In conversation with
poet Gerard Malanga
After meeting at a French New Wave Cinema book launch in London in November 2019, poets Gerard Malanga and Scarlett Sabet have since kept in regular correspondence via email.
Sabet is a London-based writer and performer, and author of four collections, Rocking Underground (2014), The Lock And The Key (2016), Zoreh (2018), and Camille (2019). In 2019 she released Catalyst, a spoken word album produced by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.
Malanga has written over twenty poetry collections since 1967. He is a writer, artist, photographer and filmmaker. In 1992 The New York Times described him as ‘Andy Warhol’s most important associate’ and in 2019 his latest collection Cool & Other Poems was published by Bottle of Smoke Press.
In this unique interview, conducted over several weeks while thousands of miles apart, the two writers discuss shared influences, the recent passing of the Beat Generation poet Michael McClure, and the grounding influence of poetry throughout the international lockdown.
GERARD MALANGA: You ask how my week has been? I’ve been in lockdown now for 3 weeks or so, though I might’ve lost count. I have plenty to keep me busy in the house here, plus I have responsibility towards my 3 cats. And then there’s dreamtime, between 4 & 6 in the morning.
But suddenly I felt days back this ennui coming on, like, did the poetry suddenly disappear? Sometimes I’m concerned—but just for a moment mind you—whether I can match or even better the last one? There’s no way I can predict when the muse will appear. If I had the answer, it would vanquish the mystique.
Since I’ve been in lockdown, there’s no going out for me for the morning coffee and The New York Times unfolding on the table. Many a first draft has begun that way, but now with a physical displacement of sorts I can’t claim to be an habitue of the cafe life. The kitchen table serves me well – or wherever I happen to be outdoors – so long as I have a small notebook in my pocket. I even prop myself up in bed with a clipboard pressed against my knees. I follow where I feel a poem coming on. When I start, then I know I’m in for it, but don’t give it the slightest thought. I’m in for the ride.
SCARLETT SABET: Yes, I find sometimes walking in the morning, having a destination, getting into my body and moving get’s the ball rolling with writing. I can understand the ritual of going to a cafe. I’ve written on trains a lot, the motion and rhythm helps, and because I’m in a vacuum in transit I can’t be reached.
I love the image of your 4am dream writing, I think that’s a great ritual. Sometimes I write three pages first thing in the morning, and it’s just anything on my mind. I’ve also found meditation helpful, deepening my state of consciousness and then writing straight afterwards to see what comes out, kind of like automatic writing in the spirit of Austin Osman Spare.
We were both raised Catholic, I wonder if that has had any bearing on your writing or practices? I find a great sense of divinity in art, those moments of inspiration.
GM: Funny that you would mention that. No one’s ever asked me about my spirituality, that I recall. People have weird notions about me, like I’m some kind of guy about town. I may have a little bit of that too. But spirituality for me is to be able to laugh at yourself. Even when I talk to my cats, I’m laughing at myself. I don’t mean physically laughing as such but going about life without being self-conscious. It helps when I’m writing a poem.
Back in 1970 or so, I had a spiritual conversion. One of my closest friends, a guy named Jim Jacobs, turned me on to the first two Carlos Castaneda/Don Juan books; so we were basically comparing notes and one of the themes that came through for us was to follow your nature to be happy. Suddenly we found ourselves wearing white clothing and calling ourselves the white lights. When we went to London we ended up buying an all-white 1939 Bentley convertible with one windshield wiper not wiping, and it basically gave us the freedom to go visit friends in the English countryside. It sounds hysterically funny when I look back at this, but we were quite sincere in our endeavors. If this was going to be our path we had to be true to the discoveries we made along the way.
During our travels we decided to split off and agreed to re-connect a couple of years later in the Massachusetts Berkshires where he’s from and continue where we left off. Jim ended up being one of the top dealers in the secondary art market handling the likes of Judd and Cy Twombly, and now he’s curating shows. I continued to write poetry without a care in the world and became more attuned to the pictures I was taking. I truly feel I’ve become a better photographer because of the experiences I had. You have to be courageous to suddenly drop out and then drop back in.
Back in ’74, I had this idea for a book of my spiritual poetry that would have as its cover one of those kitschy paintings of Jesus. I called it ‘Poems for the Fat Lady’. You know, the Fat Lady was a phrase I’d picked up from reading Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, where he’s actually equating Jesus with the Fat Lady, that they were one. That’s pretty neat, I thought. It didn’t go over too well with my publisher who rejected the idea outright. He thought I was joking. So I settled for a kind of even-balanced title, Incarnations,’ and changed the poems around.
