Fred Wah | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Fred Wah

Fred Wah, OC, poet (born 23 January 1939 in Swift Current, SK). An Officer of the Order of Canada, winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry and former parliamentary poet laureate.

Fred Wah, OC, poet (born 23 January 1939 in Swift Current, SK). An Officer of the Order of Canada, winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry and former parliamentary poet laureate, Fred Wah, known for his explorations of ethnic hybridity, is one of the most distinguished and innovative of the group of poets that emerged in Vancouver in the early 1960s.

Early Life and Education

Born to a mother of Swedish descent and a father of Chinese-Irish-Scots heritage, Fred Wah grew up in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia and received his BA in English and music from the University of British Columbia (UBC)in 1962, where, along with George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, and others, he was one of the founding editors of the influential Tish poetry newsletter. While still a student at UBC, he participated in the storied 1963 Vancouver poetry conference, organized by professor Warren Tallman, which included major Canadian poets such as Margaret Avison and Earle Birney, Americans associated with the Black Mountain School such as Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan and other influential American peers such as Denise Levertov, Robin Blaser, and Louis Zukofsky. Creeley and Olson, in particular, went on to have a strong influence on him. Creeley arranged to have Wah undertake graduate work in poetry and linguistics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque with him. Disappointed by the linguistics program there, after a year he transferred to the State University of New York in Buffalo, where he studied with Charles Olson and received a master's degree.

Writing Career

Wah published his first book of poetry, Lardeau, in 1965 and has since published another four dozen volumes, including Diamond Grill (1996), marketed as his first book of prose fiction. He won the 1985 Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry for Waiting for Saskatchewan, the 1991 Stephanson Prize for Poetry from the Writers Guild of Alberta for So Far, the 1996 Howard O'Hagan Prize for Short Fiction from the Writers Guild of Alberta for Diamond Grill, and the 2010 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize for is a door. His collection of critical essays, Faking It (2000), was awarded the Gabrielle Roy Prize for Criticism on Canadian literature.

On accepting the Dorothy Livesay Prize, Wah summed up his poetic career: “My writing has been sustained, primarily, by two interests: racial hybridity and the local, the landscape of the Kootenays in southeastern BC; its mountains, lakes, and forests.” A third central topic has been language itself, with a stress on formal innovation. Wah's early poetic career was tied in with the Tish group, which helped turn Canadian poetry toward a focus on language, leading later to the development of "sound" and "concrete" poetry. Frank Davey, a poet and critic who was coming into his own at the time, emphasizes that the group was also distinguished by its sense of being at home in a local place and community of writers, of belonging to an international writing community, and of being possessed by rather than possessing language. Wah's first five volumes of poetry, Lardeau (1965), Mountain (1967), Among (1972), Tree (1972), and Earth(1974), deal, as their titles imply, with landscape, which remained the dominant focus of his poetry up to 1980, when the volume of his selected poems, Loki Is Buried at Smokey Creek, was published.

In his early poetry, Wah did not deal explicitly with matters of race and ethnicity; by the early 1980s, however, he began to write about issues of heritage in his poetry, namely in the collections Owner's Manual (1981), Breathin' My Name with a Sigh (1981), Grasp the Sparrow's Tail (1982) and Waiting for Saskatchewan (1985). Wah's long pursuit of his patrilineal inheritance — Wah senior was of mixed European-Chinese heritage although he grew up in China — took him on his own journey to China where he became convinced of the importance of his family's hybridity, its unique identity that is simultaneously local-Canadian and transpacific-diasporic-Chinese. The publication of his “biotext,”Diamond Grill, established his position as an important Asian-Canadian writer, after he had already established himself as a major Canadian poet. In these texts, he codifies the experience of having a hybrid identity. In “In the Diamonds, At the End of A,” from Diamond Grill, Wah writes: “Maps don’t have beginnings, just edges. Some frayed and hazy margin of possibility, absence, gap... My foot registers more than its own imprint, starts to read the stain of memory.”

The majority of the criticism on Wah's poetry places it in a tradition that has grown out of the Tish movement and the Language poets.This is an approach encouraged to some extent by Wah himself, who frequently refers to postmodern and poststructuralist theory in his critical writing. Particularly in the critical essays collected in Faking It: Poetics and Hybridity (2000), however, Wah also foregrounds his interest in racialization (the process of being produced as a racial subject), which developed through the 1990s. He identifies himself as part of a group of "Asian-Canadian writers… [who] seek to redress and rewrite the colonizing racism of western transnational ideologies." He disavows a White, colonial ethos that dominates Canadian literature and links his mid-career shift to emphasize race and ethnicity to his older concern with the "local," with the subjectivity of “place”: “Where one is, here, is who one is.” He explores his mixed-race heritage, hybridity and hyphenation in great detail in Diamond Grill: "There's a whole bunch of us who've grown up resident aliens, living in the hyphen.… That could be the answer to this country. If you're pure anything you can't be Canadian. We'll save that name for all the mixed bloods.”

Teaching and Other Activities

Following his graduate studies in the United States, Wah returned to Canada in the late 1960s to teach creative writing at Selkirk College in Castlegar, BC, and David Thompson University Centre in Victoria. In the mid-1980s, he moved to Alberta, first to hold a writer-in-residence position and then to teach at the University of Calgary, where he had a long, distinguished career as an English professor, retiring in 2003. He has also served as writer-in-residence at the University of Manitoba, the University of Alberta and Simon Fraser University. From 2001 to 2002, he served as the chair of the Writers Union of Canada. From 2011 to 2013, he was the fifth parliamentary poet laureate of Canada.

Since retiring, he has returned to British Columbia, splitting his time between Vancouver — where he has participated in the Kootenay School of Writing collective and has been editorially involved in literary magazines such as Open Letter and West Coast Line — and the Kootenays.


Governor General’s Award for Poetry (1985)

Stephanson Award for Poetry (1992)

Writers Guild of Alberta Howard O’Hagan Prize for Short Fiction (1996)

Gabrielle Roy Prize for Criticism (2001)

Dorothy Livesay Prize for Poetry, BC Book Prizes (2010)

Officer of the Order of Canada (2013)

Further Reading