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Rita Wong discusses forage and Canada Reads Poetry

forage by Rita Wong

Canada Reads Poetry is a three-week online initiative presented by CBC Books and the National Post. Inspired by the original Canada Reads format, Canada Reads Poetry features five panelists defending five collections of poetry. That's where the similarities end; while Canada Reads plays out on-air, Canada Reads Poetry plays out online.

We're exploring the Canada Reads Poetry contenders one collection at a time. Yesterday, we introduced you to Rita Wong, the author of forage. Sonnet L'Abbé is defending forage in Canada Reads Poetry and her defence of the collection can be read at the National Post's books blog, The Afterword.

Today, we turn to the poet herself to get more insight into her work. Rita Wong teaches Critical and Cultural Studies as an assistant professor at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Her third collection of poetry, forage follows monkeypuzzle and sybil unrest (co-authored with Larissa Lai). In her work, Wong explores social and ecological issues facing contemporary society, and forage is no exception.


Q: For readers not familiar with your collection, forage, tell us about it.

A: forage arises from the process of exploring everyday life and perceiving what's overlooked within it. For example, when you examine something as common as a personal computer, its life cycle reveals a path of destructive mining and exploitive labour practices, and toxic pollution as electronic waste is shipped to places like China and Nigeria, where its dismantling poisons the air and water that eventually circulate globally. The history of what we use, wear and eat in our daily lives matters — it's part of us, whether or not we know it, and we, in turn, are embedded in systems shaped by an international economy and a political landscape. As such, the book dwells with the daily range of responses to the complex world in which we live, where anger, protest, anxiety, bewilderment, hope, humour, love, all coexist. In contemplating the contradictions that make up our lives, the poems move beyond denial, toward humbly accepting the planet's limits and our many interdependencies, toward the possibility of a culture that rejects extravagant wastefulness for ecological resilience and social justice; as one poem puts it, "the next shift may be the biggest one yet, the union of the living, from mosquito to manatee to mom."

Q: Sonnet L'Abbé is defending your book in Canada Reads Poetry. What advice would you give her?

A: Remember that we ask hard questions and explore difficult subjects because we have hope and love for humanity, and because we learn from one another in the process of facing those questions together. It's a careful balance of courage and humbleness that might help us to cultivate the dialogues we need to face scary, interrelated phenomena like social and environmental injustice, pollution and global warming. The question of how language or poetic forms might respond to such phenomena fascinates me, as a challenge. While there is obviously a difference between language/poetry that explores these questions, and tangible actions in the world (Auden's "poetry makes nothing happen" comes to mind), the two are also related and can feed one another. The imagination, the questions, the interdependences and possibilities that we can share, do matter. It's important to engage creatively and on as many levels as we can, including poetically. I send lots of gratitude and good karma in her direction.

Rita WongQ: Do you have a favourite poem in this collection? If so, why?

A: That's like asking a mother if she has a favourite child, when she loves each one in specific ways. I'd have to say no, I don't have a favourite poem. That said, there are certain terms that I think are becoming increasingly relevant to everyone, such as "body burden," which is in the poem "after 'Laundry Song' by Wen I'to." Body burden refers to the hundreds of chemicals that are now found, not only in human bodies around the world, but also in creatures ranging from dolphins to peregrine falcons to household cats. If that poem helps build awareness of this term/phenomenon, I'd be grateful for this.

And I like how the poem arose from a creative writing exercise I developed, that involves browsing through poetry anthologies, finding a poem that is "a high energy construct," as described in Charles Olson's essay "Projective Verse." Five words from this poem are then incorporated into a new poem. So, this poem's lineage is a protest poem called "Laundry Song" by the Chinese poet Wen I'to (1899-1946).

Q: Which poem was the most difficult or challenging to write in forage? Why?

A: Two poems come to mind, but I'll just discuss "forage, fumage" here.

