From New York, to Chennai, to Bolton: George Wallace on global poetry networks, Walt Whitman, and a NYC anthology
George Wallace (pictured) is writer in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, on Long Island, New York; first poet laureate of Suffolk County, Long Island; and author of 38 poetry books and chapbooks, published in the US, UK, Italy, Macedonia and India. A prominent figure on the NYC poetry performance scene, he travels internationally to perform, lead writing workshops, and lecture on literary topics. He has won countless awards and prizes, founded and edited magazines and is a columnist on poetry matters. His CV is way too long to reproduce here, but suffice it to say that whatever any poet, or poetry activist (for he is both) would wish she or he had achieved, George has done it. On top of all that, he occasionally takes time to pop over to the UK to guest at events and tours organised with Dave Morgan of Live from Worktown, Bolton’s much-acclaimed cultural powerhouse. Recently, George has been a driving force behind Poets Building Bridges, a series of international poetry events jointly organised with Live from Worktown, and bringing together – via Zoom - poets and musicians from Chennai, India; New York; and Bolton, UK. George’s most recent publication is the compendious, very-well-received anthology, NYC From the Inside: NYC through the Eyes of the Poets Who Live Here, of which more below.
I feel it a privilege for us to be able to interview you, George, particularly because of our coincidence of interest: your support for the ideas of ‘community’ and ‘grassroots’ in poetry, which has been central to the work of Write Out Loud, the website where this interview is scheduled to appear. What does ‘grassroots’ mean in the context of poetry, whether of your own poetry or as a community activist? Is this linked to your declared ‘disposition to community service’?
Let me explain this definitionally. First, I was taught (by the South African public health education gurus who influenced community organisation thinking in the US in my day) that one may divide communities into geographic or cultural communities, and communities of interest. I don’t think I have to dissect that, or even test whether it is a complete enough structural representation of possibilities, only to say that a group of individuals with some commonality may be defined not by physical proximity, or by a shared complex of socio-cultural identity markers, but rather by having a common ‘interest’ of some kind. Like a geographic or cultural community, a community of interest may benefit from developing structures that serve the common and individual good, by working to turn their casual association into an engine that advances ‘shared goals and strategies.’ Second, I interpret the term ‘grassroots’ to mean collective action, policy and initiative generated and put into action ‘from the bottom up,’ rather than being handed down from a larger central authority (whether a benevolent, enlightened authority or one substantially less so).
What does this mean in the context of poetry? An interest in poetry would certainly seem to be a potential community of interest. From both a theoretical and experiential standpoint, however, I would have to say that ‘poetry’ can be something of a tricky critter to nail down. Unlike more straightforward interests (jazz appreciation, model airplane building, stamp collecting, animal rights advocacy, to think of a few) people interested in poetry come at the field for a variety of reasons – some because of a love of the craftsmanship, some because of a desire to ‘tell their story,’ some for social reasons, some to express their singularity. Some for ego reasons, some to ‘answer the call’ from some spiritual kind or another. There’s a whole lotta chakra going on, is what I’m trying to say. Therefore, the potential for poets to organise in a community sense is complicated by the very diverse and sometimes non-complementary motivations individuals have for engaging in their field of interest.
Of all the things you could have spent your life doing, why poetry, and how did it happen: a conscious decision, just crept up on you …?
I have a small garden at my house, here at the border of suburban and rural New York. The composition of which is guided in part by my own gardener’s hand, but with a keen sense of the hand of nature as it expresses itself in these parts. As I would not be nature’s master, neither would I be nature’s slave. I cultivate plants I want and – if the plants nature wants aren’t too noxious – allow nature to have an equal hand in what grows there. That means I choose flowers and shrubs that are suited to this climate, and allow the drifting persistent hand of nature to proportionally sow native plants among them.
I wish I could say that I chose to be a poet out of some transcendent visionary impulse, or because of some intellectual conviction that the most irrelevant human endeavour is likely to be the most elegantly elevated. But it would be more honest to say that I’m just being stubbornly resistant to becoming a cog in the wheel of consumer capitalist culture. Look, we all know it – we live in societies fine-tuned to turn the human experience from a rarified, duende-filled existence into some dull transactional robotic consumer enterprise. And I resist that. So say I’m just a regular human being who has read too many dystopian novels to allow myself to be made over into one of the drone bees. Say I am just an ordinary Joe who has an unnaturally high predilection for experiencing the extraordinary in the mundane. Say I am stubborn or lucky or privileged or blessed. I can’t dive. I can’t run. I can’t dance or play the trombone. I can’t put backspin on a tennis ball. I can’t turn water into wine, or glass and steel into a building that touch the sky. But in these dark days of the information age, I can turn back the deluge of words and ideas that drown most men, and make music out of lies.
Which came first, poet or impresario/activist? Which comes first now, and why?
