The first book of Gerard Malanga’s I ever owned was 100 Years Have Passed (Little Caesar, 1978). What initially drew me to it was the stark cover image, a photograph that reminded me of Man Ray’s disquieting photographs of mannequins. Whatever this had to do with poetry, I felt it was my job to find out because even though I didn’t know the first thing about Gerard, the small press life, or Dennis Cooper’s Little Caesar Press, I recognized that this enigmatic little book was authored by someone I needed to know. When Gerard and I finally met a month later, our encounter proved to be just as strange as my finding his book because even though I knew next-to-nothing about him, his days at The Factory, or the fact that he had been born in the Bronx (like me), it was as if I already knew him, he was that familiar to me. The following is a conversation between Gerard and I that follows up on some of the things we’d discussed the weekend we first met in February, 2012: the Bronx, Gerard’s life in the New York poetry scene, Marie Menken. This conversation took place via e-mail over the week of January 7th, 2016 to January 14th, 2016.
Lara Mimosa Montes: I discovered you were from the Bronx after going to the opening of your photo show, Ghostly Berms, back in 2012. At some point, I must have told you I was also from the Bronx and, as far as I know, we’ve been friends ever since. What do you think it is about the Bronx that inspires this special kind of instant familiarity, this sense of “I-already-know-you”?
Gerard Malanga: I get the sense that there’s a certain camaraderie that sets in, like we could be from some distant planet and we’re all in this together. Like who comes from the Bronx, really? I think the Bronx doesn’t get enough credit. I mean, hip-hop was invented in the Bronx. We have the New York Yankees aka the Bronx Bombers. We have Edgar Allan Poe’s white cottage. We’ve had movie theatres galore at one time. Now we have none, but we still retain those weekend matinee memories. We have a multi-faceted geography.
LMM: To follow-up on your remark about who comes from the Bronx really, I think you’re right— part of the fellow feeling and sense of camaraderie one encounters upon meeting others from the area comes from confirming the authenticity of the other person’s relationship to and experience of the borough (like asking which subway stop did you live off of). And yet there are actually quite a few well-known artists who hail from the Bronx. Not so long ago, I found out that the pop artist Rosalyn Drexler is from the Bronx. She wrote a novel about a lady wrestler who went by the name of Rosa Carlo the Mexican Spitfire. When I found that out and also looked at her paintings, somehow, her being from the Bronx made total sense to me. I recall that you knew the Kuchar brothers who also lived in the borough. Remind me again how it was that you crossed paths?
GM: Well, actually, Rosalyn was also a “lady wrestler” when she wasn’t making art. I knew her and her husband, the abstract painter Sherman Drexler. They were a sweet couple. Rosalyn was very upbeat. She had a terrific disposition. Of course, I was good friends with Mike & George Kuchar because we were in the same graduating class at the School of Industrial Art, along with Calvin Klein, another Bronxite from Mosholu Parkway. He ended up marrying a girl I’d dated briefly, Jane Centre. Talk about coincidences. Mike & George and I would share the “D” train sometimes because we lived near that subway route. My stop was Kingsbridge Road and they would take it two stops further to the end of the line, 205th Street in the Norwood area. They were already making their Bronx home movies when they were students; while I’m reminded here that I’d been in one, my memory is quite fuzzy on this.
The Bronx seems to give off this impression of so many people you wouldn’t think of being born in the Bronx but were! For instance, Matthew J. Bruccoli, the preeminent F. Scott Fitzgerald scholar was born in 1931 into an Italian family; the poet Harris Schiff with whom I went on a tour photographing him in places in the Bronx for one of his dustjackets; the painters Mike Goldberg and Larry Rivers, both of whom collaborated with the poet Frank O’Hara, hailed from the Bronx and were also good friends. Ivan Karp, who when I first knew him as Leo Castelli’s right-hand man, always looked out after me and was a big supporter of my work, especially when he single-handedly organized my New York debut reading at the gallery back in ’64. When I read his obit and learned that he was born in the Bronx, I then realized the depth on which he placed our friendship. I’m sure if we did some Bronx-spotting we’d unearth some real surprises.
