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Fred Wah. in a scene from the NFB “Between: Living In The Hyphen” (2004) (NFB)
Fred Wah. in a scene from the NFB “Between: Living In The Hyphen” (2004) (NFB)

Poetry

Fred Wah: A portrait in his own words (and a few others’) Add to ...

I thought that Charles Olson's statement in 'Projective Verse' [Human Universe, 1951] the idea that 'form is never more than an extension of content' a brilliant concept . . . What a relief, I thought . . . It freed me to say what I wanted to say the way I wanted to say it, partially because he was among the first to use the word and concept of what we now call post-modernism.
— Fred Wah, Yet-to-Be-Transcribed Interview, David Thompson University, 1981

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Our current Parliamentary Poet Laureate (PPL), Fred Wah, knows his way around words, worlds, bits, bytes and webs; but, make no mistake, God he ain't. Nope.

Egawds. Talk non-sequiturns.

Here's the story: When Talon Books's Karl and Christy Seigler retired last year, Wah spoke at the celebration honouring the pair's inestimable sky's-no-limit contribution to poetry and possibility.

The proceedings, captured on tape, unpacked and divided into manageable morsels, feature brief yet pithily moving tributes from those fortunate enough to work with our cut-above national treasures, Daphne Marlatt, John MacLachlan Gray, George Bowering and Adeena Karasick among them. In Wah's case, his appearance commences with an over-voiced Introduction, the icing on the yum-rum chocolate cake, if you will, the cheeky one announcing he will take the stage; but, Wah's witty quip-lash comeback while he deftly manoeuvres his way through the throng of appreciative TB readers and writers, spontaneous and instantaneous, deliciously takes the cake.

Born in Swift Current, SK, the polymythic author of Diamond Grill, Breathin' My Name with a Sigh, Waiting for Saskatchewan, Music at the Heart of Thinking and, most recently, is a door (plus a good dozen more), went west for the duration six years into his first decade on the planet. Now pushing 75, still going full-throttle coming up with both sublime poetry and energetically muscular prose works, the dynamo additionally serves his post in laureatry well:

Wah tends his PPL blog, attends conferences, festivals, hoedowns and hootenannies, breezes through press interviews and takes time to cogently comment on the myriad writings sent him without solicitation. To add a sweetly lush cherry to that double-Dutch chocolate cake with real-cream whipped fringing? Wah penned a piece in honour of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, "The Snowflake Age," raising the bar above-and-beyond the call of beauty.

A full schedule?

"Definitely."

Too much for Wah?

Pfft. Hardly.

Blessed with talent, erudite, circumspect, accomplished and, most endearingly, a gentle yet incorrigible stand-up comedian who additionally continues to instruct and delight generations of aspiring writers following his years at Selkirk College, David Thompson University Centre as well as the University of Calgary? All of the time.

Over the course of our extended virtual tête-à-tête this past year, I discover another dimension to Wah, one not evidenced before, one providing the key to his coherent aesthetic vision; and, given our decades of professional association, one which nimbly navigates, negotiates and translates the brainiac's full-mental packet of moving pictures.

Never enamoured of the prevailing cult of personality fuelling a kind of power-political obscene greed (read: The Cult of Narcissism by C. Lasch), in no wise interested in chasing that neon dragon while squandering grand-child time, the son of a Swedish mother and Chinese father sends along an astonishing link to an utterly stunning YouTube URL less than 48 hours after I ask him to consider inking an account or overview of his life in the workshops of spatialization, multi-culti racialism, mindfulness, suddenness and vocalization.

What follows, then, comprises a Wah-Way collage-like series of responses culled from our extended exchange as well as a string of contributions from a select handful of our finest poets (who call him either "Mentor" or "Friend"); and, gratuitously, a gem-packed strand of cultured pearls from a mere trio of the many most-influential writers he cites in both the 1981 and 2012 interviews, Roberts Creeley and Duncan as well as Charles Olson. In other words, what follows begins with a lift and concludes with a wee seasonal gift from The Globe and Mail's PTB as well as all involved in this glimpse into the method, mind and manners of our endlessly generous and always thoughtful sixth poet laureate.

You were asking about Fred Wah? Fred Wah must be bony. His poems are bony, so he must be, too. Hardened. All spine and knee. Elbows that could maim. And, like his birds, he sings a particular song from a thorny bony bush. Here in the offices of Hamilton Arts & Letters magazine, we have a picture of Fred nailed to the wall. We really do. And we rub his nose for good luck before we launch each electronic issue of HA&L because, in 1984, Fred and friends put together SwiftCurrent, the first online literary magazine. He's one of our heroes. (Hamilton Poet and Librarian Paul Lisson, Editor, Hamilton Arts & Letters)

ON FREEDOM:

I guess, at this end, I tend to deflect the abstraction to another vague notion: position; i.e., as the conversations with the poem go on I seem to seek places of negotiation. I've always tried to just go with the poem, but how can you trust it? Who said "You’re free to swim if you know how to swim?" So, it's intense, this back-and-forth with what’s going on in the writing. "Float like a butterfly . . ." All of that; but, juxtaposed (speaking of an honourable practice) with such notions of freedom and negotiation in the composition are the same dynamics that have surfaced for me vis-à-vis racialization and hybridity. I seem to mess around with Mr. In Between.

