Q&A with NYC-based poet/writer/editor George Wallace, author of two dozen chapbooks of poems, editor of Poetrybay

"Keep dreaming the big dreams, but don't forget to take out the garbage."

George Wallace: A Rebel With A Cause

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.                                                                (Photo: George Wallace)

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 YouTube video in 2016, featuring a studio collaboration between poet George Wallace and musician David Amram, entitled God Makes A Note To Himself and recorded in Tiki Studios, Glen Cove NY, 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 2002. George Wallace's new projects are: an anthology of NYC poetry, with 177 poets, 250 pages, a landmark publication that defines the NYC in 2022; and an album of Greek band "Omonoia Circus" with his poems adapted as lyrics.

Interview by Michael Limnios             George Wallace, 2016 Interview @ blues.gr

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experiences in life? Where does your creative drive come from?

     -- Never ask permission of anyone but your own heart

     -- Make way for the urgent dynamic of the stars, the force in all existence, and the source of anyone's creative drive, to emerge.

     -- Fall forward

     --  Don't mistake glibness for wisdom

Was there something specific you experienced that made you first begin thinking about counterculture / outlaw forms, or was it more of a compilation of experiences?

     I am like anyone else who had a normal range of interactions with the authority of individuals and societies -- mother, father, older siblings, teachers, schoolmates, lovers, bosses, co-workers, street people, drill sergeants, banks, tax collectors and cops. And with myself, and my own drive to be, and to do, in this world. I salute cooperation with others, and at the same time, I resist it. In this, I am certainly not an anarchist, but perhaps better described as a stubborn individualist operating within and through societies. Is that a 'countercuturalist,' or an 'outlaw'? I mean there is no 'counterculture' in a true anarchic state, the very term assumes a culture exists to respond to, resist, and sometimes even embrace. And one may question whether the term 'outlaw' applies to a person who reserves the right as an individual to question the authority of laws and rules, and resist that authority when it is evident that it is based on injustice or ethically troubling foundation.

     So. I guess I am neither a counterculturalist or an outlaw, nor am I a contrarian particularly.

   I'm really not trying to 'split hairs' here or be overly cerebral about the question. But I cannot disregard the ethos which drives us to raise ourselves as individuals to being at the very least co-equal to society. That to me is a necessary counterweight to authoritarianism. But let's face it -- any ethos has in it the capacity to cover both liberation and abuse. There is duality in both the societal dynamic and in the individual dynamic.  Maybe they offer, in their Yin and Yang dance, a kind of checks and balance to each other.

    Call me a pragmatist.. Call me a loyal outlaw. Call me a rebel with a cause.

    We all know the excesses of what people call liberty, as much as we do the excesses of what people call justice. And anyhow, you can't travel one-arm waving free on the highway if society didn't build the steering wheel -- and the highway.

"The tradition of Bohemianism, urban aesthetic cafe culture, first came to New York City in the 1840s with the Pfaff's crowd, a bunch of writers, artists, publishers, poets (including Walt Whitman) who affected the attributes of avante garde as they saw it at that time." (Photo: George Wallace)

When did the idea of Anthology of NYC Poetry come about? What would you say characterizes NYC poetry in comparison to other US cities?

       The idea came from publisher Diane Frank (Blue Light Books, SF), who had previously done a similar, smaller anthology of San Francisco poets. Diane has roots in New York, has published a couple of books of mine, and we cooked up the idea together.

        As to what characterizes NYC poetry compared to other US cities (many of which have significant poetic traditions), is simple -- New York City is the cultural clearinghouse for the world! What happens here goes everywhere. What happens anywhere comes here.

        For nearly 200 years now, has been the financial, mercantile, cultural, theater, and entertainment capital of the United States, and arguably (in the past seventy years) of the world, It is a polyglot city, the number one destination for immigrants of all nations, home of the Statue of Liberty and what that represents and moreover, a place built on a singular force in early colonial settlement -- Dutch mercantile culture, with its deep-rooted tradition of pluralism, tolerance, and mercantile pragmatism.

A meeting point for people of all ages who are wild at heart, and favorite among hipsters, New York City is ahead of its time as it embraces. Why this city was a Mecca of avant-garde people? Why do you think that the NYC Poetry/Poets continues to generate such a devoted following?

       I answered this in part above, but the tradition of Bohemianism, urban aesthetic café culture, first came to New York City in the 1840s with the Pfaff's crowd, a bunch of writers, artists, publishers, poets (including Walt Whitman) who affected the attributes of avante-garde as they saw it at that time.

       In one sense it was a shifting of literary primacy from Boston to the Big Apple, but avante-gardism is about 'the edge' between the powerful cultural establishment and the rich fermentation of undercultural enclaves. And NYC has had that 'edge' thing going on for a very long time.. Moneyed folk 'slumming' uptown at Harlem jazz clubs. A century previously, it was moneyed elite 'slumming' on the Bowery.