LMM: 1964. An important year. What was that debut reading at Leo Castelli like?
GM: We’re talking 51 years here! I’m a bit fuzzy on the details of who all showed up; but I do recall it was a truly glamorous affair. Ivan had arranged with Eugenia Sheppard, the fashion editor of the Herald-Tribune to cover the event and cover it she did. Thanks to Clay Felker, editor of the New York Sunday supplement before he founded New York Magazine, within a couple of weeks, a 3-page spread appeared in the paper. Barbara Waterston, the wife of Sam Waterston, then just getting his start on Broadway, was the staff photographer; Eugenia ran 2 or 3 of my fashion poems with the captions. I presented several of these poems at the reading and every once in a while a real fashion model would stand up in the middle of the audience and pose for a few seconds while Barbara got her shot! I also included poems that included fashion models or “beautiful people” getting killed in car crashes. I was equating beauty and death in new ways, almost glamorizing death, to a certain extent. The reading was held in the main gallery space. There were no chairs, so everyone sat on the pristine wooden floors. Andy’s Flower paintings were hung on the surrounding walls and Andy’s mom, Julia, helped to design the flyer with her unique style of calligraphy. I read for about 30-minutes and concluded the reading with a poem called “Fresh Death” which a few years later appeared along with some of these fashion poems in my book, chic death. I was decked out in a black pinstripe suit that the art collector Leon Kraushar had given me as a hand-me-down. It fit like a glove. There was a gathering at the gallery afterwards where everyone who stayed on mingled. All in all, it was truly a successful day for poetry.
LMM: I’m guessing you had already left the Bronx by this point . . .
GM: Well, not exactly. I still had one foot in my mom’s apartment and one foot in the Factory. Technically, I considered myself homeless. I was leading a peripatetic existence, crashing at friends’ flats or shacking up with girlfriends; when I got tired with that, I’d take the D train to my mom’s flat in the Bronx where I’d spend a couple of days at most, cleaning up and kicking back, rejuvenating my juices. Then I’d head back to the Factory. It had been that way for quite a spell until sometime in late ’65. There’d been a major subway strike and that pretty much marooned me in Manhattan. It seemed as though my fate was sealed. So I made a habit of staying with Paul Morrissey at his tiny flat over on East 10th Street and by the time the strike was over, I simply stayed on as his guest, though I’d still find myself bouncing from one couch to another at times. Except for an interim when I was living in Rome for a period of 6 months, September ’67 through February ’68, I was pretty much wandering. It wasn’t until summer of ’69, that a friend gave me the keys to his flat to housesit because he’d moved in with his boyfriend at their townhouse in Gramercy Park. From that point on, I was given a slew of apartments to housesit while working at the Factory.
LMM: I want to go back for a moment to the fashion poems you mentioned. In your poem “Fresh Death,” you write, “People come down to see the collision./But it’s already too late.” A strange fatalism is at work here and elsewhere in many of these earlier poems. It’s kind of startling, especially alongside the cover work for chic death (not to mention that unforgettable author photo!). What was it about the image of “the crash” and “the collision” that was so central for you during that period?
