Friday, September 22, 2006

Fred Wah's Diamond Grill, 10th anniversary edition

to my friend Charlie Chim Chong say Wong Liu Chung, the Chinese poet. He said he could tell me more about my father than I can imagine.

Like my name. This Chinese doctor I go to for acupuncture always gets it wrong. He calls me Mah. And I say no, it's Wah. Then he smiles, takes out his pen and writes my characters on my forearm, sometimes on my back, between the needles, or down my leg (sciatic signature). He says Wah just means overseas Chinese. So I'm just Fred Overseas.

I tell him my dad was really Kuan Wah Soon. He says my family comes from Canton region. Then he smiles. He knows so much.

Now I have a large coloured portrait of Kuan Yü, illustrious Chinese ancestor hero of China's epic drama, the San Kuo. You can see him as any number of small porcelain or clay statues in Chinatown; he has three long beards swirling out from his chin and cheeks. Charlie says he wasn’t even Chinese, probably an invading Moor.

No warlike nomad left in this long, slow stroke of signing and signature.
Unreadable, but repeatable.
I find these poetry reissues over the past few years interesting, including new editions of Robert Kroetsch's Completed Field Notes in 2000 (with a new introduction by Fred Wah; originally published in 1989), Michael Redhill's Lake Nora Arms in 2001 (originally published in 1993), Dennis Cooley's Bloody Jack in 2002 (published with new material; originally published in 1984), Gerry Gilbert's Moby Jane in 2004 (originally published in 1987), Peter Van Toorn's Mountain Tea that same year (originally published in 1983) and George Bowering's pennant poem, Baseball: A Poem in the Magic Number 9 (originally published in 1967), or this year's thirtieth anniversary edition of Andrew Suknaski's Wood Mountain Poems (originally published in 1976) [see my essay on him here] and second edition (with a new cover) of Ken Babstock's first collection, Mean (originally published in 1999). Insomniac Press recently took it upon themselves to reissue two novels by the late Gwendolyn MacEwen in 2004, her Julian the Magician (originally published in 1963) and her King of Egypt, King of Dreams (originally published in 1971), which was her albatross-novel, and unseen even by rare booksellers for over twenty years (on a related note, did you know about the new Gwendolyn MacEwen Park Memorial in Toronto?).

It takes a lot of faith for a publisher to produce a new edition (or even a reprint) of a particular work in Canadian literature, especially anything more poetic (since funding bodies such as the Canada Council appear not to fund reprints, making me wonder if this is why the "new editions" of such works are the norm, as opposed to more examples of straight reprints of the originals…). The Porcupine's Quill was attempting a series of the same in the late 80s and early 90s, with very little return, of what they considered Canadian classics by Norman Levine and Irving Layton, among others; ECW Press reprinted John Newlove's The Night the Dog Smiled when it was up for the Governor General's Award in 1986 (losing the award to Wah, actually), and apparently they still have boxes of them. If one went through Canadian Literature as a whole, even just over the past thirty years, there would be plenty of examples of books that deserve a continued life, including two by our first Parliamentary Poet Laureate, George Bowering, with his Kerrisdale Elegies (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1986) and Delayed Mercy (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1987). Luckily, there are other important works that have remained in print; Karl Siegler at Talonbooks says he has worked very hard to keep a number of his publications in print over the years, and many have seen second and even third printings, including David W. McFadden's Gypsy Guitar (1987).

Last month, NeWest Press in Edmonton has published a new edition of Vancouver poet and critic Fred Wah's Diamond Grill (originally published by them in 1996), one of the books that really helped secure Wah's place on the map, along with his Music at the Heart of Thinking (Red Deer: Red Deer College Press, 1987), his Governor General's Award-winning Waiting for Saskatchewan (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1985) and Breathin' My Name With a Sigh (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1981). Writing out the genealogy of the collection in a new afterward to the collection, "Re-Mixed: The Compound Composition of Diamond Grill," Wah writes:
In hindsight now, I sometimes think I can locate a tangible beginning for Diamond Grill. It was in a poem in a book of transcreations (Pictograms from the Interior of B.C., Talonbooks, 1975, p.16) of Indian rock paintings I worked on in the mid-70s.

September spawn
fish weirs everywhere
all through the narrows

Upstream, upstream

A feast for all of us
cousins and old friends
everybody dancing
like crazy, eh?

That word "transcreation" is from Coleridge (Literary Reminiscences [1839], IV, 166).

