The Poetry in Something: an interview with Gerard Malanga

Gerard with Archie photo credit: Asako

by Erik La Prade

Gerard Malanga has achieved more than his 15 minutes of fame for being "Andy Warhol's most important associate," as the New York Times has rightly called him, and less than his due for his career in poetry, which earned him publication in such venerable magazines as the Partisan Review and the New Yorker by the time he was 21, as well as praise from lofty predecessors such as Robert Lowell, Kenneth Rexroth, Muriel Rukeyser, and Richard Eberhart. Over three decades of his work are presented in No Respect: New and Selected Poems 1964-2000 (Black Sparrow Press, 2001), which presents work from such noteworthy volumes as Chic Death, Ten Years After, and Mythologies of the Heart, as well as unpublished poems from his earliest efforts to the present. Malanga's verse can be heard on the CD Up from the Archives (Sub Rosa, 1999) and he is the co-author (with Victor Bokris) of Up-Tight: the Velvet Underground Story (reissued by Cooper Square Press in 2003); he is also a noted photographer with several monographs to his credit. He lives in New York City, where he continues to write poems and take pictures.

Erik La Prade: Your career as a poet began very early. Did you have a sense of your own voice by the time you graduated high school?

Gerard Malanga: No, I really didn't have a sense of my own voice until much later. And that happened when I started reading Paul Blackburn's poetry. I say that regretfully because I wish I had read him earlier. I knew Paul quite well and when I started reading his poetry—sadly, after he died—that's when I began to appreciate what he was really about and what he was trying to do. It was through his work that I realized what the voice was all about, how you can translate your voice into "voice" on the page. I realized, you can do anything you damn well please in poetry but you can still maintain your voice. Or, by maintaining your voice you can do whatever you please. That was a very healthy, insightful, enlightenment for me.

ELP: Would you say you favor an experimental style over a classical approach or style to writing?

GM: Absolutely. Once I was able to recognize my own voice and also recognize the mutations in my own voice over the years, because the voice changes too, I realized I was in control of my own destiny in terms of my own writing. And that was a lot of fun. And now I'm fully in control in terms of what is my voice. It's out there. I can certainly determine the kind of poem I'm writing by recognizing my voice in the poem. Because then I realized if I can't be true to my own voice the poem is not successful.

ELP: Your recent Selected Poems presents 36 years of work. How did you feel looking at this range of work in one book?

GM: The first draft of that manuscript was over 500 pages, but John Martin's assistant said, "Gerard, we can't do a 500-page selected poems," so I had to be merciless with myself and whittle away. My publishing career is very peculiar because I was always so far ahead of myself. There were whole poetry book manuscripts that never saw the light of day, though some of the poems appeared in magazines. So I thought, What am I going to do with this stuff? Because this was an important part of my life; I just can't yank this out and dismiss it because that leaves a big, black hole in terms of my writing. So, you'll notice in section three of the book for example, it says, "from The Debbie High School Dropout Poems." That was from a book manuscript that never appeared in print. But there were some really good poems in that manuscript.

ELP: What year is that?

GM: The Debbie High School Dropout Poems was from 1965. But I abandoned the idea of finding a publisher for that book, because I was doing my Screen Test poems in 1966. By the time I did my first book with Black Sparrow in 1969, I was publishing The Last Benedetta Poems and not the first ones. The first group of Benedetta poems didn't get published until the book Ten Years After: The Selected Benedetta Poems (1977).

ELP: If you had an hour to talk with one dead poet, who would it be?

GM: Maybe Ted Roethke. Roethke said something really interesting in his diaries, about poets helping to advance consciousness together. That's something I strongly believe in but it may be a very naive notion.

ELP: It's a very idealistic statement.

GM: A very idealistic statement coming from an extremely gifted individual whose poetry is still very vibrant today, even though he's been dead forty-one years.

ELP: You've mentioned Duchamp previously in other interviews. How was he an influence on your writing?

GM: Well, Duchamp's influence, which was a very concrete influence, had to do with discovery. Recognizing the poetry in something even if it doesn't have to do with words. The courage of discovery, whether it has to do with language or images or whatever. And the naming of things to a certain degree. If you feel what you're doing has to do with poetry then that's a very valid assumption of how you're creating the work.

ELP: Did you talk about poetry with Duchamp?

GM: Yes—he was the one who gave me the idea of writing a poem without my actually having to write it, i.e., using appropriation. This was in 1963.

ELP: That's interesting because appropriation was more common after that.

GM: Appropriation by the early 1970s was basically the norm, and that was all from Duchamp's influence.

ELP: Can you say anything about current events as poetry?

