Fred Wah lives in Vancouver and in the West Kootenays. His poetry, fiction, and non-fiction has received numerous literary awards. He was Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate 2011-2013 and made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2013. Recent books include Sentenced to Light, his collaborations with visual artists and is a door, a series of poems about hybridity. 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 was published by Talonbooks in the fall of 2015.
I remember struggling to stay awake during a high-school class reading Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” which we jokingly recited behind the teacher’s back as “I wandered lonely as a clod”). William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” however, remained quite memorable. When I was in high school, in the ’50s, poetry seemed distant, from a world unrelated to the real world I was growing up in.
I did write a little in high school and was encouraged by a few teachers. But I really turned to poetry in university while I was studying music. I became intrigued by the musicality of language and using the typewritten page as a way to notate rhythm and shifts in meaning. I guess I started to consider poetry as a serious activity when I became involved in publishing a poetry magazine.
To work with the material at hand: words. And a lot of that work, for me, is play, playing with language much in the same way jazz improvisation reveals new and unexpected connections. Hopefully the poem as a shared artefact will be useful that way to others, using language to prompt fresh imaginations.
Breathing. “‘Breathe dust...’” was written in the context of a series of poems (_Breathin’ My Name with a Sigh_) that improvise around notions of breathing and not breathing (death), mostly sparked by reflections on my father’s death and the cultural racialization surrounding my name. Much of the book has to do with memory and the prose-poem ramble through images from my past is sustained by the run-on phrasing of a long sentence as a jazz ad lib.
I first read Gary Snyder’s poem “Riprap” in Origin magazine around 1960 and it had a profound impact on me. The poem felt close to home as I had also worked at building trail riprap during a stint on a fire suppression crew for the B.C. Forest Service. Finally, I thought, here was poetry that was about my own lived experience, not only working in the bush but also the metaphorical notion that words can be treated like rocks, placed there in the poem and in the mind as structural and compositional material to sustain the poetic imagination and an inner life.