Renowned BC Poet Fred Wah Comes to VIU for Gustafson Lecture and Reading

October 18, 2017 - 4:15pm

The events, on October 25 and 26, are free and open to the public

From rivers and creeks to the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Fred Wah’s poetry is immersed in water.

The BC poet, who is best known for founding the influential literary magazine TISH in the early 1960s, winning the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 1985 and a stint as Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate in 2011; has been writing about water all his life without realizing it.

Wah is excited to share this passion with Nanaimo as Vancouver Island University’s (VIU’s) Ralph Gustafson Distinguished Poet for 2017. As the Gustafson poet, he will participate in three events, including a free reading and a lecture that are both open to the public on October 25 and 26. At these events, he will share how his preoccupation with water recently spilled into a larger project – a poem about the Columbia River written in collaboration with Vancouver poet Rita Wong that is “as long as the river.”

The poem is 114 feet long and typed alongside each side of a printout of the Columbia River. Wah wrote on one side and Wong wrote along the other. Every once in a while the poets would come to a bridge that they would cross so they could write on the other side. While writing the poem, Wah researched the history of the river, from the Indigenous investment in it over thousands of years, to the fur traders, to the Columbia River Treaty between Canada and the United States. He also researched the river’s ecology, and how dams changed the river.

“I will talk about the process of writing this poem,” says Wah. “I think a lot of people will be interested in my presentation in the context of current awareness of climate change and the natural world. My presentation could be heard as a statement on geopoetics and how we encounter the world around us, the landscape of creeks, ponds and rivers. I hope it makes people think a little bit about the place of rivers and oceans in their own lives and how we need to pay attention to that.”

“Fred Wah’s writing and practice reveals the work that poetry can do – indeed, what poetry is,” says VIU English Professor Dr. Farah Moosa, who will introduce Wah at the reading. “Throughout his career, Wah has made space for us to think about and explore cultural memory, mixed-race identity, the role of community, and the power of language. I’m excited to hear about Wah’s current project and to see the connections between his past, present and future work.”

Wah, who grew up in BC’s Kootenay region, got interested in writing after moving to Vancouver in the late 1950s to study music at the University of British Columbia. While there, he connected with emerging Canadian poets including Frank Davey, George Bowering and Daphne Marlatt.

“I discovered it was less cumbersome to write poetry than to write music,” says Wah. “I didn’t really choose to be a writer; I sort of couldn’t avoid it. I was addicted to it. The community around writing was attractive for me.”

Throughout his writing career, Wah has taught at Selkirk College, David Thompson University Centre and the University of Calgary. In 2011, he served as Canada’s Parliamentary Poet for two years, during which time he got to travel across the country and meet lots of different people.

“Poets live in a kind of closet a lot of the time so it’s nice to get out and be confronted by someone who says, ‘I thought poetry was supposed to rhyme!’” he adds.

As the 2017 Gustafson Distinguished Poet, Wah will participate in a free public reading on Wednesday, October 25 from 7:30-8:30 pm at White Sails Brewing with VIU Creative Writing student Délani Valin. The event is a fundraiser for Nanaimo Area Land Trust. On Thursday, October 26, the community is invited to come to VIU’s Nanaimo Campus to hear his lecture, titled “On My Way to Get a Pail of Water.” The lecture starts at 7 pm in Building 355, Room 203. Courtesy parking is available in Lot N below Building 355.  A selection of Wah’s books, as well as chapbooks of previous Gustafson lectures, will be available at the catered reception following the lecture.

The VIU Ralph Gustafson Chair of Poetry was established in 1998 from the estate of the late Canadian poet and his wife, Betty. The 2017 lecture and other events are funded by the Ralph and Betty Gustafson Poetry Trust, the Canada Council for the Arts and VIU’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities.

For more information, contact Toni Smith, Chair of the Gustafson Committee, at



Jenn McGarrigle, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

P: 250.740.6559 | C: 250.619.6860 | E: | T: @VIUNews

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