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

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GILLIAN: You have been an important contributor to Canada’s literary scene for decades. One of the many factors that distinguish your poetry is social and political awareness.

The poem, “Count,” for example, discusses the census and the speaker’s status as an “un countable since / birth” who “keep[s] looking for a signifier / to cling to.” Problems arise when considering mixed-race subjects in a census, which is pointed out by the speaker who ponders, “I must have been Chinese,” and then wonders about his “half self” acquired from his Swedish mother. This is another case of being “caught inside the doorway,” like the paradox of the visible minority you pointed out earlier (particularly the generations born in the country) and that common expression of origin: “No, I mean really where are you from?” In fact, the speaker’s uncertain status in the country generates uncertainty about the boundaries of the self: “From the summit / of myself I was on the other side, / part of an exclusion act.” This official intrusion echoes an earlier poem, “Double Dutch,” which begins:

I was standing in the doorway

Not doing any harm

When along came the nation

And took me by the

Hinges in my history


Where they gave me a name

and their social numbers

I could never add ‘em up

is a door investigates politicized issues such as “racialized otherness,” resistance, the tension between “citizen” and “foreigner,” “tourist” and “native.” Should the young poet strive to occupy the role of socio-cultural diagnostician?

I’ve never found poetry to be that useful a diagnostic tool but it can be, in its accumulative cultural force, an excellent tool to shift language enough to give us new ways of thinking about the world. – Fred

FRED: Though it was always with a bit of “tongue-in-cheek,” as a teaching strategy, I would sometimes challenge my writing students with the “Why bother?” question. That is, “If you’re not going to try to write a poetry that’s intended to change the world, make it a better place, why bother?”

So much of the process of writing, for me, is out of necessity. My poetry is frequently in response to some dissatisfaction—perhaps with a social issue, like race or corporate or political hegemony, perhaps with a formal or ideological issue, like the lyric “I” or beauty trumping violence, and so forth. Sometimes the poetic tools available aren’t quite right and one needs to invent new tools, new ways and language to answer the facts of the present. I’ve never found poetry to be that useful a diagnostic tool but it can be, in its accumulative cultural force, an excellent tool to shift language enough to give us new ways of thinking about the world. I think the young poet should strive to discover how far poetry can take her towards useful and intelligent action and participation. Don’t occupy anything and don’t let yourself become occupied. For me, the “door” has been a useful site to reflect on all this.

GILLIAN: Finally, I want to ask you a little bit about your creative process. Thomas Wolfe was known for writing while standing beside his fridge and using the top of it as a desk. William Carlos Williams would ride in his car with a yellow pad and pencil beside him. William Faulkner would, supposedly, drink whiskey while writing, and Vladimir Nabokov wrote everything on index cards while standing up. Do you have any habits or quirks that accompany your creative practice?

FRED: Needless to say, the act of writing for me has shifted over the years. Though I’ve always used some kind of handwriting (notes, free writing, journal, and so forth), particularly as initial action, my handwriting is so bad that I’ve always depended on a machine: typewriter until the ‘80s and computers for the past 30 years. So now I mostly work between screen and notebook. But, as I said above, the oral/aural has been an important ingredient. I listen to a lot of poetry. The mp3 is not part of the poetry world. I don’t usually listen to music when I’m writing but I do listen to jazz a lot when I’m thinking. And visual art, images, others’ texts, provide gaps for thought and language. I’m quite undisciplined and messy, but I like that kind of noise around writing.

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