Fred Wah

Poet and writer Fred Wah was born in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, and grew up in British Columbia. He earned a BA in English literature from the University of British Columbia, attended the University of New Mexico, and earned an MA from SUNY Buffalo.

Wah is the author of more than 17 chapbooks and full-length collections of poetry, and his work shows the influence of Language poetry; Wah is of both Canadian and Asian heritage, and identity also figures in his work. His Canadian-born father, raised in China, was of Chinese, Scots, and Irish heritage, and his mother was a Swedish-born Canadian. Wah’s poetry collections include Lardeau (1965); Pictograms from the Interior of B.C. (1975); Loki Is Buried at Smoky Creek: Selected Poems (1980); Waiting for Saskatchewan (1985), winner of a Canadian Governor General’s Award; Music at the Heart of Thinking (1987); So Far (1991), winner of the Stephanson Award for Poetry; and Sentenced to Light (2008).

Wah’s critical prose is collected in Faking It: Poetics & Hybridity, Critical Writing 1984–1999 (2000), which won the Gabrielle Roy Prize for Canadian Literary Criticism. His Diamond Grill (1996), a hybrid work that uses elements of autobiography, fiction, poetry, and assemblage, won the Howard O’Hagan Award for Short Fiction.

One of the founding editors of the poetry newsletter TISH, Wah has taught at Selkirk College in British Columbia and at the University of Calgary in Alberta. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.


  • Her words are Not Vanishing as she leaves her howl inside us

    January 18–February 29, 2020

    Her words are Not Vanishing as she leaves her howl inside us [1] is a project that brings together selected works of Ma-Nee Chacaby, Aiyyana Maracle, and Chrystos; gathering three Indigenous grandmothers around a fire, laughing, telling stories, reading poetry, and speaking of love and heartbreak.[2] All three of these grandmothers have paved different fire paths for younger generations of two-spirit/queer/trans/non-binary/gay/lesbian/dyke folks in their own lineages. When Bopha the director/curator here at Artspeak invited me to do a show I knew I didn’t want to take the space for a solo show. I wanted to do a project that would make space rather than take it.

    All three of these grandmother’s work saves lives; each has nourished my life and influenced my practice. I came to their work through mentorship, listening, then following, and found a deep sense of fire in their works and presence. While their work varies in form and focus, all three of these grandmother’s activist and artistic practices are rooted in their individual and collective experience fighting for Indigenous and two-spirit/queer/trans/non-binary/gay/lesbian rights and lives. Ma-Nee Chacaby as a visual artist and writer led the first gay pride parade in Thunder Bay. Chrystos as a poet and visual artist wrote six books and continues to write about social justice issues, colonialism, class, erotica, and gender. Aiyyana as a multimedia performance artist and artist started a press called Write On Press [3] in the 1980s that published Indian women speaking about their contemporary social reality. Maracle served as a voice and activist for young trans or gender nonconforming individuals and at age sixty four co-facilitated Gender Journey, a peer support group for trans and gender nonconforming youth run out of the Grand River Community Health Centre.[4]

    When I first picked up Chrystos’ book of poetry Not Vanishing (1988) I couldn’t put it down. Here were words that resonated in a way I hadn’t before experienced, waiting in pages from the 1980s for a new generation of Indigiqueers to find and treasure. Four of Chrystos’ six published books were published by Vancouver-based Press Gang Publishers (in operation from the 1970s–2002) to escape censorship in the US. I went on to read each of those books. With her lesbian erotica book In her I am—I didn’t stop blushing for months. During the first few pages there is a rush, then realize you don’t want to read such a rare book too fast. In Dream onFire Power, and Not Vanishing, her drawings are featured on the cover and throughout the books. As I came across them, I wondered if she had shown them publicly as I could see her poetry in them. Those drawings formed the constellation of seeds that would germinate into this show.

    I first came across Ma-Nee Chacaby’s book A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder in 2016, the year it came out. I remember reading Ma-Nee’s story and coming across a few of her drawings in the book and found they possessed deep healing energy. One of the seeds for this show came from the moment I read her recounting how her Kookum would poke her gently in the chest as a little girl and say, “Little girl you have niizhin ojijaak (two spirits) living inside you”.[5] She would go on to tell Ma-Nee about two-spirited people in their community and that one day she would have “a powerful, deep connection with someone”. This image of a kookum gently and unconditionally seeing a young two-spirit person with love and tenderness resonated deep emotions in me. It is that kookum love that all two-spirit/queer/trans/non-binary/gay/lesbian Indigenous hearts desire and deserve.

