Interview with an American Poet
by Tobe Damit
Gerard Malanga has been one of the most innovative, inspired, active and versatile artists who’s career spans over almost 6 decades. He is an actor, filmmaker, photographer, poet and he also choreographed the music of the Velvet Underground for Warhol’s multimedia presentation The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. He was involved in all phases of Warhol’s creative output in silkscreen painting and filmmaking and was without a doubt his most important associate. His input was essential to almost everything that was done during the Factory Years era and beyond. Malanga was one of the founding editors, along with Warhol and John Wilcock, of Interview magazine. In December 1970, Malanga left Warhol’s studio to pursue his work in photography. Malanga’s photography encompasses portraits, nudes and the urban documentation of “New York’s Changing Scene.” This phrase was adapted from Margot Gayle, an architectural historian and advocate, whose Sunday News column of the same name had a direct bearing on the development of his photographic eye. During the course of his years working with Warhol and after, Malanga shot and produced twelve films of his own. His personal archive contains stills and motion-picture records of life at The Factory. His poems are wonderful portraits of many great talents to which he bows in reverence of those he knew and respected throughout his life. He recently published ”Whisper Sweet Nothings & Other Poems” and is nearing the final stages in publishing his awaited memoirs under the title ”In Remembrance of Things Past”. So it is with an immense pleasure that Loud Alien Noize presents an exclusive interview with a true artist of so many talents: Gerard Malanga.
TOBE DAMIT: You have lived to the fullest and never lost your footing, nor your wits like Robert Creeley said. I have always wondered how you managed to do so and maybe you can explain what precisely is this”foot” that kept you alive and kicking where so many perished, lots of them at a very young age during the 60’s and the 70’s?
GERARD MALANGA: Many a time I nearly lost my footing, especially in the 70’s, and this had to do with the economics of my situation. I was not gainfully employed and there were many a time where I fell back on the rent. Luckily, I had a very sympathetic landlord which is rare in a city like New York. I wasn’t fortunate to be the recipient of any grants or fellowships and it’s been a long time since I even attempted to throw my hat in the ring. The “footing” was always keeping the faith which got me through some tough times. I had my work to believe in, inspired as I was with what I was creating. Of course, I didn’t know how all this would turn out; but on looking back I realized as I do now, that I always had this sense of keeping a focus on the work at hand, the writing and the photography, and that helps to guide me, in a sense.
TD: Any other guides?
GM: I don’t have guides per se, but I do believe that I have a guardian angel. Whether it’s a he or a she I haven’t figured that out yet. Life is so full of surprises, both negative and positive. There’s a favorite expression which crops up in the Don Juan/Carlos Castaneda books: “Follow your nature to be happy.” My nature, I guess, is to live my life to the fullest.
TD: Do you feel that arts are closely related to spirituality by essence?
GM: This is the kind of question that can be answered in so many different ways based on an artist’s inclination. I can’t get into someone else’s head. I can only speak for myself and from experience. I kinda relate “spirituality” with magic and the first thing that comes to mind is where does my poetry come from? Why do I write poetry? And most importantly, How did I come to be a poet and then a photographer as well? These are all questions dealing with magic. The why and wherefrom. I have perhaps asked myself this question unconsciously in the context of fate. I believe that I was fated to be a poet. Otherwise what would I have done with my life otherwise? I simply can’t imagine my life bereft of poetry and I love taking pictures. I couldn’t do without it. It’s a scary proposition. I never know when I’m gonna write the next poem and yet it emerges when it wants to. Or I see someone I’d like to photograph or it could be just a street scene or a cat or a tree. And that is the magic also. I never give the process any thought. It just happens.
TD: What are your main sources of inspiration?
GM: My main sources of inspiration would be like drilling for oil. You never know what strike you’d make. So the main sources are scattered and unpredictable. Inspiration takes all shapes and sizes and concepts too, in my work. There’s this cafe I go to every morning around 8 because it’s the only place open that early in this bloody town, Cafe Le Perche, and it’s where I have a coffee date with my fickle muse and I’d been giving some serious thought about Arthur Rimbaud lately, what a shit he was, and I figured I’d conceptualize the approach the poem would take, and then it suddenly hit me: I’d open by invoking his name in a loud burst, Arthur! Arthur! shouting his name in this guttural Bostonian accent. What other poet would dare to do this? You mention earlier about Creeley saying I’ve never lost my footing or my wits. Well, I’ve fulfilled this promise many a time. Immediately after the opening exclamation I segue into the pacing of the poem about how I was on this search for Arthur but could not find him, but in the course I find myself. As a kid I was fascinated with these MGM musicals where you’d have these two young lovers in a kind of innocuous dialogue and then suddenly they’d break into this song-and-dance of sheer choreographed delight and in the denouement the scene fades into the next tableau whatever it is. I found this so utterly fascinating. I was too young at the time to know about surrealism, but as a grown-up I’d come to realize that this was pure unadulterated surrealism. What I’m saying really is that I’ve come to understand that I could do anything in a poem to make it work, that I could challenge the presumption that you can’t do this-you can’t do that. Fuck that! But as long as you maintain that confidence and exuberance in your work you can do just about anything to make it work.
