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.