GM: It’s a very peculiar phenomenon, this juxtaposition between beauty and death. Here I was this Bronx kid finding myself in a milieu I wouldn’t have dreamed of in a million years and then something clicked. I became thoroughly engaged in a world I hardly knew anything about and yet I was inspired to want to write about it, inspired by a world that didn’t have a care in the world, except to enjoy life to its fullest no matter what the consequences were. It was the idea of dying young, to die a premature death, like they say. This sense of footloose and fancy-free. I knew I wanted to write about this milieu, but I was faced with a dilemma how to go about it. At the time, I was already an avid reader of the fashion magazines, particularly Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar; but Bazaar for me was far and wide in the forefront as the source for my inspiration. First, the magazine had a revolutionary art director, Alexey Brodovitch; page after page of exciting fashion photos, even short stories and poetry. But what caught my eye were those simple photo captions that one easily takes for granted—I found them terrific. They were imagistic; they caught the atmosphere of the photos as well as the overall mood of the fashions and the attitudes conveyed at that time. And suddenly I had an epiphany. I saw my “in.” I started experimenting with what was already there. I started breaking up the prose into lines determined by line breaths and I’d add a word or two, or a sentence to fill out the thought. I’d give it a title, and voila!— I had my poem. I realized right then and there that I had created the first “readymade” fashion poems and all because of the theories handed down to me by my readings of Duchamp and of the advice he’d personally had given me back in ’63 about writing a poem without having to write it. I was also writing poems dedicated to fashion photographers and models I’d met along the way. So I had a full complement of poems to round out this newly evolving theme I set for myself. It was in June 1967, while Andy and I and a group of us were holed up at the Cannes Film Festival that we learned of the sudden and tragic death of Francoise Dorleac. She was at the height of stardom in the movies when she died in a horrendous car crash on the notorious La Provencale highway just outside Nice. She was beautiful in all the ways you can imagine; she was smart; she had everything going for her—and phoof. It was all over in a matter of seconds. There’s a line by Oscar Wilde that, in a sense, obviously applies here to what my poems came to be about for me: “Life imitates art.” It was a kinda reverse prophecy in which the poems caught up to the moment of life after death. And then just before chic death appeared in January ’71, two friends who had a major career opening up for them as fashion models were killed together in a car crash. Close to this time also, another friend and already successful model Agneta Freiberg died from injuries sustained from a plunge out her hotel window in Paris. It just got to be too much. In the end, I guess I was caught up in the creative energy of seeing that I could put into poetry what had otherwise not been tried before and this is what kept me going. But when these deaths happened so close to one another, it just got to be too much. It was almost too spooky. There was nothing more for me to write about.
It’s funny when you bring up that author’s photo of me. It was taken during the summer of 1970 in a field adjacent to my friend Jerry Martin’s barn, and it marked my first summer in the Berkshires. In November 1986, I buried my cat Eban in exactly that part of the field that you see behind me in the picture. So there’s a certain poignant moment for me in looking at this picture now. Eban’s death marked the end of a thirteen-year companionship. In life thus death resides.
LMM: In your book Three Diamonds (Black Sparrow Press, 1991) something drastically changes in your poetic line as well as your orientation towards the poem. What sparked that shift? There are many references to William Carlos Williams in the book. Since I love WCW I am curious about his influence on these poems.
GM: The poems that comprise Three Diamonds, the way I remember it, loosened up my line quite a bit. Also, thematically, I discovered remarkable similarities in some of William Carlos Williams’s work. In doing what I was doing, I felt like I was able to reach back into his past where we could have a dialogue and compare notes, as you will. That made me feel I was on to something. My work visually became more expansive. The poems also relate to a series of photographs I had started back in the early ’80s involving voyeurism. I wanted to see how far I could push the parameters of poetry to engage in the kinds of subject matters I was exploring with the camera. The approach was very investigative, almost clinical, you might say. Psychically, it felt that way. Other references kept on cropping up as well; Kierkegaard and Freud, for instance, Lewis Carroll, Little Red Riding Hood, the tartan as an erotic iconic image. I was having so much fun with it. I got the sense that there was just so much more than meets the eye and some of this material ended up in poems, and some of it resulted in my photography. They were literally feeding into each other. I was on a roll.
LMM: I see what you mean about the voyeurism, especially in the poem “Art Project: Mystery Woman, Ongoing Sighting.” In it, you write, “This poem is the desire to enter the life/of the person I’ve already photographed.” Then you write that the poem is the photo “Girl in Fulton Street, New York” by Walker Evans, taken in 1929. A powerful image. How has the process of writing poetry fed into your work as a photographer and vice versa?
