Writers-in-Dialogue: Gillian Sze and Fred Wah11 min read

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FRED: Echoes, perhaps, of Max Finstein’s response to the question of what is a poet: “You’re only a poet when you’re writing a poem.” I don’t mean to be glib. I agree with Ken McGoogan’s observation that the production of literature is diverse. And, for me, this is one of the contexts in which a poetics of equivocation arises. But performing “Canadian” is just one of those doors to get caught in. One can articulate the hyphenation of that “nationalistic” marker in a variety of ways and places (usually outside the country or at the Olympics). For a visible minority that door is frequently paradoxical (“No, I mean really where are you from”). So to be Canadian is to not be Canadian. Identity is also diverse. If we shift the “national” marker to the “citizen” marker we encounter a more specific field of possibilities. I’d rather not allow the abstract notion of nation to pre-empt the more concrete possibilities of action and reaction implied by senses of citizenship. The poem you cite above (“Race, to go”) was written in the early ‘90s in the midst of the debate around “Writing Through Race” (a significant event set up by the Writers’ Union of Canada). “John A. Macdonald’s tracks” don’t seem as important in 2010 as do the global messes. The debates around the politics of identity have fed my thinking and my writing since the feminist recognitions of the ‘70s (as in the elision of the “she” with race, as you note above). But attributing only the “nationalist” agenda to such shifts in consciousness seems to me, as it does to McGoogan, limiting and rather irrelevant.

GILLIAN: I like the way you worded that: “to be Canadian is to not be Canadian.” Which brings me to the question about the hyphen, or “hyphenated identity.” One of my favourite poems in is a door is “Between You and Me There is an I.” I like the musicality, the linguistic play, and the succinct allusions to Chinese Canadian history. The poem begins: “Between two stools / The hyphen lies.” In Poetics and Hybridity, you describe the hyphen as being in the middle but not in the centre:

It is a property market, a boundary post, a borderland, a bastard, a railroad, a last spike, a strain, a cipher, a rope, a knot, a chain (link), a foreign word, a warning sign, a head tax, a nomadic, floating magic carpet, now you see it now you don’t.”

When I write, I sometimes feel my own hyphen creep in. In is a door, and your writing in general, how do you see around the hyphen, or, as you put it, “the rope but which end”? Is it possible?

Asianicity, particularly in North America, has always posited ambivalence and ambiguity, whether by blood or by culture. – Fred

FRED: Your question echoes the previous notions around Mister In-Between. The doorway, the hyphen, is a “between” space that is well worth inhabiting. Racialization and ethnicity so frequently lead to questions of equivocation. Asianicity, particularly in North America, has always posited ambivalence and ambiguity, whether by blood or by culture. And that “gap,” as the cultural critic Judith Butler reminds us, “is the space of agency.” So, the challenge for me is not to see “around” the hyphen, but to inhabit it, to be in it. That is, not to avoid that space between what are usually preconceived and defined (by others) positions, but to intentionally resist their hegemony and assumptions. It is not only possible but, I believe, necessary if one is to honestly engage. Personally, I wouldn’t worry about your hyphen “creeping in” but rather keeping the door open to it; in fact, looking on both sides of the door for it.

GILLIAN: You often make reference to “the body” when writing about writing. “Writing” begins:

            purity of all things seen

through the                                              thrust

forward                              the vehicle

container         or ‘thing’ called body

And in “Parapoetic Sink” you state that “physical performs textual” and “the material male body [is] in the shape of the poem.” How does language or poetry access the pulses, affects and rhythms of corporeality?

FRED: I’m not talking about a speech-based poetics, though Williams’ “variable foot” and Olson’s “breath line” certainly saved poetry for me from the silence of the cryptic page at the end of the ‘50’s. My poetry has always had an acoustic connection, initially coming to it as a musician and then, through studying phonology and linguistics, to the oral/aural. And then—mostly from working in the bush and trying to register senses of the physical body at work—I’ve tried to pay attention to proprioception as a literal coordinate of composition. As Louis Cabri elaborates, in his introduction to my recent selected (The False Laws of Narrative, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2009):

By locating in and behind processes of perception, a proprioceptive act of writing paradoxically decentres and demotes the “self” in “self-expression,” the meaning-full “I” in language. (xiii)

In other words, to answer your question, poetry, for me, “access(es) the pulses, affects, and rhythms of corporeality” not by centering on the self as ego but on the self as organism, and on the cellular in both body and language. As Cabri further notes: “Writing could begin instead with the mouth positioning lip and tongue to shape sound-patterns (i.e., language) out of the body’s breath-rhythm.”

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