Responding to Fred Wah

Fred Wah at North of Invention (photo by Aldon Nielsen).

January 20, 2011, at North of Invention: A Canadian Poetry Festival, Fred Wah disturbs Canada’s national imaginary.

In his talk, in the Kelly Writers House, in Philadelphia, USA, Wah describes his poetic practice as a kind of grammatical GPS that locates and disturbs the Canadian national imaginary. Formed by his experience as a person of Chinese, Scottish, and Swedish descent, Wah pays close poetic attention to the minute and overlooked in language, identifying and troubling coercive nationalistic narratives. In doing so, he practices an “alien ethnic poetics” that “locates a time and space outside and between what is signified on the nation’s surface.”

Demonstrating his poetic system of location, Wah considers the preposition “from,” in the national slogan, “from sea to sea,” reminding us that to be from Canada is to not be from Canada — it is to be from elsewhere. Recalling the Canadian government’s Chinese Exclusion Act [1], and the federal legislation that made it illegal for Indigenous people to vote until 1960, Wah locates Canada as a country founded on racist immigration policies, and a brutal and bureaucratic process of colonization.

And these are accurate coordinates. In fact, since Canada is a country based on the illegal annexation of the traditional lands of hundreds of Indigenous nations, even the communities that are actually from here (and have always been here) are not from that Canadian here.

Wah identifies his poetics and Jeff Derksen’s “public language” as interventions into this national imaginary. As is evident by the critical intensity of Wah and Derksen’s work, Canada has always been deeply invested in its own imaginary delineations; Canada has never been north of invention.

Wah notes Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, the Japanese redress of 1988, and Nicole Brossard’s feminist poetics as important influences on his poetic interventions supplying vital entry points for him “to write from.” But he also emphasizes that influences can have their own complex conditions. Locating another imaginary realm, the jurisdiction of the writer over language or material, Wah recalls Brossard’s critique of his transcreations of her lesbian feminist Ma Continent (1974), and Steve McCaffery’s concern that Wah’s work with Indigenous pictograms in Pictograms from the Interior of B. C. (1975) [2] took the pictograms out of their original context. Wah’s willingness to share and thoughtfully consider these responses within the context of his present writing practice is striking and generous. It demonstrates his unflagging commitment to writing and to thinking about writing. Language play, he concludes, is serious work; we need to take care with the materials we address.

After the talk, during the question period, Derksen suggests that since the Canadian avant-garde has shifted to include a poetics that is more critically conscious of issues of race (thanks to writers like Wah), the movement should now evolve beyond the Canadian national boundaries o speak to the larger context of North America. 

But such a shift may not be in keeping with Wah’s findings.

That is, considering what Wah’s poetic location devices have demonstrated, perhaps the Canadian avant-garde needs to turn its attention even more closely to the contemporary consequences of our bogus narratives and bloody history, to the Indigenous communities in Canada, to governmental interference in Indigenous rights, sovereignty, land title, basic access to health care, education, and clean drinking water. Maybe it is time for the Canadian avant garde to poetically investigate the language of our history, to read our treaties, to understand the legal implications of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 — and, for non-Indigenous Canadians (like me), to live up to the responsibilities (past and present), the legal conditions and commitments, that we have, as people who live on these lands. [3] 

In Bob Perelman’s response to Wah’s talk, and Derksen’s comments, Perelman affirms the necessity of poetic systems of location, and reiterates Wah’s call for care. Although Perelmen acknowledges the importance of the instinctive artistic response, he suggests that intuition and immediacy require an understanding of history. Our unfreedoms, Perelman says, “are harder to perceive with our senses because we are so inured to them . . . sometimes we mistake sensual immediacy for freedom when we are actually faced with evocations of our unfreedoms.” As a Canadian living in this country that habitually defines its citizens as just and decent, it is also clear to me that we are profoundly inured to the unfreedoms of others, and that our subjectivities and freedoms are tangibly built on those unfreedoms. Take the pictographs. As Wah says, these were “undocumented,” and they probably still are, undocumented and unacknowledged. Official Canadian historic discourse and policy have rendered most Canadians illiterate in Indigenous legal systems, histories, cultures, languages, oral and inscribed expression — our national identity, and our continued appropriation of Indigenous land and resources depend on this lack of education.