GM: No. I'm not writing current events. It depends on whatever your source material is. It could be newspapers, it could be magazines. When I was reading The Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, that became the primary source material for my Raymond Chandler poem. The magical part is when you get to a point when you start discovering things about yourself in terms of how you want to portray the subject in your poem. And that's a lot of fun. I had a lot of fun writing the Raymond Chandler poem. It just kept on going and going. Usually the poems I'm writing today don't go beyond twenty lines but this poem ended up being thirty-seven lines. I've got a major poem here!

ELP: Do you ever find yourself being obsessed with "time" in your poetry?

GM: Not obsessed with time, but interested in time. I'm always interested in obscurity. I mean, the more obscure the person is to me, the more interesting, the more attracted I am to that person as a subject.

ELP: Like redeeming them from death?

GM: In a way. I wrote a poem for Gene Derwood, for example, and I know no one else is going to write a poem for Gene Derwood. Most people don't even know who Gene Derwood was.

ELP: And now somebody will read this and look up Gene Derwood.

GM: That, I think is very important! Let's say if I gave a poetry reading and I read my Gene Derwood poem or my Sol Funaroff poem. I'm basically saying, I know about these people and I want you to know about these people because it's important for you to know who Gene Derwood or Sol Funaroff were.

ELP: You create a historical context to continue knowing and reading the work that could be lost.

GM: Absolutely. It's creating a historical context where there was none or where there would have been one had not some quirk of time intervened to sideline someone like Gene Derwood and her work. The same thing with Weldon Kees or Willard Maas or Marie Menkien. These are important people who were very genuine in the kind of work they were creating, but through some personal calamity they got sidelined. I was reminded of all this having just finished reading a biography of Weldon Kees. Turns out we have a few things in common. First off, we're both Pisces. We're also both polymaths, visually grounded. He was a really terrific painter. My interest was more into film and photography (though he took pictures as well). As children we designed our own make-believe newspapers and kept scrapbooks of what caught our eye. We're cat lovers. Oh, and we were the only child in the family. No siblings. That explains a whole lot.

ELP: You both started young.

GM: We both published early and in a lot of the same places, like The New Yorker, Poetry, Partisan Review. And we were victims of intellectual snobbery. Well, Kees was. Delmore Schwartz turned out to be Kees's nemesis. He hated Kenneth Patchen—tried convincing Jay Laughlin into dropping him from the New Directions's roster. When Schwartz became poetry editor of Partisan Review he started rejecting Weldon's poetry. Schwartz tormented Kees by keeping his poems in a desk drawer, pretending he'd misplaced them. Little petty things like that. Schwartz was a little shit—intensely jealous of Kees because he could write a good poem and write other things besides. Short stories, nonfiction. Book reviews. Music. Intensely versatile and professional. Well, we know what happened to Delmore. He got consumed by his own bile. His insanity killed him. Kees is now having a renascence.

ELP: So you identify with Kees?

GM: I first came across Kees's work early on, not really knowing anything about the man or how versatile he was. Whenever I visited Marie and Willard I had complete run of their library. That was where I first cut my teeth on the Oscar Williams's anthology, The War Poets. One day Willard told me how Kees disappeared and they never found the body—jumped into the current under the Golden Gate Bridge, his car found in the parking lot. Willard related this to me in 1960, and the incident had only occurred five years earlier! The other day a friend rang me up and put the receiver close to her computer so I could hear Kees reading his poetry. It was through a website and it brought a lump to my throat. He sounded the way I imagined him to sound, with natural sounding friendly voice. There was none of that melodramatic artifice you still hear in a lot of the poetry being read aloud these days.

ELP: How would you characterize yourself as a poet?

GM: I've always considered myself an avant-garde poet, first and foremost.

ELP: In what way?

GM: My approach. The methods I use to write my poems. It's the entire process. It has to do with knowing what you're writing bears no resemblance to anything else anyone else is doing. What you can claim to be uniquely your own.

ELP: Can you give me examples of some avant-garde poets that have been important for you?

GM: Well, in my own time-frame, certainly John Ashbery, especially in his groundbreaking book, The Tennis Court Oath. That's a seminal book. The Dadaists as a whole certainly are primary examples and certain of the Surrealists, although André Breton was such a pedant. A control freak. But a really strong example I'd say are the Italian Futurists. I think they're the strongest of all. If you studied the movement more closely, you'd see their ideas permeated nearly every area of artistic expression. Avant-garde has its own built-in definition: a movement of moving forward. That's what the Futurists were all about. To think how much more they could have accomplished.

ELP: Why don't you write a book about the Futurists?

GM: I simply don't have the time. It takes a scholar with that kind of energy and curiosity to pull it off. I'd get distracted and go off writing poems. But it's fascinating how art history politics could impact a movement.

ELP: So what are the kinds of poems you're writing these days?

GM: They're about everything and nothing.

ELP: In what sense?

