Rita Wong grew up in Calgary, Alberta, and is the author of three books of poetry, sybil unrest, written with Larissa Lai; forage, and monkeypuzzle. Wong has won the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop Emerging Writers Award and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Her work investigates social issues and ecology. She lives in Vancouver and is an associate professor in critical and cultural studies at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.
Did you read poetry when you were in high school? Is there a particular poem that you loved when you were a teenager that you remember well?
Yes, we studied the Romantic poets in school, and I also remember reading Ferlinghetti, who I enjoyed — “Constantly Risking Absurdity.” Outside of class, songs were very important to me, and I would write out their lyrics to remember them — I was very moved by the Police’s “King of Pain” (at a certain point in junior high), as well as the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” and Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.” Many, many more songs than that, but those are some I remember spending time with. The songs fed my love of rhythm, sound, pulse.
When did you first start writing poetry? And then when did you start thinking of yourself as a poet?
I wrote a poem in grade five that was published in the kids’ page of the Calgary Sun. Reading has been important to me ever since I learned how to do it, and writing is a way of giving back some of the many gifts I’ve received through reading. I think of myself as a person who writes poems on a good day. Poet is more of a label that the world has assigned to me, but I’ve willingly worn it since I published my first book of poems, monkeypuzzle, in 1998.
What do you think a poet’s “job” is?
I think it is to be honest, to be curious, to pay careful attention to both the world around you as well as your own feelings, and to share what you feel, learn, and question. This includes speaking truth to power (even if power doesn’t want to listen — remember there are different kinds of power — power with, rather than power over, is what gives me courage to continue seeking). It also involves taking risks with language, testing things out, playing around too. It’s sometimes very hard work, yet good work, and one might call it un-alienated labour, if one loves words and language.
What inspired you to write “fluorine”?
One thing I am keenly interested in is how to understand the materials in our daily lives, the (natural and industrial) systems in which we are embedded, even if we don’t see where things come from and where they end up (their life cycle). For instance, I think about where my clothes were made (in a poem called “denim blues”); I don’t want to wear someone one else’s misery, poverty and exploitation. With “fluorine,” I was thinking about some cities whose water systems are automatically fluoridated, as well as how ubiquitous chemicals are in everything, from toothpaste to nuclear energy. I was also thinking about the term “body burden,” which refers to the hundreds of chemicals and toxins in our bodies today, most of which were not found there before World War II. It was freaking me out at times, and my way of working through that is to write through it. Also to laugh, to cry, and to breathe. And to find ways to organize together, as poet-scientist Sandra Steingraber has done so beautifully in response to chemicals that cause cancer, floating inadequately regulated through our environment.
If you had to choose one poem to memorize from our anthology, which one would it be?
I would memorize “i am graffiti” by Leanne Simpson because it sings to me of courage in the face of colonial attempts to eliminate Indigenous people. The image of the “new big pink eraser” makes me laugh, yet this poem unflinchingly faces the violence of “stealing,” “raping,” “murdering” Indigenous women that continues today under ongoing colonization. This poem makes visible the strength of Indigenous people’s resurgence in the face of ongoing systemic violence, violence that arises from unacknowledged theft, control and exploitation of Indigenous people’s homelands. Graffiti stands for the lives of people who are being criminalized and marginalized by an unjust colonial system, but who still survive, asserting their creativity and their voices, beautiful, intelligent, honest, and free.