From here, where I write this, on Treaty Six land, in traditional Cree territory, Wah’s poetics, his talk and the conversation that follows locate and trouble our illiteracy, the fraught privilege of our poetic play, and the national imaginary of this country. [4]



1. When the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, the Canadian government moved to restrict the immigration of Chinese people to Canada. The first federal anti-Chinese bill was passed in 1885. It took the form of a head tax of $50 imposed, with few exceptions, upon every person of Chinese origin entering the country. No other group was targeted in this way. The Head Tax was increased to $100 in 1900 and to $500 in 1903. $500 was equivalent to two years’ wages for a Chinese laborer at the time. Meanwhile, Chinese people were denied Canadian citizenship. In all, the federal government collected $23 million through the Head Tax. Despite this “tax,” Chinese immigrants continued to come to Canada. In 1923, the Canadian Parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act excluding all but a few Chinese immigrants from entering the country. Between 1923 and 1947 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, less than fifty Chinese people were allowed to come to Canada.

2. The terms commonly used for the people who lived in Canada prior to European contact are Indigenous or Aboriginal. First Nations, Métis, and Inuit are for specific groups. For the most part, in Canada, the word “Indian” is not used, unless the speaker is Indigenous or is referring to the federal government’s control over “Indian” status.

3. In 2000, at the University of Alberta (on Treaty Six land), Cree lawyer and activist Sharon Venne asked her non-Indigenous audience: “What are your treaty rights?” See Venne’s article, “Treaties Made in Good Faith.” In Canada, even if you do not live on treaty land, you still exist within a country that was founded based on a series of binding legal agreements with Indigenous Nations. See Anishinaabe law scholar John Borrow’s “Wampum at Niagara: The Royal Proclamation, Canadian Legal History and Self-Government.”

4. Thanks Fred.

Addendum to her howlings

a.rawlings (left) and Maja Jantar (right).

This is a transcript of Órói or her poetical unrest, an aural note for Jacket2 on a.rawlings reading with Maja Jantar during the North of Invention conference, a Canadian poetry festival held at the University of Pennsylvania at Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia in January 2011, as seen and heard on PennSound.

If you’re reading this because you can’t hear the sound file (4:39), please follow me. I’ll guide you through it.

— I’ll tell you what you can’t hear.

First, about the sounds:

En guise d’accompagnement, a tapestry (from the Persian taftan, tabidan: “to turn, to twist”) inspired by a’s name and based on preparatory work for Telephone, a poetry journal from New York which asked me to translate Augusto de Campos, who called himself a concrete poet. I took the task literally and translated the name instead of the work. I started with A, using some of the sounds the letter can produce in English and in French (five, to be precise: a, a, a, a, and a). It’s dedicated to Edith Sitwell, who, in turn, called herself an abstract poet.

[Insert a silent sequence which will then be considered the normal, regular or standard silent sequence.]

I had to ask about her.

[Insert a shorter silent sequence.]

I had to bug people to know about her.
(To bug someone [as you would bug a room] helps to listen.)

[Insert a slightly shorter silent sequence than the previous shorter silent sequence.]

I asked a friend who happened to know her (un hasard, he’s translating Wide slumber for lepidopterists in French), and who told me about another friend, and I asked her.

[Insert a similar slightly shorter silent sequence.]

I asked François Luong who’s from Strasbourg and who has lived in Houston and who’s now in San Francisco, and I asked Karen Hannah who’s from California and who has lived in Korea and who’s now in San Francisco.

[Insert a standard silent sequence that feels longer than it is.]

He says they’ve been looking for the center of the Earth, working on a geological site full of Icelandic digressions. / She says she sails, wholly unfettered. / He says to think about her is tiring. The idea of her. He can’t wrap his mind around it. Too numerous dimensions, he says. / She says she has natural urges to root and unnatural urges to unroot. / He says her wording’s comparable to an ecological spill. / She, a letterpress printer, says she’s smitten, and worked from a sound poem of hers. / He says her work’s hard to put into words.