Steve Collis recently nailed me and my "poet laureate" poem for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in an excellent blog piece: "Maybe the most important 'public' gesture we can make as poets — and the weight of 'public' poetry is very much on Fred Wah's mind these days — is to create spaces of undecidability — through juxtaposition and ambiguity — into which readers are invited to think." I don't think poetry deserves to escape anything. I've been trying to unpack Charles Olson's "the subjective as objective requires correct processing" ever since I heard him say it in a seminar in Buffalo in the mid '60s. To me, one great usefulness of the poem is to offer a space for "correct processing."

* * * * *

I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy. It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning . . .

A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge. So: How is the poet to accomplish same energy, how is he, what is the process by which a poet gets in, at all points energy at least the equivalent energy which propelled him in the first place, yet an energy which is peculiar to verse alone and which will be, obviously, different from the energy which the reader, because he is a third term, will take away?

— Charles Olson

ON SPACE AND PLACE:

Terms like "create" and "inspire" seem to me too loose for the "space," as you say, of composition. "Make" makes sense. Putting one's hand to it. That was one of the most valuable lessons, for me, working out of the TISH context in the early '60s; that we controlled our own production. Literally, from mimeo to offset to rubber-stamping in red the name on the front page. So, I've always felt that materiality of small-press publishing; you do it yourself. I've forever encouraged my students to start their own mags, publish chapbooks, take control of their "work." Okay, that’s meandering away from your question a little; but, I think the act, the practice of the "craft" (a slightly sucky term, I admit), is all part of a set. How one works in the world is pretty much the way one works in the poem. "Shape!" The poem is the shape you are in. I mean, even little things like paying attention to the minute shifts in words: syllables, the tone leading of vowels, that wonderful texture and grain in the movement of the paradigmatic thought suffixes (rime) patterning themselves through the poem, thus time and space . . .

This morning I put on my Carhart work pants because I had to go up the waterline to check the intake and clean out the screen to one of the barrels. After lunch I took Leo, our seven-year-old grandson, with me up the creek. A hot day, but shady in the trees. We did it and then hiked further up the hill to an old cabin with no floor, picked up two loaves of rye bread that Anthony had left in the mailbox, and then followed the old waterline trail down Sherraden Creek and home. I got to this place with luck and desire. Lucky to be on this piece of land — my wife Pauline's family homesteaded it as Deanshaven but I call it Deansheaven — but very much here because I / we want to be. This is home, as much as anything is, that "insidedness" so crucial to memory. "Place is what you have left."

* * * * *

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind

that certain bounds hold against chaos,
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.

— Robert Duncan (1919-1988)

* * * * *

i've long admired the way Fred is always on his toes in language, & dancing — through high-pass meadows of association, sound & concept coinciding in his moves to somewhere else. his is a wide vision that puts together heart & politics. no matter what i read or re-read of Fred's work, i always catch something new. and all the work he's done to create and sustain poetry communities wherever he lives will make him a fine poet laureate for this nation of multiple communities. (Poet, playwright, novelist and critical theorist Daphne Marlatt.)

ON TRANSFORMATIVE LANGUAGE, THE POETIC LINE AND EUREKA BLASTS:

It was probably in Warren Tallman's poetry class at the University of British Columbia, reading William Carlos Williams. At least, my memory is that I was studying music composition and discovered poetry to be quicker so I traded in my trumpet for a tape recorder (actually later). Then, in 1961, Robert Duncan, in a talk in Vancouver, mentioned "tone leading of vowels" and I was hooked on phonetics (i.e. music) and started taking linguistics courses which became part of my focus in graduate school. But also Creeley, in the poem, stopped (but just going back to pick up a stitch in order to keep moving and at a certain point the poem as folds and layers of "paradigmatic thought structures" released itself to me as a full and functional discourse). So . . . music at the heart of thinking.

* * * * *

Fred's work and writing practice have long given me sustenance and challenges and joy, and have helped me think out my own material practice in writing (a practice in progress always). That someone of his calibre and ability to challenge us socially, politically and poetically is our parliamentary poet laureate gives credence to the position which is one that risks being lost in banality instead . . . George Bowering was a fitting first parliamentary poet laureate; and, it is great to have Fred in the post: Another standout! (Montréal Poet and Editor Erin Mouré.)

