ section, and there’s a global aspect to the book as a whole. Was there a protest element to some of these poems, or did they develop out of more personal anxieties?
As I mentioned earlier, in my twenties I felt it was infra dig to be political or confessional, which for some reason has made me think of that Bob Dylan lyric – ‘Ah but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’ These days I allow myself to do all the things that other poets of my generation have been doing all along – but I feel, perhaps mistakenly, I am doing them having somehow come through ‘from the other side’, and that makes some kind of difference. Does that make any sense? Perhaps an illuminating analogy might be late de Chirico – although, alas, no one really likes late de Chirico. He became a sort of classical painter, having been a surrealist or metaphysical one. The surrealist or metaphysical aspects are still there, but suppressed or subdued.
I like the way certain poems in the book play around with the concept of the first-person pronoun, the ‘I’, like the poem about Thoreau’s Walden, or the one about Allen Ginsberg, in which he shows you photos of himself in bed with a young lad.
Both those are in fact true – Thoreau’s printer did keep running out of capital Is, and I can remember those photos of shaggy old Allen in bed with a blond lad clearly – they were stacked in a blue box that he was toting around with him. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the first person to be shown them. My Prufrockian narrators are often drawn to egomaniacs; they are fascinated by how egomaniacs don’t seem crippled by anxiety or inhibitions, and seem to enjoy an unshakeable belief in their rights and entitlements, in their election. They don’t enter fleeing, they enter and command the stage.
You had a pretty rootless upbringing, living in lots of different countries while you were growing up, and attending five different schools between the ages of five and eight – do you think that rootlessness has had an effect on your poems?
Probably … I had a pretty stable family but I could never say where we were from. We moved to a new country roughly every 18 months so I never got to put down roots.
When did you finally settle in the UK?
I came back from Japan in 1993, when I was 31. I’d lived in London from 1986-1991, but the breakup of my first marriage reconnected me with that sense of rootlessness or of not belonging that had become engrained in me from my childhood. Oddly, while I was rootless and not-belonging on a day-to-day basis in Japan, I found it impossible to write poetry – it was only after I settled down in London again that I was able to transmute these experiences into poetry
You have a considerable reputation in the US, where your Selected Poems appeared in 2014. Helen Vendler has published a number of essays on your work, and there are a couple by John Ashbery too, which are included in his Selected Prose.
Yes, well … – by the way, do you detect much Ashbery influence in the poems included in Enter, Fleeing? Or maybe best if you don’t answer that! I can’t see it myself – and I don’t think it’s discernible in its predecessor, Six Children, either. There’s a rather interesting book, incidentally, on John Ashbery and English poetry by Oli Hazzard, which has just been published by Oxford University Press; it has chapters on JA and W.H. Auden, F.T. Prince, Lee Harwood and yours truly. Oli is an extraordinarily gifted close reader, and I can’t always follow his interpretations in all their intricacies, but as I understand it he demonstrated fairly convincingly, as far as influence goes, that it was pretty much a two-way street. And of course, while John wrote a very great deal, and extremely fluently, my ’umble oeuvre consists of four pretty slim volumes. But I like to think my work has changed in interesting ways over the years, and that these four books are all fairly different from each other. Enter, Fleeing is the one I like best, at the moment, but of course it too will recede into the past – ‘Tempus fugit / every sundial proclaims…’ That’s how the book opens, and ‘Trial and Error’ concludes it.
I am not all Heere – John Donne
Tired of the eighties, and the on-
going crisis in masculinity – the compliment
each generation pays itself – he stared
a hole in his macchiato,
fished with his spoon
beneath the froth. The hiss
and gurgle of steam heating milk, the grinding
of beans he heard as souls
departing; his own
strained for glimpses of moon-
faced babies, pink-jowled noble savages without
– ha-ha – even
a shoe size, unable to feed
or to clean themselves, to interrupt
their gulping and wailing. ‘I find
your beauty unsettling . . .’ – had
he really said that to the girl carrying
a purple yoga mat? Why
is it the healthy in body and mind
discover each other? – likewise
the maimed? More
or less at random, dollops
of unfairness are gathered, braided and put
to use, until a dooms-
day scenario emerges, and the lungs
heave like broken bellows, erratic, desperate,
constrained . . .
Aunt, I am wading
through bodies, searching
for mine, convinced
be here, surrounded
by flowers, not a hair
out of place.
Aunt, the righteous
and the self-righteous
through my brain and I can’t
tell them apart
I can’t tell
Aunt, there are three
hundred million guns
in America, so isn’t
it important that we wear
and securely fitted
body armour at all times?
Aunt, when the agony
abates, how should I
spend my time now
that I no longer
fish, and, in your
opinion, when do you think
it will start again?
Aunt, we keep finding
Aunt’ notes all
over the house,
in our closets and laundry, beneath
our pillows, in bright
lipstick on mirrors.
Aunt, please excuse
my engrossing so much
of your attention – although since
you barely ever reply why
on earth should I worry? – but I
have a problem
that won’t go away.
In dreamy Pensão
Liberdade your eczema
and night terrors subsided, but in dingy
Pensão Castelo they flared
up again. How aware, I wondered
aloud, of each other are the catastrophes
waiting so impatiently
to engulf us? There is, with a flick
of bangles and ponytail
you replied, a corner of hell where the flippant
writhe and attack themselves, consumed by wolf-
fanged remorse; we both
know that ignorance
can be no
less structured than knowledge. I may
be guessing here, but was it
my sewing scissors or the gadget for peeling
potatoes that you used
to trim your thinning hair? Heart, take
five – my chakras
are fizzing, each
one warning of your fearful eagerness to strip
away the essential
me; how do you, we keep
puzzling, how can
you carry on through it all, like a water- or a waste-
the octopus broods
within its brown
Thwack! – a cross-legged monk
welcomes the fall
on bare shoulders.
The din of crickets; I bought
through withered fields.
From Enter, Fleeing (Faber & Faber, 2018). Reproduced with permission.