Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Rita Wong

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Rita Wong

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Rachel Shin:

Hi, my name is Rachel Shin and I’m a Grade 12 Writer’s Craft student. I’ve compiled six questions pertaining to your work and would be very grateful if you could answer them. Thank you in advance — I really appreciate this opportunity.

Your current project “Downstream: A Poetics of Water” will be presented at a workshop taking place at Emily Carr in 2012. This will attract a range of professionals from environmentalists to community leaders to discuss how the local relates to the global through water, and how we are part of water’s path. Having all these people assembled together is an excellent opportunity to promote the importance of biodiversity and the protection of our lakes, oceans and other bodies of water. I find your work truly unique and looked at the “Canadian Wildlife Federation: Rivers to Oceans” website to learn more about the negative effects humans have on water, and what we can do to protect this extremely valuable resource. What inspires you to research the poetics of water, and what do you strive to accomplish from your research? How has the study of water influenced your poetry?

Rita Wong:

Hi Rachel. Thanks for looking at the Downstream site! I undertook the question of how to learn from water because of a call that happened in 2007, when Dorothy Christian and Denise Nadeau organized a forum called Protect Our Sacred Waters. They were concerned about the many threats to water, including, in B.C., the possibility that our rivers might be privatized by the provincial government’s support of so-called “run of the river” (or “ruin of the river” for some) projects that would make the energy generated by them become the property of individual companies rather than the public government. (Currently, what BC Hydro generates belongs to the public purse, rather than private corporations.)

Unable to attend that event because I was away, I had forwarded notice of it to friends and particularly members of the Chinese Canadian community, at Dorothy’s request, as they were trying to gather people from many cultural traditions together. Not a single Chinese Canadian showed up, I’m ashamed to say, even though threats like water pollution and the privatization of rivers in B.C. will hurt everyone, including people of Chinese ancestry. And so began my endeavor to address a gap that should not have existed. This failing became a provocation to learn, to do better. With the support of a fellowship from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, I developed a humanities course that looks at cultural perspectives of water, and we started the class with a field trip to the watershed that supplies our drinking water, as well as an optional trip to the wastewater treatment plant. I felt it was important to try to better understand the flows of water that make our daily lives possible, flows that are often out of mind, taken for granted. This also moved me to look into the poetics and creative aspects of water.

Water, I would find, leads me to everything from the Tao Te Ching to the geopolitics of pollution to ecological thinking, decolonization and trying to learn how to swim. I began to learn just how permeable, how interdependent I am, as I asked: what happens if we view our home through the lens of water? My perception of water has changed, and I hope that this research helps eventually to support a wider consciousness of water, specifically, what I would call a participatory water ethic, where people realize that the choices they make in their daily lives (for instance by conserving water, or by supporting public water infrastructure and refusing to buy plastic bottled water, etc.) have a larger impact on the environment. Whether people imagine water as a commodity to be sold and bought by only those who can afford it, or as a human right, or as a life-giving force, or as a commons that connects us to all forms of life (people, animals, plants who also rely on the water that we do), has a major impact on the kinds of societies, communities and futures that we build towards.

I’ve always been interested in exploring everyday life and re-perceiving or dwelling on what’s overlooked or ignored within it, so it makes sense to focus on water. Thinking or imagining with water has influenced my poetry by making me pay more attention how much we rely on watery metaphors to describe language (flow, immersion, etc.). It also makes me think more about how the local is simultaneously global, how the specific is connected to the whole (what one could call synecdoche). There is a limited amount of water on the planet (enormous as it may seem to us), and it keeps recirculating over and over again; while there are definitely consistent patterns and flows that we depend on, there is also infinite variation in terms of the paths that this finite amount of water can take. This teaches me that creativity is not so much limited to the individual, or the ego, but involves attending to the dynamic environment that one lives in and with; as you can imagine, this has an effect on how I write in that it encourages me to pay attention to relationships, interdependencies, connections.


Do you have a favourite time period of poetry, and/or a favourite poet? What qualities does that time frame and/or poet exude that interest you?


Hmm, that’s like asking a mom if she has a favourite child. I would have to say no. But there are many poets and writers who’ve influenced me (see the notes I made for the journal Open Letter, called “seeds, streams, see/pages,” which you can download here — you’ll see that most of them are contemporary).

In terms of favourite poets to work with, I’ve collaborated with Larissa Lai (we wrote a book called sybil unrest, which consisted of exchanges back and forth over email during a period of roughly three years — her sense of humour, critical intelligence and great ear for sound are what made her so much fun to work with). While I’m respectful of everything from Tang Dynasty poetry to the Romantics, I’d say that I’m most immersed in the contemporary, where it feels like many more voices are having the chance to speak and be heard than in the past.


Your work touches on social justice and labour laws. I found your poem “denim blues” especially powerful as it drew a connection between our unknowing support of unjust labour conditions through purchasing clothing made in developing countries. What inspired you to base some of your works around these strong themes?