    Aiyyana’s practice is expansive and multidisciplinary. She directed theatre, curated important shows and events of Indigenous Art, directed an opera, wrote important pivotal essays on gender. She mentored two-spirit/queer/trans/gay/lesbian/non-binary Indigenous youth and artists, and created ground breaking Indigenous programming at grunt gallery, Vancouver. I was lucky enough to meet Aiyyana in 2013 while supporting her as a curatorial assistant for the group exhibition, Queering the International curated by Laiwan. In our various planning meetings together for Aiyyana’s installation for the show, Aiyyana offered me much kindness and care during a time when I was deeply in need of grandmotherly care. I have never forgotten this as she impacted me greatly.

    When choosing to curate Aiyyana, I hope to use this platform to bring a deserved attention to her work in ways that respect her families and communities. I acknowledge the vital work Indigenous trans women are doing in honouring Aiyyana’s work and life. I thank the Indigenous trans women who communicated to me their critique of my process in curating Aiyyana for this show. It is important that we support and centre the Indigenous trans women who work to continue her legacy, and I commit to deepening my own practices of relational ways of working to centre those whose stories are most at risk of erasure.

    At the centre of the gallery you will find a reading/work space. In this space you will find Chrystos’ books, Ma-Nee’s autobiography, Aiyyana’s essays and interviews and other materials that exhibits the wide-ranging depth of their practices. These drawings and performances in this show are an invitation for you to dive deeper into the life work of these grandmothers and be open to the transformational gifts they have offered all of us. I want to extend an invitation to you to keep visiting the show as new stories will be evolving.

    Each of these grandmothers walked the path of building relationships, modelling to us the importance of building relationships amid systems that teach us to compete with each other and to withdraw in isolation or away from connections. Despite these demands, they found ways to pass on generational knowledge and steward ancient knowledge about gender and sexual diversity during contemporary waves of colonial, homophobic, and transphobic violence. Their work and practice of knitting together chosen kinships offers vision, guidance, help and support to survive the colonial system that continues to try to erase those who do not fit the heterosexist, capitalist, colonial norm. Their words are not vanishing.

    Mussi cho to these grandmothers for all of their radical work.

    This show takes place on the unceded homelands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səlí̓lwətaʔɬ (Tsleil-waututh) Nations.

    —Anne Riley

    Thank you to Laiwan, Jeane Riley, Elder Roberta Price, T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss, Metha Brown, Sunny Birdstone, Shane Camastro, Jaret Maracle, grunt gallery, Kílala Lelum (Urban Indigenous Health and Healing Cooperative), Agnieszka Forfa, Shawn Groff, Whess Harman, Glenn Alteen, Dan Pon, Storme Webber, Glida Morgan, Jade Morgan.


    [1] The title for this show comes from Chrystos’s book ‘Not Vanishing’, and from Gloria Anzaldúa’s blurb: “Chrystos says no one is listening, but we are, we are. Her words slide into our throats, feed the hungry soul, fill the lost and homeless heart. Her voice binds into wholeness and severed selves with self-esteem. It calls us away from the death of invisibility, insists that we be seen and accounted to, no longer banished, no longer vanishing. She leaves her howl inside us.”

    [2] I have chosen to use the word Grandmother in this text because to me all three of these artists continue to pass on wisdom with deep radical care and tenderness to younger generations of Indigenous artists.

    [3] Interview on Tranzister Radio 29, CKUT 90.3 FM, October 9, 2014. Accessed on January 14, 2020.

    [4] Colleen Toms, “Six Nations woman shares her transgender experience”. January 19, 2015. Accessed on January 14, 2020.

    [5] Ma-Nee Chacaby with Mary Louisa Plummer, ‘A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder’, University of Manitoba Press, Winnipeg, 2016, p.64.

