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Scree: The Collected Earlier Poems of Fred Wah, 1962–1991 was published last fall to much warm acclaim. Edited by Jeff Derksen and launched at the Western Front in Vancouver, Scree gathers in one volume 13 rare or out-of-print books of poetry by Fred Wah, allowing readers to (re)discover the groundbreaking work of this recent Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada.
Fred Wah’s career has spanned six decades and a range of formal styles and preoccupations. Scree collects Wah’s concrete and sound poetry of the 1960s, his landscape-centric work of the 1970s, and his ethnicity-oriented poems of the 1980s. Fred was a founding member of the avant-garde TISH group, which helped turn Canadian poetry, in the West in particular, to a focus on language. He has said that his “writing has been sustained, primarily, by two interests: racial hybridity and the local.”
Here on Meta-Talon, learn more about Wah’s work by reading extracts from the introduction to Scree (pages 1–13).
An Introduction to the Poetics and Contexts of Fred Wah’s Early Poetry
A geographical term for a splay of small rocks that have been cracked free of a mountainside through the long-term action of freezing and thawing, scree indicates both the accumulation of angular rocks and the triangular fan down the mountain or hill. As a title for this collection of Fred Wah’s poetry from 1962 to 1991, scree is fitting because it is a deceptively simple word that wavers between an image of a mountainside and pure sound. Etymologically derived from the Old Norse term for “landslide” through to the Old English term for “glide,” scree is linked to movement and process. Wah’s poetry, particularly the poetry from the thirteen books gathered in this volume, is distinguished by its attention to the movement of language, the dynamism of poetic form, and a sense of place itself understood as a process of movement and stasis. … [George] Bowering identifies scree as a particular image of the interior of British Columbia, where much of Wah’s early work is grounded, as well as pointing to the complexities of landscape and the engagement with nature in Wah’s poetry.
Scree is also the name of a magazine that Wah edited, produced on a Gestetner mimeograph machine, from his South Slocan home in the Kootenay region of British Columbia, in the early 1970s, where he returned to work at Selkirk College after studying with two of the most influential and enduring figures of New American Poetry, Robert Creeley (at the University of New Mexico) and Charles Olson (at SUNY – Buffalo). Previously, Wah had edited SUM (out of Albuquerque) and, during his undergraduate days in the early 1960s at the University of British Columbia, had been a founding editor of Tish: A Poetry Newsletter, a magazine that opened an axis within Canadian poetry to the emergent poets and little magazines of the United States while also investigating place, space, and the local in relation to speech, images, and history. This process-based poetry radically opened the shape of poetry to come in Canada by its experimentations with Creeley’s proposition (derived from Charles Olson) that “form is never more than an extension of content.” Wah, and the core Tish poets – who include Daphne Marlatt, George Bowering, Frank Davey, Lionel Kearns, Jamie Reid, Maria (Gladys) Hindmarch, and Robert Hogg – cut across the grain of Canadian literature in the 1960s and surprisingly shook up the terrain of literary production in Canada with their modest, stapled newsletter.
… A mapping of Canadian literature from the 1960s through the 1980s cannot be one of a move from a brief unity, willed together through Canada’s cultural institutions with the state’s backing, to a fragmented disunity that emerged after official multiculturalism and the challenges to it from minority writers, racialized writers, queer writers, Indigenous authors, and writers who continue to write in the shadow of the imagination of the national culture. These writers brought knowledges, histories, forms, and distinct voices into Canadian literature at the very moment it was being drawn more strongly into a globalization of culture that refigured national cultures rather than eroded them. … Reading the works in Scree today gives a sense of the questions, coherences, and fault lines within Canadian literature as well as the inevitable and powerful external influences, reconfigurations, and alignments that a cultural project springing out of a national imperative both encounter and counter.
… Fred Wah’s poetry, no matter how localized it is in the particulars of life, landscape, language, and perception, has also always been transnational and globalized; from the confluence of poetics across the Americas to Europe and Asia, to the content of the works themselves, with its configurations of a hybrid identity that fully develops through this volume (which leads to Wah’s groundbreaking book that refigured writing that engaged with the politics of identity – rather than the rather narrowly defined “identity politics” – Diamond Grill ). The great subtlety of the poetry in Scree is in its expansiveness: a movement from a grounded localness that carries a weight in its details of place and in its precision of language, to syntactically compressed narratives that sweep from “my mountains” of British Columbia to “your [Wah’s father] China youth and the images of place for you before you were twenty are imbued with the green around Canton rice fields, humid Hong Kong masses” (“Elite 8,” Waiting for Saskatchewan, 67–68). Scree pulls together the early and unsure Tish poems and thirteen books – Lardeau (1965), Mountain (1967), Among (1972), Tree (1972), Earth (1974), Pictograms from the Interior of B.C. (1975), Loki Is Buried at Smoky Creek (1980), Breathin’ My Name with a Sigh (1981), Owners Manual (1981), Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail (1982), Waiting for Saskatchewan (1985), Rooftops (1988), and So Far (1991) – and it does so in a manner that creates a movement that foregrounds the way in which themes and poetic forms (the relationship of form and content again!) are in dialogue throughout the book. …
Scree, then, is a book of books – but a book on its own with attention to the movement from poem to poem and from book to book. To emphasize this insistence on the book as a composition and as a cultural object, we have reproduced both Earth and Tree in colour facsimile. …
In a recent interview, in which he replied to a question about his recent role as the Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate (from 2011–2013), Fred Wah remarked, “I chose poetry as a reactive practice (anticolonial, grounded in the local, reclamation, etc.). Being close to ‘governance’ in my Parliamentary Poet Laureate role only confirmed for me the need to insist on a poetry that sustains the imagination of a better world” (mclennan, Jacket2, March 5, 2015). The poems in Scree show how the groundwork for this relationship of poetry and the imagination was built up through Wah’s engagement with the local as well as poetic influences that crossed borders. The real weight of the poems, or their “purchase” as Robert Creeley might call it, is in their attention to all of the sensual, syntactical, and semantic aspects of language so that the relationship of “governance” and “the imagination of another world” are brought together through the details of a life. Poetry becomes a mapping, an act of the imagination, and a restless, critical form of knowledge.
You might also be interested in the Fred Wah Digital Archive, hosted by Simon Fraser University; “High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese”, an interactive poem; and Inhabitations: Faking Fred Wah, a cut-up/remix/montage of Fred Wah’s poetry and poetics, by Edmonton PhD student Joel Katelnikoff.