GM: I haven’t given any thought about this poem in decades! Are you trying to turn me back into a voyeur or what?! There was this girl see living literally around the corner from me back in 1982. She was a stunner. She had to be a “somebody.” You just don’t look the way you look the way this girl looked unless you’re a somebody. I sized her up. She had everything going for her, but she gave off this vibe of being very standoff-ish, like she knew it all about herself. I knew there was less of a chance of photographing her in a formal situation. In those days when I prowled the street—just like maybe the way Walker Evans worked—I never made contact with the person after I photographed them candidly. What’s the point? Then it’s not about the photo anymore; it just becomes a means to the end. It’s a pick-up. The art’s demeaned and diminished. I always had my Nikon with me in the ready like I was on the hunt. Hunting and photographing are very similar, come to think of it. For these kinds of candid shots I had my 105mm lens attached, which creates a comfortable distance between me and the subject. The whole point of photographing this particular person was just to have a record of the way she looked. That’s all. I wasn’t planning on knocking on her door or something. Finally, one day the occasion presented itself. She was walking down Fourth Avenue just when I was standing talking to this street merchant. So I pretended to photograph the merchant by framing it just so over the merchant’s shoulder so when the girl walked into my frame I was able to get the shot—all this in a matter of a few seconds. So when I got the film back from the lab, that’s when I started working on the poem and then discovered the Walker Evans photo of “the Girl in Fulton Street.” His photo for me was really an afterthought, but I was able to work it in nicely. The Evans shot is powerful, as you say. The two photos are not alike if you were to put them side-by-side, but then it’s clear this voyeuristic dynamic is evident where the photographer’s distance from the subject plays out as if it were a “chase.” I call these shots the “stalking pictures.” I’m a visual poet. I write in images, and so it’s very easy for me to translate a photo into a poem, especially if the poem’s subject happens to be a captured muse, the focal inspiration.
LMM: This reminds me of what the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia said about one of your films from the ’60s, In Search of the Miraculous, which recently screened in New York alongside some other films you’d made around the same time; Moravia said the film was composed of “a series of images strangely beautiful and revealing.” What first prompted you to make these films and what was it like revisiting them 45 years later?
GM: Well, I’ve seen these films a lot of times before in different venues, mostly in Europe, so it was no great surprise for me. A couple of decades back I’d put together what I call the “Gerard Malanga Poetry & Film” programme. So the audiences really enjoy what’s being shown and they get to appreciate another side of my work. What was different in the last programme I had, beside the fact that they hadn’t been screened in the city for so long, was the format. The program was more or less in the form of an exhibition where visitors could wander in and wander out and even sit awhile and see what’s on the wall. There was no screen set-up. The movies took up one entire wall as if it were some kind of moving fresco. So that was interesting, given the technology in use now. My concept was that there would be no other artwork on the adjoining walls. Everything would be blank. My work was basically a one-man show.
You ask what prompted me to make these movies. You have to understand that I was immersed in the underground movie milieu quite early on, even before my involvement with Warhol, when I was a teen. My mentors were Willard Maas and Marie Menken, both married in life as well as work. Willard, at the time hadn’t made any movies in quite awhile, but Marie was quite active, and sometimes I’d go on outings with her, just to keep her company and in case she needed some assist. I even designed movie titles for a couple of her flicks. I was also very close friends with Parker Tyler whom I’d met through Willard and Marie. At that time in the ’60s, he was the preeminent film critic. He’d already published two classics on the subject, Magic and Myth of the Movies and The Hollywood Hallucination—both indispensible for anyone seeking an understanding in moviemaking. When I went to work for Warhol, he was already seriously thinking about making a movie. So Charles Henri Ford, considered America’s first Surrealist poet, and I took Andy to Peerless Camera to buy a movie camera, and he settled on a brand-new model of the Bolex16. Shortly after, he shot his first movie, Sleep. You see, all this creative buzz was happening around me, so it only seemed inevitable that I’d want to make movie, too. My role model was Jean Cocteau. He did just about everything, from being a poet to designing costumes and making illustrations to directing movies. If he could do it, I figured I could do it, too. And so I got hooked. The experience for me of shooting and editing was akin to writing a poem. There’s no other way to describe it. I found myself suddenly working with images, both in the shooting and in the editing. Editing a movie is really a form of collage, in a way. It’s seeing what works with what. It’s really a lot of fun.
