Poet/editor/poetry organizer George Wallace talks about the musicality of language and the force of music

"My hope is that each pioneering vanguard of artists and writers will have the wisdom and selfless good sense to recognize the truest horizons before them."

George Wallace: Playful As A Whip

George Wallace is writer in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, author of two dozen chapbooks of poems, editor of Poetrybay and associate editor of Great Weather For Media. A New York City poet, he travels throughout the US and Europe to perform poetry and teach writing workshops. His own poetry, in particular his performance-oriented work, is imagination-based in its creation, emerging from a process of wordplay, surrealist deconstruction and bricolage into a final form that is typically characterized by accessible narrative and forceful rhythmic impetus. It is built on a foundation of a musical talent that emerged at the age of four, when he began reading and performing music, and shaped by his extensive readings in the literature of European Surrealism, the Whitman/Sandburg vortex, and the Beats. His work also bears the mark of 1960s concerns, particularly the social witness and aesthetic consciousness of that time.

In the 1960s he was part of the Long Island music scene which produced such artists as The Young Rascals, Billy Joel and the Shangri-Las. Wallace's engagement in the extended world of Beat and post-Beat writing emerged during this period, simultaneously with his recognition of the opportunity of the Internet for creation of platforms for poetry, and for pan-regional networking of poetry communities. Meanwhile, from 1999 on, Wallace began to devote more time to poetry and poetry-related activities. In 2000 and 2001, while he was writing exhibitions for a local historical society about Jack Kerouac's residence in Northport Long Island, his associations with the Beat and post-Beat constellation grew dramatically—interacting with such figures as David Amram, Carolyn & John Cassady, Charles Plymell, Nanos Valariotis, Janine Pommy Vega, Neeli Cherkovski, Jack Foley, Charles Potts, Larry Sawyer, Bob Holman, Steve Dalachinsky, Angelo Verga and Steve Cannon. A new youtube video, featuring a studio collaboration between poet George Wallace and musician David Amram, is set for release on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2016. Entitled God Makes A Note To Himself and recorded in Tiki Studios, Glen Cove NY, the youtube video was produced by McCheever and features photographs by East End LI photographer Connie Gillies. God Makes A Note for Himself is one of several spoken word pieces that emerged during a recording session by Wallace and Amram in 2002It is the second cut from that CD to appear on Youtube.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently?

I am not a poet whose writing is experience-based. At least not in a direct or journalistic way. To me the question presumes a kind of confessionalist 'self reportage' that I do not engage in. Why? In my mind that's the stuff of drippy candles and college dorms, egoistic and self-important, a last gasp vestige of the 'me generation.' I really think we ought to leave biography to the biographers and pay attention to the forces of the imagination and the energy and life of your creation. There's a level of craft and creation in that which exceeds raking through the coals of personal experience for potential poems. That's not to say that one's palette may not include one's actual experience, but just as a possible coloration to a poem which is the experience in and of itself. I'm looking to create a true account of things that never happened. A poem should be about itself -- not the poet. 

What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life and writing?

Music is the underlying force which drives my poetry. I was reading and performing music at the age of four -- before I could read or write words. That makes music my first written language and a near co-equal to other communication forms as I try to give expression to the forces in this world that move me, both the interior and exterior forces. I feel blessed to have had that kind of early access to music as a pre-rational and emotional means to make connection to the world.

   In a general way, paying attention to the musicality of language as a foundation for creative work has lent itself to my creative process, which I understand to be just that -- a process, rather than a vehicle to address specific subjects. There's a lot of truth in the old line which goes, 'It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.' I tend to let the subject emerge out of the music, in a quasi-improvisational way, like a jazz soloist. Clark Coolidge explains all this just fine -- jump in 'anywhere' into the musical core, play off it with 'go-ahead' lines full of twists, tangents, inventive explorations, and know where to land. That's the jazz base, anyhow. Other times I'm working off of a bluesy, slow down groove, making shorter elaborative flourishes that don't take flight so much as support and extend the underlying pattern.

   As you might expect, it took a lot of woodshedding to get to a place where I have been able to comfortably do all that in the solitude of my writing and in the more interactive spotlight of the performance setting.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues & Jazz poetry and music with Beat literature?

I thank the Lord every day for the contributions of New Orleans and the Delta to the American voice, and the plain historical fact that it spread up the Mississippi and eventually throughout the country. Two unbelievable crucibles of culture -- adding deeply enriching elements of French, African, Creole, Caribbean and Native American art and experience to the eastern Anglo-American culture. Without them this place would be a rather dull pot of tea.

"In a general way, paying attention to the musicality of language as a foundation for creative work has lent itself to my creative process, which I understand to be just that -- a process, rather than a vehicle to address specific subjects."

Are there any memories from David Amram, Levon Helm, and John Sinclair which you’d like to share with us?

