In the wake of his appointment as Canada’s new parliamentary poet laureate, every place Fred Wah has ever lived is claiming him as its own: depending on the source, he’s Saskatchewan’s Fred Wah or Vancouver’s Fred Wah or Calgary’s Fred Wah.
But while he identifies with all of those places — he was born in Saskatchewan, lived and taught in Calgary for 15 years, and now has a home in Vancouver — “in my own mind, I’m essentially a Kootenay boy.”
Wah, 72, grew up in Nelson, where his family ran the Diamond Grill, a Chinese-Canadian cafe on Baker Street, famously chronicled in his poetic memoir of the same name.
He was the founder and director of the writing program at David Thompson University Centre and also taught at Selkirk College in Castlegar.
For nearly 25 years he lived in South Slocan, where his children grew up, and he and wife Pauline Butling still summer at her family’s old property at Deanshaven on the East Shore.
This area, he says, holds significance not only for him, but many writers.
“Nelson has always been very central and primary to the arts in general. I don’t know what it is: the water, the mountains, the skiing. It’s just a very important place.”
Wah was nominated and passed over for parliamentary poet laureate about five years ago, but was asked if he would let his name stand again the next time a writer from English Canada was due to be selected.
He agreed, but when the call came a couple of weeks before Christmas, “I was very surprised. I hadn’t thought much about it lately since it was sort of off the radar.”
The position, created in 2001, comes with a mandate to write poetry — particularly for special occasions at the request of the speakers of the house and senate — as well as sponsor poetry readings and advise the parliamentary library on acquiring Canadian literature. Wah also sees another component.
“I’m quite interested in the educational aspect,” he told the Star this week, a day after returning from visiting his daughter in California. “I’m not sure how that’s going to pan out, but I’d like to initiate or generate more interest in getting Canadian poetry into schools.”
Wah says he’s still wrapping his head around the whole laureate concept, which comes with an annual stipend of $20,000, a travel budget of $13,000, and additional funds for programming, administrative expenses and translation.
“It’s not a job. It’s kind of an honourific for a life spent in poetry. I’m expected to represent Canadian poetry and literature to Canadians. I haven’t talked to the parliamentary library people yet, but it’s symbolic of the government supporting culture.”
He’ll visit Ottawa from time to time, including for the Queen’s jubilee celebrations in February, but otherwise he can work “pretty much anywhere.”
“I’m curious how I might react poetically to Parliament,” he says. “So I’m going to spend some time there learning about it and talking to parliamentarians.”
Even prior to his appointment, Wah was already busy working every day on various projects — including one with Nicola Harwood of Nelson’s Oxygen Art Gallery, which he expects will take a couple of years.
“It started out as a history of Nelson’s Chinese, but it’s torqued into something a little more general about Chinese life in Western Canada,” he says. “I’m working on that fairly hard now.”
Wah is the fifth writer to hold the office of parliamentary poet laureate. He replaces Pierre DesRuisseaux, whose two-year term expired this year.