The emails I exchanged with Mark Ford had the paw prints of a poet: frequent ellipses and the sparing sign-off ‘M’, like our interview, only leaves one wanting more.
In conversation, his answers were vibrant, and full-bodied. They took us everywhere from a backpacker’s unwitting exchange of Reeboks for ‘tatty Adidas’, to Twitter’s role in the election of Oxford’s Professor of Poetry, to Bob Dylan.
As podcaster alongside Oxford don, Seamus Perry for the London Review of Books, Ford is a master of both spoken and written criticism. I was interested in his relationship with the two entwined yet vastly different worlds of premeditated essays and riffing conversations.
So, I asked what label he would give himself – podcaster or poet, academic or author? “They’re all connected in various ways. I don’t really consider myself any one thing foremost except when I’m doing that thing.” At any given moment he might be “writing my book on Thomas Hardy so I feel I’m a Hardy critic” – the app I recorded our conversation on had transcribed that to be “hearty critic”, which would arguably be another fitting label – at another point when “I’m tinkering with a poem, I feel like I’m a poet.”
With such freedom, Ford exists multiform in the ether, that place where podcasts will float forever more. For this reason, writing down his ideas will reign supreme over recording them through the foam of a microphone. Ford related: “writing is my raison d’être. No, I wasn’t put on Earth to write but writing is the thing I find most gratifying. And there’s a sense that something that gets published does exist. And in a library, potentially forever.” Even if the rolling waves of a riffed conversation is fun – especially with someone you’ve been through seminars with as Ford did with Perry – “podcasts will disappear into the ether in however many years time.”
As for the writer, inspiration exists in their mind in the abundance of metaverse podcasts. “[Written literary] criticism you can get going on almost any time. Poetry’s a bit more difficult to access. The process of waiting and getting going on a poem is in the lap of the gods.” Poetry, Ford told me, has its own ether: “it all comes from a dreamy, less professional state of mind.” As such, there is an unparalleled “kick” from the so-decided end of a poem against the soft press of the stop-recording button.
And, of course, there ain’t no Keats nor Tennyson to rival in the podcasting world. I sense from Ford relief that “you’re always conscious, as a poet, that it’s not as good as ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ or ‘Ulysses’.” But, as he assures me, it doesn’t matter when you’re writing poetry for poetry’s sake.
If poetry is written for the sake of its words, where does the poet and their biography fit into all of that? To this, Mark Ford spectacularly scrutinises, in awesome succession, the ideas of Paul Muldoon, I.A. Richards, and D.H. Lawrence who all willingly stand for the separation of art from artist. Though, as Lawrence posits, we may not be able to trust the teller, Ford believes in “creating and communicating with a more general audience” which has an enthusiasm for a “contextualised poetic narrative” as opposed to focusing on the “internal patterning” of granular poetic technique.
Where it all gets a bit psychedelic, then, is when the poet deliberately merges the real and unreal. And Mark Ford has palpable fun with this. “I suppose that most people who enjoy poetry see little point in calling it real or unreal. And they are surely right,” writes John Bayley in the 1962 lecture that Ford referred to as the reason he reads Keats the way he does now. For Ford, sometimes it can be “criticism which is the most powerful”. It can be conflicting perceptions of reality – a critic’s interpretation will never be the same as the poet’s own – which make “experiencing life and literature invigorating, original and fresh.”
But nothing would be as powerful, it seems, as the dubious tea leaves that appeared at the bottom of a bottle of wine shared with strangers on a train from Barcelona to Madrid. This, as I was informed, is behind his poem ‘Unreal’.
“Your poem, ‘Unreal’,” I asked incredulously, “was it in fact unreal?”
And, unlike the poems which come to him in his dreams, he said, “No, that one is completely true.”
On this train, “I was 21. I was in a carriage with two guys who were very friendly and gave me some wine to drink. [A few beats…] When I woke up, I was in Madrid and the train had been stopped for a couple of hours. And the weird thing was [though this already seems a bit strange], these people took my new Reeboks and left me with a pair of quite tatty Adidas shoes. So I was padding around Madrid for the next four days trying to get my passport and some money.”
Much of ‘Unreal’ does take place in Ford’s dream state – just when the tea leaves hit. It is “a catalogue of cities whose name derives from Adidas shoes and I was slightly parodying T.S. Eliot’s use of cities in The Waste Land,” an equally unreal poem. Yet, attaching it to a poet-past makes the poem more real even if that is to recount a state of unreality. You see, you get intriguingly “topsy turvy”, a phrase which Ford made multiple use of throughout the interview.
Just as Ford attended Bayley’s seminars with future co-host, Seamus Perry, these metaphysics must have rung prophetically real. Unreality paves the way to Ford’s current reality.
Last year, Ford was in the running for Oxford’s Professor of Poetry. It’s apparently a piece of cake: “you just write a brief blurb and then you contact your friends and ask them to vote for you.” Ford modestly forgets to mention that you must have a substantial inventory of Auden (Professor of Poetry 1956)-tier poetry to be nominated. And a relatively small number of enemies to be elected. Ford told me “there were about 300 votes cast for Auden. Now, I think about 900 people vote. But there must have been 100,000 more who might have voted.” I think he leans towards suggesting the position has become about who you know, rather than what.
Ford said: “It was a lark and it was good for me really. I plotted out the lectures I would have written. I listened to Alice Oswald’s lectures which came from a rigorously, mystically almost, poetic kind of perspective. But I’m an academic, I give lectures on academic subjects and that’s what I feel comfortable talking about.” So all in all, “it would have been fun.”
In the sphere of unreality, I wondered if the incumbent Professor of Poetry, A.E. Stallings’ Twitter activity could have had anything to do with her recent success. Ford, who is not active on social media, proposed that “social media alters much of what gets picked up and becomes current. But, I’m a bit fuddy-duddy that way and I suppose I feel I don’t quite have time for it. But that could be a foolish thing to say because there’s no point in writing lots of things if no one hears about them.” If social media were the only way to get readership, Ford would get involved. For now, it’s not. For now, you can toy with the belief and disbelief, reality and unreality of Mark Ford’s work in libraries and with ‘tatty’ copies passed thoughtfully between friends.
Mark Ford and Seamus Perry are releasing a new series of podcasts with the London Review of Books on the politics of and political literature later this year.
With enormous thanks to Mark Ford for giving his time for this interview.