Rita Wong | In Dialogue

by Aurelea

Here at Capilano, Rita Wong’s 2007 collection forage is our final book in English 103-05 and 06 | Introduction to Contemporary Literature for the Spring term.  Rita has generously participated in an at-a-distance Q/A session with the English 103 students.

The students’ questions were collected on Wednesday, March 30th.  In the process of answering the questions, Rita grouped them questions thematically.  Here are Rita’s responses.

Grouping 1

For responses to the following questions, please see the comments at Litter-a-terre:

  • Why include Chinese characters in a book of English language poetry?
  • How did you come to explore these topics? Language? Capitalism? Environment? Crises?
  • What do you hope to achieve by bringing up questionable environmental and bio-tech practices?
  • Your pieces often read like essays in the form of poetry. Why poetry?  Note: Scroll down to the very bottom of the litter-a-terre site for this response.
  • What is the logic behind the slashes and jumbled words in “nervous organism”?
  • Are “fluorine” and the “the girl who ate rice almost every day” based on personal experience? Answer: Yes—both personal experience and imagination—I’ve never managed to go underground to explore sewers, but maybe someday.

Addendum: For me, poetry creatively engages with our daily lives, with the moments that might otherwise be overlooked, what is both hidden yet within plain view, if we take the time to dwell with the quiet, the embedded, the already present (which could include our cultural inheritances, our socio-economic structures, environmental factors like pollution and resilience, and much more).

Grouping 2 | Writing, Research, Influence

  • What was the inspiration or idea behind the “annotations” that accompany many of the poems?
  • To what extent have your past experiences influenced your poetry?  Who has influenced your development as a poet?  Were there any artists/poets/writers, in particular, influencing you while working on forage?
  • Do you engage in research before writing your poems?  Or do the poems themselves suggest the need for further research on specific topics?
  • What kind of personal and/or educational experience do you have with the topics and materials about which you are writing?  Or do you primarily rely on research?
  • Did you set out specifically to write a book with an explicit political/environmental agenda or did the focus of the book evolve more organically than that?

I’m interested in looking at my everyday life and unpacking some of the things that get overlooked or taken for granted, such as the pollution that is increasingly common in our lives. Today, the experience and concept of pollution is shifting so that it is not merely something out there (smog, huge amounts of plastic trash floating in the ocean) but also something that is inside each and every one of us, human and nonhuman, spread by our shared experience of air, water and food. This is humorously but also effectively shown in books like Slow Death by Rubber Duck, which show how common objects like rubber ducks, sofas, canned food and more, carry with them unintended, cumulative side-effects because of the chemicals they introduce into our daily lives. The term “body burden” refers to the hundreds of chemicals that are now found in the average citizen, chemicals that did not exist in our bodies before World War II. These chemicals have also been found everywhere from Inuit children to polar bears, salmon, and sperm whales. This brings home the point that there is no escape from pollution—that we share a responsibility to keep the planet clean for ourselves and all other living creatures. The pollution manifests itself in everything from allergies to cancers, and various illnesses which have affected my family and friends. [I would also add that we are made of the water, air, and earth in and around us; when they are polluted, so are we. The water, air, and earth continue to sustain our lives, and there is more we can do to help them help us by reducing or eliminating pollution.] While there are many factors to consider, the environmental one needs much more serious attention. The book arose organically from my examination of daily life.

While personal experience is definitely important, I also read a lot, and have ever since I was a child. In a sense, my writing is a form of giving back some of what I’ve received or learned through reading.  Some of the poems in forage arose as a response to what I was reading, and I’ve occasionally included quotes that either sparked a poem, or that I felt were poetic fragments embedded within prose. The marginalia or “annotations” are a reminder that poetry is all around us in unexpected and often overlooked places, if we pay attention, and they are also a way of encouraging the reader to go explore some of these texts if they’re curious about the ideas/images there. Currently, I’m working on a research project exploring the poetics of water. Some of this research may lead to poetry, and sometimes, as you suggest, the poems lead me to read further on a topic. There are many ways to proceed organically, not only one single method—today, the organic is enmeshed with the artificial, the human-made, and my writing practice probably reflect this messiness.  I try to acknowledge some of my influences by including a list of references at the end of the book (everyone from Janine Benyus of biomimicry fame to Richard Van Camp—and Rachel Carson should have been in there too). And I have also been influenced by many writers who aren’t listed in the references. Because there are so many, what I’ve done is attached a short piece I wrote for the journal Open Letter (“seeds, streams, see/pages”), naming and quoting some of them, but even so, there are more than what’s listed there.

Grouping 3 | Foraging, Titles, Photographs

  • Could you comment on the use of photographs in Forage and where they are positioned? Are the pictures intended “to frame” the collection? Highlight specific themes or subjects?
  • The title: Why “forage”?

In a way, the photographs were foraged from the archives.  The title forage refers to the process of looking for what one needs to survive for the long term—be that food, philosophy, information, values… The photos are identified at the back, but I wanted the reader to encounter the image directly first—to see the nameless worker with the sacks of rice (who we later realize is in Victoria, BC), the woman assembling a gun (who turns out to be in Alberta), and the tree with the bench (whose Chinese characters translate roughly as: please rest for a while). The pictures speak back to the poems, and could be thought of as either frames (suggesting histories of migration, labour, feminism, human coexistence with land, etc) or as interludes.

Grouping 4 | The Pleasure of Reinvention

  • Guilty pleasures: Could you comment on your own consumer habits?
  • How has living in Miami changed you as a writer?