LMM: I love Cocteau, especially Jean-Pierre Melville’s film adaptation of Cocteau’s novel, Les Enfants Terribles. Not long ago I found out that the female lead in it, Nicole Stéphane, was a girlfriend of Susan Sontag’s. What was the first Cocteau film you saw?
GM: The first Cocteau movie I ever saw was Blood of a Poet. I think the venue was Cinema16, a film society in New York showing 16mm prints founded by Amos Vogel. That movie had a profound effect and influence on the early American avant-garde cinema, including Willard’s early movies and those of Stan Brakhage, who was also a protégé of Willard and Marie. I have the original 1940s first edition of Blood of a Poet with enlarged movie-stills that Willard gave me, so Cocteau’s ghost is lurking on my shelves somewhere. But I haven’t had a look at all this stuff in quite awhile.
LMM: When did you meet Willard Maas and Marie Menken?
GM: Oi, vai! This is a long long story, but I gotta say that it was through Willard and Marie—especially Willard—who opened the doors to the high-fallutin New York literati. Back in early 1960, in my senior year at the School of Industrial Art, my English teacher Daisy Aldan arranged for me to officially escort Kenward Elmslie and Ruth Yorck around the school before they were to give a reading of their poetry in our creative writing class. Since I was on the staff of the school newspaper I arranged with Kenward to do a correspondence interview with him for the paper. I was so naive to think he was a Beat poet and so my questions were geared in that direction. Kenward must’ve been charmed by the whole idea, and in one of his letters he invited me to a party he was hosting at his home in Greenwich Village on April 30th. I didn’t tell Daisy about the invite because I wanted to surprise her. The party’s theme was called “The Big Loyalty Day” and lots of Americana was hanging from the walls. The party was literally a Who’s Who of the New York art scene: Diane Di Prima and Le Roi Jones, Kenneth Koch, Jimmy Merrill, Howard Moss, poetry editor of The New Yorker, the painter Joan Mitchell and her husband, the publisher Barney Rosset of Grove Press, Frank O’Hara and a young Bill Berkson, Don Allen whose now-classic anthology, The New American Poetry had just come out; and a lot of those poets in the book were there in real life! I couldn’t believe it. Truly glamorous. I was thunder-struck. I introduced myself to Frank and Bill whose picture I recognized in Fred McDarrah’s book, The Beat Scene, but Bill was being a bit stand-offish. When I arrived he was no longer the youngest poet at the party. We joked about it years later when he finally took me seriously. Daisy arrives and the first thing she says when I greeted her is “What are you doing here?!!!,” and then she gave me a big smile. I was wearing a suit-and-tie that you could die for, and when Willard saw me, that’s just about what he did. He was smitten at first sight. He was inebriated. He literally got on his knees at one point and wanted to kiss my hand and was calling me a genius. It was like Verlaine meeting Rimbaud. Daisy made Willard promise not to get in touch with me until after graduation that coming June. She was worried for her job, I found out later. Willard kept his promise and nothing happened. I graduated, and then one dog day afternoon in August I was out at Riis Park Beach, and who do I run into but Willard! Well, he immediately invited me to his blanket and we got to talking about poetry, his and mine, as well as my future. No sooner than the day was ending, he invited me back to the “penthouse” where he and Marie were living, basically a shack on the roof in Brooklyn Heights with a killer view of the lower Manhattan skyline, loads of books and artworks and two dogs—a white borzoi named Alexey and a black lab called Blackie who was Marie’s guard dog—and that’s when I met Marie for the first time, but it was brief. She was off to work running the International Cable Desk at Time, Inc. for the night shift. I was already accepted as an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati, so my friendship with Marie and Willard really didn’t get underway until a year later after I’d flunked out of U.C.; so much happened after that it would take chapters to catch up. They were dear dear friends until their untimely deaths a few days apart on Christmas week 1970. Daisy was my first mentor, and Marie and Willard were my second mentors in the way that I had developed as a poet because of what I had learned from them.
