Canada names Fred Wah new Poet Laureate

After a relatively late entrance into the historic tradition, Canada has appointed its fifth Parliamentary Poet Laureate.

In an interview with The Cord, Fred Wah expressed, “Britain has had a poet laureate for 600 years, and the U.S. for 70, so we’re kind of getting in line with other nations in having this position.”

The Parliamentary Poet Laureate was brought to Canada in 2001, with a mandate to write poetry for use in parliament on important occasions, to sponsor poetry readings and to advise the parliamentary library.

Wah, who was named Poet Laureate on Dec. 20, 2011, related his hopes for the position, saying, “My interest is in trying to use the position to foreground the educational aspect of Canadian poetry and literature, in other words, getting it into our primary and secondary schools and looking at some of the curriculum and how Canadian poetry is represented.”

Wah has been writing poetry for the majority of his life and has published numerous works. Notably, his work The False Laws of Narrative was published by the Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

In light of his new appointment, Wah will be faced with the challenge of representing Canadian literature by a government who has been responsible for considerable cuts to the arts.

Regarding the close relationship the poet will maintain with members of parliament he stated, “To be honest, I think most politicians see poetry as something to be seen and not heard — kind of off in the corner. I’d like to foreground poetry in their minds as something that’s important to our culture.”

Wah himself is the product of a largely multicultural background; his Canadian-born father was raised in China and his mother is a Swedish-born Canadian who came to Canada at age six.

“I’ve been very interested in multiculturalism and racialization because I speak from a hybrid racial position,” explained Wah.

“During the first part of my writing life that kind of discourse wasn’t available, we didn’t have a language in this country for talking about race and ethnicity. My multicultural background has been front and centre in terms of my writing for the last thirty years.”

Over the course of his career, Wah has taught at Selkirk College, David Thompson University and the University of Calgary. He became president of the Writers’ Union of Canada in 2001. After 40 years of teaching, he retired in 2003.

Wah has received major literary awards for several publications: Waiting for Saskatchewan won the Governor General’s award, So Far won Alberta’s Stephanson Award, and is a door won the Dorothy Livesay prize for poetry; his essay collection, Faking It: Poetics and Hybridity won the Gabrielle Roy Prize for Literary Criticism in English Canada; and Diamond Grill received Alberta’s Howard O’Hagan Award for short fiction.

Wah imparted words of advice for aspiring poets, saying, “As I’ve said to my students many times, start your own magazine, get your own hands wet.” Tish: A Poetry Newsletter, started by a 22-year-old Wah in 1961, was one of the inaugural steps in his decorated career.

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