      Of course other cities have or had this same thing at some point in time. By the end of the 19th century, you saw avante-garde emerging among the Bohemians in San Francisco too (Jack London, George Sterling) in Montgomery Building. In this, there's a parallel with the 50s Beat phenomenon in Greenwich village, in the midst of the aesthetically high IQ Italian-immigrant café culture, and the North Beach scene in San Francisco. 

         But NYC had a fifty year jump on San Francisco on bohemianism, and a 200 year jump on San Francisco as an existing urban settlement.

         And anyhow in NYC, the avante-garde's 'edge' experience is and has been in close proximity to the vortex of the most powerful forces in the country -- from the golden age millionaires with their ability to hold salons and hang the latest European art to their walls to the tin-pan alley music industry, which transformed the music of ghetto America -- Yiddish, Italian, African-American (Gershwin, Copland, Irving Berlin; Ella Fitzgerald, JZ, Basquiat). Suburbs and oter boroughs (Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, The Ramones).

       Hugely influential publishing houses (Doubleday, Random House, Simon & Schuster, Penguin). Broadway. Major network TV,  It's no wonder that in the past two hundred years there's been an immigration of artistic talent to NYC, nationally (Pollock, Warhol, Keith Haring) and internationally (Duchamps, Cendrars, Burliuk, Mayakovsky, Lorca, Rivera, Breton, Leger, Rachmaninov).

       David Bowie, John Lennon, Sting. All are or were contributors to the NYC phenomenon.

     Like I say, the avante-garde is the edge between the rich and powerful and the up and coming underculture, and New York City continues to be a place where there are new rich and powerful, and there are new undercultures finding their place.

   It all came to New York, poor, rich, and the edge between them.

   it all continues to come, making the NYC avante-garde experience not just a continuing national phenomenon to an international one.           (Photo: George Wallace)

"Call me a pragmatist.. Call me a loyal outlaw. Call me a rebel with a cause. We all know the excesses of what people call liberty, as much as we do the excesses of what people call justice. And anyhow, you can't travel one-arm waving free on the highway if society didn't build the steering wheel -- and the highway."

Currently you’ve one release with your poetry and Greek Jazz/Rock band of Omonoia Circus. How did that relationship come about?

      Let me start by saying this isn't my first release, I've done a couple of full albums of spoken word/musical accompaniment over the years, including some really exciting work with David Amram and with electronica guru Tony Lamb in Cornwall UK. I've been doing spoken word performance for decades now, going back to some wild Scriabin background, hardcore jazz combos, café-style conga players, you name it. And in recent years, I've begun producing poems for YouTube with international talent in the UK, Italy, India, etc. to provide music, voiceover, visual interpretation (one particularly exciting project was the YouTube 63rd Miracle of the Lord Shiva, which I produced and had aired at an international poetry festival in Boao China in 2021).

      But this album is distinct in that it is the first that is a fully musical composition, rather than spoken word with accompaniment. That's significant to me, in a number of ways --both as an adventure in turning poems into lyrics, and as a step in the direction of musical arrangement and production. Very exciting leap forward, and it has me percolating with new ideas and projects.

      As to how this relationship came about, there is a prelude to that, the key moment, and the followup to explain.

     Bottom line is I met Phillip Dragoumis of Omonoia Circus in 2019, the year you and I first met in Athens. A few days after you and I had coffee, actually, when I did my performance at "Bageion", in Omonoia Square, with harpsichordist Julie Ventoura and friends. Phillip was one of those in the mix, we got to know each other after the show, and I laid a bilingual book of poems on him (EOS, Three Rooms press). He was toying with the idea of a jazz/rock band and suggested that he try turning some of the poems into lyrics, setting them to music, and performing them.  I dug the idea, and over a period of a year or two, we bounced tracks back and forth over the internet. Phillip's dream is to produce a vinyl album, and I'm all for it, but as of this writing SAPPHO'S LITTLE BOAT is due to be released imminently on Spotify and other e-distributors.

      As for the prelude, I met Julie Ventoura a few years earlier on another visit to Athens when I was invited by a friend in poetry -- Dimitris Lyacos -- to be the 'other guy' in a dual reading with friends and family of Tassos DeNegis, the surrealist Greek poet. 

      And I should just say that the experience with Dragoumis has been an eye opener in a lot of ways, I hope to be able to collaborate with him again in the future, but also it has pointed the way forward for me into a world where I am a fully realized music content producer.

     The world just keeps expanding!

John Coltrane said "My art is the spiritual expression of what I am...". How do you understand the spirit, writing, and the meaning of life?

   Keep dreaming the big dreams, but don't forget to take out the garbage.

Poetry Bay - Home

(Photo: George Wallace)

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