LMM: I’m trying to imagine you, still in high school, attending this very hip party in Greenwich Village. O’Hara’s Second Avenue had come out in 1960, Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poets, as you mentioned, was also published that year, and Baraka’s first book, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, was due out in 1961. How familiar were you at that point with the downtown poetry scene?
GM: Don Allen’s The New American Poetry was a career-maker or a career-breaker for anyone who appeared in its pages. A few went on to greater fame with the years and quite a few fell below the radar. Those who didn’t make the cut went on with their singular dedication and agenda. I was still in high school when the compilation appeared and I remember distinctly Daisy Aldan’s great disappointment during lunch-break on discovering that she was not included. You have to imagine that this anthology was quite revolutionary for its time. There was nothing like it that would foreshadow things to come. Don Allen, its editor, confided in me back in ’72 during a long car trip from Bolinas to Vancouver, that Robert Bly came to see him to discourage him from bringing out the anthology for whatever reason. Bly was in the New Poets of England and America anthology that the Hall-Pack-Simpson trio were editing and Pack and Simpson didn’t like the competition. All the usual suspects were included, a few really terrific. Denise Levertov was the only crossover, but the rest, merely so-so.
I thoroughly familiarized myself with the New York literary scene from what I could get my hands on at the 8th Street Bookshop which was the hub for the mass of new lit mags and small press books that were publishing the “new.” And I was thoroughly immersed in the “new.” It was so much fun for me to dive into the research. I became an instant fan of Frank O’Hara, and, of course, had copies of nearly all the small books that included him and his friends published by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. But, yeah, it wasn’t until Kenward’s party, that I experienced firsthand the full thrust of these poets in the flesh. LeRoi Jones and Diane di Prima were a definite item back then. I owe it all to Daisy Aldan who opened my eyes and ears to the poetry world as it was thriving at this time in the city. I frequently attended the poetry readings, stacked up on lots of books. I even ended up being on the exclusive mailing-list for Diane di Prima’s Floating Bear mimeo newsletter. Kenneth Koch arranged for a full-scholarship so I could attend his poetry workshop at the New School, which was a truly exciting experience infused with new ways of writing poems. By 1963, I participated in the weekly Monday night group readings at the Cafe Le Metro in the East Village. It was a real incubator for exchanging ideas and sharing those enthusiasms that brought us poets together.
LMM: Are there any specific poetry readings from this period that stand out as having been particularly memorable?
GM: There were two readings that I attended and which stand out for me as events bordering on the historic at this point. I forget which came first, but my guess is the reading with Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan preceded the one with Robert Lowell and John Berryman. They were both sponsored by the Academy of American Poets and took place in the basement auditorium of the Guggenheim Museum. These readings drew overflowing crowds; there were people sitting in the aisles. I’m pretty sure the readings were recorded. It would seem so. It was at the Creeley-Levertov-Duncan reading that my friendship with Bob [Creeley] developed. It was a heartwarming situation. I used to attend lots of readings when I first started out, but now rarely go to any. The last one I went to was in Woodstock a few months back; Peter Lamborn Wilson and Anne Waldman and Michael Brownstein read together. It was a terrific evening, especially to hear Peter read. His presence is always and outgoing event.
LMM: Wow, yes, I believe the Lowell-Berryman poetry reading took place on Halloween, 1963, and the Creeley-Levertov-Duncan reading occurred on April 16, 1964. By happenstance, I listened to Berryman’s portion of that Guggenheim reading a couple of weeks ago and I have to confess, that kind of event strikes me as the complete and polar opposite of the affair you put on at Leo Castelli in ’64, especially after reading Eugenia Sheppard’s write-up in the New York-Herald Tribune. I also can’t imagine that there was a lot of cross over in the types of people who attended these events. I guess what I am getting at is The Factory, your debut at Leo Castelli, Marie Menken, Chelsea Girls, these all seem a world away from whatever might have been happening through the Academy of American Poets and the Guggenheim. Did you ever feel a tension or unique difficulty in navigating these vastly different scenes?
