It's been nearly five decades since Gerard Malanga danced with a whip in front of the Velvet Underground. During that time, he's starred in underground films by Andy Warhol and Piero Heliczer, directed his own films, and shot iconic portraits of William S. Burroughs, a nude Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger, John Ashbery, and young Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, among others. He's published more than 20 books, co-founded Interview magazine, and had photo exhibits all over the world. Lately he's been translating César Vallejo, running a "rare and used" book business with partner Asako Kitaori, reading Proust, and writing his memoirs in Venice.
So how does this polymath answer the cocktail-party question, "What do you do?"
Malanga doesn't hesitate: "I'm a poet." Everything he does comes under that heading, he says. "When I was a teenager, just starting to write, one of my big heroes was Jean Cocteau. He did a lot of different things—sets for ballets, film—but all with the touch of a poet. I kind of saw myself in that mold."
Rain streaks the windows of Hudson's Ca' Mea as Malanga orders rigatoni al ragu on linguine instead ("They do that for me," he explains). He's lived in Hudson since 2008, when his library and Kitaori's used-book inventory overtook their Brooklyn apartment. With his leonine head, ice-blue eyes, and checkered suit jacket, Malanga cuts a striking figure. A trace of Bronx gravel remains in his voice; he often peppers his phrases with an upward "OK?"
The only son of Italian immigrants, he grew up on Fordham Road. His father, Gerardo, was a dry goods salesman who took his son on business trips to the Lower East Side. "He was the only Italian in the Jewish rag trade," Malanga recalls.
Both parents encouraged his early talent for drawing. "They said, 'Maybe you'll be an art teacher'—they didn't know about artists," Malenga says wryly. But they enrolled him in an afterschool art class—"my parents' way of keeping me off the streets"—where he fell in love with a book called Metropolis. "It was a 1930s portrait of New York City," he says. "I was obsessed with it. I'd sit in a corner of the classroom and flip through the photos. At the end of the class, I charmed the teacher into giving it to me." He still has it.
Inspired by this and a newspaper series called "New York's Changing Scene," a 12-year-old Malanga decided to photograph the Third Avenue El train before it was demolished. He and his father got to the 125th Street platform just as the train pulled in on its last uptown run. "I've always believed in luck, that I had a guardian angel," Malanga says. The rush-hour train was filled with commuters. "I was wiggling my way through the crowd—a bunch of reporters with Graflexes made room, like the parting of the waves." The 12-year-old stood at the front window with his Brownie camera. "I wasn't thinking about photography," Malanga says. "I was thinking about documenting something."
Years later, that would be the guiding principle of the 472 "Screen Tests" he and Warhol shot at the Factory. But the next art form to seduce him was poetry.
On the strength of his drawing portfolio, Malanga was accepted as a sophomore at the High School of Industrial Art (now Art and Design). He flunked English that year, but his senior English teacher, poet Daisy Aldan, changed everything.
"Here's where the guardian angel comes in," says Malanga. "Within a month of being in her class, I wanted to be a poet. We were reading Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Anaïs Nin. She brought guest poets in to give readings. I used to write love poems to her, slightly disguised, of course—my apple for the teacher."
Next came the University of Cincinnati, where "I was such a bohemian, it was ridiculous." Malanga flunked out and returned to the Bronx. Willard Maas, a professor at Wagner College, found the young poet a fellowship that would become a four-year scholarship if he got straight As his first year. He did.
He also entered a remarkable writing community. At Wagner's Summer Writers conference, Robert Lowell headed the poetry program, Saul Bellow fiction, and Edward Albee playwriting. Malanga studied with Lowell, and remembers Bellow "crashing into my room, saying, 'Get up, get up, we've gotta play softball!'" and Albee sitting on the floor at faculty cocktail parties, taking notes for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
That summer, Malanga won the first Gotham Book Mart Avant-Garde Poetry Prize. ("Two hundred dollars," he beams.) A year later, he joined a symposium with Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, LeRoi Jones, and Kay Boyle (whose daughter was "the first love of my life"). When the conference was over, he needed a summer job. Charles Henri Ford introduced him to a young artist who needed help with a silkscreening project; Malanga had once silkscreened textiles for a necktie designer. Andy Warhol hired him on the spot, for $1.25 an hour.