Perhaps, the Fat Lady was the closest I ever got to God, though I don’t give it much thought these days. It’s the inspiration and the love that come from it which is the driving force and source for much of what I’m writing nowadays, and that’s the joy when I finally finish a poem. A state of happiness sets in for me.
SS: And what you said makes sense, I can understand it. Did you have a period where you rebelled against spirituality or Catholicism and were, say, atheist? Although it’s bizarre for me to admit it, once I left school I did swing to atheism, I guess as a way of rebelling or a reaction. School can be dogmatic.
GM: In hindsight, to embrace atheism, Scarlett, would deny the spirituality within me which accounts for a lot of my poetry as well. There was no real rebellion on my part. I always felt that my guardian angel was looking after me when I was fated to become a poet. Who would I be, otherwise? It’s a scary proposition, come to think of it.
SS: True, looking back I realise I’ve always had a Guardian Angel too. I’m so sorry for the loss of [influential Beat poet] Michael McClure, and I was moved by the picture you took of him in San Francisco, 1972. What was that day like?
GM: If I live long enough, God willing, I may end up not knowing anyone because at this juncture a lot of my friends have already passed. Many of them in the obituary series of my most recent book Cool, which you have. I don’t want to slip into a consciousness of perpetual mourning. Yet I hadn’t anticipated that I’d be writing a poem for Michael, but then I opened up to myself and his consciousness flowed right in. Perhaps I had a vacuum to fill at that moment from an external point of view, taking Michael’s place for the poem that would talk to him and he to me.
I remember little of that when I came to visit with him and made his portrait. It was a serene afternoon. Just him and me. I remember distinctly that we went off in his car, perhaps to a restaurant. We were driving somewhere, and that made sense. But for the life of me I remember nothing of what transpired over lunch. With all the history—and it ain’t an awful lot—there’s still a history there to be acknowledged. You know, I performed the part of Billy the Kid in Warhol’s movie which we adapted from Michael’s play, The Beard. Hardly anyone knows this; perhaps in part because I believe the movie has never been shown. So the friendships last and last and continue beyond the grave.
SS: I’m always struck by the structure of your poems. I was wondering what your approach to this was, whether there was any major influence from particular poets of your youth, or even whether the way that you frame scenes and ideas within poems has any crossover influence from your work in the wider art world?
GM: Yes, there’s probably a very strict structure to my poems, but it’s casually applied in what the work proposes as possibility, which I don’t even notice when I’m starting out. For instance, for a very long time, the opening to the work begins with an indented first line of let’s say 8 characters. It’s my way of engaging myself and the reader into a form of poetry that’s a radically different departure from what may be normally perceived. Yes, it’s a poem, but I like to think of them as prose poems as well.
I left ‘influences’ behind decades back. I’m pretty much on autopilot. I’m my own navigator. I travel the journey alone. My earliest influence when I literally started was Gerard Manley Hopkins. I was enchanted by his system of ‘sprung rhythm’ which he basically invented with no imitators following. That would’ve been 1959 during the start of the high school year in my senior class. In 1962, I believe, John Ashbery made a profound influence on my early work with his book The Tennis Court Oath. That became my Bible. I’d carry it around my duffle bag wherever I went. But it was Ted Berrigan with his Sonnets in ’64 that unlocked the door for me into what Ashbery was doing and that was a sheer liberating factor. From there the work continued to expand on its own.
The only ‘crossover influence’ that I imagine, as you put it, in the ‘wider art world’ would be my own life, and not the art world, per se. So what we have here is the tendency to open almost all the work in the form of what appears to be a letter on the surface, but is actually a message. I’m addressing the subjects of my poems directly; they’re not ‘about’ the subject. I’m talking directly to them, as if they’re right in the room, whether it’s a person or a cat.
SS: You mention you don’t write about your subjects but address them directly in your poems. I think this is what makes them so arresting and intimate, particularly in the ‘Lives They Lived’ chapter in your beautiful collection Cool & Other Poems [published by Bottle of Smoke Press]. Each poem is a visceral portal, allowing the reader to be present with you, and witness Christopher Logue against a snowing sky before warming his hands around a mug of cognac, and Anita Pallenberg a vivacious, laughing woman sitting opposite you at Cafe Flore. Also in that chapter you include a poem entitled ‘Gerard Malanga dies’. The poem contains the line ‘I am my only guide now,’ which I found so powerful. Could you tell us how that poem came to be?