As someone who grew up in Calgary, I loved both beef and driving, but I’ve reduced both of those things in my life substantially now—not merely out of guilt, but out of positively realigning my values toward long term well-being rather than short-term pleasure. Guilt is not helpful if it obstructs you from seeing and savouring the joy that can be part of your own transformation. Currently, I do feel bad about the ecological footprint of flying to and from Miami, but I also take it as a challenge to try to make the travel count, to think about what I can learn and share from the experience of migrating back and forth. In Miami, I participate in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and eat locally grown foods as much as possible. I find that I slow down and live more quietly there, which is good for my writing; my life in Vancouver tends to be much busier and more social. Maybe I am gradually preparing myself for a big shift and less travel; we’ll see… I think of changing my habits and lifestyle as a good challenge to try to live more slowly, more mindfully, more healthily, and I don’t beat myself up when I fail (as I sometimes do), but I keep trying to learn and to improve.

There is a joy in changing my habits, learning the pleasure of biking, foraging at farmers’ markets, reducing my consumption, increasing my connection to the local ecology wherever I am, etc.  In the capitalist economy that dominates, we live with a lot of contradictions—for instance, flying on airplanes is something I seriously want to reduce, but find difficult to do, so far. I’m working on it; when I can use Skype or phone conferencing instead of flying, I do.  Also, I’d like to point out that though capitalism arguably dominates our imagination, many other ways of organizing the exchange of goods, services and value exist alongside it. Wherever possible, I align my consumer habits towards diverse, community-based economies and systems (see the great iceberg diagram online at http://www.communityeconomies.org/Home/Key-Ideas).

Grouping 5 | One Question, One Response

  • Why the linking of Chinese and native culture in forage?  Could you comment on your interest in First Nations cultures and language? Not your heritage: Why are you interested?

As someone who lives on unceded Coast Salish land, I feel it is important to be responsible about this history. I can’t change the violent history of colonization and land theft, but I can change how I respond to that history. I see myself as an uninvited guest, maybe even a squatter, and as such, this offers another way to think about land, as a commons, rather than as private property; as Thirza Cuthand has pointed out in one of her videos, from an indigenous perspective, the land does not belong to people—rather, people belong to the land. We are owned by the land (or as one of the (nonindigenous) founders of Earth Day phrased it, “The economy [and our society] is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around”). If we want to connect to the land, the animals, and the plants wherever we are—the larger community of life that humans are only one part of, then it’s important to do this in an ethical way, by respecting the people whose cultures arose from this land. Many indigenous communities have been living where they were/are for thousands of years, or longer, and I respect this achievement, as well as how resilient some of these communities are in the face of huge obstacles, such as colonial attempts to displace and eradicate them. The indigenous video artist, Mike Macdonald, once quoted his elders as saying that the crime was not only that their land and culture were stolen from them—the crime was that the people who came here did not learn the culture of the land. It is very late, but not too late, to learn the living cultures of the land, and to work toward peace with and respect for indigenous communities.

  • Do you think British Columbia is heading in the right direction when it comes to finding solutions to the environmental problems explored in Forage?

Tough question! One has to distinguish between rhetoric and action. Municipally, there’s some wonderful stuff going on, like Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan, or how Powell River declared itself a GE-free zone (I remember hearing the mayor of Powell River say that politicians have a tough job, which is to convince corporations that government has some power over them; as such, politicians deserve our attention and support, as well as our honest feedback). I don’t know what will happen with the provincial and federal elections coming up, but I hope they’ll show that the people in this province care about the environment and want our governments to act on this care. There’s been a tight race between the Green Party and the Conservatives in one riding near Victoria, and I’m wondering if the Greens will finally pull ahead this election, given how the Conservatives have been found in contempt of Parliament for refusing to disclose what should be public information, and they were also responsible for the largest mass arrest of citizens in Canadian history during the G20 summit in Toronto. I understand how annoying politics can be, but it’s important to educate oneself, particularly at election time. Online news sources like The Tyee, The Georgia Straight, rabble, and the CBC are helpful for this. I’m paying attention to where parties stand in terms of their policies on GE foods, environmental protection, renewable energy, education, health, and social justice.

We’re currently looking at new water legislation in the province, and some folks are worried it’ll be an attempt to privatize water; it’s important that people pay attention and speak up about this if/when they can.  I’m very concerned about the dangers posed by the run-of-the-river projects, which may privatize hydro-electric power when it should be publicly owned.  I think BC has done better than, say, Alberta (which has caused Canada to fail to meet Kyoto Accord goals because of the tar sands), in terms of the environment, but it can still do a lot more. As a coastal province, we also need to protect the oceans a lot more than we have been.

  • The tone of the collection is rarely positive? Is the world irrevocably damaged?

I think there’s a lot going on in terms of tone—anxiety, frustration, anger, yes, but also hope, humour, love, and compassion.  I think the world is both poisoned and perpetually healing, which takes me through a wide range of emotions. It’s important to try to be real about the damage, as well as to work toward doing better.  I’m not writing because I’ve given up; I’m writing because I’m committed to the possibility that humans can do wondrous things when we contemplate what a situation calls for.

  • How has your role as an educator shaped you as a poet or vice versa?

I’ve been writing poetry longer than I’ve been teaching, but I do think that when I’m lucky, they can feed one another.  That is, my work as a poet helps me to bring a creative approach to my teaching, and to be very careful and attentive to language.  Last year, I developed a Humanities course on water, and I learned so much in doing that, some of which I’m sure will filter into my writing.  So the challenge is to make the connections, rather than to see them as being in a contest with one another.


3 Comments to “Rita Wong | In Dialogue”

  1. Thanks, Rita Wong, for taking the time to answer these!

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful answers Ms. Wong!

  3. Your poetry is a sensitive and poignant antidote to apathy, Rita. Thank you for writing it; it’s been a pleasure to read and do a presentation on. I only wish more learn from it and make daily choices that benefit those less fortunate at the bottom of the working pyramids as well as the planet.
    With kind regards,

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