"I didn't know anything about Andy," says Malanga, noting that "the whole pop art scene was pretty new" in 1963. He started two days later—"not at the Factory; there was no Factory yet. In an empty firehouse Andy had rented, two blocks from where he lived with his mother."
They spent the summer making silkscreens. "The first was the Elizabeth Taylor portrait. Ethel Scull 36 Times, Elvis Presley, Death and Disasters—we put out a lot of stuff, just the two of us." When Warhol was offered a gallery show in LA, Malanga impulsively drove cross-country with him, Taylor Mead, and Wynn Chamberlain. (Deborah Davis's book about this high-powered excursion, The Trip, will be published this July.) He never went back to college. "That summer job lasted seven years," he says, grinning.
The Factory's wild-party whirlwind blew open many new doors, but Malanga never stopped writing. "When I started working for Andy, I already had an identity as a poet," he asserts. "I was sending out work all the time. " Was Warhol interested in his poems? Malanga nods, taking a sip of Montepulciano. "He used to hold them up close to his eyes. That's how he read everything."
In 1964, Ford and Malanga took Warhol to Peerless Photo and bought a 16mm Bolex for $250. "It had an exterior motor drive so you didn't have to crank it—you could plug it directly into the wall and shoot continuously for three minutes."
That time span—the length of a 16mm film reel—would dictate the shape of Warhol and Malanga's next collaboration. Malanga wanted an author photo, and instead of a still, they shot a reel of black-and-white film from which he could choose a few frames. It came out so well, they decided to try it again with friends. "We never talked formally about it as a series. It was very spontaneous," Malanga recalls. They set up the Bolex in Warhol's silver-wrapped loft space. "Whoever visited the Factory, we'd say, 'Want to do a Screen Test? Don't worry, it only takes three minutes." Takers included Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Allen Ginsberg, Susan Sontag, Dennis Hopper, Edie Sedgwick, Salvador Dali, and hundreds more; Malanga wrote 54 poems to accompany a selection of stills for the book Screen Tests/A Diary.
He went on to direct 12 longer films, most recently in 2005, when the Vienna International Film Festival did a retrospective of his work. "I felt guilty, because the last film I made was in 1970," he says. So he assembled some footage he'd shot in 1969 into Gerard Malanga's Film Notebooks, with music by Angus MacLise.
Nineteen sixty-nine was also the year he discovered the late Peruvian poet César Vallejo, reading "great translations of individual poems by Robert Bly and James Wright," along with "a whole book of awful ones." He felt an immediate spiritual bond, riveted by Vallejo's struggles as a poor expatriate in 1930s Paris, and the poetic voice that shone through even clumsy translations. "His work is so visceral, no one can touch him. He's really a giant."
Not fluent in Spanish, Malanga "looked at a lot of different translations, trying to find what I thought was his voice," then went to work, with Cassell's Spanish Dictionary always at hand. In 1970, he wrote to Vallejo's widow in Peru, enclosing his versions of 20 poems. "She was very enthusiastic," he reports; in letters he includes in Malanga Chasing Vallejo (Three Rooms Press, 2014), Madame Georgette de Vallejo exhorts "my much estimated Malanga" not to take liberties, offering detailed notes.
In his introduction to this bilingual edition, Malanga calls his approach to the poems "transubstantiating them from one language to another," noting that 45 years have passed since this "long voyage through uncharted waters" began. He also recently published a chapbook including his first piece of fiction, Tomboy & Other Tales (Bottle of Smoke Press, 2014), and a new book of photographs, Ghostly Berms (Inarco Books, 2013).
Malanga Chasing Vallejo includes many photographs of Vallejo, and one of Malanga giving a reading at his burial plot in Paris. As always, there's a story to tell. "It took us about an hour to find the right gravesite, OK? The real estate is like really tight." Malanga sat on Vallejo's tombstone, reading his translations to a small audience. "I read the last poem and it started to drizzle. Somebody said, 'We're being blessed.' And we dashed across the street to a cafe."