GM: Putting together that section, ‘The Lives They Lived’, I figuratively had to step outside myself. That’s how close I was with many of those listed and to the memories I have of them held dear. It was not an easy section to compile. By the way, ‘The Lives They Lived’, is borrowed from the New York Times‘s annual round-up supplement. I called my contact at the paper to get permission to use it and he saw no problem involved.
Writing ‘Gerard Malanga dies’ was a tricky situation in the need to make it work. It was one of the final poems in the section and it presented me with an opportunity to address certain issues surrounding death and to those friends I’d already acknowledged over a period of nearly 40 years. I also lapse into a bit of my own personal history, as if I’m contemplating how others might see me after I’ve gone: ‘The rabbit hole is waiting for my plunge.’ Somehow, that image of the rabbit hole has emerged in a few of my poems and also echoes back to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, one of my favorite childhood books.
The rabbit hole is an image for both death and resurrection, as I see it. Here, I question myself, ‘Am I preparing for another life? A return to life?’ And so I treat this poem as slowly nearing its own end with a ‘journey’ back to life ‘…and on and on…’. I equate this with an actual journey I’d taken by train from ‘Glasgow down to Central London…’ back in 2014 where I’d been dreamily staring out the window at a passing landscape I might not ever explore at any other time.
‘Will I even find my way home to the Bronx’ alludes to a movie I’d seen years back I recall, called ‘The Swimmer’ adapted from a John Cheever short story. Starring Burt Lancaster, his character is swimming across a series of backyard swimming pools and encountering neighbors he knew poolside in attempting to reach home. And when he arrives in the pouring rain and runs up to the door, he discovers that the door’s locked and the house is empty. Such a potent ending and darkened cinematic metaphor, brilliantly done. And it’s these private memories in my life resurfacing that I feel nourishes my work.
SS: We met at a book launch in London, and you were immediately swarmed, surrounded by people. I think that is a testament to the impact your writing has had globally and across generations. How has your home city of New York and its literary landscape changed and evolved for you over the years? Is it something you feel especially connected to?
GM: Your question speaks volumes, but I’m going to try to be as brief and succinct as I can hope to be as the facts show. I’m seventy-seven now and there have been no accolades to show for it. Cool came out last year and Whisper Sweet Nothings two years prior and together they comprise the best of anything I’ve ever done, and yet they’ve been totally ignored by the New York literary press overall. In the five decades I’ve been publishing I’ve received not one grant or fellowship or any of the prizes totaling in the millions. Nada. Zilch. I can’t even get my memoirs published and I have thousands of fans waiting for this book. You would think that would count for something. I’m grateful for the European attitude towards my work. That’s what keeps the work alive for me. That’s where my audience is and they relate. I love what I do, and I know it shows through the work from the responses at the readings I give and that’s how my work thrives. I love my audience and that’s the truth of it.
SS: A year ago today, I finished my waitressing shift, went home and listened to what Jimmy [Page] had produced from the recordings we had made of my poems. this became our spoken word album Catalyst. It was a joy to be able to give you our album as I am so moved by your work. It had a sense of synchronicity also, as years earlier, Jimmy had given me a signed edition of your beautiful poem ‘Devotion’.
You said that ‘Cut Up’ was your favourite track on Catalyst. I had christened that poem ‘Cut Up’ simply because it was the first time I had used the William Burroughs/Brion Gysin method. I always feel it’s a handing over, a leap of faith to a higher power, to introduce another energy to it, and it came out with it’s own dark, random rhythm. Burroughs said “when you cut into the present the future leaks out”, and in that sense it has a spell like quality or possibility.
Some poems I’ve written in one sitting, a sort of channeling, like ‘Fifth Circle of Hell’, which is also on Catalyst. But part of the reason I found the cut-up method so liberating that first time was that I was trying to write a poem to encapsulate that period. I felt cautious because the subject matter was focused on the events in Europe and theMiddle East, and the horrors and blood shed of the Bataclan attacks in Paris. I think my own identity and ethnicity – my mother is French-Scottish and my father is Persian – gave this piece more weight personally. So really, the cut-up was a way of detaching through the process, which was effective. I suppose I wonder what your thoughts are on cut-ups?