TD: You told me about being “archival nuts” with your publisher Bill Roberts, you got me very intrigued there! Can you tell me more about it? Is that a source of inspiration too?
GM: It turns out when I first started working with Bill back in 2015, we discovered that we have much in common with the preservation and presentation of books and manuscripts, ephemera and photographs and the means in which this process could be approached. Last year we produced a portfolio of 4 of my photos of Burroughs, Ginsberg, Orlovsky and Corso, called The Beats Portfolio in a very limited edition of 5 boxes. Just last week I gave Bill an archival 3-ring album binder, because it was lacking a slipcase to go with it, asking him if he could build a slipcase for it. Yes, he can! A slipcase is what the term implies. It’s a case with an open-end in which you can slip in the loose-leaf binder. Bill can build them, and with the right materials, from scratch. So we’re preparing the groundwork for making this happen.
Whenever we drive to the city–Bill loves to drive; he has the spirit of a Neal Cassady–we visit this clearing house called Talas, located in Williamsburg, for archival supplies. It’s the only source of its kind in the city. We’re like kids in a candy store! We stock up on what we need at the time: loose-leaf fold-out album binders, paper inserts, archival boxes for photographs. Those kinds of things. I don’t know if you’d call it a source of inspiration for my work. This applies specifically to my photography; but it gives me the opportunity to keep my photography well-ordered and accessible to me when the need arises. Retrieval and reversal-retrieval is part of the process for keeping things preserved and moving along.
TD: Have you considered pairing some of those finds with a memoir or an autobiography because this would be quite something. I know that you have kept a journal by reading Uptight: The Story of the Velvet Underground. When did you start it and are you still doing it???
GM: Back in 2011, a close friend, David Cudaback, a professional editor, approached me with the idea that if I was to write my autobiography, that he’d be most happy to edit it for me. Wow! That was certainly the incentive to get me going. It’s funny because a year earlier I had just gotten done reading all of Proust. I’d promised myself going back decades that I’d embark on this project, and suddenly several months opened up and I had nothing better to do, so why not. I decided to take the plunge and it took me nearly 6 months to read all 6 volumes. I had this plan that I’d take a break between volumes and read something lighter. Well, once I got started, that idea got chucked out the window. Proust’s book, ”In Search of Lost Time”, was a page-turner. I’d find myself waking up in the middle of the night and reading 2 or 3 pages. So, in a sense, this may have been an unconscious influence on how I got started on my book, which I’ve titled ”In Remembrance of Things Past”, which was the original title of the English translation when it appeared, but was always considered as an incorrect translation. So I’ve adopted it for my own, and in a way I’m paying homage to Proust.
The book took me nearly 5 years to write and I finished it in the spring of 2016. David and I stuck to it with each chapter, 68 in all, until we were thoroughly satisfied as we went along. I’d remarked to him some months back while going through the working files that I had this queer sense of having no recollecton writing any of this, like I was in some hypnotic state when working on it. It was certainly an out-of-body experience. But the fun part for me was keying in all the illustrations, 98% coming from my own private archive.
For years, friends were after me to publish those diaries I kept in the 60s, but they’re not literature for me. Luckily, I was able to cover that time in the book I’ve written now. I’m presently soliciting book publishers and agents, but it’s tough-going. I’m an optimistic guy, so something will click.
TD: Wow! It sure is exciting news to know that your autobiography is only waiting for the right publisher to be available in libraries! Dare I ask for an extract of your choice to tease us all a little more?
GM: You put me on the spot here because I wouldn’t know how to make an extract from my chapters that would do each chapter justice or the book as a whole, and as a whole the book was written out of chronology. And since each chapter is essentially a story in itself I never knew what story I’d be writing next. That’s the criteria I set for myself when I first started out. There had to be a story I could tell; not just some snippet or anecdote. So I found my metier as I went along, and as I was nearing the end of the book without any sense of the conclusion I realized that each chapter written eliminated a chapter that didn’t get written, otherwise the book could’ve easily become twice as long. Having amassed all these stories it became apparent that the only way I could structure the book successfully would be to start out at the beginning and end with the end. In other words. Yes, an autobiography in the classic sense. In other words, the chronology format was the way to go.
TD: Would you say that the process of writing your autobiography had a therapeutic effect? It must have been a really complete trip in the past since you had so many pictures to go with the text so you had the visual that went with the stories! Overall was it a beneficial experience you would say?
