Canada's new parliamentary poet laureate Fred Wah on The Sunday Edition

First aired on The Sunday Edition (22/1/12)


There's a new poet laureate in Parliament, and it's self-described "Kootenay boy" Fred Wah. He's been "doing" poetry for more than 50 years, but it was never an obvious career choice. Wah studied music and played jazz, and became involved in the avant garde scene in Vancouver in the '60s. Somewhere along the way, he was bitten by the poetry bug, and never looked back.

He has won many awards for his writing, including a Governor General's Award for Waiting for Saskatchewan, and the Gabrielle Roy Prize for Literary Criticism for Faking It, an essay collection. Wah spoke about his new position recently with Michael Enright on The Sunday Edition.

First things first: how do they let you know you've been appointed the poet laureate? Telegram? Carrier pigeon? "It was a phone call, and it was kind of out of the blue," said Wah. "I had been nominated for the position several years ago, and they asked if they could keep my nomination open for the next competition. So I said 'sure' and then didn't think about it. I haven't been thinking about the poet laureate position much, although I know the literary community has been railing against the fact that we haven't had one since the last election."

The job itself isn't so much "a job, but an honorific position," said Wah. The job description is phrased in terms of suggestions. "The poet 'may' do this or that. I 'may' be called upon to write for state occasions, or to sponsor poetry readings, and things like that."

Though Wah is by now a renowned Canadian poet, that wasn't his intended career when he set out to go to university: he studied music at the University of British Columbia. "I was interested in [poetry], but I was more interested in jazz...when I went to university at UBC I was studying music, and ended up taking a poetry course and got turned on to contemporary poetry and haven't looked back," he said.

Part of the appeal was that it takes only one person to write a poem. "I was really struggling with the fact that when you're trying to make music it's so cumbersome. You have to bring together all these musicians, and rehearse it, and then you play it once and it's gone! I found poetry to be so much more accessible at the time."

Wah is practically the definition of multicultural: his father was Chinese-Scots-Irish, born in Medicine Hat, Alberta, and his mother was Swedish. "There are a lot of us like that in this country," said Wah. His mixed background influenced his writing about identity. "I guess identity's important for all of us. Growing up in a small town, I was seen as Chinese, even though I visually don't represent Chinese...and in the '50s, there was no language to address that." But in the '70s and '80s, discussion of biculturalism and multiculturalism became more widespread, and Wah welcomed that discourse. "I fell into that as a way to investigate identity and play with it poetically," he said. "In the first 20 years of my writing, I didn't address the notion of race or multiculturalism."

One of his best-known books is the 1996 collection The Diamond Grill. It is inspired by his coming-of-age memories working at his family's Chinese restaurant in Nelson, B.C., and writing the book helped him sort out some of his conflicted feelings about his multicultural background. "I used it as a kind of forum to exorcise this mixed-race background, and some of the racism and bigotry I had experienced," he said.