A short interview with Fred Wah

Fred Wah was born in Swift Current, Saskatchewan in 1939, but he grew up in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia. He studied music and English literature at the University of British Columbia in the early 1960s where he was one of the founding editors of the poetry newsletter TISH. After graduate work in literature and linguistics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and the State University of New York at Buffalo, he returned to the Kootenays in the late 1960s where he taught at Selkirk College and was the founding coordinator of the writing program at David Thompson University Centre. He retired from the University of Calgary in 2003 and now lives in Vancouver. He has been editorially involved with a number of literary magazines over the years, such as Open Letter and West Coast Line. His work has been awarded the Governor General’s Award, Alberta’s Stephanson Award for Poetry and Howard O’Hagan Award for Short Fiction, the Gabrielle Roy Prize for Writing on Canadian Literature, and B.C.’s Dorothy Livesay Prize for Poetry. He was Parliamentary Poet Laureate 2011-2013 and he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2013. He has published over 20 books of poetry and prose. Recent books include Sentenced to Light, his collaborations with visual artists, is a door, a series of poem about hybridity, and a selected, The False Laws of Narrative, edited by Louis Cabri. A recent collaboration, High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese, An Interactive Poem, is available online (http://highmuckamuck.ca/). His current project involves the Columbia River. Scree: The Collected Earlier Poems, 1962-1991 will be published by Talonbooks in the fall of 2015.

Q: I’m curious about your tenure as Poet Laureate. From 2011 to 2013, you were Canada’s fifth Parliamentary Poet Laureate, following in the footsteps of George Bowering (2002–2004), Pauline Michel (2004–2006), John Steffler (2006–2008) and Pierre DesRuisseaux (2009–2011). In hindsight, what do you feel you were able to bring to the position, and do you feel your tenure was a successful one? What did the position allow you to do that you might not have been able to do otherwise?

A: I accepted to try the PL gig mostly out of curiosity regarding the proximity of poetry and the “public,” especially how poetry might rub up against “governance.” I thought of it as an exploratory opportunity, a chance to engage with other parts of the country and in a more public cultural arena than I’m used to. Initially the geographical spread intrigued me. However, due to budget limitations, I never did get east of Montreal. Most of my travel budget was spent getting to Ottawa, a distinct disadvantage for poets distant from “central.” In any case, as I’ve spent my life in both poetry and education, I decided to focus on an educational project. After consulting with several secondary and post-secondary teachers, I worked on a video project that would present a number of Canadian poets in short, YouTube readings. (http://www.parl.gc.ca/About/Parliament/Poet/index.asp?language=E&param=3&id=5&id2=5) The range of poets was partly conditioned by where I could travel during my tenure, but I think I was successful in recording an interesting variety of contemporary poetry, twenty-one including myself. Besides this video project, the position allowed me an interesting exposure to Parliament and its bureaucracy. The Parliamentary Library is a wonderful site of history, architecture, and discourse. As a more “public” poet, I also engaged with the more popular and mundane responses to poetry, which, of course, I found quite different from my usual context for poetry (basically, other poets). It was an interesting and useful experience, though overly anchored to Ottawa; I was satisfied when it ended.

Q: Were there any aspects of the position that provided you opportunities to expand your own considerations of writing? I can only presume you were writing throughout the process: how did you, as a writer, benefit from the position?

A: I didn’t get much writing done. Too busy organizing contacts, video recordings, appearances, and so forth. I think I was more pricked to consider the question of “public” poetry, and still am. Questions of audience, intent, poetry as performance and/or communication; these sorts of things kept arising. My own “practice” was limited to thinking about framing future projects. Eg, out of a request to the “position,” I became focussed on researching possible poetic approaches to the Columbia River Treaty and the river/water/fish questions around that. And that is continuing now, after my tenure. I guess the main benefit for me as a writer was that I was more reminded of the social role of poetry, always a useful context to think about.

Q: And what are your thoughts on the social role of poetry, especially in terms of being so close to “governance”? I’ve been very impressed with the recent engagements by poets such as Stephen Collis and Christine Leclerc living their politics in a very overt way, and managing to tie writing so directly to their actions. Yeats famously said that “Poetry makes nothing happen,” but what do you think poetry, through such means, can accomplish?

A: Well, I’m a little ambivalent about Yeats’ claim. As Olson once uttered, sitting around a table at Onetto’s Bar & Grill in Buffalo in the mid-60’s, “there’s only one revolution and that’s the one you’re in.” And if it’s in the poem, then it has to do with language; apropos of your question, social language. My sense is that Ginsberg’s Howl, Marlatt’s “Musing with Mothertongue,” Rita Wong’s forage, Roy Miki’s Surrender, and countless other poetries of our time have resonated with consequence around the social issues of nation, feminism, ecology, and racism. Stephen Collis and Christine Leclerc echo what has been, for me, an alignment of poetry and the social that has always been present. I chose poetry as a reactive practice (anticolonial, grounded in the local, reclamation, etc). Being close to “governance” in my Parliamentary Poet Laureate role only confirmed for me the need to insist on a poetry that sustains the imagination of a better world. To do that, Yeats should have said “Poetry makes language happen,” the right language (which we all know can’t be found on the Hill).

