Born in the Bronx in 1943, Gerard Malanga started writing poetry in his late teens. His first volume, 3 Poems for Benedetta Barzini, appeared in 1967, and he has since published roughly a dozen collections of poetry. Since his start in the New York art scene of the sixties, Malanga has also worked extensively in film and photography. He is primarily known for his emphatic black-and-white portraits of fellow writers, poets, and artists as well as Screen Tests, a series of silent film portraits he produced with Andy Warhol. The following is an excerpt of a conversation that took place via e-mail over several months in the fall of 2010 between my home in Copenhagen and Malanga’s in upstate New York.
You’re a photographer, filmmaker, and poet. Which of these is primary for you?
I’ve always considered myself a poet in everything that I do, whether it’s photography or movie-making. The one thing that unites all three is the image, the language of the image. Jean Cocteau was my inspiration and model as a polymath. His works were evidence of what one can do in a number of mediums.
When I started writing poetry in my senior term of high school—I was sixteen—I felt in touch with a secret language. It gave me a sense of identity. I suddenly discovered I wasn’t alone. I saw that I was part of a tradition. I truly believe I was fated to become a poet and that I was guided by some mysterious force.
I was a kid of the streets. There were no books to speak of in the apartment where we lived. The neighborhood library was my home away from home and on weekends I’d go to the movies, absorbed by the magic of the big screen. All that I’ve done in my life thus far, all the poems and all the pictures, are not so much an intermingling of my life with art but a divine accident.
What prompted you to start making your own films in the sixties?
There was this weekly TV program called Million Dollar Movie that showed one old Hollywood movie nightly for an entire week, and then the program would change. One night the program presented Citizen Kane. My imagination carried me into the world of the movie. In retrospect, the “Rosebud” sequence, where the newspaper reporter is interviewing Bernstein about the meaning of Kane’s dying word, anticipated my becoming a poet several years later. The power to translate feeling into imagery had its roots in that movie.
Underground and experimental films initially turned you on to filmmaking. What work made a particular impression on you?
In late 1959 or early 1960, Daisy Aldan, my English teacher, put up a flyer in my homeroom class announcing an evening of avant-garde cinema at the Living Theatre. In my naïveté, I thought they were dirty movies. So I was this seventeen-year-old kid from the Bronx traveling nearly an hour by subway to Manhattan, thinking in my mind, Oh, boy! Well, I couldn’t have anticipated what I was in for. Here were films by Willard Maas and Marie Menken, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and others. My eyes were popping out of my head! Included in the program were Anger’s Fireworks and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. These made the biggest impression on me, though I didn’t know what I was really looking at.
Your photograph of Charles Olson was one of your first portraits. How did the photo come about?
It was my first serious portrait in the sense that I approached it in a completely professional manner. The editors at The Paris Review had a hard time getting Olson to respond to an interview, and Peter Ardery, one of the editors, informed me of their dilemma over drinks at Max’s Kansas City. I volunteered, overly confident I could get Olson to agree to talk where they’d failed. So I dashed off a note, and within a week Olson wrote back, literally demanding my presence! I didn’t know him at all but we had mutual friends, so I think that may have had something to do with it.
He was living way up in Gloucester, about an hour north of Boston. I knew I wanted to take a picture of him to go with the piece. I didn’t have a camera of my own, so Paul Morrissey lent me his, a Zeiss Ikon with a 50mm lens. He showed me how to work the camera but didn’t tell me how to reload the film. On the scheduled day, Charles was sitting out waiting for me just the way he appears in the picture, and I took two shots—a vertical and a horizontal—and then I thought the camera jammed. What had actually happened was I’d run out of film, and as there was nowhere near to buy more, my fate was sealed. Then, as the sun was setting, we headed upstairs to his apartment and talked until the wee hours, while I recorded it all.
You’ve said that you don’t necessarily mix poetry and photography or film. But in certain circumstances, you’ve worked with combinations of text and image. I am thinking, for instance, of Screen Tests/A Diary, one of your collaborations with Warhol.
I regarded the Screen Tests as archival. They were “protophotos”—we were shooting still portraits with movie film. This was long before either of us became dedicated photographers, so I’ve always placed great importance on the Screen Tests. The poems were all written in advance of the portraits, and each poem had to reflect something about the person, even if only in one line. The mainstay of the concept was to have the portraits illustrate the poems, rather than the other way around.
But I tend to overlook other instances where I’ve mixed poetry and photography. Back in ’69, I guest edited an issue of John Wilcock’s Other Scenes in which I juxtaposed poetry—not just my own—with erotic photographs, and then there was Autobiography of A Sex Thief back in ’84, which combined my erotic pictures with my erotic poetry. There was one exciting piece, which remains unpublished, called Weird Fuck, in which I returned to the scene of a nighttime tryst in a public park and photographed the ground and trees using a flash unit to create an eerie effect and abutted the story with the photo.
It all comes back to the same kind of language—the language of imagery. I think visually.
Some of your poems have a snapshot quality, and your writing is brimming with references to photography, like the poem “The Arcades Project, unfinished,” where you say, “I am a camera / recording, not thinking.”
I seem to be always returning to photography in my poetry. I guess you could say that I’m documenting the personal history and relationship I have with photography. The poems, in my mind’s eye, become “pictopoems.” In photography, the picture creates a stilled moment. In the poems or portraits I’ve been writing, the nature of language creates a stilled moment.
In 2001 you published No Respect, which collects published and unpublished poems from 1964 to 2000. What were your thoughts about your development as a poet?
My development as a poet might appear a bit haphazard at first glance. It would take someone else to sort it out. All my work comprises four or five shelves here in the house, so I found myself thumbing through them and thinking, Did I actually do all this?! It’s nearly forty years of scrounging to make ends meet and to survive miraculously. It got to the point where I was treated like a pariah, an outcast. I applied to all the logical sources and was turned away, while many of my contemporaries were lauded. So when Yale acquired my archives, there were several boxes marked “NEA rejects.” Someone’s gonna have fun with that!