Half his life ago, the poet and photographer Gerard Malanga was a valiantly cool, impossibly handsome superstar produced by Andy Warhol’s Factory. In snapshots of the 60s and early 70s, he lounges next to Dylan, Ginsberg, the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones with the lively narcissism proper for a 20-something who was Warhol’s right-hand man.
This morning, at his daily breakfast in a tacky diner in Brooklyn, he wears a crumpled Oleg Cassini tweed jacket over a shabby shirt and cotton knit tie. (“All from the flea market,” he boasts.) Malanga drinks a cappuccino, nibbles on a croissant and writes poetry on the Sunday New York Times Metro section.
“Writing poetry is going into a trance,” he says after putting his pen down. “It is outside of sensual experience.”
Sensual indeed. In a 1973 biography of Warhol, Stephen Koch dubbed Malanga “the endlessly talkative golden boy of the art world … For six years, (he) must have attended five parties a night.” The aging poet sighs: “Maybe two. Not five.”
But the partying was productive. Malanga remembers introducing Warhol to Lou Reed, then dancing on stage throughout the Velvet Underground’s first tour. “I had a lead pencil that I pretended was a syringe for ‘Heroin,’ a whip (for ‘Venus in Furs’), and dumbbells for ‘Waiting for the Man.'” God bless the Velvets.
From 1963 (at age 20) to 1970, Malanga also got around to doing all of Warhol’s silk-screening, acting in crucial Factory films (like “Vinyl,” Warhol’s unhinged adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange”) and then co-founding Interview Magazine. And yet he doesn’t talk much about his pop-pinup heritage. “Fame is a grain of salt. It is ephemeral,” he pronounces in true Warhol spirit.
“I respected what Andy was doing — I was working on it — but he wasn’t my favorite then and he is not now.”
As for the other pop icons: “(Robert) Rauschenberg is poetry, a kind of three-dimensional poetry, a blast in the canon. … Jasper (Johns) is the prose to his poetry. In fact, they were loft-mates in the early days.” And Lichtenstein? “I was never a fan. Roy’s a sweet guy, but he’s a one-trick pony.”
Malanga is not. In 1971, as his work with Warhol was winding down, he woke up at a friend’s house next to Iggy Pop. “He had just broken up with his girlfriend, he was very depressed. … In the morning he was doing some exercises, and I told him to take off his shirt. Then I told him to take off his trousers.”
He ranks his nude portrait of that scrawny punk as “iconic,” along with his snapshots of William Burroughs and poet Charles Olson.
He is indeed at his most shrewd and precise when capturing other artists. The Beinecke Library’s new retrospective of Chelsea Review is commanded by Malanga’s portraiture of the literary journal’s contributors. In the most memorable image, Ginsberg grins maniacally, shackled with some beaded necklace. The exhibit runs until early June.
Like his photos, Malanga’s poetry is plaintive but light-handed. He was first published at 19, when Chelsea’s 12th issue ran two of his poems. Even then, his verse drifts towards hazy nostalgia.
“The Nassau Loop Is No Longer Running,” a poem from the 1990s, ends like a Tom Waits ballad: “It still gets cold. The map’s been redrawn./ The lights of the train stood still and then vanished.”
In 2001, the venerated avant-garde press Black Sparrow Books printed a 36-year anthology of his work. The collection is called “No Respect,” yet its back page contains poet Muriel Rukeyser’s high-flying reverence: She once called him “one of the best poets of his generation,” praising his body of work as “one of honor, humaneness and durability.”
Malanga seems joyous when addressing his poetry from the past four years, work he describes as the realization of a long-ago epiphany. “One day I was thinking about it, as usual, but found myself writing about it. Stream of consciousness — no, stream of unconsciousness,” he adds innocently. “I was creating something new.”
He reads aloud a compelling prose poem, “Zachary Scott.” The verse is morbid and funny in a way only old men can manage.
“I’m going back to the people I’ve known and loved, and people I’ve wanted to but didn’t,” he gushes afterward. “Talk about happiness? I’m having a lot of fun.”