THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF POETRY: AN INTERVIEW WITH GERARD MALANGA
"There was one chapter I did on Andy Warhol which I haven't included in the book. It was really vicious. I left it out for diplomatic reasons. At the time I wrote the piece I thought the sycophants surrounding Andy's legacy were distorting it and holding the legacy hostage. . . . The poetry mafia in New York have not been very kind to me because, I think, of my connection with Andy. Jealousy. I don't get grants, awards, fellowships. I try. But there's something amiss there."
Richard Marshall interviews Gerard Malanga
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
All photographs by Gerard Malanga.
GM: My most recent poem is a poem I wrote for the actor John Thaw. I'm just a fan of his. So I wrote this poem because I was sad to hear of his death. I followed his Morse TV series. It was on public educational television. I don't know how big or popular it was, but I certainly enjoyed the series. It was not so much about solving the crime as about an in-depth way of looking at someone who had to solve a problem in a way. That was part of his job. It was a highly intellectual series, I thought, but done in a very subtle and tasteful way. I read an obituary in The Times and something hit me. I thought I would immerse myself in a poem where I would be talking to him and he would be talking to me. I started the poem two weeks ago with the idea that I would premier it at the reading at the ICA. I finished it after a week. It's still a little bit in the raw state. It might be a bit too long, but at the moment I can't see any way of cutting it. It's a poem that kept on growing and I have already eliminated a lot of lines. Was he popular over here?
3AM: Yes. Very. Hugely so.
GM: Oh really! Well, the shocking thing for me was that he was a year older than me. I was looking at one of the publicity shots where he was leaning up against the Jaguar in a white trench coat and he looked so old. He looked older than he was. And that saddened me even more because here was a man at the height of his talent and powers, a brilliant actor, and I never thought he got as much recognition as he could have got. Everybody knew him as Inspector Morse. He did do other series, where he was a lawyer, but I never saw very much of it. But he dies at the age of sixty a year after his character dies. I was so sad and I just felt as a fan I needed to acknowledge that to some degree. I was thinking of the American audience, not the British one, and I was thinking did they really know who this man was. That's why I started to write these lines.
3AM: You do see yourself primarily as a poet.
GM: I started writing poetry when I was sixteen and was published, at eighteen or nineteen. In 1967 my first book was actually a collaboration for a screen test that I had done. That was my first big book. And I had two tiny books that came out that year also. But when I went to work with Andy Warhol my identity was already established. I had already appeared in a number of very prestigious magazines. Poetry for me was a way of entering into a secret language. That's what I felt at the age of sixteen and seventeen. It was a thought that struck me like lightning. I've never stopped writing. Strangely, there have always been spells when I didn't write, moments that were a regenerative process, I wasn't writing because it enabled me to see more clearly. I was also taking photographs at the time so these were activities that meshed to a certain degree. I've always thought of poetry as an introverted process whereas photography has always been an extroverted process. But they both involve the eye to a certain extent -- both the inner eye and the outer eye. I enjoy the process when I'm involved in it.
3AM: When you're writing, are you thinking about how the poem will sound on the ear or how it will look on the page to the eye?
GM: I'm very conscious of how it will look on the page. The structure of the thing matters. I had a horrible thing happen once. In about 1999 I had a book published in France, and I was the artist of the week. I was brought over by the city of Nantes. There were posters of me in the bus stops, I had three photo exhibits, I had a film programme, I was the artist in residence at the city of Nantes, I had pictures of me planted all over the place, and the local publishers had done a really beautiful job publishing a recent collection of poems of mine, called Memory's Snapshots.
These young kids, they'd met me at the airport Charles de Gaulle and said we've got to drive to Nantes which is about a two and a half hour car ride, and they presented me with a copy of the book. And I opened it up and I looked at it and I knew something was wrong. I kept turning the pages. I just took a sigh. I closed the book. Everyone's there. My girlfriend is standing next to me. I said 'Thank you so much, it's just really a very beautiful book,' but I'm actually steaming, livid inside. What they'd done, which I later found out was a certain kind of graphic designer mentality, they'd taken the poetry and they'd turned structurally the poems into Christmas trees. Oh yes! On the page they laid out the print so that they were the shape of Christmas trees. I died! I was so pissed! They had no inkling what they had done!
