PJ: …Could we talk about your formative years in Surrey/New West? Specifically, when did you start writing poetry, and who were your early inspirations? I imagine living in New West, which is a stone’s throw from the Fraser River, must have some influence in terms of your notion of, well…I’ll let you take it from here.
RSS: I love that phrase, “formative years”: they seem to take the long view with me. Heh. I’ve always had this chronicle-compulsion, just didn’t realize for a long time, that my addiction to writing things down was part of a writing practice, was what defined me as a writer: images, sounds, rhythms, always these were in-coming to me and I took them, language-bits: held, rubbed, stored, taken-out again. My father reading me Mother Goose Nursery rhymes, me, a copy-cat, inventing my own. Scribbling.
So, early inspirations: fairy-tales, nursery rhymes, TV adverts, street signage, dictionaries, the sound of my parents’ speaking/arguing in English-Gujarati (my mother’s mother tongue); the sound of how Other People spoke.
New West when I grew up there, was a well-settled place in the sense of its relation to the colonial history of the province, The Royal City, and as the daughter of a United Church Minister, I settled into place, if that makes sense. My first book, children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Nightwood Editions, 2013), explores this idea a fair bit…
And yes, always, the river: I can’t get away from it. Every time I cross The Fraser into/out of Surrey, I have to look up, look at those grey waters, effluent-filled, that deep undertow current: I grew up hearing stories about the grasp of that current, how she’d take you in…”
Welcome to the final part of thecanadaproject’s interview with Rita Wong, author of undercurrent (Nightwood Editions 2015), sybil unrest (co-written with Larissa Lai, Line Books, 2008), forage (Nightwood 2007), and monkeypuzzle (Press Gang 1998):
Your writing process
RSS: How long did it take you to write this book and would you be open to seeing undercurrent as part of a life-long poem, that includes your earlier book, forage?
RW: I guess you could say it took around 8 years, maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less, depending on how you count. And yes, you could read it as part of a life-long poem.
RSS: Certain preoccupations seem to emerge in these stories: about representation, of place, of time, of the real and the un/real, about race and identity, about geography and power, about belonging/non-belonging…can you speak to any/all of this? I’m particularly interested in your field trips to water sources, your participation in conferences that include scholars and activists, writers and a wide assembly of peoples.
RW: The field trips are necessary. It’s crucial to spend time up north. And ideally they wouldn’t just be field trips, but you would find ways to live in a place for a longer time, to build a stronger relationship with it. I would like to acknowledge the Keepers of the Water in particular, trying to protect water over a huge area, with very limited resources, bringing together people for common cause against the odds.
RSS: The book cover is beautiful in blue, green and red: it’s from a series of woodblock prints by Vancouver Island artist Marika Swan and the last page of the book includes an artist’s statement. Can you share more about how you came to choose this image for your book?
RW: I first saw Marika’s print at Rhizome Café (now Heartwood) and was immediately struck by it. We organized an art exhibition in 2012, as part of a series of events through the Downstream Project that included a conference, dance performance, readings, and more. We invited Marika to exhibit her work in Downstream, and were very happy that she agreed to share her work in that space. When I started thinking about possible covers, her print came to mind immediately. I love her work and encourage everyone to check out her website at http://www.marikaswan.com/ – she shares the story of the print, entitled Becoming Worthy, at the end of undercurrent.
RSS: There is a generosity in undercurrent that I find moving and also, a kind of challenge: the poems themselves, the inclusion of others woven into the pages of the book as artefact, the urgency of a call to action: I’m interested in your thoughts?
RW: I see writing as a form of giving back, having been a recipient of many others’ generosity.
RSS: Rita, you’ve taught workshops about water as substance, as scarce and precious resource, as call to social action: can you speak to this work and its role in your work as a poet?
RW: I try to respond to what comes at me – invitations, questions, etc. I’m not always capable of responding, but if I’m asked to offer a workshop, and have the capacity to do it, I see it as part of the responsibilities I’ve taken on by being alive at this point in time, in this particular place.
RSS: How did you know when this collection was “ready?” Were there any reverses in the completion of this book and if so, any revelations?
RW: I’m actually not sure it was “ready” – I could have kept working on it for a few more years, I think, but I felt it was time to let it go, to do whatever work it needs to do in the world, even though I know some things aren’t “finished” and may never be finished.
RSS: What’s next for Rita Wong and have you already begun new writing?