Over the years I've been able to connect with some very fine musical artists, well known and otherwise. Some have been simple 'share-the-stage' or 'share-the-back room' moments -- and I've drunk a hell of a lot of beer in the basements of NYC clubs over the years with some pretty well-known rock and rollers. There's no point in name dropping and I'm not about to tell tales on anyone. But I can say that riffing with Levon Helm in a roadhouse on Long Island was a special moment. I've had some good hang time with Donovan and Peter Max. Maddy Prior and Rick Kemp on the Scottish Borders. Performing Kerouac's Big Sur with Lee Renaldo was fun. Jamming with Grant Hart and Thurston Moore. And I always dig bopping with Sinclair when touring puts us in the same place at the same time.

    Then there's David Amram, and that's a different kettle of fish. David is a mentor, an inspiration and a friend. He's helped me to expand what I do as a spoken word performer and is probably the main reason I jam with musicians on stage or otherwise, and think of it as one of my 'things.' He's helped me add my voice, and the voices of other poets, to performance festivals from New York to Florida, Oklahoma to Lowell Massachusetts. I love the guy -- his generosity, talent and peripatetic energy continues to inspire me.

   Amram's the man who helped me understand that it's all about the jam. Hangout-ology, he calls it.

A new youtube video, featuring a studio collaboration between poet George Wallace and musician David Amram, is set for release on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2016. Entitled God Makes A Note To Himself and recorded in Tiki Studios, Glen Cove NY, the youtube video was produced by McCheever and features photographs by East End LI photographer Connie Gillies.

How has David Amram influenced your views of music and poetry and the journeys you’ve taken?

David is one of the key figures in my growth as a spoken word artist and poet. He has been a mentor, a colleague and an inspiration. Beginning in 2000 he directly worked to open doors for me so that I could explore the world of Beat literature and culture, as well as the innovations in music and the visual arts which happened in New York City and beyond in the 50s. It was through David that I was able to establish relationships with the Woody Guthrie Festival, the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival, and with individuals and groups related to the Beat movement nationwide.

His precepts about spontaneity, musical erudition and the 'hangout-logy' which underlies the vitality in a true community of artists have been guiding principles for me. He opened my eyes through his steadfast insistence on redressing the false notion that Beat writers were anything less than serious, purposeful and dedicated artists grounded in a rich cultural and aesthetic soil. David has been an endless wellspring of insight and knowledge, 'ebullient' if it's okay to use a big word for it, and to me, he's nothing less than a guru. I've spent many many hours, over a period of many years, learning 'at his knee.' And he continues to inspire me.

What is the impact of David Amram music to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

David's story speaks for itself. He's one of the good guys. He wears the white hat and has invested his life fighting the good fight. God bless him for it!

"I thank the Lord every day for the contributions of New Orleans and the Delta to the American voice, and the plain historical fact that it spread up the Mississippi and eventually throughout the country.... Without them this place would be a rather dull pot of tea."

Which memories from Allen Ginsberg, Janine Pommy Vega and Carolyn Cassady make you smile?

You've mentioned three of the most charming 'Beat' characters there everwere, each so very different and worth volumes -- each a gravitational presence with their own specific grace and power. Ginsberg? The astonishing shapeshifting quality he possessed -- I met him first when he was a psychedelic flower-power guru in long-flowing beard and robes, the ultimate institutional outsider. By the latter stages of his life he was wearing a suit and introducing himself as the 'distinguished professor.' Vega? SHE possessed an arresting admixture of fierce tenderness and unquenchable curiosity which illuminated any space she entered, more intense than blue lightning. As for Carolyn Cassady, all I can say is I was always struck by her ability to maintain a dignified and centered self-possession, to me she was a vortex of calm in the midst of some pretty chaotic scenes. 

What have you learned about yourself from your writing of your poems?

I have learned about my internal rhythms -- to wail when things blow hot, and to go more slow in the blue cafe. In a performance sense, I have learned how to find a groove, get my boogie down, get up on the dance floor and dance!

How would you characterize the philosophy of George Wallace’s poetry?

Playful as a whip.

"Music is the underlying force which drives my poetry."

What are your hopes and fears for the art?

I'm all about hope, and so I feel like 'the art,' as you call it, is numinous, exciting and constantly evolving to meet the conditions of the world. In a very different era, Sam Foss called on America to 'Bring me men to match my mountains.' He was writing in a far more jingoistic -- and sexist -- time, but there's a more generalizable point to be taken from his lines. Artists are nation builders; the world presents us with new horizons and vistas on which we may make our mark. My hope is that each pioneering vanguard of artists and writers will have the wisdom and selfless good sense to recognize the truest horizons before them. To me the trick is to create art that is in the moment and of the moment, but get beyond the moment -- an art which is grounded enough to keep it real, but has the legs to stand up and dance into the future. So here's me hoping that the world will continue to be populated with artists who can pull off that trick. 

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

That nudist beach on the south side of Mykonos with its caves and little taverna, twinkling blue and white down by the harbor, where I stayed at sometime in 1973 after a trip to India. That would do very nicely.

Poetry Bay - Home

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