Photo courtesy of Fred Wah. ©
I met Fred Wah at the University of Calgary around 1992. At the time, he was a Professor of English and one of two faculty members who taught poetry in the department’s fledgling creative writing program. Along with other faculty and students, Wah shaped that creative writing program into one of the triumphs of our university. His challenging, community-building classes are still highlights of my memories of the University of Calgary.
In March 2017, Fred Wah read in lower Manhattan from Scree: The Collected Earlier Poems, 1962-1991 (edited by Jeff Derksen and published by Talonbooks). Please buy Scree: it’s electrifying poetry that enacts Wah’s evolving engagements with the natural world. Mountains, trees, earth, and the B.C. interior all comprise distinct sections of this collection, along with poems from Wah’s best-known books. The poems republished here are from Scree’s “Tree” (1972); Wah was 33 years old. Though the late 1960s and early 1970s saw the rise of the modern green movement in America, it is remarkable that Wah voiced the concerns and conflicted conversations found in “Tree” while living in or near British Columbia’s industry-focused logging towns. He grappled at that early time with environmental and economic interests that many Canadians would only acknowledge decades later. He was able to envision trees as sentient beings long before non-human “sentience” entered the public discourse.
At his 2017 reading, Wah mentioned Rita Wong, a writer and activist with whom he was collaborating at the time on beholden: a poem as long as a river (published by Talonbooks in 2018). Wah and Wong had been discussing ways to write about the Columbia River. Wah fondly recounted how Wong told him she didn’t want to “colonize the river” through poetry. Wong’s comment marked a challenge that led both poets to “search for a language that evoked the complexities of our colonial appropriation of it.”
As the global climate crisis accelerates, Wah’s recounting of Wong’s resistance to “colonizing the river” becomes more salient. Both poets remind us that language is one means of resistance: a tool we have to change the ways that we — and others — perceive the environment and our relations to it. Language is one tool of resistance. There are others for which we must search, both individually and collectively.
Thank you, Fred Wah, for your permission to republish this selection from Scree in The Typescript.