"forage, fumage" asks what it means to inherit colonial violence. So much has been broken apart and destroyed in North America. As a writer, I'm like someone in the wake of a catastrophe, looking around, witnessing Indigenous storytellers pick up the pieces, and trying to work with them, improvising with whatever's at hand to reconstruct toward peaceful, respectful coexistence on this continent. It is late, but not too late, to learn and support the original cultures of this land.

The question the poem revolves around is: what can an uninvited guest on these lands offer to their original hosts and to the land itself? I find a clue in indigenous place names that hover in the poems' margins, and know there is much more listening to do. Whether I'm on the unceded Coast Salish lands known as Vancouver, or the traditional homes of the Seminoles and Miccosukee in Miami, I feel the pull of many contemporary indigenous perspectives that have so much to teach for the future as well as the past.

Q: How did you get started writing poetry?

A: Ever since I could read, I've been an avid reader, and writing is one way of giving back some of the many gifts/insights/images I've received as a reader. I started as a child; when I was in Grade 5, the children's section of the Calgary Sun published one of my poems. Every line rhymed, heavily. Throughout my life, writing (both in journals and in poetry) has been an important way for me to process what happens in and around me. The process is what's important.

Q: If you weren't a poet, what would you be doing?

A: I hope I'd be a botanist or an organic farmer, maybe a mycologist. I'm very curious about the mycorrhizal mats that exist underground in forests, connecting trees, making a whole that is larger and deeper than the sum of its parts.

Q: Where do you write most of your poetry? What is it about that space that works for you?

A: I write in my journal, and it goes wherever I do. Sometimes I like to walk and write, and more often I like to sit at my desk if I'm at home (or if I'm travelling, a quiet corner that I've eked out somewhere). The space does change because I move around, but what's important is to be able to access a quality of concentration, light, good air, as well as inner and outer listening. Oh, and I love public libraries, always seek them out wherever I go.

Q: Who are the poets you return to again and again? Why?

Tough question because there are so many. For courage and steadiness, I might turn to Dionne Brand, Audre Lorde, Mahmoud Darwish, Pablo Neruda... For exuberance and spacious experimentation, I might turn to Jam Ismail, Harryette Mullen, Nicole Brossard, Erin Mouré, Marie Annharte Baker, Peter Cole... For vision and grounding, Joy Harjo, Lee Maracle, Jeannette Armstrong, Chrystos, Cecilia Vicuna, Frances Chung, Claire Harris... For generosity of method, Myung Mi Kim, Fred Wah, Roy Miki, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Wayde Compton... I could easily list another 50 poets, like Larissa Lai and Hiromi Goto, who are dear friends, better known as novelists but also poets in their own right, and I also deeply respect poets who work collaboratively, more or less anonymously, like the Press Release poetry collective in Vancouver.

It's not so much individual poets, but what they collectively offer, that I return to again and again, as illustrated by the 590-page work of art, Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry, edited by Walter K. Lew. Also, I read a lot of non-fiction, seeing/hearing poetic resonances in works by Rachel Carson, Winona LaDuke, Janine Benyus, Vandana Shiva, Rebecca Solnit, David Abram, Alan Weisman, Joanna Macy and more.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a book that contemplates how we perceive and interact with water, as well as a collaborative project with Dorothy Christian and others on this topic. Tracking the paths of water, I've walked the watersheds where my drinking water comes from, toured some wastewater treatment plants, traced urban streams, journeyed the Fraser River's length, gone north to the tar sands, visited Wollaston Lake in Saskatchewan and more.

I find it sad that many cities have paved over creeks that once existed. In my neighbourhood, I often hear the creek beneath the manhole covers, and I'd love to see it daylighted. Today in Vancouver, only one wild salmon stream survives out of 50-plus streams: Musqueam Creek.

How people imagine water, and a participatory water ethics, has a major effect on the kinds of societies, communities and futures that we build towards. Governments and empires come and go, but the land and water remain. If we organize our structures of feeling, our decision-making procedures, and our economic models around the long-term health and well-being of the watersheds we rely on, what kind of futures might we invite?


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