GM: Scarlett, cut-ups are a tricky business. They almost feel spontaneous, but with every move there’s no turning back. They’re the antithesis to parallel grammatical structures which is how we reform language to make things sound right. You see Bill [Burroughs] stuck with it all his life. Cut-ups were his language and he embraced the process. It’s okay to experiment with language so long as you come out at the other end with something that satisfies you and encourages you to want to do more, to go further. That’s a big commitment. The one thing you want to avoid is being self-conscious in the process, as you put it. There’s no room for self-consciousness in cut-ups. You have to operate on a more or less unconscious level like when you dream.
Of course, you realize this in dreams. I don’t need to tell you. In dreams, nothing really connects or relates. Dreaming is a series of visual and mental disconnects. One thing leads to the next but you don’t know why nor do you have time to stop to know why. It’s like you go with the flow. Excuse the corniness of this. Dreams are the cut-ups of the unconscious. You can’t go back to change anything to make it better. There’s nothing qualitative about it. When that happens to me, I try to maintain the balance of the good and the bad together. All of it. Yes, I’ve done a little tweaking here and there, but only because I’m now in the conscious state and I want to make the lines sound just right. So it’s okay to prune. Robert Lowell taught me how to prune. But you have to know what you’re doing. It’s trusting your instincts. That’s what I do. If I throw out a perfectly terrific line, it’s because I’m trusting my instincts. But, of course, only I know that. The reader doesn’t, nor does he need to.
One of my earliest poems was a form of the cut-up. My English teacher in high school, Daisy Aldan, who introduced me to the world of poetry, gave us an assignment in class to cut out words at random from the newspaper and fill a paper bag with them. The next step was to reach into the bag and pick out one word at a time and place them on a page, and then to transcribe those words into a text, including all the capital and lower-case letters. I did one better and glued them onto the page. This all had to do with chance. Remember, Stéphane Mallarmé, in his last poem ‘Un coup de dés’ said that a ‘a throw of the dice NEVER NEVER will abolish chance.’ Well, he was right about that. You take your chances, you trust your instincts.
SS: I’ve started reading Gysin’s novel The Process. I bought it last year at Shakespeare&Co but started reading it now to feel closer to Morocco, a place that I really love, while still in lockdown. I wondered what places have meant the most to you?
GM: I have Brion’s book on my shelf, but I’ve yet to read it. Perhaps I’m still not ready for it yet. Right now I’m immersed in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. What I like about it is that it reads like it’s not translated but written directly in English. That’s probably the best kind of translated work.
The first place that comes to mind that has meant the most to me, although there may have been others, is the Cafe Flore. It was my first introduction to cafe life when I arrived in Paris in the spring of 1965. And henceforth whenever I’ve visited Paris, I would arrive punctually every morning during my stays. There’s no other cafe that does it for me. Of course, there’s the cafe in the Luxembourg Gardens, but that’s more like a restaurant; a different ambiance entirely. The Flore has a certain something, a certain charm about it that allows me to immerse myself reading the morning papers or writing a poem even. The food’s good too. The croissants, the omelettes, the cafe creme. Some years back, I started referring to it as my ’office’ whenever I had an appointment to meet with friends. And I’d be certain to book a hotel room within walking distance. Anyway, the Flore is the start of my day.
SS: Well, I hope one day, when the lockdown is over, we can meet you at Cafe Flore.
This interview is based on the poets’ original email correspondence and has been edited for clarity.
Gerard Malanga was born in the Bronx in 1943. He is the author of a dozen books of poetry spanning a nearly 50-year period, including No Respect: New & Selected Poems 1964-2000 (Black Sparrow Press). He has also been the subject of a biography, Gerard Malanga by Lars Movin (Bebop, Copenhagen, 2011) and (co-authored with Victor Bockris) Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story. His work has appeared in Poetry, Raritan, Yale Review, Harvard Review, Paris Review, Partisan Review and The New Yorker among others. In 2014 he was named the Official Poet of the annual Glasgow Arts International. Malanga recently completed his memoirs, In Remembrance of Things Past. He lives with his cats, Sasha, Zazie, and Xena in upstate New York. His website is gerardmalanga.net.
Scarlett Sabet a London-based writer and poet, author of four poetry collections as well as the spoken word album Catalyst, released in the winter of 2019. For more information on Scarlett and her work, visit ScarlettSabet.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram, where she is currently hosting weekly poetry readings every Sunday afternoon.
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