George Wallace: poet, composer, MySpace phenom, and editor of Poetrybay
ml: Poetrybay is touted as an “online magazine for the 21st century.” Please elaborate on this statement and what it means to you as an editor and poet.
gw: I started Poetrybay in 2000, it was still the 20th century! I guess in one sense I was just trying to sound glibly future oriented.
In another sense, however, I was thinking of Walt Whitman at the dawn of the popular newspaper age in 19th century America. Of any other literary figure at the dawn of any new age of information technology, who is able to get in at the beginning of that technology and ride it, like the crest of a new wave, to its natural heights.
I recognized that there were plenty of print literary venues from the 20th century that had become cornerstones of their day -- Poetry Magazine, City Lights Books, New Directions Press, Black Sparrow Press, what have you -- and also popular magazines and newspapers and publishing houses, from The New Yorker and Christian Science Monitor to Yankee Magazine and Penguin Publishing. Some of them were radical and daring in their day, others merely important because of their reach, their inferred status, and their commercial success.
In many cases the innovators have become entrenched so long in their own success that they've ceased to be cutting edge leaders, and like their popular counterparts more or less havens for the elite to get their poems in print.
To my way of thinking the new Internet era offered an egalitarian opportunity to break through the stranglehold of 20th century information technology, and start off on an equal footing with anyone else who wants to produce a literary product of merit and durability.
ml: In your opinion, what are the hallmarks of a quality online literary publication, and how do you incorporate these into Poetrybay?
gw: Several hallmarks.
First, accessibility of the product -- both in terms of location and in terms of its content. The old figure of speech in American business, that the three most important factors in success are Location, Location, Location, still holds true. By virtue of being on the world's Main Street -- the Internet -- and finding your way onto the search engines, any online literary publication fulfills that first aspect of accessibility. The second aspect, accessibility of content, involves editorial judgment. There are obviously different marketing strategies for a literary product -- to represent a particular genre, or a particular human geography, be it physical or political or spiritual, is clearly one way to go with that. As for me, I have just been interested in offering a product that emphasizes language craftsmanship without obscurity or preciousness. By aggressively seeking out quality poets of my acquaintance from the outset -- both 'name' poets and those who are fine writers without a national following -- I was able to position Poetrybay from day one as a publication that stressed merit over status, and desire to communicate over an obsession with self.
Second, I was intent on having a product with high quality, yet understated, production values, and I turned to a very talented web designer to put together a product that works well and looks right on the electronic page.
The third hallmark, to my way of thinking, is durability. Plenty of people get into and out of poetry in all of it venues, and just plain sticking with it is such an important factor that I can't emphasize it enough. Everyone knows the old saying that 95% of success is showing up. I'd say that means you have to KEEP showing up. If you have a good idea and good execution, it will be more likely to be successful if don't just make the scene, but stay focused on being the scene over the long haul.
ml: The current issue of Poetrybay (Winter 2007) contains a stellar mix of mystical, political and social poetic commentary: Donna Pucciani’s “St. Teresa,” David B. Alexrod’s “Abu Banana,” Lenore Weiss’s “Cutting Down the Last Tree on Easter Island.” What criteria you and your editorial staff implement to decide what poetry and prose makes the cut for publication?”
gw: Forget autobiography. Write about what you don't know. Stop making sense. Let language lead you to new discovery. Let loose the energy that lies dormant in words. Follow the possibilities of the imaginative mind.
ml: Charles P. Ries recently published an article on the pros and cons of simultaneous submissions (“How shall we submit: examining submission guidelines” Free Verse, Summer 2007). He polled a number of editors, and the results were mixed. How do you deal with poets who try to slip past your “no previously published work” rule? Why/why not is this important to you?
gw: This is an open question in my book, and really too big for a short answer. There are so many venues now for placing work before different kinds of public -- from magazines and chapbooks to blogs and MySpace pages, and literary e-magazines. Not to mention video'd work and live appearances.
No doubt there was a time in the age of print media where being the first to print someone's poem required a certain amount of investment and expectation of reward. To me, most of the expectations about 'first published,' 'copyright' and that sort of thing originate in that era, and ought to be re-examined in light of the different information world we live in.
To me it comes down to two things -- protecting the investment of a third party who has chosen to publish a work, while offering the greatest opportunity for a writer to put their work before people.
ml: Your editorial board is scattered far and wide (UK, Los Angeles, East Coast). How do you determine who to work with, in what medium do you communicate, as well as keep the editorial process going?
gw: I created the editorial board with aim toward geographic breadth, simple as that. Not exhaustively, but I figured in the world of the Web, we all live in the same town these days. All our communication is via email. Basically I field all submissions (Lord help me!) and then send out a certain portion of them to my co-editors individually for comment. I take their comments into consideration in making my final decision whether a poem is to appear or not.
ml: How do you balance your roles as poet and editor, and how much/in what way does one influence the other, for good or ill?
gw: James Clavell said in Shogun that the Zen mind compartmentalizes. I like to think there is some semi-permeability to the walls between those compartments, and that if you control the flow you can enrich each of the compartments. Other than that, I don't sleep much.
ml: You have a pretty solid following on MySpace. Do you feel that publishing your poetry through a medium like MySpace can take the place of a workshop or an open mic, and why/why not?
gw: I have an ecological concept of the poetry world. A healthy poetry world has a profusion of ecological niches, in which lively and fruitful activity can occur. So I see MySpace as another niche in the ecology of poetry, not as a replacement. Let there be workshops and open mics. Let there be MySpaces and blogs. Why not make our world of poetry a more robust and multi-faceted ecology?
George Wallace is the first poet laureate for Suffolk County, Long Island,
NY, and editor of Poetrybay, recently selected by Stanford University for its international LOCKSS archiving project. He is the author of eight other chapbooks of poetry, including the bi-lingual Swimming Through Water, published by La Finestra Editrice in Trento, Italy. He reads internationally and regularly performs his work with jazz legend David Amram, as well as such musicians as Paul Winston, Levon Helm, Jonny McEwans and Emanuele Zottino. Wallace's work has been the subject of articles in the New York Times (Long Island Section), Newsday, Daily News, Improper Hamptonian, Dan Papers; and such poetry publications as Cafe Review, Ibbitson Press and BigCityLit.