Ira learned to “sign” before he learned to read and write, so as to be able to communicate with his deaf-mute parents. We both agreed that this may have had an impact on his development as a poet, for surely words born in such silences take on a deeper level of resonance and reflection.
We had the Bronx in common. He grew up in the Concourse section–at the end of Gerard Avenue, as he’d like to kid me, as if he had a claim on my name. I grew up in the Fordham section, 3 blocks from Edgar Allan Poe Cottage. I’d rib him on how, as an over-achiever, he never scored a J.A.P. in Riverdale. As a scrapper I gave as good as I got.
We never met when we were growing up, although we were separated by only 7 subway stops on the “D” Line and by a mere 8 years in age. Yet as close as our worlds were, we had no idea that someday we’d be fated and blessed to experience a life in all its broader dimensions by embracing art. We were common folk, you might say, but each with a very uncommon approach to life as we evolved into poets.
We met in 1969. Charles Henri Ford, a mutual friend who would play a major role in both our lives, brought me to Ira’s loft on Jefferson Street on the Lower East Side. The building no longer exists; nor does the street for that matter. Out of necessity, Ira was one of the first loft pioneers.
At the time, Ira was collaborating with Bill Vehr, a filmmaker and lighting designer. They were building a small wooden enclosure sans ceiling; it was lined with a silver-coated industrial plastic called mylar. They christened it “the Mylar Chamber.” The idea was to invite friends to come sit in a chair or lounge on a sofa piled with plump pillows and get comfortable while Ira and Bill photographed their reflections on the mylar backdrop. It was like a Coney Island Fun House. Depending on where the camera was pointing, in a fraction of a second no two reflections were the same; the results were positively psychedelic.
I could see what they were up to since Warhol and I were working in a similar mode with the Screen Tests a few years earlier. We were, each in our own way, collecting faces and archiving lives.
When Charles and I arrived at the loft, Ira was a bit wary because of my association with Warhol, as though I was some sort of corporate spy. The encounter was brief, and we didn’t cross paths again until three years later. We did, however, have numerous friends in common, including Angus MacLise and Piero Heliczer, two poets whose work I’m still actively promoting and preserving.
It wasn’t until 1972, in Upper Dharamsala, India, that we reconnected in a very spontaneous and yet synchronous way that caused our friendship to grow and deepen.
I was taking a course in Tibetan Law and Philosophy with Geshey Nagawang Dargay, one of the Dalai Lama’s teachers, at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. I had already signed up for a visit with His Holiness when Ira arrived on the scene. My name on the Dalai Lama’s visitor list quickly caught his eye.
As I rushed into my favorite luncheonette from a torrential downpour like a scene out of Rain late one morning, there was Ira seated by the door waiting for me. Here we were half a world away from New York, under the most anonymous of circumstances. The only thing that came to mind was, “What the fuck are you doing here?!”
We hung out for about a week taking in the sights and swapping stories about our current world travels and projects. Ira was on his way to Kathmandu. I was making plans to head south after my studies to Pondicherry, hoping to link up with Angus and his wife, Hetty. After Ira split, I finally did visit with His Holiness: Ten minutes that turned into an hour.
It would be another seven years before we finally solidified our peripatetic friendship in of all places, Amsterdam, where Ira was living with his girlfriend, Carolina Gosselin. I’d been invited to read at the 1979 One World Poetry Festival. So there was Ira when I arrived to personally greet me! We were like Mutt and Jeff the entire week and never without our cameras. We covered each other’s backs in the snake-pit of poetry politics. That’s the sort of situation that’s created when you bring 50 poets together from all over the world, especially when the majority of them turn out to be New York Schoolers. We had a big laugh over that and causing much mischief!
After we parted, Ira stayed in touch by post card, his favorite means of communication. This correspondence ultimately formed the basis for a facsimile book we had planned, called Post Cards to the G, which remains unpublished.
A year later found Ira and Carolina in San Francisco where he basically covered the waterfront with his camera while I was doing the same in New York. I would occasionally tease him: ‘Ira, you gotta make roots in New York to succeed in your work!’ I never heard the end of it once he landed.
They moved in with Faye, his mom, in a spacious one-bedroom flat in a pre-war on Broadway and 106th Street. Ira liked to remind me that the street was also named Duke Ellington Boulevard, in honor of the musician I had once photographed.
In 1980, after the untimely demise of Angus Maclise, I began cataloguing our dear friend’s work. Ira encouraged and supported me in this endeavor, making contacts for me that proved invaluable for my research. The Checklist I compiled and authored is still the primary source for Angus’s work; it also brought Ira and me even closer.
In 1982, Allen Ginsberg commissioned me to photograph Jack Kerouac’s vellum roll manuscript of On the Road. It had spent several years in a file cabinet at the office of Kerouac’s literary agent, Sterling Lord. I was the first photographer to document this extremely fragile piece of literary history.
I invited Ira along because I knew he’d get a kick out of the experience; I also figured he’d bring his camera along for a few shots. This was typical of the give-and-take of how our friendship grew through the years, with our cameras always at the ready.
While I was photographing the scroll, using a tripod, Ira photographed me from behind, thus documenting an important moment for both of us. In a last-minute gesture that was so typically Ira, he asked me to photograph him with his hand placed squarely on the scroll; it was something I’d never thought of doing myself. It was as if by placing his hand on the scroll he was absorbing its magic whole, while giving some of his own in return.
Well, I could go on and on about our travels and adventures—the stories we told; the intimacies we shared; the travails, the enthusiasms and differences, which through the years made for a richer friendship and camaraderie. The archetypes are endless. Perhaps William Shakespeare captured it best:
All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…
Ira has truly played many parts as one man in his time and in this ongoing saga called life.
[Note: After completing the 2nd draft of these reflections I later realized upon retiring for the night that I had forgot to mention that what prompted me to write this piece in the first place was that Ira had died a few days earlier, April 25th 2011, at the age of 76. It dawned on me that I was treating this piece as if Ira were still alive! Such is the power he had on those around him. GM]
Copyright Gerard Malanga.
Special thanks to Frank Rynne for arranging this exclusive for www.briongysin.com