Poet George Wallace: I still dream in Korean!

George Wallace

George Wallace

Interview by Ashraf Aboul-Yazid
President of Asia Journalists Association

CAIRO: Eminent American poet George Wallace was born in March 22, 1949 into a New York family with associations to both popular entertainment and high culture. He attended Syracuse University 1967–71, met Allen Ginsberg, and studied with W. D. Sondgrass.

In the early 1970s, he began a twenty-year career exploring the US, Europe and Asia. Occasional work, pursuit of community service, and cross-cultural curiosity resulted in extended stays in Boston (1972–73), India and the Middle East (1973), the San Francisco Bay area (1974–75), Korea (US Peace Corps 1975–77), North Carolina (1977–1980), Sacramento (1981–83), East Anglia, UK (1983–85), before returning to his native New York.

In 1988 he began a decade-long career as a community journalist, meanwhile building poetry communities from a base of operations in Huntington , Long Island   — creating Walt’s Corner, a column in the Long Islander Newspaper (founded by Walt Whitman), Long Island Quarterly Magazine, live performance venues, and local radio and television shows. He co-hosted a radio poetry program, “Poetry Brook”.

During this time, Wallace’s own poetry began to be collected in chapbook form, with publications through Cross Cultural Communications, Writers Ink Press and others, producing work that featured a growing orientation to inventive and playful monologues. By the late 1990s Wallace was recognized as a pre-eminent figure in regional poetry, and he was named the first poet laureate for Suffolk Country, Long Island, in 2003.

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.

Poetrybay, which he launched in 2000, established him as a respected national publisher of poetry. The online literary magazine was selected for international archiving and distribution through the Stanford University LOCKSS program.

Since 2010 Wallace extended his role as a performance poet, poetry organizer and promoter of imagination-based poetry to venues worldwide. During this period, Wallace became writer in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, and his reach as an organizer of events and activities in poetry expanded dramatically.

Of his publications and CDs, in the last decade, we read these titles: Resistance Is A Blue Spanish Guitar (Blue Light Press, 2021), I Feed the Flames and the Flames Feed Me (Local Gems Press, 2019), Sacred Language of Wine and Bread (La Finestra Editrice, 2019), One Hundred Years Among The Daisies (Spartan Press, 2018), The Sulphur of Troy / Lo Zolfo di Troia (La Finestra Editrice, 2018), Smashing Rock And Straight As Razors (Blue Light Press, 2017), A Simple Blues With A Few Intangibles (Foothills Publishing, 2016), Drugged By Hollywood (NightBallet Press, 2016), Beauty Parlors, Trainyards and Everything In Between (Spartan Press, 2014), Belt Buckles and Bibles (NightBallet Press, 2013), Riding With Boom Boom (NightBallet Press, 2013), EOS: Abductor of Men (Three Rooms Press, 2012), Incident on the Orient Express (Nirala Publications, New Delhi, India, 2012), Sleeping Beauty’s Revenge (NightBallet Press, 2012), The Hard Stuff (NightBallet Press, 2012) and Jumping Over The Moon (Boone’s Dock Press, 2011).

George Wallace

George Wallace

  • Your poems are bringing pieces of art; you are playing with words to create surreal scenes, while they are also real. How much are you connected with arts?


You are correct in your analysis of my poems, they are ‘made objects’ as distinct from statements of my identity, experience or beliefs. Each poem I write is the end result of a process of discovery, not intent — I begin writing without knowing what I am going to write ‘about,’ but rather follow my urge to write ‘toward’ subject and theme. It is the initiating energy of a few words or phrase — the suggestion of melody, rhythm and magnetic direction — which sends me into a near autonomic vocalization. Utterance, prior to meaning. Quite quickly, synchronicities and juxtapositions, points and counterpoints of meaning, emerge, and the subject and intent of my poem emerges.

This process is more akin to the process of invention or fiction than it is to enunciation. In fact I don’t always agree with poems I write, but this is the price one pays for being involved in a creative process that is true not to the author, but to the language from which it has emerged.

  • Poets are good travelers; they travel in histories, places and times. It is all about they are true imaginative. Do you agree?


As a lifelong traveler, the relationship between imagination and place is a complicated one. I don’t particularly like to ‘romanticize’ actual experience of lands, cultures, people, built environments, for example. Instead I believe in the overwhelming richness, diversity and singularity of what one may experience in any of those realm. Whether it is by human cultivation or natural origin, the world holds mysteries and messages great and small for the curious and appreciative soul; from the greatest mountain to the tiniest speck of sand; from the grandest gesture of an artistic impresario to the most intimate between mother and child; great architectural wonders, water wheels, bullet trains, cricket bats.

Confronted by the wonderful proliferance and endlessly inventive iterations of natural and human experience, how can one fail to be Whitmanic about the abundance of it all?

What that means to the poet, of course, is something very exciting — an endless set of materials from which to ‘set one’s palette,’ and create works of art whose only limitation is the the breadth one’s natural curiosity can go to accumulate material to work with. Material from actual experience, material from learned sources. Material from the free and independent roaming of the human imagination.

  • In 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded Nobel Prize in literature, how do you observe giving a prize basically devoted to grand literary achievements, to a multi creator of words, music, even paintings. Does this mean words are no longer enough to go alone?