ON RACE AND DIFFERENCE:

My poem, "Race, To Go," ends with a sort of doubling on difference that seems, to me, to keep the term open and sharp enough for the necessary rub against assimilation:

Well how you wanna handle this?
You wanna maintain a bit of differ-ence?
Keep our mother's other?
Use the father for the fodder?

What side of John A. Macdonald's tracks you on anyway?

How fast you think this train is going

to go?

Of course, growing up, we didn't want to be different. But notions of nation, power and order take over soon enough; some of us are faced with those vectors of separation that are either obvious or constructed. I think I might say somewhere "the word for door" is "difference"; and the door is such an important fold in my thinking. The door between the café kitchen with its Cantonese din and the dining room of white faces has become central to my working through the term of "difference." In my most recent writing, the door has become the site of Mr. In Between. The advantage of just standing there, in the doorway of hybridity, is that you can see both where you've left and where you're going. As a "poetics of equivocation," such engagement with "difference" offers an agency based on ambivalence, and that situates a pivot of unpredictability and choice when it comes to poetic language, necessitating minute and particular juxtapositions and improvisations.

* * * * *

The irony of our social group is that so often everyone feels this, but there's no company whatsoever in that feeling. Think of [Ezra] Pound's great emphasis, the way out is via the door.

— Robert Creeley

ON MUSIC:

For me, it's jazz. Improvisation. In high school, I played trumpet for the Kampus Kings, a '50s dance band. Pre-rock 'n' roll. Mainly swing. And we had a quartet, Mulligan, Chet Baker, Brubeck, et.al. I did a degree in Music and English at UBC (composition); then, in the '60s, listened to Coltrane, Sun Ra and welcomed Miles Davis back with In A Silent Way. I picked up the trumpet again for a few years in the early '80s and did a bit with friends in Nelson. Braxton, Kenny Wheeler, yes! My ongoing side project, "Music at the Heart of Thinking," proposes improvisation mostly around the prose poem, the sentence, phrasing and prose rhythms. Dissonance, disjunction, ad lib, form (in the sense of something open and available). But lots more also.

* * * * *

This is the problem which any poet who departs from closed form is specially confronted by. And it involves a whole series of but new recognitions. From the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION — puts himself in the open — he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself. Thus he has to behave, and be, instant by instant, aware of some several forces just now beginning to be examined. (It is much more, for example, this push, than simply such a one as Pound put, so wisely, to get us started: "The musical phrase." Go by it, Boys, rather than by the metronome.)

— Charles Olson

ON JUDGING POETRY:

I've taught poetry for years, both reading and writing, so [judging poetry] is a question that has always interested me. At first, when I started writing it, I wasn't so much concerned with how to judge it but more with how to make it properly. Pound's ABC of Reading, the poetics statements at the back of Don Allen's New American Poetry and [Ernest] Fenellosa's The Chinese Written Character as Medium for Poetry were some of the first texts I read that intrigued me about the "how to" and "value" in poetry. Then, for years, I used [Louis] Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry as an anthology in introductory poetry classes. None of these commentaries posed critique as abstract; rather, each suggested practical ways into the poem; neither simplistic nor highly theoretical. I'm always interested in what poets are willing to risk philosophically, especially apropos of any moral sensibilities that might accompany the poem. But, as you say, "given it is poetry," the frame of judgment, it seems to me, necessarily reflects the technique and compositional attention one can bring to bear on the language. Consider, for example, Zukofsky: "Condensation is more than half of composition. The rest is proper breathing, space, ease, grace." Any other object deserves similar consideration. At least, that is the moral implication behind this notion of judging. Poetry is no different.

* * * * *

There is not a phase of our experience that is meaningless, not a phrase of our communication that is meaningless. We do not make things meaningful, but in our making we work toward an awareness of meaning; poetry reveals itself to us as we obey the orders that appear in our work.

— Robert Duncanapo

ON SPORTS, AESTHETICS AND POETRY VS PROSE:

I was a guard in basketball; and, on the ice, I played defence and left wing. I remember when the blue-line offside rule came in (I was playing against Lionel Kearns of the Fairview Athletic Club and we had to stop the game so he could explain the new rule.) That's probably how I know poetry differs from prose. There are rules! I've only tried prose a couple of times; and, like baseball, I find it a little boring. I wasn't good at it — Part of my colonial paranoia? — and avoided it. But in the summer of 1988 bpNichol (1944-1988) urged me to try it and I ended up taking part in the three-day novel contest which put me face-to-face with Diamond Grill . . .

Actually, earlier; and, also because of bp: I had worked at the utanikki, the poetic journal. I started with a journal when I was in Japan called Grasp the Sparrow's Tail and I loved that tension between prose and poetry; hence the prose poem. So the prose poem became a compromise for me. I like its ability to challenge sentence and syntax while maintaining the unpredictability of poetic language. I have had to learn "curves" and "the change-up."

