I’m delighted to present an 4-part interview I did with Rita Wong, here on thecanadaproject:
Rita Wong is the author of four books of poetry: undercurrent (Nightwood 2015), sybil unrest (co-written with Larissa Lai, Line Books, 2008), forage (Nightwood 2007), and monkeypuzzle (Press Gang 1998). forage won Canada Reads Poetry 2011. Wong received the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop Emerging Writer Award in 1997, and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 2008. Building from her doctoral dissertation which examined labour in Asian North American literature, her work investigates the relationships between contemporary poetics, social justice, ecology, and decolonization. She lives on the unceded Coast Salish territories also known as Vancouver, where she is learning what it means to be a responsible guest/settler/unsettler.”
Rita Wong‘s latest collection, undercurrent (Nightwood Editions, 2015), has been a travelling companion, with me across Vancouver’s east-to-west demarcations: geography, architecture, infrastructure and grids, layers of names, spoken and un-spoken, all these outside forces finding their way into the rhythm and sensibility of her work…
The World of Undercurrent
RSS: This book of poems reads as if a long poem of inter-connected sequences and the poems within draw on multiple forms and perhaps even, genres. Can you share any thoughts on your experience as a poet in writing this book? Any particular surprises? Challenges?
RW: One of the many challenges that came up was how to do justice to the many people and communities I’ve learned from in the water journeys that gave rise to this book. I’ve written in the spirit of being respectful and giving back, but I feel that there was and is so much more to do, given the immense challenges facing us. Putting water first is a paradigm shift that can’t be achieved alone, but can only happen in concert. I’ve tried to offer what I can, but I’m very conscious of my limits. These limits remind me to see the book as part of an ongoing process, rather than a static product. The other challenge was form, because there are many parts to the water project, including a graphic component that was initially part of undercurrent, but then evolved into its own book, now entitled perpetual. It’s been messy throughout, and remains messy, in my opinion.
RSS: What draws you to water, as a means of expressing the themes in this book?
RW: I began the turn to water in response to Dorothy Christian and Denise Nadeau’s call to protect our sacred waters, the focus of a gathering they organized in 2007. They felt an urgency to bring together people from different cultures, from all four directions, to care for water. Their call resonated with me, and I asked how I could fulfill my own responsibilities to water (and care for water is also care for a collective future that includes humans on this planet).
RSS: Each of the poems in this collection stand on their own; also, they flow into each other, and almost, outside the margins of the book, literally and figuratively. Do you see it that way or does each poem exist within its own frame?
RW: Each poem comes from a specific moment, but in how they are arranged, I do hope they are in conversation with one another and with larger conversations outside the book as well.
RSS: The opening poem, “pacific flow”, begins with, “water has a syntax.” It is the first line of a series of interconnected couplets that flow across the page. Can you speak to both the syntax of water as an idea and the embodiment of that idea on the page, not just of this poem, but also, throughout the book?
RW: It’s a lifelong journey to learn what that syntax is, involving being present to the degree that you can, and paying attention to the world around you and inside you, both places where watery substances can be found. Even the word “syntax” nouns something that is an ongoing process including transformation, circulation, flow, disruption, memory, reconnection, reinvention…