It’s a balancing act. Too much the poet and you’re not taking care of your communal responsibilities. Too much the impresario and you lack fidelity to your own generative life-forces. I don’t trust anyone who is either too self-centred or too other-oriented.
You have been poet-in-residence at the Walt Whitman birthplace museum for a long time now. Could you tell me something about that, and perhaps describe your own relationship to Whitman, if I can put it like that?
Whitman’s my daddy.
It always surprises me how few UK poets know much about Whitman. How would you describe him to a British person who knows little about him? What is his place in the canon of US literature, and why should British poets be particularly interested in him and his work? How does his work speak to us today?
How to reduce a transcendental universalist, a revolutionary in poetic expression living in a pioneer society, into a short answer? Can’t be done. I supposed if you took Blake and Coleridge and John Clare and Christopher Smart; threw in a little Isaac Newton and George Fox; added a pinch of Immanuel Kant singing Alle Menschen Werden Bruder; and put them all in a covered wagon and told them to ‘go west and settle a new continent’, you’d get something that bears a passable resemblance to Walt Whitman. I was being a bit facetious of course with the previous question, but there is no doubt that Walt Whitman is the ultimate father-figure of American poetry, and in a very real sense we are all ‘Whitman’s wild children’ struggling to find our way in his shadow. Is he grand? Is he grandiose? Is he presumptuous or overreaching? Anyone with a passing acquaintance with this guy will acknowledge that Whitman is a monumental figure on the literary landscape, a man whose opus is beyond pigeon holing, strives for and substantially achieves universality of utterance and is remarkably translatable into other languages and cultures.
I am intrigued by what you describe on your CV as your international network of poetry venues. What makes it a ‘network’, as opposed to, for example, a list? What do you feel is the value or importance of such networks?
I answered this to some extent in your question about community. Communities of interest transcend geographic and national borders, pure and simple. I salute the poets of the world, with desire to advance our brotherly respect and affiliation. The light we individually emit is amplified through the resonance of association. Are we to be poor beautiful candles burning in poor lonely isolated huts, guttering fiercely, briefly, and then dying out? Or are we to strive to be lasers, and perhaps even pierce the night?
In 2000, you said (presciently) you ‘recognised the potential of the internet for creating poetry platforms and pan-regional networking of poetry communities’. And recently you have been involved in a series of international, online events linking NYC, Bolton, (UK’s Worktown initiative), and Chennai in India: Poets Building Bridges. Could you tell me about that, perhaps how and why you got involved, what it gives you personally and how it fits your poetry world view (and anything else you would like to add about it)?
Necessity being the mother of invention (and technological advancement a double-edged sword), I responded like a lot of people to the ‘shutdown’ of the pandemic by becoming involved in Zoom meetings. In a sense, this has been fortuitous to me in that, as I am acquiring a certain age, international travel (one of the great pleasures and driving passions of my life) has become more problematic for me. And I’d say that whatever the trade-offs between live gatherings and virtual gatherings, which anyone could enumerate, I take it as a welcome development that the ecology of poetry exchange has found in zoom-meeting a new niche. Let me just say that as a responsible American artist, I think it extremely important to reach out beyond the myopia of whatever sense of ‘cultural exceptionalism’ we possess and engage in honest and mutually respectful exchange with other cultures. It happens anyway, of course, always has, but the exchange has not always been mutual or respectful enough – in world-conquering sailing ship days, in high colonial steamship days, in post-colonial subsonic ‘if this is Tuesday it must be Belgium’ days, and in the flat-world supersonic global-interdependent 21st century.
As an artist and a human being with healthy curiosity and a desire to know my world more fully I take all the material of the world as being a rare gift, and suitable stuff for my palette. As a responsible world citizen, I take the mutuality of exchange to be a high moral duty. As a poet, I want to learn from other practitioners of my craft and cast the net widely. And as a person with what I hope is a normal level of enthusiasm for the fruits of my creative craftsmanship, I trust that I am also justified in bringing my work to like-minded individuals around the globe for them to experience and appreciate.
You clearly don’t do things by halves, George. Your latest publication sounds like one hell of a project: NYC From The Inside: NYC Through the Eyes of the Poets Who Live Here. It sounds like a huge, fascinating and extraordinarily impressive project (your magnum opus, perhaps?). Not just its scale, with 179 poets in 360 pages, but the mix of headline-grabbing names alongside up-and-coming poets.
You got that right! This baby's got it all, it's a rocket ship.
I see that ex-New York State poet laureate Alicia Ostriker describes the book as: 280 boisterous pages of pure joy and pure pain, comedy and memory, satire and lament, lovers and haters, pizzas and drink and drugs, pavements; a call-and-response of Loisaida flinging its truths to the boroughs and getting those truths back again. Is she right? How would you describe it?