* * * * *

Now the process of the thing, how the principle can be made so to shape the energies that the form is accomplished. And I think it can be boiled down to one statement (first pounded into my head by Edward Dahlberg): ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points (even, I should say, of our management of daily reality as of the daily work) get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split-second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, Citizen. And if you also set up as a poet, USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!

— Charles Olson

ON POETRY'S CONSEQUENTIALITY:

When Robert Creeley came to teach at UBC in the early '60s, we asked him for a piece of writing for TISH. He wrote a piece called "Why Bother"; and, as a young poet, I was shocked into the sudden recognition that the poem is really in the world and that fact implicates the poem as something consequential, an act of making that matters. At least it should. That's the point. Since then, one of the questions about a poem can be "So what?" I use that query frequently in writing workshops; and, I believe, for quite a few students it has made a difference. Suddenly that naïve frame in which much poetry is composed is confronted with the seriousness of just about everything: language, the imagination, intention, power and so forth. How is that poem going to help make a better world? Facetious? No. Why bother? "One cannot avoid it, or do otherwise."

* * * * *

Suddenly the whole imagination of writing and editorial and newspaper and all these presumptions about who am I reading this, and who else other people may be, and all that, it's so grimly brutal! . . .

Still, no one finally knows what a poet is supposed either to be or to do. Especially in this country, one takes on the job — because all that one does in America is considered a "job" — with no clear sense as to what is required or where one will ultimately be led. In that respect, it is as particular an instance of a "calling" as one might point to. For years I've kept in mind, "Many are called; but, few are chosen." Even so "called," there were no assurances that one would be answered.

— Robert Creeley

It gives me a perverse yet honest pleasure to see that we, the TISH collective of youthhood days has now provided two of the three English-language parliamentary poet laureates. They used to scorn us BC lads from the mountainous interior, but now they pin medals on us and listen from time to time. I think that this means that Canadian poetry has grown up. So, I am glad I met this Mr. Wah when we were tyros, and that when I drop in at his place now I see him reading someone's new book of poems. Our Parliament is lucky to have him, as opposed to some of the people I have noticed there lately. (Inaugural Parliamentary Poet Laureate and "Bullshit Artist" George Bowering.)

ON BREATH AND BREATHING:

Multi-coloured answer. Breathin’ My Name with a Sigh was written in the late '70s, first as a delayed reaction to my father's early passing at 54 in the mid-'60s; secondly, as the racialized turn that opened at that time (multi-culti, Obasan, JC redress, etc. I now see as the first gesture in a longer work that includes 1986's Waiting for Saskatchewan and Diamond Grill (1996), a vector in my writing running through two decades that was working through racial hybridity, identity, family and some mid-life recognition of "waiting for my body to get complete."

That book, more than any other for me, was a kind of breakthrough in attention and stance. It was definitely generated from the "local" (specifically out of some insights in the previous Pictograms from the Interior of BC). And it was in this book that I was first attracted to the sentence as a unit of composition. Also, it was a writing of a "book"; that is, the work was all folded from the same texture, which, of course, was a challenge since I was still working on a typewriter. bp helped a lot with senses of long-poem composition. Coach House, in its pioneering of digital printing, set up its "manuscript editions" that offered a computerized documentation of a developing manuscript. I was greatly relieved to work on the permutations of this manuscript on my first Apple computer. But, yes, I'm still "Breathin'," pleasantly playing still through all this techno; and, most pertinently, continuing to reflect on race and hybridity.

* * * * *

That's wondrous word-worker Fred Wah, eh? Always landing on his feet, never forgetting the location of either rue Tristesse or Sudden-Joy Street.

At his most thoughtful, his most telegraphically gorgeous? An agreeably satisfying piece of cakewalk.

MUSIC AT THE HEART OF THINKING #23

Point with a stick better still a charred one that's it slots or bumps to catch your foot or your breath forked branches everywhere when we need them a la slingshots in the gulley transphrastic symmetry sticks to the point I keep running into this "soft pad of (the) feet" not as Mallarmé would say of the hero (la) talon nu or it could be Bakhtin's jivey beak (de la Cosa's eyes included) the prehended world Ah! your "print still visible drifting out to sea" dialogue on the contrary the same but trees bucked and split or shadows even that's what style is.

— Fred Wah

("Music at the Heart of Thinking #23" © 2012 Fred Wah. All rights reserved. Used by written permission.)

Award-winning and critically acclaimed poet, editor, musician, literary journalist, cultural commentarian and TGAM Contributing Reviewer Judith Fitzgerald currently completes both Leonard Cohen: Master of Song and a collection of poetry, provisionally titled "Night-Stepping in the Key of C" (unless Bowering nixes that one, two). She lives in The Almaguin Highlands.

 

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