an opening, a letter: some notes on Fred Wah & Open Letter’s Alley Alley Home Free
"once carried is also held"
– Fred Wah
Frank Davey’s Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory just did two issues on Calgary poet/teacher Fred Wah and critic/teacher Pauline Butling, Alley Alley Home Free (Twelfth Series, Number 2, Spring 2004 and Number 3, Summer 2004). Edited by Frank Davey, Nicole Markotic and Susan Rudy, it publishes selected contributions from the Poetry Conference and Festival for Pauline Butling and Fred Wah at the University of Calgary, May 15-18, 2003. Originally organized to celebrate the two as Wah retired from the Creative Writing department of the University of Calgary, and Butling retired from the Alberta College of Art and Design, before they headed off to Vancouver, the two-issue celebration includes essays, an interview, poems, informal talks and other pieces by Maria Hindmarch, Erin Moure, Robert Kroetsch, Rita Wong, Susan Holbrook, Fred Wah, Colin Browne, Susan Knutson, Charlene Deahl-Jones, Peter Quartermain, Aritha Van Herk, Miriam Nichols, Gail Scott, Debra Dudek, Pauline Butling, Charles Bernstein, Louis Cabri, Suzette Mayr, Daphne Marlatt, Frank Davey and Diana Brydon, as well as an introduction by Nicole Markotic.
There are a number of really exciting pieces in the two issues, such as Colin Browne’s piece, "Roland Barthes in the Kootenays," Charlene Deahl-Jones’ "Letters to the Language: Biotext as Correspondence" and Kroetsch’s "Listening into Words: ‘Again only is it in the thing itself.’" It will be interesting to see how the Calgary lit scene, so heavily influenced by Wah and Butling since they arrived in 1989, will evolve, especially with the recent arrival of Christian Bök at the University of Calgary. Since 1989, for example, Calgarians have seen the arrival of the journals filling Station, the new dANDelion, (orange), and a multitude of writers – Suzette Mayr, ryan fitzpatrick, derek beaulieu, Julia Williams, Dean Irvine, paulo de costo, Louis Cabri, Jonathon Wilcke, Ian Samuels, Jill Hartman, nathalie simpson and so many others it’s hard to keep track – almost all of which can claim an influence by either Wah or Butling.
As a reader and a student (for how else can one study writing than by reading), Fred Wah’s writing is probably one of the best Canadian examples of Charles Olson’s line, "One perception must follow immediately on a further perception," placing one word there after another and moving forward. Working race and place and mountain and trees and visual art and the very flow of breath, of the language itself, and all sorts of other concerns. Part of what makes his work so exciting is how he uses such a multitude of forms in his writing. Exploring forms such as the utaniki, a Japanese form used previously by bpNichol, much the way he was exploring his own Chinese quarter. Through the writing.
I only heard Fred Wah read once at the Vancouver Writers Festival and I think the seats in the theatre were distracting me. I want to remember better. I do recall, though, him saying that the poems he was reading were from his future Talonbook (he had spoken to Karl just before he walked on stage). Still looking into the future. Now that he’s retired, does that mean the publication he spoke of, bumped a few times, will finally appear in 2005? And the only bad thing about the tribute, now that I’ve seen the bibliography at the end of the first issue I know what I’m missing. How the hell am I going to find these? Another challenge certainly set. As John Newlove once wrote, "help me not to know." I now have to find them, all.
I’m always amazed at the bad photo reproductions in an issue of Open Letter, including the bad reproductions in the visual poetry issue, Contextualities: Contemporary Visual Poetry in Canada (Tenth Series, Number 6, Summer 1999). Exactly the last place where badly reproduced visuals should appear. For years Open Letter has been setting the standard for writing on writing, talk on what so much is never covered anywhere else, and making the avant the focus, but something happened to the production a few years ago that has yet to be corrected. Such as: the photographs included in these issues look terrible. Little blocks of digitization on Charles Bernstein’s face.
Still, journals of celebration are always fun to read, and manage to bring out such interesting pieces from both expected and unexpected corners, illuminating both the work of celebrated and celebrant, and Canadian Literature has certainly had its share (although never enough), including The Capilano Review on George Bowering (back in the day), The Fiddlehead on John Metcalf, West Coast Line on Phyllis Webb, Essays on Canadian Writing on Eli Mandel, Descant on Dennis Lee, and various Open Letter issues on numerous writers, including bpNichol, Warren Tallman, Sheila Watson, Barbara Caruso (one of my favorites) and so many others. But still so much that hasn’t been covered (someday some brave soul should attempt the same on Ottawa resident jwcurry). Even the current issue of the Chicago Review has an issue on late American poet Ed Dorn, filled with some extremely interesting pieces by and on the late author of Gunslinger, with the issue following focusing on the work and life of the late Louis Zukofsky.
Calgary poet and artist derek beaulieu wrote a piece for Fred Wah, published in July by above/ground press as [Dear Fred], an open letter for his friend, mentor and former University of Calgary professor, a piece that wasn’t included in the Open Letter tribute (although I’m sure you could fill another two volumes with other writers who would have wanted to be included).
I have my own piece on Wah, which was distributed by beaulieu at the conference (I couldn’t afford to fly to Calgary for the Conference, even though I so desperately wanted to). It’s part of a series I’ve been working on for three years now called apertures. Instead of writing poems about other poets, as in George Bowering’s Curious (Coach House Press), I’m writing poems about other poets’ stuff. Is there a difference?
Fred Wah’s breath
a raw exhalation,
pictographs from the minds
walks along two paths
stations a response
from Kootenay jazz, a
a coffee cup that knows
his name, that
which is not said
but heard, escaping
slow, a twig
from kissing mouth