CHELSEA WEATHERS: I recently looked through the book Screen Tests/A Diary, which you produced in collaboration with Warhol in 1966–67. The book contains stills from some of Warhol’s Screen Test films alongside your poetry. Each poem was written about or for a Screen Test subject, and the poems and stills together produce some striking portraits of people who presumably were special to you in some way during that time. How did you and Warhol work together to choose who would be included in the book?
How Gerard Malanga’s poetry defined the early Andy Warhol era.
GERARD MALANGA: George Orwell once remarked how “lies will pass into history,” and it’s no different 60 years after his passing, I’m sorry to say. It’s apparent you’re under the misguided impression that I wrote the poems and Andy did the Screen Tests. This is in part an historical fallacy. My book Archiving Warhol (2002) outlines how the collaboration developed, and a white paper I delivered last November at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, where I also officiated the opening of a Warhol exhibit, continued the discussion further. The book Screen Tests/A Diary was the culmination of the series that covered exactly three years from January ’64 through January ’67. The book was already in the works by fall ’66. So when the book did finally appear the following April, the collaboration was pretty much ended. Andy had really nothing whatsoever to do with the book’s overall look. I selected two or three frames from the footage and designed the way they would ultimately be reproduced. Sprocket holes, scratches, etc. The guts, so to speak. So Andy was pretty much out of the loop on that. In some instances we took turns at the camera, but overall the choices as to who would be included were left up to me.
CW: Though the layout of the film stills and the trademark black-and-white close-ups of the Screen Tests give the book a repetitive quality, the poems themselves convey an intimacy between you and the subjects of the Screen Tests. The poems seem to function not only as prose portraits of the sitters, but sometimes as one side of a dialogue between you and the subject. You call the book A Diary—was your overall goal with the book to commemorate or document the social scene of the Factory, a span of time in your own personal life, or something broader?
GM: I didn’t have an overall goal to commemorate or document the social scene at the Factory or anything for that matter. In fact, I didn’t quite know how to follow through on the opportunity that was suddenly given me. In 1966, I’d submitted a manuscript to the Yale Younger Poets series. That spring I was performing with the Velvet Underground in Chicago. Paul Carroll and George Starbuck, as I recall, brought James Tate to the performance, and it was then I learned I’d lost out to him in the competition. So when Lita Hornick invited me to give her a manuscript to help launch her Kulchur Press series, I was at wit’s end what to do. The easiest thing would’ve been to just give her the manuscript Yale had rejected, but I didn’t want to do that; I wanted to start fresh even though I had two other manuscripts already in the works. So I came up with the idea to do a visual book utilizing the Screen Tests I’d been shooting with Andy. I could write a whole new series to go with the portraits. It was like starting from the bottom up, and it was certainly a challenge. Poems made to order! Given a page limit helped me to focus on just how much I could squeeze in. The funny thing was the poems were written to illustrate the visuals, not the other way round. So I guess you can say the continuation of both became the sum total of what I’d been doing up till that time.
CW: I’m especially interested in the recurring motif of “the friends” that reappears in several poems throughout the volume. How did “the friends” function in Screen Tests/A Diary?
GM: I can’t think of any one person or event informing the process who got included. It happened quite spontaneously, really. Since the poems were illustrating the visuals, I wanted them to behave very much the way film does, with lots of repetitions. Yes, the word “friends” crops up consistently like an echo. The effect I was aiming for was having them refer back on themselves as flashbacks because there were inherent connections. Not only were several of these sitters friends of mine but each other’s friends as well and not necessarily involved in the Factory. I’ve been characterized as many things, but social director would accurately fit the bill. I liked bringing people together, and what better way to do this than to commemorate them on film. I guess you can say it’s a social art. Now I don’t bring anyone together. I’m very much alone—me and my four cats and all the classical music filtering through the house.
CW: You’ve also been active in editing books about friends of yours, and writing about them—Charles Henri Ford and Piero Heliczer come to mind. These were very interesting artists whom you knew in the 1960s, and who also appear in Screen Tests/A Diary.
