Monday, February 20, 2017
Last updated: 1 year ago

In conversation with Fred Wah, the new poet laureate of Canada

Courtesy of Fred Wah

Now that he has been appointed Canada’s new Parliamentary Poet Laureate, Fred Wah is faced with some interesting challenges.

Wah is tasked with representing Canadian literature by a government that has made significant cuts to the arts. He admitted that “in regards to this particular government—much of which I disagree with ideologically—is that I have to find a way to work that ideology. But that’s no different from the parliamentarians on the hill who represent different ideas.

“Each of us comes from a specific constituency of opinion and imagination and I think mine is pretty easy to pin down. I don’t know quite yet how I’m going to negotiate it, but I find it intriguing.”

Wah—who was born in Saskatchewan, raised in Nelson, BC and is currently based in Vancouver—graduated from UBC with a BA in English literature and music in the 60s. During his time on campus, Wah was a founding editor and contributor to the influential poetry magazine TISH. “It’s gained some notice in Canadian literature as being a kind of a turning point for Canadian poetry,” he said.

“It was probably a turning point because we took on a kind of innovative stance towards writing and we felt out here on the west coast, a little left out or excluded from the mainstream down east, in New York and Toronto. At the time, we had quite a few professors in English from the United States and England. There were hardly any Canadians.”

Wah taught for many years at Selkirk College, David Thompson University Centre and the University of Calgary. In 1986, he won the Governor General’s Award for his book Waiting for Saskatchewan. Wah said he was “pretty proud of that because the book addressed a lot of my interest in racialization. I’m mixed Chinese/Swedish. I’ve been working on matters of race for quite a few years, so that was quite gratifying.”
After retiring, he and his wife moved back to Vancouver. Wah was named the Writer in Residence at SFU in 2006/2007. “Vancouver’s always been our city,” he said. “It’s been great to be back here. There’s a great literary community here.”

Wah called his appointment “a pleasant surprise. I didn’t expect it, in the sense that I wasn’t thinking about it.” Wah had been nominated for the post in 2005/2006 but John Steffler was chosen instead.

“The committee asked me if they could keep my nomination active. I wasn’t paying much attention. I guess they just pulled my name out of the hat,” he joked.

The Parlimentary Poet Laureate was created in 2001 to, as their website says, “encourage and promote the importance of literature, culture and language in Canadian society.” The position comes with an annual honourarium of $20,000, $13,000 for travel expenses and a budget for translation of their work and administrative expenses.

As poet laureate, Wah is particularly interested in education. “I’d like to see more Canadian literature—particularly poetry—in our classrooms, in primary and secondary schools. I’m going to try to create, I hope, energy in that area. I’m not sure how I’m going to do that yet.”

“I’m kind of looking forward to examining the whole notion of poetry and politics and how that might work in the role of the poet laureate. I would like to take it seriously and engage parliamentarians in a reasonable discourse.”