Yeah, she’s right. But like Whitman, who rightly claimed that he encompasses multitudes, this book could be described a lot of different ways, depending on how you cut the deck or deal out a hand of cards. Again I dislike and eschew the reductionist tendency to characterise a thing of significant complexity. Let me just point your readers to a portion of the introduction I wrote.
‘The poetry of a great city is no mere anecdote or act of journalistic reportage or political bent; it is neither antidote nor sightseer’s tour guide; it is a thing of the city, the city itself, and its voice, constantly on the move, even when it is standing still.
The poetry of a great city permeates the air and peels back the concrete and examines what’s hidden underneath. It possesses a fearless attentiveness to the moment, stands at the corner of what cannot be and what must be, waiting for the light to change, and rears its crazy head and laughs.
It is the place where intent and happenstance meet, where human wings take flight or come crashing to the ground.
It is what happens at fateful crossroads and out of the way dives; on subway platforms at 3am and in every corner of every man and woman’s heart.
It is the place of soul collisions and miraculous escapes; a place for acts of overwhelming courage, kindness, selflessness, or ennui; and yes, for chance encounters; and yes, for transgressions and accommodations and apologies and adjustments and avoidances. And yes, for desperate last stands.
All that and more, materialising, dematerialising, a hundred thousand times a day, in the great eddy and swirl that defines the city and moves within and around its people.’
Could you describe the genesis of the book, what you were aiming to achieve with it, and what you now feel you have in your hands when you pick it up?
Practically speaking, the genesis of the book is this: the idea for the book came from Blue Light Press, a very nice boutique operation in San Francisco, a place I have lived off and on over the years and maintain fairly extensive relationships. Blue Light has done two books of mine, I conduct annual workshops for them (most recently via Zoom), and as an innovative operation had previously done a couple of anthologies, including the very nice Fog and Light, anthologising poets from San Francisco. Diane Frank, publisher of Blue Light, asked me if I would curate/edit a similar anthology for NYC poets, I said yes, and the race was on!
What motivated the poets to get involved (how did you sell them the idea?)
I’ve been in the game for 40 years and people know and trust my work.
I see there is considerable response to the book, and this seems reflected in the number of readings and promotion events you have already secured. What is your greatest hope for the book?
I believe that this book, due to its breadth, diversity, timeliness and focus, deserves to take its place as a durable product in the American literary canon.
In terms of your considerable contribution to world and US poetry, what do you hope your legacy will be?
I gave as much as I got and gave language new fields in which to play. I drank with the best of them, raised up the least, and never failed to buy a stranger a beer or accept one from a friend.
PHOTOGRAPH: WES CANDELA
The Poets Building Bridges videos can be viewed on YouTube, some of them are here:
NYC FROM THE INSIDE: NYC through the eyes of the poets who live here can be purchased from Amazon or, as George puts it at: Any fine independent bookstore near you.
Currently scheduled readings and celebrations for NYC FROM THE INSIDE include:
- Sat April 16 2022 7:00-9:00 pm Reading and celebration (zoom) Poetrybay Productions
- Sat April 30 2022 2:00-5:00 pm Reading and celebration, El Barrio Art Space
215 e 99TH St https://www.artspace.org/ps10
- Fri May 6 2022 7:00-9:00 pm Reading and celebration (zoom) Walt Whitman Birthplace
Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site and Interpretive Center
- Wed May 11 2022 7:00-9:00 pm Reading and celebration KGB Bar
KGB Bar Red Room, 85 e 4th St KGB Bar | Rated one of the Top Ten NYC Dive Bars
- Sun May 15 2022 4:00-6:00 pm Reading and celebration, Parkside Lounge
317 East Houston and Attorney Live Music | The Parkside Lounge | United States
- Sat May 21 2022 3:00-5:00 pm Reading and celebration (zoom) Bronx Library Center
NYPL Bronx Library Center | The New York Public Library (nypl.org)
- Sun June 12 2022 7:00-9:00 pm Reading and celebration (zoom) Blue Light Press
San Francisco California Blue Light Press
John F Keane
Wed 6th Apr 2022 19:42
Great questions and brilliant answers. I love how he rephrases canonical poetic knowledge into a modern, populist context.
Wed 6th Apr 2022 09:07
Great interview. Really enjoyed this inspiring article. Thank you!
Wed 6th Apr 2022 07:44
A wonderful interview Julian. It's like reading poetry listening to his responses. So enjoyed this.
Tue 5th Apr 2022 12:58
Well I've known George a few years and shared beer and fish and chips with him, but there are things you've uncovered here that I only guessed at. George is a major poetic force but he's also a loveable human being with time for anyone. I'd recommend any reader to befriend him on fb just to catch a weekly delivery of nourishing poetic vittals.
Tue 5th Apr 2022 10:39
I want to record grateful thanks to my friend Dave Morgan for his role in securing this interview.
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