GM: I’ve always felt that certain poets whose work I’ve respected appear to have fallen through the cracks, as it were—and not just Charles Henri Ford and Piero Heliczer but Angus MacLise and Ben Maddow and Willard Maas as well. Perhaps this dilemma occurs not of their own making. It’s a complex issue that I’ve not the time nor space to go into right now. Suffice it to say, I’ve tried to call attention to their work when the opportunity arose. Back in 2002, I was able to produce a double CD of Angus MacLise’s music and poetry for Sub Rosa, one of the leading proponents of underground culture in CD form. With Piero, I co-edited, with Anselm Hollo, a selection of his poetry for Granary Books in 2001 and also taped an extensive interview with his kid sister that serves as the book’s afterword. This has all been a labor of love, mind you. A few people said, “Why bother?,” [suggesting] that I should be concentrating on my own work. But I felt it was important to get the work out there even if they couldn’t do it themselves, especially if some of them had passed on. The idea for me was that nothing gets lost. Otherwise, the effort is hopeless.
CW: I just had a look at The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol, John Wilcock’s book of interviews that was out of print for a long time but was just reissued in a new edition. In your interview in that book, you mention how you were able to separate yourself from the drama of competition and backbiting that went on within the Factory by finding your own place and focusing on your own work. Was there anything more positive going on at the Factory at the time, in terms of artistic production or even just interpersonal relationships and creativity, or do you remember it mostly as being a tense atmosphere?
GM: When I first started working for Andy I was already publishing my poetry in some very hip magazines, and this continued way into the ’60s, so I already had a preconceived notion of my own identity as a poet and a responsibility for what I was doing, and the work naturally continued. It was not something I was going to leave behind. In fact, the daily goings-on at the Factory were an inspiration and stimulus for my work. It was during the first years, ’64 through ’66, that I conceived a series of fashion poems—the first ever by any American poet—based partly on the work I was doing with Andy on the Death & Disaster paintings. So whatever backbiting existed actually came to the surface in a more obvious way after Andy’s move to the Union Square loft, and I made an effort not to get caught up in the petty politics that every so often rose to the surface. I personally didn’t feel I was competing or needed to compete with anyone, but there were a few instances where I saw myself drawn into situations with others who were competing with me. My responsibilities were working with Andy and toward my own work as well. So yes, I felt there was a lot of positive energy going on at the Factory, but after the move downtown, not so much. Still, the atmosphere was positive, but clearly you had to find your own way and not let any negative energy affect you.
CW: Did anything else besides the screenprints and the Screen Tests help to spark inspiration for your writing? Other films or people, other parts of the daily life at the Factory perhaps?
GM: It was a combination of things, really. My all-time favorite series was the Death & Disasters I worked on with Andy. Andy wanted to beautify death is best I can describe it. This sparked an idea that crystallized in a series of poems depicting fashion models within the context of car crash disasters. You know, the idea that the beautiful die young. Another source was the fashion copy and captions in Harper’s Bazaar—the most cultured magazine I ever came across. I’d rewrite the copy very little and surround it with car crash imagery. My favorite painting, though, was Andy’s Black and White Disaster, the most poetic in the series. There’s something very visceral about it, like it jumps off the canvas. Also, I’d been using Andy’s Thermofax copier. I managed to combine some of my poems with photos from a stash I’d been collecting and must’ve done close to 50 sheets on and off for about a year. The Factory, though, not so much. No, I wasn’t inspired. Besides helping Andy I was working on my own movies.
A first instance of a filmmaker inspiring me would’ve been Piero Heliczer. Actually, I’d say he was more an influence, but that’s what I found inspiring about him. He was the closest thing to a bohemian artist I’d read about in those books on the ’20s in Paris—and so I admired his work immensely. He was truly an original. He seemed always on the verge of poverty but managed to hold it together. Sadly, his filmmaking eclipsed his poetry. He’d written all his best work in the short span of ten years, from ’58 to ’68, and then it all stopped. Whenever he’d travel to Europe he’d invariably lose a box here, a box there, when going through Customs. I learned years later he was clinically diagnosed a manic-depressive, which explains why he was losing what precious little he still had in the way of archives. So I took it upon myself to rescue and compile his poems and created a scrapbook of photos and memorabilia, so all that’s pretty much secure now.