Q: When you say that you “chose poetry as a reactive practice,” how does this relate to your collaborative work, your journal/utaniki or even your ongoing “Music at the Heart of Thinking” sequence, all of which can be said to be response/reactive works? Although, arguably, can’t all poetry said to be reacting in some way to something?

A: I first went into jazz, and that involved other musicians. TISH, too, also involved other poets. While not necessarily collaborative, the “common” as a condition of collectivity/community has been the unexpected gift of writing. As for the collaborative work (mostly during the 90’s, though see most recent collab at highmuckamuck.ca), I think that serves a possible “reactive” stance in how, for me, it involves improvisation (see earlier “jazz,” too), and reacting/responding to a collective discourse. Improvisation isn’t, itself, necessarily reactive; though that’s the mode frequently used when interventing “form” (Kora in Hell very important to me). I don’t think the utaniki is a particularly reactive form; just a fresh way to investigate and document through poetry. MHT started as a response to a theme in Open Letter on “notation.” I suppose, as a reaction to the expository mode, I used the occasion to play with the prose poem, that is, to move in on the sentence as a unit of composition. Reactive to specific terms, not necessarily provocative.

Q: What is it about William Carlos Williams’ Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920) that has been so important to your work? Is it purely the fact of introducing you to the possibilities of improvisation, or does it go beyond that?

A: No, I was introduced to the possibilities of improvisation through the immediacy of composing a “moment” while ad libbing on the horn. Williams came a little later, around 1961, as an affirmation of an improvisational condition, or possibility, in writing. I picked up a copy of Number Seven of the City Lights Pocket Poet Series Kora in Hell: Improvisations at Duthies downtown for a buck and a quarter. I might have done this after being quite rocked by Williams’ “The Desert Music” which we had looked at in Warren Tallman’s 406 Poetry class at UBC.

At the time, I didn’t contextualize Kora historically (first published in 1920 (I didn’t see Spring and All, 1923, until later). What I read was syntactic noise. The text rambled wonderfully all over the place, the writing and the writer in sync with each linguistic moment, totally open and unpredictable: “When beldams dig clams their fat bums (it’s always beldams) balanced near Tellus’ hide…” etc., not narrative but focused on the word, the syllable, the sounds, the phrase (rubbing against the sentence). I didn’t register “prose poem” formally until later, with Music at the Heart of Thinking. But that drive in the syntax, non-sequential, non-sensical, the edges of phrase and word, provided me with a clear sense of the units of composition I was interested in playing with and exploring with. And critical attention to improvisation and Williams (like Gerald Bruns’ excellent essay, “De Improvisatione,” and Stephen Fredman’s fascinating reading of Kora in his book Poet’s Prose) became useful when I was “teaching” writing. A contemporary, and a friend, Jack Clarke (see In the Analogy), from my Buffalo days, a wonderful jazz pianist and Blake scholar, during the 70’s and 80’s was also writing improvisation as poetry and that sustained my ongoing attraction to such formal attention. Fredman quotes Williams at the start of his chapter on Kora with Williams’ characterization of his “Improvistions”: “Their excellence is, in major part, the shifting of category. It is the disjointing process.”

P.S. here’s the wonderful red/white cover of my City Lights edition:

Q: Over the past decade you’ve been working more visibly on collaboration, specifically with a handful of visual and multi-media artists. Do you consider this an extension of your “reactive practice,” furthering the work of Music at the Heart of Thinking, or is it an entirely different practice? What do you feel collaboration allows your work that might not be possible otherwise?

A: The collaborations have been mostly from the 90’s when I worked in Calgary, and then in the Yucatan with some photographers. The one-to-one collaboration that most clarified to me the advantage of this process was working with Henry Tsang on a piece for the Powell Street Festival. We had a year to work on “anything” and we spent the year, simply, in conversation, turning our attention to actually producing something in the last few months. The conversation is what is important. I’ve also had this experience many times at the Banff centre; all kinds of artists doing their things but sharing ideas in the dining room. Haruko Okano and I started our project on “Hi(bridi)tea” over tofu and rice while there. I wouldn’t consider collaboration necessarily “reactive”; simply another aspect of possible practice. In this case, the generative process that comes from conversation, sometimes aimed at a particular issue or compositional problem. Poetry as problem solving (like most art). I’ve just started to flesh out a project re the Columbia River and, happily, I’m partly involved in a collaboration focused on the issue of “dams.” Sharing is a real bonus in most aspects of making.

Q: You say you weren’t able to do much of your own writing during your tenure as Parliamentary Poet Laureate, but for “researching possible poetic approaches to the Columbia River Treaty and the river/water/fish questions around that.” How far are you through your researches, and what else might you be working on or towards?

A: This Columbia project started from a request to me during my term as Poet Laureate. The 1964 Columbia River Treaty has just recently come up for renegotiation. I was asked to consider writing in response to this complex water agreement so I have spent the past two years simply researching it. Its scope is very large and I’m playing around with ways to write into it. I’ve spent a lot of time reading about David Thompson’s early explorations and, as I said, I’m currently collaborating with a few others about dams. Other than that I spend a lot of time dealing with requests like this one and other magazine requests. Amy De’Ath and I have worked over the past couple of years on a collection of poetic statements called Toward. Some. Air. to be published this year by the Banff Centre Press. I’ve just finished compiling the manuscript for Scree: The Collected Early Poems, 1962-1990 that Talonbooks will be publishing this fall. The “Music at the Heart of Thinking” series continues, and so on.