As I mentioned, I’m interested in exploring everyday life and re-perceiving or dwelling on what’s overlooked or ignored within it. A pair of blue jeans looks very simple, but is actually a very complicated thing when you look at its whole life cycle from cotton seeds (grown in whose soil?) to manufacturing (cheap labour in capital-intensive factories) to the landfill (if that’s where it ends up — and on that topic, I highly recommend a film called Waste Land, about the artist Vik Muniz’s work in the world’s largest garbage dump). The history of what we eat, wear and use in our daily lives matters — it is part of us, whether or not we know it.

As someone who grew up in a grocery store seeing all sorts of people come in and out everyday, I’m very aware that striving for social justice is really important to foster a fair, peaceful society (which remains more of a goal than an actual achievement in my opinion). My poems reflect that awareness, and sometimes it’s the poetry that has led me to get more involved in social justice movements, not the other way around. For instance, I wrote a poem about the Three Gorges Dam mega-project (which I visited when I lived in China for a year from 1991 to 1992); later, this led me to speak out more about it, and to oppose Canada’s support of this environmentally devastating project (through Canada’s Export Development Corporation, which is owned by our government — when you track the flow of money (like the flow of water), you quickly realize how interconnected we are). It’s important to try to live by your words.

In our media-saturated society, it’s easy to feel helpless or overwhelmed by the news, which goes by quickly in huge volumes. Poetry offers a way to slow down and respond to some of what we witness. In one poem, “damage,” I comment on the paranoia and abuse of power that led to the arrest of Jaggi Singh in Quebec City in 2001, for a catapult that launched teddy bears, which he wasn’t actually involved with but nonetheless took the hit for, temporarily, until the trumped-up charges were dropped. More recently, we saw the largest mass arrest in Canadian history during the G20 in Toronto in June 2010; such abuses of basic civil rights have serious implications that shape/deform our culture, and as such, they deserve our careful attention, whether that be in the federal elections that are fast approaching or in our poetic writing practices.


I found the layout of your poems varies and keeps the reader captivated. In particular, I liked the way you organized your poem “fester” in forage as I thought it added to the poem’s rhythm and overall effect. What do you consider to be your favourite compilation of poetry from your three books, and why? Do you have a favourite poem from these compilations?


I don’t have a favourite compilation per se, but I’m most engaged with forage at the moment because many of the environmental questions it raises continue to haunt/perplex/motivate me. Nor do I have a favourite poem, but in terms of layout, I like how “write around the absence” in monkeypuzzle spatially works through the relationship between English and Chinese.


I find your poems eye-opening and thought-provoking as content from some of your poems focuses on current ethical and environmental issues around the world. Having traveled to England, Italy, Cannes, Cuba and Mexico, I’ve noticed the quality of resources, such as water, and cultural norms vary drastically. Do you, or have you, traveled to other countries to gain inspiration and first-hand knowledge on these issues? If so, why is travel important in terms of developing your work? Otherwise, what is most helpful in developing topics and themes for your work?


I lived in northern Japan for a year (in Yamagata prefecture) and in China (Shandong province) for a year (in both cases, I was teaching English to get by). At the moment, I’m living in Miami, Florida, while I’m on sabbatical this year. I’d always wanted to live in China for at least a year, but when I graduated from university, the Tiananmen Massacre was fresh in my mind, so I went to Japan instead. After that, I found that I still wanted to go to China, so I did. I lived overseas because I was curious about the world, and I wanted to learn about the land where my ancestors lived. If writing came out of this experience, great, and if not, that was fine too. It takes time to adapt to a place and learn its rhythms and idiosyncrasies. I’ve also travelled to other places (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Germany, Australia), but more and more these days, I’m thinking about how to travel less because I don’t like the carbon footprint that flying involves. One of my colleagues has been looking into ship travel — slower, but a very wonderful way to see and experience the world differently. Travel is not necessarily that important for my writing, but being able to connect with other places, other people, other forms of life, is important — travel is only one of many ways to make such connections.

In terms of what’s helpful for developing writing, I find the daily practice of paying attention and listening to what’s around you, wherever you are, is what matters. I keep a journal that I eventually go back to and review. Reading widely and curiously is also very important for me, as you might guess from the bibliographies I include at the end of monkeypuzzle and forage.


Are you currently in the process of writing another volume of poetry? If so, is there a constant theme flowing throughout? If not, do you plan on publishing another volume of poetry or other genre of writing in the future?


Yes, I’m working on a book of poetry/essays (seems to be moving back and forth between them) related to water. Some draft pieces have appeared in the following places (I’m not sure yet if they’ll make it into the book): (Fall 2010 issue) ("Water as Poetics and Praxis", a collaboration with artist Cindy Mochizuki) (collaboration with artist Linda Sormin)


Thank you for your time!

Rita Wong has written three books of poetry: sybil unrest (co-authored with Larissa Lai, Line Books, 2008), forage (Nightwood, 2007) and monkeypuzzle (Press Gang, 1998). She has received the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop Emerging Writer Award, the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and a fellowship from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Wong respectfully makes her home on the unceded Coast Salish lands also known as Vancouver. She is currently researching the poetics of water.


Rachel Shin was born in Toronto. Even as a child she loved the water: chlorinated, fresh or salty. With the remainder of her time, Rachel rapidly scribbles song lyrics and short pieces of poetry. Her passion for words has remained with her until now, and will undoubtedly help guide her in the future. Rachel is full of anticipation for what lies ahead, but will always remember her roots.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page