GM: I discovered I've been carrying around bits and pieces of what could be expanded on, but for a long while I didn't know how to go about doing this, and then also I didn't consider these threads relevant to anything I was concerned with in my work. I was off on some other tangent. Of course, one only has stories to tell if one already has ploughed out a history. I can't deny that, but I didn't recognize that at first.

ELP: For example?

GM: Back in the late '60s—'66 in fact—I was living on East 10th Street in the East Village between 2nd and 3rd avenues and Harold Rosenberg was my next door neighbor. I used to run into him quite frequently—always with his wife, May. He was friendly enough. We'd greet each other in passing. Harold knew me because of my close friendship with Willard Maas and Marie Menken. They were actually my mentors. Anyway, Harold and May appeared inseparable. You have to imagine. He's 6'5". She's like 5'4". That in itself is memorable. They may have been on their late afternoon constitutional, but they always seemed to be heading off somewhere, but not far mind you. Likely, they were just going shopping over on 2nd Avenue.

ELP: And this was the basis for a poem?

GM: Not exactly. I carried this visual memory for many years. Never even considered doing anything with it. What was there to do? Two people exiting their apartment building on their afternoon constitutional? Where's the poem in all this that I can relate to? No. It never entered my mind. I just filed it, but it still lingered.

ELP: Then what?

GM: One day I was sleeping and had this dream. In the dream Harold appeared to me and said something mysterious which I couldn't make out, but it sounded logical nonetheless. I immediately woke up and wrote it down. So now I have these vivid recollections of my neighbors and this voice appears out of nowhere and then I have a couple of sentences, so over a period of time I begin to put all this into some kind of context.

ELP: Information-gathering . . .

GM: Yes, but with a twist. There's a problem to be solved if this is going to work. I started surrounding the quote with everything I could remember of them on the street and soon the poem had legs and with a bit of tinkering here and there I was able to salvage tiny dream-traces into a workable and visible form—a prose poem, that is. The fun part was seeing how this past experience adhered to Harold's voice in the dream. It was like Harold's voice was able to move the past forward. The two disparate elements were able to thrive on each other. Cross-fertilization, so to speak.

ELP: The technique is like a verbal collage.

GM: Yes, a collage in the sense I was constructing a framework for these sources, seemingly unrelated, but the process itself is definitely stream of consciousness. Without it I don't think I would've made any headway. Another thing I've been doing is purposely leaving out the pronoun "I".

ELP: Why?

GM: I discovered that by eliminating the "I" altogether, I can move through the work much easier. I can say things a whole lot faster I wouldn't have done otherwise. I've now become the narrator where before I might've been more intimately involved. I'm still involved but without drawing attention to myself. I'm like this disembodied voice. The attention is now focused on what's going on in the story as it's unfolding. The story is the thing. I can go anywhere with it and inside it.

ELP: This separation reminds me of a remark Rene Ricard once made about you: "Gerard, your life is existing without you."

GM: Well, it's the inverse of that. I don't locate myself in the work because I've reached a point where I'm dislocated from whatever my vantage point might've been. Also, it gives me more time to read.

ELP: What kinds of books?

GM: George Orwell. You know it was just this past year the centennial of his birth. I decided to celebrate his life. I'd read here and there whatever titles caught my eye. His nonfiction mostly. Can't read it all. He's the pre-eminent prose stylist of the 20th century. There's no one who comes close to what he achieved.

ELP: What attracts you to his work?

GM: His take on the underdog. You find that throughout his fiction as well. The vernacular style of his essays. The lack of artifice—the kind of talking down prevalent in so much of what's being written these days, though totally devoid in his own.

ELP: What is it about the underdog that attracts you?

GM: I don't write about the underdog, but sometimes I find myself in the peculiar position of living it. I feel like the Seabiscuit of the poetry world (laughing).

ELP: What are your plans now that your Selected Poems has been published?

GM: I have none. I'm lucky. That book came under the wire before my publisher rode into the sunset. I feel like the Energizer Bunny. That's the only thing happening right now. I'm having so much fun. There are stories to tell I haven't even tapped into. A stream of consciousness triggers the unconscious to give up something inside me and I just try to keep up. That's all. If I don't I shelve it for awhile. Pick it up again some other time maybe. I would imagine all this will coalesce into a book but I'm a ways away.

ELP: Do you have a name for the book or is that something you'll think about later?

GM: I'm pretty much settled on Who's There? It's not a knock-knock joke but the first line in Hamlet. The two sentinels, Barnardo and Francisco, are guarding the castle. Barnardo has arrived to relieve Francisco and they meet each other in the dark, then Barnardo says, "Who's there?" All kinds of associations filter in for the reader, I guess. Certainly myself. That's all. No set theme. The poems are pretty much open-ended. In a way, I guess, they reflect my own mortality. There are so many stories to tell. What I don't know is which one is next. It's always a surprise.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004