"Not the qualities merely, but the root of the qualities
is transcreated. How else could it be a birth, a creation?"

and that etymon, "trans-", becomes, also, like "cousin", a little burr, another little thorn, that has prodded the discourse of the hyphen for me since "betweenness" also frequently engages a "crossing over," a trans-creation, trans-lation, trans-port. The implications of such a term around notions of Diaspora, foreignicity, and multiculturalism are clear (see p.5, Yet Languageless, Mouth Always A Gauze, Words Locked). […]

After Pictograms, the bio started to demand more in my writing. As a long poem,
Diamond Grill is really anchored in my next project after Pictograms, a collection of poems called Breathin' My Name With a Sigh (Talonbooks, 1981). This was a crucial writing project for me since, around 1979, finally, after twenty years of writing, I was able to confront my racialized past, albeit mostly as an address to my father's death fourteen years earlier. So that other RE, the more nebulous RE of regarding, starts to particularize my own name, Wah. What's that all about, I start to ask. Breathin' My Name With a Sigh opens with this poem:

I like the purity of all things seen
through the accumulation of thrust
forward especially the vehicle
container maybe/or "thing" called body
because time seems to be only it appears
to look into the green mountains valleys
or through them to the rivers & nutrient creeks
where was never the problem animal is
I still have a name "breathin' it
with a sigh"
Published with additional pieces, along with the new afterward, Wah refuels the bio-text of exploring his mixed blood with the idea of it being an ongoing work, a work in progress working fluid through the years and between the covers, much the way Cooley kept reworking his Bloody Jack, even after its original publication. Writing on the emergence of the mixed race aspects of his content, and the movements through form, Diamond Grill explores "bio-text" as opposed to poetry, fiction or memoir (almost ironic then that the previous edition was the winner of the 1997 Howard O'Hagan Short Fiction Award); not only the blending of cultures, but the blending of genres. Vancouver writer Michael Turner has written about the same about his own work, mixing the genres together and producing books that almost defy catalogue description; the author of, among other books, Hard Core Logo, it was originally published as a "poetry book," but after the film version came out, was reprinted as a "novel." As others have suggested, Turner himself doesn’t write the genre in, but the publisher does, making decisions based on bookstore rules. As Turner wrote in his piece in side/lines: a new Canadian poetics (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2001):
My ambivalence towards poetry, now that I am forced to defend it, comes about through a general mistrust of generic distinctions. As a writer, I like to combine forms; not just literary forms, but all representational forms. I believe that form in-and-of-itself is shaped by (and carries with it) certain suppositions, and my writing likes to exercise those suppositions (see the "Preface" to American Whiskey Bar). In that sense, I am a sociological writer, one who gravitates towards ideas and concepts, not the 'perfect' line or the ultimate sentence. Although I can recognize the craft in Anne Carson's poems, it doesn’t mean I like her work. A common response to that is: "Oh, but she's doing something really interesting—contemporizing antiquity." To which I say: "Yeah, but there was no middle class in ancient Syria, so what Dr. Carson's doing is just as kitschy as Von Gloeden taking photos of 19th-century Sicilian boys, putting laurels in their hair, getting them to pose naked in front of Roman columns." What Carson and Von Gloeden have in common, then, is their willingness to pander to the fetishistic impulses of their readers and viewers, those who don’t take into account the complexities of political economy, history, language, etc., and how those things affect a work. Although fetishists make great supporters of literature and art (without them there would be no avant-garde), they do little do enhance the dialogue.
He goes on to say:
If pressed, I would admit to having written one book of poetry, and that was Kingsway.
In Wah's magnificent afterward, he moves through this work in the context of many of the works and concerns that followed, and the consideration of reworking, writing:
The "re-" is an aspect of a larger poetics, the applied methodology of re-writing, re-cuperating, re-siting, and re-citing, re-furbishing, and so forth. It attends to an important aspect of all writing, but particularly poetry and its obsession with song and rhythm, iteration: re-peat, re-iterate. For me this appears in the 70s and 80s "re-reading and re-writing strategies generated in the ethnic and feminist rejections of assimilation, the bargaining for a position in the reterritorialization of inherited literary forms and language" (Faking It, p. 203). Daphne Marlatt's book, Salvage (1991), for example, is a good example of this "re-" poetics in that it "re-reads and re-envisions [her] earlier writings in light of her feminist experiences of the late 80s and in doing so salvages them" (jacket blurb).
A few years ago, Fred Wah read as part of the Vancouver Writers Festival, and announced that the texts he was reading from were part of his "forthcoming collection with Talonbooks." Now that he's retired from the University of Calgary and living in Vancouver, whatever happened with that? Is this reissue in part a precursor to something new, something more?

make her go back to eating meat. This is a really good gingery win-
ter dish, particularly as a leftover when you get home late from play-
ing hockey and it's still warm on top of the stove.

Use nine to ten small tomatoes or a forty-eight ounce can, stewed
or whole. Stir-fry strips of beef with about a thumb of sliced ginger,
one or two cloves of crushed garlic, a chopped onion, and a ladle full
of soy sauce. Add tomatoes, one tsp, sugar, a little salt, and simmer
to boil down a bit to stew-like consistency. Add some diced celery
about ten minutes before serving. Spoon over top of rice and pick
out pungent chunks of ginger and hide under bowl.
related notes: my notes on the Fred Wah/Pauline Butling Open Letter issues; on a recent Fred Wah chapbook; on Andrew Suknaski's Wood Mountain Poems; on Gerry Gilbert's Moby Jane & Peter Van Toorn's Mountain Tea; on poets talk, conversations with Robert Kroetsch, Daphne Marlatt, Erin Mouré, Dionne Brand, Marie Annharte Baker, Jeff Derksen and Fred Wah by Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy

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