GM: That’s a terrific question and one that I was hoping would be addressed at some point. It was rough-going it for me in my involvement with the New York School poets— especially the 2nd generation, as they came to be known. They were so parochial in their attitude and tastes. This is not to say, the same thing wasn’t happening on the other side of the divide either—it was, but I remained respectful and invigorated wherever genuine poetry existed. For instance, there was Piero Heliczer, a poet of extraordinary talent I discovered early on. He was I’d say about half a generation older than me. He lived in their midst, right in the East Village, but he was totally shunned by the New York poets. There was too much of this nonsense going on. In fact, a lot of this petty nonsense was directed at me also. Here I was appearing side by side with everyone you could imagine in Locus Solus and in the legendary Art & Literature edited from Paris by John Ashbery and yet I was barely able to break through in the other magazines they represented, except for Ted Berrigan’s C magazine and Angel Hair which Lewis Warsh and Anne Waldman were bringing out. As soon as you show signs of the contrary, you’re automatically suspect. But in the end, I didn’t care. I just did what I did, no matter. In the end, if the work is strong enough and true enough, it’s gonna move you; it will have a following no matter who you are. And the people will love you for it; and I’m the people, too, if I’m following my own instincts and taste into what I like and what moves me.
LMM: What constituted “the petty nonsense” of those particular times? The experiences that you are alluding to remind me again of a line in one of your poems where you ask, “Is poetry to be trusted?/Am I to be trusted!” I often wonder about this: the poets and kinds of poetics “we” nominate, award, and elect to reveal “the truth.” Where do you suppose that paranoia about poetry as a corrupt institution comes from?
GM: It comes from the N.E.A. incident of 1979-1980. I never really spoke about this brief incident regarding the N.E.A. as it unfolded to anyone, but I endured what I felt was a sense of betrayal by Ron Padgett and his fellow panelists. As a panelist, Ron was chosen to uphold a supreme responsibility for the N.E.A. and was in a mighty influential position to dole out grants to whomever he felt worthy. These grants amounted to $10,000— a lot of dough in 1979. To me, that was a small fortune. I could have easily turned my life around in the blink of an eye, but it was not meant to be. OK. When the names of the recipients were made known, it read like a Who’s Who of the New York School and its West Coast allies and the Language Poets. In my opinion, it was a wholesale payout down the line; it almost sounded like a thumbs up/thumbs down kind of thing. Now mind you, for years from the inception of the N.E.A. poetry grants back in ’74, I want to say, until five years later, the choices that were made with a modest five-grand were given over to the academia across the boards. It was almost as if they had it sewn up, lock, stock and barrel, but the funny thing was I could live with that. It was what was to be expected, par for the course, but it was still above boards in a way. Your work had to earn it. But, in my opinion, when Ron was brought in with his cohorts, it was like the floodwaters breached the dam. I never thought of myself as being victimized, but that’s how I felt on the day when I opened the envelope, which I called Black Friday. I know for one that one poet friend did feel utterly betrayed and demoralized, and that was Jim Brodey. To tell you the truth, I don’t think he ever really got over it, because he was pretty much within the inner circle and felt stabbed in the back; he told me so, and his life literally took a nose dive after that. Even my close buddy Charley Plymell who was nearly ten years older than most of us went ballistic with the press; good for Charley. He just wasn’t gonna stand for it. But in the end what good did that do? Up until that time, the appointed panelists knew who the poets were whose work crossed their desk, so obviously the N.E.A. folks were going to implement some changes once all the noise died down. From that year forward, all manuscripts had to be submitted anonymously to insure fairness, so the readjusted N.E.A. guidelines stated. I’m not so sure that’s such a good thing, after all because all it means is that the panelists are protected from unwanted criticism should something go wrong; it also means that more bad work ends up getting the grants because there’s no way to put a poet’s work into a “context,” which I believe works better in judging the quality of the work over all. But the end-result, which I found amusing, is that Ron was unapologetic to the end. In my opinion, he saw nothing wrong with what he did. He probably thought, Well, now it’s our turn. Yet, he could’ve been a bit more magnanimous. That’s all it would’ve taken to make it more fair. But you wanna know something?—it’s been some 35-some-odd years since all this shit went down. I’m on safer ground and more secure in my work than ever. Nobody can touch me, and I won’t let the N.E.A. claim me as one of their own. And where does this leave Ron in his twilight years? I wonder.