What happens now is -- an Italian magazine did a bilingual edition -- my picture on the cover, a major exposure, and inside they did the exact same thing with my poetry! So I'm saying 'Holy shit!' What had happened was that they had told me they were going to use this particular poem and I thought they'd have gotten it out of my latest book from Black Sparrow Press which had come out in late September called No Respect. It never dawned on me that they'd got the poem from the French book. But they had and they thought that's how the poem should be. So the mistake got perpetuated. I wrote an e-mail to the publisher of the Italian magazine saying that I wasn't condemning them or anything but just how did they come to do it like this and they explained it to me.
So I am very conscious of the structure of my work on the page. It deals a lot with visual reading and where the lines break. I mean, I sometimes like jagged line breaks, but I would never do it so it was like a Christmas tree. It's too symmetrical. In a sense what I'm doing from a structural point of view is I'm scoring. Can you imagine if they did that to a composer? John Cage or somebody. They basically structurally rewrote my poem.
3AM: So who do you link yourself with as a poet?
GM: One of my favourite poets is Paul Blackburn, an American poet who died in 1971 of cancer. He was a New York poet -- he was into jazz, into oral poetry, he had a poetry reading series at a café called Café de Metro. He would tape the readings using this big analogue tape recorder. He amassed an enormous collection of analogue tapes. They're now deposited in an archive at La Hoya University in San Diego. I was very young at the time and he was too sophisticated for me. So I didn't appreciate everything he was doing at the time. And then in 1979 I picked up a book of his and read it -- this was eight years after he had died and I was wowed. My own intelligence had reached a level of where he was at in his work so I could appreciate what he was doing. For years I would always travel with his selected poems on me. His son, Carlos Blackburn, who is in his late twenties, asked me how come I never travelled with the collected poems and I said the selected was a lighter volume. The collected is a heavy book!
Another poet is Charles Simac. I went to a reading of his the other week in New York. He was very brilliant, very funny. And the poet who introduced him is a very good friend of mine called Nicholas Christopher who is a poet and a novelist. His work is good too. He's about nine years younger than me. I've been rereading a lot of Ashbury. There are poets I read who I continually come back to. I have varied taste. Each of the poets I mentioned are different from each other. They're like night and day but I appreciate them from their own vantage point. It's like switching the TV channel. I did meet Auden. Since 9/11 the TV screen has been snow. I mean, I went blank. I've only written two poems since 9/11. I just went blank. I'm getting back into it now.
3AM: One of the things you write about in the book [Archiving Warhol] is resisting nostalgia. Warhol and that time were obviously a huge part of your life. So how do you resist nostalgia?
GM: Life was very interesting. I was twenty when I met Andy. One of the projects I'm working on now is a new book on Charles Henri Ford. Charles is 93 now. Charles from 1940 to 86 edited a very prestigious and beautiful arts magazine called View Magazine in New York. He published there a lot of the ex pats who came over to America from Europe -- the French Surrealists, Dada. I'm editing his photography for a book next year. He was very much inspired by Henri Cartier Bresson who was a friend of his in Paris. They were the same age. Ironically by doing this book I've really had to educate myself about Charles's work. I'd seen bits and pieces of it over the years -- he'd tease me with glimpses, pulling out a photograph and then putting it back in the folder, but I was under the impression that he'd started his photography in Paris in the early thirties, but this wasn't the case.
He knew Bresson and Gertrude Stein and a host of those people but he didn't start photography until he got back to New York in 34. Between 34 and 39 he must have made at least three trips to Paris, and it was then that he did his Paris photographs. His New York pictures preceded this. He then did stuff in Connecticut where he lived. It ends in the 70's. That's been a major work. Charles is an early influence, a role model. Somewhere in my development as a writer I realised I could do more than one thing. I could explore my psyche.
3AM: So this new book out with Creation Books. You constantly say the early Warhol is good but the later stuff trash.
GM: Let me preface what I say by saying the book wasn't my idea, it was James's. We met on November 2 in New York to talk about another book. What happened was that there was this show happening at Tate Modern, the Andy Warhol show, the retrospective there, and James just asked if I had any writings on Andy. And I did. I had two pieces from last year for gallery show. So James suggested that it would be great to have a book in the retrospective of Andy, and I thought this was great because I'd be able to get a little revenge on my part too. They treated me so...