[Insert a longer silent sequence.]

a.rawlings says she’s been displacing her body. She’s from Northern Ontario or maybe Toronto, she has lived in Belgium and Iceland, now maybe back where she came from. She’s been swerving between repetitious bruising and improvisational healing, using divinatory practices and line drawings, studying volcanoes and dancing, making nonstop nonsemantic hellos and devising a poetics of the corpoverbaurovisual.

[Insert a quarter of a standard silent sequence.]

I would like her to meet Susan Philipsz, who was born in Glasgow but who lives in Berlin. Her father’s Burmese. She was awarded the 2010 Turner Prize for art, but she only uses sound.

[Insert a standard silent sequence.]

A poet who doesn’t know better will use words and meaning as a place to start. A poet’s place to start should be anywhere. Displacing’s a good place.

a.rawlings, hats off to your good start.

Sound body, sound text

On a.rawlings and Maja Jantar

a.rawlings and Maja Jantar perform at North of Invention.

Performance, especially of the type that a.rawlings and Maja Jantar execute, creates a new syntax for sound and text as they swirl vividly around each other. You can see it in the way their bodies move, pulling sound out of lungs through stuttered and sometimes simultaneous arm movements. In their performance, we witness these two bodies on stage, connected through sound and text, looking to physically touch each other at all times. Chests push out or suck in, arms move up or down or yank toward abdomens. Try watching on mute for a minute: a.rawlings’s mouth is incredibly expressive.

The most powerful moments arise from the physical and aural linkages and disruptions that occur throughout the performance. What is happening here? Their hands reach out and sound or silence comes, somehow seeming connected to the movement of the arm. Here: two voices piecing through language simultaneously but also against the other. They’re in different speech patterns, as we all are. We all have cadence and comfort zones for our tongues and limbs. And it’s the moments where the two voices sync up as best two voices can where I feel I lose the most language and enter something else: song? Voice? Sound? Music?

I say lose, but I don’t mean loss. What I lose is the connection between signifier and signified. I reach aporia, a space where all those doubts I have about language become useful through the exhaustion of the words and the sometimes violent, sometimes beautiful separation of word as a vassal of meaning from its aural genetics. Once in this aporatic moment, I’m able to let go of language as a fixed centre for meaning. “I will not ruin the environment.” When synced up, repeated, pulled apart and reconstructed, then pulled apart again, this phrase is ultimately exhausted; it becomes an aural environment of its own that is directly connected to body and time through the various affects and defects of language. This is a gain. So a.rawlings isn’t “exhausting” language in the Deleuzian sense of a total destruction of possibility, but tiring it, weakening it in a productive way that allows us to see possibility in it through the affective and the physical.

What strikes me about a.rawlings’s work is how well situated it is in the body, even when we’re observing her poetry alone on a page. The physicality of sound is what is “here” even as it swirls away from the body and the page. She creates a presence for language that is complex and powerful for the reader and the listener.

The Wah in water

On a reading by Fred Wah

Fred Wah at North of Invention. Photo by Aldon Nielsen.

In this video, Fred Wah reads three poems from his recent selected, The False Laws of Narrative, edited by Louis Cabri, followed by six poems from Is a Door (2009), followed by an unpublished piece for Omar Khadr and, finally, a joint reading with Nicole Brossard of “If Yes Seismal,” his transcreation of Brossard’s “Si sismal.”

For me, these poems, and generally much of Wah’s poetry, spiral into and out from the third piece in the reading, “The Poem Called Syntax” (published in So Far, 1991). Just the mention of poetry and syntax in the same breath brings to mind Robin Blaser’s Syntax (1983), and his deliberate adoption of a paratactic collage of quotations, memories, reflections, and patternings of sound and sense which Charles Olson famously found lacking: “I’d trust you / anywhere with image, but / you’ve got no syntax.”

No controlling syntax is exactly the point. For Wah, like Blaser, how poems combine words, sounds and perceptions — the gathering or syntax of them — is crucial: poetry is not about imposing the narrow thinking of the standard complete sentence, or of the egotist’s diary, or of religious and political dogma. Poetry is about tapping in to a realm of sound and sense much larger than narrow frames of reference limited by individual or cultural experience; it’s about affirming the possibilities of knowledge outside and beyond what we know, and extending our knowledge through “ungrammatical” patterning.