LMM: Having looked up the list of those who were awarded N.E.A. Literature Fellowships in 1979, I see what you mean. From what I understand, not winning the golden poetry ticket wasn’t what discouraged you that “Black Friday,” as you remember it— it was the realization that the award system was rigged that disrupted your initial belief in poetry as a thing-in-and-of-itself to be trusted. Recent incidents in the poetry community as of late have lead me to believe that at some point, every poet’s faith in poetry, which is to say faith also in the poetry community, has to be tested. That being said, you still write, and recently published a chapbook. What else are you working on these days?
GM: Poetry politics has to be the worst kind of politics because the stakes are so high for a smaller and smaller slice of the pie. It’s all so boring really. My aim is to strive for the best that’s in me to produce. When I’m on, I’m on, and no better way to get a feel for what I’m doing is when I’m giving a reading. Last year I was blessed with having hooked up with a small press publisher named Bill Roberts whose venture is Bottle of Smoke Press. Charley Plymell hooked us up. He brought out what I consider my first real chapbook ever called Tomboy & Other Tales. It’s a modest venture: 7 poems and my first and only piece of short fiction. But it’s my first little book since my New & Selected Poems that Black Sparrow Press brought out in 2001, just before they retired. Bill did an absolutely swell job with Tomboy; all the details and production cohered and now we’re planning my first full-length book of poetry for sometime next year. It’s called Whisper Sweet Nothings & Other Poems, and covers just about all my favorites going back two years or so right up to the present. This will be Bill’s first full-length book as well. He’s hyped and so am I. I’m also heavily involved as a lender and artist in the upcoming exhibit on the Velvet Underground opening next March in Paris, and I’ll be there to partake of the festivities. But my main focus is my autobiography, which I spent all of 2014 writing; it’s finished and I’m currently in the editing stage refining it here and there. It opens up when I’m 5 years old and goes right up to the present; I also plan to include in it lots of never-seen-before photos. Right now I’m searching for an agent, so that’s the other half of the project to make it work. I’ve been getting lots of positive feedback from friends with whom I’ve shared samples, so we’ll see how things develop. I’m upbeat-optimistic.
Lara Mimosa Montes is the author of The Somnambulist (Horse Less Press, forthcoming 2016). Her work has appeared in Fence, Triple Canopy, BOMB, recaps, and elsewhere. She currently teaches poetry at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
Gerard Malanga was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1943. His poetry came to prominence in the early 1960s with a growing international following. He is the author of more than a dozen volumes of verse, culminating with No Respect: New & Selected Poems 1964-2000, published by Black Sparrow Press in 2001. His newest book, Whisper Sweet Nothings & Other Poems, to be published by Bottle of Smoke Press this Fall, marks his first appearance in fifteen years. He is also the co-author with Victor Bockris of the internationally acclaimed Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story, The Angus MacLise Checklist, four books of photography, and two Spoken Word CD compilations. In 2003, he produced the double CD of Angus MacLise’s selected tapes called The Cloud Doctrine. He is also the author of the 4-volume set, AM: Archives Malanga (2012), consisting of essays, sketches, photography and poetry. His work has appeared in Poetry, Raritan, Yale Review, Harvard Review, Southwest Review, Paris Review, Partisan Review and The New Yorker. He is presently at work on his autobiography, In Remembrance of Things Past. He lives with his 4 cats, Sasha, Zazie, Xena and Mishkin in upstate New York. His website is: gerardmalanga.net