GM: There’s no therapeutic effect involved, then or now. I didn’t write my autobiography for that reason. I just felt that I had something unique–unique stories that no one would know about had I not writtten the book. Has it been beneficial? If I had a publisher, then it’s beneficial, but I wasn’t in it for the money. Money was the least thing on my mind when I set out to write it. I might say it’s been beneficial for the fun I got out of seeing something I’ve written come to life while in the process of writing it. I was just fortunate enough to have the mind of not throwing anything away; and being a photographer I knew that someday these pictures would come in handy. Charles Henri Ford, America’s first Surrealist poet, in an interview once said of me, “Gerard has archival consciousness.” That was the highest compliment paid coming from soneone who was himself the supreme archivist.
TD: If you could make a soundtrack of your life, what songs would pick?
GM: I can’t think of my life as a soundtrack, but if it’s songs you’re talking about, I would say Bob Dylan’s LP, Bringing It All Back Home.
TD: Which people would you say had the biggest impact on your life?
GM: There are a number of people, so many, in fact, to be able to name them all. Daisy Aldan for having introduced me to the world of poetry which I gotta say impacted on everything else in what I would become. Marie Menken for her selfless kindnesses. Andy Warhol for the confidence he’d shown in me on the very first day we met.
In the closing paragraph of my chapter on Ben Maddow in my autobiography, I remark that Orson Welles once said, ”…the greatest men are always the kindest.” That’s always been the sense I had of the remarkable men and women I’ve encountered in my life.
TD: I just want to conclude by saying it’s been an honor and a priviledge, I thank you everything you have done, are doing and will do in contributing to litterature , photography and art in general in almost every possible shape or form for decades. Thank you for being a very active witness of the evolution and revolution, thank you for your kindness, your generosity. I, and all my readers wish you all the best!!
- Screen Tests: A Diary (with Andy Warhol) (1967)
- The Last Benedetta Poems (1969)
- Gerard Malanga Selbsporträt eines Dichters (1970)
- 10 Poems for 10 Poets Black Sparrow Press (1970)
- chic death (1971)
- Wheels of Light (1972)
- The Poetry of Night, Dawn and Dream/Nine Poems for César Vallejo (1972)
- Licht/Light (1973, bilingual)
- Incarnations: Poems 1965-1971 (1974)
- Rosebud (1975)
- Leaping Over Gravestones (1976)
- Ten Years After: The Selected Benedetta Poems (1977)
- 100 years have passed (1978)
- This Will Kill That (1983)
- Three Diamonds Black Sparrow Press (1991)
- Mythologies of the Heart, Black Sparrow Press (1996)
- No Respect: New & Selected Poems 1964-2000, Black Sparrow Press (2001)
- AM: Archives Malanga, Volumes 1, 2, 3 & 4 (2011)
- Three Broadside Poems, Bottle of Smoke Press (2013)
- Malanga Chasing Vallejo: Selected Poems: Cesar Vallejo: New Translations and Notes: Gerard Malanga. Three Rooms Press, Bilingual edition (2014)
- Tomboy & Other Tales, Bottle of Smoke Press (2014)
- Whisper Sweet Nothings & Other Poems, Bottle of Smoke Press (2017)
- 1947, Bottle of Smoke Press (2018)
- The Brief Hidden Life of Angus MacLise
- The Collected Poetry of Piero Heliczer
- Screen Tests/A Diary, in collaboration with Andy Warhol (1967)
- Six Portraits (1975)
- Portrait: Theory (With Robert Mapplethorpe, David Attie, and others) (1981)
- Autobiography of a Sex Thief (1985)
- Good Girls (1994)
- Seizing the Moment (1997)
- Resistance to Memory (1998)
- Screen Tests Portraits Nudes 1964-1996 (2000)
- Someone’s Life (2008)
- Photobooths (Waverly Press, NYC, 2013)
- Ghostly Berms (Waverly Press, NYC, 2013)
- The Beats Portfolio (Bottle of Smoke Press, 2018)
Photo and written biographies
- Long Day’s Journey into the Past
- Gunnar B. Kvaran speaks with Gerard Malanga (2008)
- Souls (2010)
- Gerard Malanga by Lars Movin (2011)
- Academy Leader (1964)
- Andy Warhol: Portraits of the Artist as a Young Man (1965)
- Prelude to International Velvet Debutante (1966)
- Portrait of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli (1966). World premiere: Vienna International Film Festival, 2005.
- In Search of the Miraculous (1967)
- The Recording Zone Operator (1968, incomplete)
- The filmmaker records a portion of his life in the month of August (1968)
- Preraphaelite Dream (with music by Angus MacLise, 1968)
- The Children (AFI grant with music by Angus MacLise, 1969)
- April Diary (1970)
- Vision (incorporating Bufferin, 1976)
- Gerard Malanga’s Film Notebooks, with music by Angus MacLise (2005). World premiere: Vienna International Film Festival, 2005.
- THREE weeks WITH my DOG with 48 Cameras (1999)