When Wah says “We live on the edge of a lake called Echo,” several lakes come to mind; indeed, the poem refers to “all lakes.” One lake is Kootenay Lake, the 100-mile long lake in the interior of British Columbia where both Wah and I grew up, and where he has, since the 1970s, had a summer cottage. The geography of southern British Columbia is marked by several similarly long lakes in parallel valleys by which locals navigate their mental and physical treks in the province. Every spring runoff, these lakes flood.

Another lake is Blaser’s “lake of souls” (via Dante), which he said “is / probably the secret of syntax itself.” Quoting this line in “Music at the Heart of Thinking 114,” Wah comments “That’s the drawer of poetry, closed to keep the lake from flooding.” Wah envisions poetry working in a clutter of phonemes and morphemes, a chaos of linguistic signaling, waiting for connections in a “quilt of meaning.” “Just throw it into / the drawer,” Wah writes, “mess is poetry’s mass.” This does not mean poems are left uncrafted — on the contrary, Wah’s poems are full of formal patterning — they are as adroitly composed as improvised jazz from which he derives much of his poetic method — especially evident in the first two pieces in this reading, selected from his serial poem “Music at the Heart of Thinking.”

Another lake that comes to mind is the one in Michael Palmer’s serial poem “Notes for Echo Lake” (1981) — a long meditation on “micro-syntax below the order of the sentence and even … the word,” and on the relations between sign, self, names, speech, text and “a music or music beneath the hill, an ‘order of feeling.’” Palmer notes Plato’s warning against “shadows of … words cast against the wall” and his warning against song, and Wah too explores a connection to Plato’s cave allegory, imagining a “geometry of sound” high above all lakes, “something like Plato’s cave of noise.”

“The poem,” the big poem of everything, then, is a lake of sound, where we swim around, mindful of our own narrow habits of reference echoing back our limited vision. The depths of this lake where poetry works “are not a / privilege,” Blaser said, “but everybody’s.”

The lake is also syntax, the way we gather sounds and threads. Crucial to syntax, Wah shows us in the six poems from Is a Door, is that we open doors to other possibilities in sense-making, breaking down the readymade Western capitalist conclusions that deluge us, including, for Wah, stereotypic closures of race and class. At the level of phoneme, morpheme and rhythm, Wah tells us we must kick open our desires to find doors we haven’t tried. His dedicatory poem “to the dogs,” like Peter Culley’s book of that title, invokes an ongoing thread in his work (signaled by earlier titles like Loki Is Buried at Smoky Creek) — dogs as a lens for twenty-first-century human conditions. What are we barking at? How do we get ideas from barking?

The Xenotext Experiment and the gift of death

'Eunoia' patanoia patadox patadise

Christian Bök at North of Invention; click here to view his performance. Photo by Aldon Nielsen.

When I write, I face my own death. This is the message the writer sends from the edge of the grave. Only days before stepping over the threshold, in Learning to Live Finally, Jacques Derrida, the specter of différence writes back to us as though from the other side:

The trace I leave signifies to me at once my death, either to come or already come upon me, and the hope that this trace survives me. This is not striving for immortality; it’s something structural. I leave a piece of paper behind, I go away, I die: it is impossible to escape this structure, it is the unchanging form of my life. Each time I let something go, each time some trace leaves me, ‘proceeds’ from me, unable to be reappropriated, I live my death in writing. It’s the ultimate test: one expropriates oneself without knowing exactly who is being entrusted with what is left behind. Who is going to inherit, and how? Will there even be any heirs?

Faced with the exponential increase in data, and the rapid passage into obsolescence of hard and virtual archival alternatives, the question of the Überleben, afterlife or survival, of one’s work becomes all the more acute. The structure of the trace that requires me to live my death is inescapable. There is no way to ensure my inheritance. In fact, in a kind of Heisenbergian gesture, when I read a text, as I am now misreading the Xenotext project, I have already done it irreparable damage, if one considers transformation as damage. That is the very nature of the Überleben.

It may be, as we shall see, that the archival obsession is an impossible desire for immortality in the face of death. All life, even the afterlife, is ephemeral. Here, as wherever we are faced with an irreducible contradiction, is the ideal place to propose a pataphysical solution.

