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After the Factory

Chasing Gerard Malanga



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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).

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