RW: I’m not sure if I’ll write that much more. I keep thinking about how Arundhati Roy has put her energy and time into solidarity with those who are displaced and devastated by violent mega-dam projects in India that wreak havoc on people, animals, forests. And then I think about the Site C Dam in BC, which is a violent mega-dam we can’t afford when we need to be cultivating food security in a time of climate change. It feels way more urgent and compelling to support the folks who are trying to stop the dam than to write another book at the moment. It makes me sick to my stomach to think about all the trees that BC Hydro has already cut down, how they’ve targeted eagles’ nests, how they’ve disregarded First Nations opposition to the dam. In a time when we are supposed to be working for reconciliation, Site C is an ugly slap in the face of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people working for climate justice. I also want to spend more time up at the Unist’ot’en Camp, which I’ve written about for rabble. I find it immensely inspiring how the Unist’ot’en community reclaims and reenacts Indigenous knowledges and Indigenous governance. They’re building a healing centre that I hope to visit.
RSS: I’ve been reading undercurrent this season of drought on the North American West Coast. As the months pass, with little or no rain, as the grass on city boulevards withers and as the leaves shrivel on the slender trees planted around the condo-complex where I live, your work sharpens my interest in water…curious about your own experience of writing this book, in relation to weather, to climate, to what’s happening right now in our habitat?
RW: The weather is only going to get more unpredictable and extreme. This is why we need to pay attention to how to hold our governance systems accountable. I see that Herculean task as something that also drives this book, part of the core of the poetry, of life.
Welcome to Part 3 of thecanadaproject’s interview with Rita Wong, author of undercurrent (Nightwood Editions 2015), sybil unrest (co-written with Larissa Lai, Line Books, 2008), forage (Nightwood 2007), and monkeypuzzle (Press Gang 1998):
- Part 1: The World of the Poem
- Part 2: Poems, sequences, solidarity
- Part 3: Influences/Confluences
- Part 4: Your Writing Process
RSS: Can you speak about the influences that fed this book’s process? The physical world—local, regional, national, international, transnational, is investigated and in addition to text based sources, there exists a polyphonic chorus of voices, with attention to Asian and First Nation correspondences. Interested in your comments/response.
RW: I could write a whole book in response to this question, but I’ll leave it at this: the influences are documented in the References and Acknowledgements at the back of the book. It is my hope people will read those, as many of them have changed my life and should be more widely known.
RSS: Several of the poems in this book I read as “Correspondence with Artists and Poets”: as if the speaker we encounter in the book, is in dialogue with writers as varied as Sylvia Plath or someone I’m not familiar with, Sandra Steingraber. There are many more (Rebecca Solnit, Phyllis Webb, Stephen Feld and Walter Lew, First Nations elders…). A community of voices is created. Can you speak about this?
RW: I began as a reader at a young age. When I write, I am trying to give back some of what I have gained and learned through reading. There are many more voices than I can actually name, who have fed my mind, heart & spirit. They help me to hold in my heart a longer term, a wider world, many ways of being…
RSS: undercurrent contains six pages of citations in the References & Influences section, as well as four page essay of acknowledgements. I wondered if your work as a teacher, a researcher and activist, keeps you, perhaps unexpectedly playful with form, not just in terms of, for example poetry forms, but also genre distinctions. Interested in your thoughts.
RW: I’m more interested in cultural survival and ethical living than genre distinctions, though genres can be a helpful tool or medium. Whatever it takes to help our societies transform into what they could be capable of in terms of peaceful stewardship of water and ourselves, I’ve tried to include.
The book as object
RSS: undercurrent is an beautiful object, with many visual stimuli: graphics merge with text, where the stylized image of a surge of water laps up against the poems, Chinese characters appear on the page, and you’ve included drawings by Cindy Mochizuki. As well, archival photographs create a rich visual juxtaposition. How early in the writing did you envision these components and did you work closely with book designer Carleton Wilson in the creation of the final lay-out?
RW: I don’t remember when it started, but the idea of having voices float in and out of the book, an undercurrent that waves in and out, made sense and was something I worked on with Cindy Mochizuki early on. Carleton received a complex set of graphic files from Cindy and did a good job with them.
Stay tuned for the final part of this interview with Rita Wong
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…
Read the rest of the interview series
Delighted to have chatted with host Radhika Y. on Writing Life, a program for emerging writers, on Vancouver Coop Radio, 100.5 FM: we were joined by Vancouver literary arts impresario Sean Cranbury (Books on Radio)
Listen to our wide-ranging discussion here: Show starts about 2:30 and ends 27 minutes after, or