One cannot examine the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan in 2016 without considering the commendable political statement made by the Nobel committee. In the year that Donald Trump rose to prominence in the world political discourse the Swedish electors chose to honor an American who as a young man spoke out forcefully against injustice and inhumanity, who refused to be ‘pigeon-holed’  as an artist, and who stubbornly pursued his art his way while being admired, emulated and made an icon by young people worldwide. Look, you can’t compare apples to oranges, but that’s what they did by handing him that prize.

They made a big exception which was right considering the politics of the time. But I hope they won’t repeat it. In my opinion, writing great folk songs is no more in the category of ‘great literature,’ as you put it, than writing great musical drama, great pop songs, or great opera. Let them create a Nobel Prize for Lyrics and give them retroactively to Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Billy Strayhorn. Fats Waller. The Gershwin boys and Irving Berlin. Edith Piaf. Antonio Carlos Jobim Bert Bacharach. Heck, The Brill Building in Manhattan and Tin Pan Alley would be littered with Nobel Prizes.

Woody Guthrie. Nina Simone, Robert Johnson; Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon; Brian Wilson. John Lennon. Marvin Gaye. Eminem; Prince. Roger Waters. How about Bertold Brecht orTim Rice or Lin-Manuel Mranda. Or that bunch who wrote the music to Les Miserables.

  • Your poems are bringing me to nature and beings other than only human. It is your experience, but the world is cruel to protect its people, animals, plants. What could a poet do?


A poet can preach to deaf ears in the inextinguishable hope that there are others, beyond the range of his or her voice, who will hear.

  • Do you recall the first book you read and changed your life?


It was not a book that changed my life but the New York Times crossword puzzle. As a small boy I watched my mother solve that puzzle every Sunday with great pleasure and focus, and I wanted to learn the magic and mystery in which she was enthralled. It turned out to be the simple pleasure of word gymnastics, and the possibility that I could be an agent freeing words to perform their innate ballet.

As for the poem that first shaped my writing, it was Dejuener du Matin, by Jacques Prevert, in the original French. The simple understated elegance of the language, stripped down yet so quietly specific. The fact that it was in French, which to me is a beautiful language, and completely understandable.

  • Why do you write? Why did you choose the form of poetry writing?


I am charmed by the manifold ways music can dress itself up in the apparel of language, fine or simple, and go out walking amongst its peers.

  • Out of your dozens of books, what is the one you wrote and thought it will change the world?


My goal is to change each otherwise empty day in my life into a flower.

  • We often have companions, in life, in literature, in work. Who are yours, and how much did they affect you?


I am sustained by the love and support of my family, inspired by artists in many fields and cultures, and made whole as an artist by the hard institutional work of growing communities of writers, too numerous to mention, mutual aid societies with high goals and modest expectations.

  • If the East is mentioned, what images will it bring to your mind? Will it be the Arabian Nights, the civilizations in Egypt and China, the wars that didn’t stop for centuries? What is (East) for a poet from the United States?


I can only speak for myself, but I will tell you this  — my primary experience of the vast region you call ‘The East’ dates to the 1970s, specifically a) a year-long trek from Istanbul to India and the Himalayas to meet the Dalai Lama, which brought me through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India; and b) two years living in Korea as a Peace Corps volunteer. Fifty years since my Korean years, I still dream in Korean sometimes and consider that country a kind of ‘second culture” for me.

These experiences, plus other less substantial visits to places like Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Tunisia and the Arabian Peninsula, have perhaps afforded me something more than what you may stereotypically think of as an untraveled, culturally isolated, Disney-fed American.

However, I should ad that, perhaps more than other reasonably curious schoolboys, I was exposed to a lot of literature, movies, music and art pertaining to the numerous regions which constitute ‘The East’. ie, Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, the Pacific archipelagoes, and in a sense, North Africa.

I could mention any number of them. Basho, Hafiz, Rumi, Lao Tzu, Rabindranath Tagore. Kurosawa, Hokusai. Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Puccini. Kurosawa. Hokusai. Hamza al Din. Movies like Shogun, Last Samurai, Last Geisha, Gandhi, Last Emperor, M Butterfly, Lost in Translation, Mucize, Exodus, Ten Commandments. Endless WWII movies, and not a few Vietnam War era movies. Non-fiction readings focused on most of the world’s great religions — Judaeo-Christian and Muslim of course, but certainly Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Confucian, Bahai, Sikh, Baktari, etc. Poems and novels? Cannot leave out EM Foster (Passage to India), Pearl Buck (Nectar in a Sieve, The Good Earth), James Michener (Caravans), George MacDonald Fraser (Flashman series), Rudyard Kipling (Kim, Man who would be king), Frances Hodgson Burnett (Secret Garden), Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Herman Hesse (Siddartha), Wm Somerset Maugham (Razor’s Edge), ST Coleridge (Kubla Khan), Blaise Cendrars (Prose of the Trans-Siberian).

Oh — and the Old Testament of the Bible.

  • Other than poetry, while you feed the flames and flames feed you, what are your interests?


The magnificent dance of material existence, and the spirit which informs it, in all its forms

  • A final word to Arab and Asian readers:


As Walt Whitman says, in Salut au monde — Towards you all, in America’s name, I raise high the perpendicular hand!

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