The deadline was the second week in January. Wow. I'm not a very well organised person by the way. Charles said about me once, not to me, he said, 'Gerard has archival consciousness!' It's true. . . . Anyway, I had so much fun putting this book together because I had to meet a deadline. We're talking eight weeks, ok? This book was put together in eight weeks. James suggested that this could be a showcase for the archive. Which it is in a way. So not only was all the writing by me, but all the photos are by me from the archive. Except in about 5 or 6 instances where I had to buy the rights. So all of a sudden I was on the other side of the business. My girlfriend and I we're in the photo print business, selling stuff to museums, catalogues, magazines and so on. Suddenly I was in that position of having to buy photographs for my own book. What a pain in the neck.
But we did it. I had a lot of fun putting it together. I was able to find pictures for what I was writing. The picture of Auden, that came from Charles Henri Ford. It was taken at the time when I knew Auden so that was great to have a vintage shot like that. It had never been published before. Same with the photo of Andy with his thumb in his mouth. That was taken in 1963. That was the fun, seeing what was there and then matching it with the writing. The ideas in the writing. Working at that speed helped. James threw me the ball and I ran with it. There were moments of frustration, but everything fell into place. I worked with James a thousand miles apart. I hated the first ideas for the cover. I wanted something a little more classic than James's first idea. James was very patient with me. It was a good rapport.
There are moments in the book, three excerpts -- back in the early 90's I was going to write my memoirs. 'Empire' was one. Those three chapters were really fun. They were off the beaten track from the other ones. They were interesting though and getting the images to key into them. The shot of Agneta just past the cusp of when she was a big fashion model. At the time I was seeing her. I liked the way it all matched up. That was fun to me.
3AM: Did reflecting on this stuff change your perceptions about what was going on?
GM: There was one chapter I did on Andy which I haven't included in the book. It was really vicious. I left it out for diplomatic reasons. At the time I wrote the piece I thought the sycophants surrounding Andy's legacy were distorting it and holding the legacy hostage. That was in 92. It would have really thrown the book off from a tonal point of view. All the text existed already. Except a one page preface. The book was a lot of fun for me. Doing the book reminded me of the fun I had in the 60's.
3AM: Have the Factory Years affected your subsequent work? Have you managed to get free of that reputation over the last forty years?
GM: It's been positive and negative. My new collection is called No Respect. The poetry mafia in New York have not been very kind to me because, I think, of my connection with Andy. Jealousy. I don't get grants, awards, fellowships. I try. But there's something amiss there. I love writing. It doesn't affect me writing. I still write. That's my love. It's what I do. I can step outside of myself and look at myself. My poetry has suffered because I became famous. I don't say that out of bitterness. But it has. In terms of getting it out there. You've got to make allies.
3AM: So what are you going to do next?
GM: I've just put the Charles Henri Ford book to bed. I've sent it off to publishers. There's still a little bit of work to be done, but it's more or less done. I'm in the middle of producing a double CD. Then I need to write an essay on things missing from the book on Andy. That's pretty much it. Time magazine did a big thing on me and there's a possible Japanese show.
3AM: How does the present cultural scene compare with the 60s?
GM: What I'm thinking about is how quickly change is happening now. This is the digital age. Back in the 60s we were in the analogue age. Store fronts are disappearing that I've lived with for ever. I've lost my Chinese laundry! The Arts scene is in some sort of weird state at the moment. They don't know where they're going now. My friend had a musical which closed last year and I was photographing DJs. I was getting the animated ones. Alec Empire and others. Wonderfully talented people. Alchemists with sound. Things are happening so rapidly and some of is good, some bad. Hollywood is shit at the moment. The poetry is ok -- it's always a tradition with a sub culture attached to it. I'm constantly amazed. The sixties were so different. In retrospect it was a very well paced but quiet time at a certain level. Things were nurtured and developed and evolved. But now that doesn't happen. I don't know how that affects the arts world. Art has become commerce. Big Business. Andy would love that.
3AM: You come across in the book and now as some kind of throwback boho existentialist.
GM: You're right! I've got to think about money more! When I started off writing poetry, I was 17. I fell in love with poetry. I discovered a secret language. How I was going to make a living was the furthest thing from my mind. I was going to be a poet. That was all I knew. I wrote a load of bad poems. But that was it. Not 'how am I going to pay the rent?'
3AM: It's an interesting contrast that comes through in the book, this contrast between yourself and the Warhol Factory stuff. Although as you point out, Andy changed as he went into the seventies.
GM: As T.S. Eliot said, once the poet writes the poem, half the poem belongs to the reader. That contrast between me and Andy is something you've seen that I wasn't conscious of as I put it together. Interesting.