© Gerard Malanga
CW: I actually watched Heliczer’s film The Autumn Feast a couple years ago at the Filmmakers Co-op. I tried to find some other films by him because I was thinking about writing something about him, but I wasn’t able to track any down. I think he is one of the most fascinating and totally underappreciated artists working in New York in the 1960s. I was especially interested in his film Dirt, because it featured many people who were also in Warhol’s films, including you, Sedgwick, Warhol, and the Velvet Underground. Do you remember working on this film and what he was like as a filmmaker?
GM: I was like his casting director. I was bringing artists involved in the 16mm underground cinema to Piero’s 8mm world! Back in ’65 I cast a sequence that included Andy, Edie, myself, and Charles Henri Ford, and it was a real effort to get them to go all the way down to the Lower East Side at night to be in what must’ve appeared to them a home movie. Piero was living in this top-floor apartment at 450 Grand Street, a building long since torn down. I can’t even remember what we were all doing there. The only remnant existing to prove the night even happened was a movie still that appeared in Status & Diplomat magazine, and then the footage, like most of what Piero shot, was irretrievably lost. God knows what happened. He must’ve had one of his blackouts, for the next thing I knew he couldn’t come up with a decent explanation why the footage had gone missing. A couple of years later he cast me in the lead for the movie Byron. The day’s rooftop shoot—Piero loved shooting on rooftops—included International Velvet and Paolo Lionni and Dan Cassidy. This time I borrowed the roll and had it sent down to this lab in Georgia specializing in blowing up 8mm to 16mm, and then returned his roll; and sure enough, he managed to lose this footage as well. So the only existing print is the one I have. As the years passed, my friendship with him was more guarded, though I never gave up my support for all he’d done.
CW: Weren’t you also making films on your own that were more narrative than the Screen Tests around this time?
GM: I wouldn’t exactly call them narrative. They’re more akin to the essence of poetry—not the word per se, but the feeling. When I was 11 I saw the first commercial rerelease of Walt Disney’s Fantasia, and became enchanted with its continuous soundtrack of classical music; and it was from this experience that my taste and knowledge for classical music developed. So when I made my first movie, In Search of the Miraculous, utilizing sound, I created a compilation of some of my favorite pieces of classical music; and, surprisingly, the music created the perfect synthesis of sound and imagery. I didn’t plan where the music would run along with the visuals; it was all improvised and done by chance. In an early essay, “Toward the Film Poem,” I explored the idea that the visual quality of language is capable of setting up counterimages that will set the imagery in relief or blend with it what the viewer sees and hears, thus experiencing an internal emotional feeling. So from my knowledge grounded in classical music, I was able to create a poetic language without using words to do it. Jean Cocteau was an early, seminal influence in this regard with his movie Blood of a Poet.
CW: There was a lot of overlap between poetry and film in the 1960s—this idea of visual montage and sound being able to elicit emotion in the same way that poetry does with words. Do you still explore this overlap in your own work, either with visual media or through your recent poetry?
GM: For the past 10 years I’ve been refining a new approach—perhaps it’s something I’ve been doing right along, I don’t know—whereby I’ve been creating these little stories structured to contain a stream of images suggesting more than what’s actually depicted. I don’t know quite how to put it, but it’s like nothing anyone else is doing. I’m sure of it. They’re not obscure, mind you, but totally accessible, and yet their intellectual complexity hovers just beneath the surface. They’re all stories about someone I knew, or about someone I knew about but never met; and yet they’re made up to sound real. Almost all are devoid of the I and you pronouns. So I’ve managed to become invisible within my own work. I’ve become this disembodied voice, this observer. So when you read the poems, you don’t hear me. It’s someone else speaking. And for the most part, they’re optimistic; there’s no tragedy here. No confessionals. When I read them aloud, I simply slide into their reality as if passing through a mirror. I’m on a journey somewhere, and then I find myself back at my spot.