The pataphysical solution simultaneously subverts the grand narratives of science as progress, and art as genius. By offering solutions to problems that are either insoluble or imaginary in the first place, pataphysics reveals the aporia and lets it stand. Pataphysics points to the paradox of the problem it seeks to resolve. It compels us to turn elsewhere, to think otherwise. To confront our responsibility.

The Xenotext, if we read it as pataphysics, demonstrates that even when we abandon the unreliable paper and virtual substrates, to encode our text instead in the hardiest of living cells, the problem of its survival remains.

Undeniably, as Pak Wong and Eduardo Kac have already demonstrated, it is absolutely possible to encode text as DNA strands in minute organisms such as bacteria. In this way human data can be attached to organisms with proven track records for longevity, and thus hitch a ride into the distant future, to be retrieved either by future humanoid generations or, if that unfortunate species has destroyed itself by then, by alien anthropologists and art lovers from distant planets.

The genius of the Xenotext Experiment is that it not only stores information, but that the encoded poem generates a response from the host organism in the form of another poem. The bacteria itself becomes a machine for writing poems. There appears to be a dialogue between the geneticist-poet and the organism, even if that binary is conceived stereotypically as male human/female bacterium.

And yet we know that, in fact, the genetic nucleotide is already a poem. With endless permutations. Its own secret language. A language that human science has only begun, not to decipher (because that would assume some original signified prior to language, and attribute some teleological purpose to the genome’s language), but to translate in what might be described as a radical translational process. Radical because there is no way to translate in a literal sense the genome’s language into any human language. The geneticist produces a translation that she can understand or that can be useful to her human needs, for medical purposes, for example, or to store data. But the poem is already there. If “the word is now a virus,” the virus has always been the word.

The biogeneticist then is a reader. Her relationship to the text is that of a translator, seeking to give the original an Überleben, which is the task of the translator. The translation emerges from the original text, it lends itself, offers itself to the original text, as an Überleben, an “afterlife” or, in Derrida’s translation of Benjamin, a form of “survival,” of living on. To speak of translation — and writing is always already translation — is to speak of death and responsibility.

But the Xenotext Experiment is not listening; it imagines it is initiating a conversation, when the other has already been speaking. When the geneticist-poet penetrates the organism to encode new information into the nucleotide, he in a sense interrupts the other’s speech, the nucleotide’s own poem. What if the aliens were not somewhere out there in heaven or in the World-to-come, but instead had always been here, reading the poetry of nucleotides? Or more potentially radical: what if these tiny organisms are in fact the aliens, the xenos who have always been here reciting long strings of generative poems to each other while humans are busy murdering each other?

We sometimes imagine ourselves reaching out to alien civilizations the way our ancestors reached out to the angels. Or like Paul Davies we speculate that they are already here, speaking in codes implanted in the tiniest organisms among us. Aliens standing in for God: superior in intelligence and yet harboring some sort of inexplicably benevolent interest in our planet.

But xenos, the foreigner, the unknown, can be guest or host, stranger or friend. The word lies at the root of the Greek policy of xenia (comparable to the ancient Hebrew practice of akhsania of which Levinas speaks): hospitality toward the guest, the foreigner, the other, who might turn out to be a god disguised as a beggar (xenia was also extended to the poet or traveling bard, in the form of bed and board).

The aliens are not out there, but already here; they are both guest and host, and they have been writing poems long before we chipped a stone. As I am compelled to turn back, to face my death, and the irretrievable future of the trace, what remains is my responsibility. When I write, faced with my death, I am faced with my responsibility. Like Socrates, I am compelled to take responsibility for my death, to give it meaning.

The pataphysical solution to the extinction of the earth and its inhabitants compels me to reflect on my responsibility to that biosphere. The Xenotext calls upon us to turn our face away from the heavens and back to the smallest living being on this our planet. What is my responsibility toward that nucleotide, and toward the bacteria which I encode with my message? I am compelled to reflect, not only on the attribution of value to different organisms, based on criteria like size and closeness to my own species, but also on my attitude towards the other in general. Towards writing. What is my responsibility toward the living biosphere in which my death awaits me? What is my message which I seek to encode in another living organism?

“This concern for death, this awakening that keeps vigil over death, this conscience that looks death in the face is another name for freedom.” — Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death