  • Book Ends (west)

    November 25–December 17, 1994

    The title fo this show might imply some sort of apocalyptic finale to books as we know them. Or it might signify a pair of upstanding objects gently holding in place volumes of knowledge. And it might refer to some teleological good whereby books, these books, situated here in this artistic space, somehow fulfill their purpose. But above all, to me, this show is about transgressions and conjunctions. All the books here are signs of their makers, the book-producers who created these works in order to resist, to challenge, to demarcate, to influence, to engage with, to complement, and to add to their own often private, often public worlds. What seems most important is the subtitle of this show, something I tacked on a considerable time after the exhibition was in the planning, the phrase: “interesting books from interested people”. In this ironically bland language is a strong sense of connection, a way of addressing the issues of bookness without eliding that which makes the book so “interesting”—its producers and its readers. I should add that part of what makes this so interesting to me is the way the west-ness of this show is located. Often showcased as a largely European, American, or at least “metropolitan” art form, book-works exhibitions tend to draw from various, often elitist, quarters. Virtually all the works in BOOK ENDS (WEST) were produced in Alberta and British Columbia, many of them with regional audiences in mind. This in itself, however, does not remove us from the realm of elitism; although much of the work in the show speaks from places of social/political disenfranchisement, it is well worth noting that much of the work being produced today—through mainstream publishers, the small press scene, and even subversive, alternative means—is itself reflective of how power structures operate and reporduce themselves, often with alrmingly exclusionary results within the academic, literary, and visual art worlds. Keeping this in mind is crucial, particularly in the confusing apce we now inhabit, where such artforms as printing a publishing become increasingly easier and more accessible even as the numbers of those who really have full access are diminishing rapidly.

    But what follows is a series of conjunctions that attempt to show how this exhibition is cumulative and how these texts and their producers come together with purpose and longing in the land to the west. The complete list of texts is available elsewhere—the text below is roughly comparable to a selectively random stroll through the show.

    and I being with Alvin Vieira and Wing’s Book of Names, a formal book after all, with pages, binding, and text—a difference, though, in that the pages are of seaweed; the binding, a basket; and the text, single-word name-histories of one branch of the artist’s family tree

    but how is Patron(age) any different except as a technological telling of the self, an inscription of Andrew Klobuda’s own name caught and replayed in the act of consumer tallying and seeing Kira Wu retell her own image through the telling images of magazined others, imposed and exposed in the 10 Most Beautiful Women or looking at Wreford Miller so carefully handtying his Lyrics for Janisse and how does that move into and over Bikertrucker, scripted and drawn by the hands of Janisse Browning and Terence Anthony

    though convention is subverted when Mary Anne Moser boxes a site-specific outdoor art event in theGraceland Art Rodeo, where the pages can be artifacts, memories, or pieces of glass

    and glass is where Carole Thorpe is at with handblown pieces sitting around and on top of Vibernum

    however, there’s also the book-installation pieces by Sylvia Ziemann, pushing us further from the text, but are these miniatures then not-text, meta-text, or a radically altered text

    or are other miniatures, these ones by Roy Miki, single-line poems that become their own books, somehow more texty than minimalism

    and what about th unreadabil;ity of Dépaysé from Renee Rodin, unreadable,m that is, without borrowing a microfich reader

    but then there’s also an unreadability to the books of disOrientation chapbooks, a project I co-produce with Nicole Markotic, whose Tracking the Game is present here along with other disObooks, the challange here to find new ways to hold these books together, ways to complement the writing with the presentation of the book

    although sometimes books are read as unread in Peter Jeager’s bolted-down reading of Kierkegaard

    but then we see Brice Canyon and his triad of books, all perfect bound and pushing into and away from the conventions of arist-books

    or a glance at the commercially-popular Griffin & Sabine produced by Nick Bantock and the question arises as to what makes a book “work”, that is, sell, in a bookstore and how does this work in our minds as bookmakeers, bookreaders

    yet from the other end, produced by Barb Turner as an alternative to the run-of-the-mill public school assignments, is Gates to the Unknown, whose pages reconfigure our ways of reading books

    and then there’s Randall Thomas who Abandoned Texts all over Calgary to see which ones would find their way home, all in the name of re-covering books from other publishings

    though sometimes returns (read: distribution) comes in different ways as in the postcard project of Jin-Me Yoon’s Souvenirs of the Self and Hiromi Goto’s Tea, whereby the only suitable means of reading seems to be to stamp them and move them along to a friend

    however, sometimes publishing is a means away from distribution and more of the process, as in the case with the three-envelope piece, a paper byproduct of a travelling writing workshop led by Robert Kroetsch, Aritha van Herk, and Fred Wah through the badlands of Alberta

    or the ongoing wiritngs of Vancouver street poet Tim Lander, whose Ballad of Ronnie Walker is only one of countless works self-published by him and many others

    and of course there are others still, working in basements and studios and offices and printshops and just about everyplace else, and some of their works are here but many more are not, and there is still so much yet to produce though the means are often a luxury and the book just a means of production and yet

    book ends (west)

    ~an exhibition of intersting-looking books from interested people~

    In November/94, the Vancouver artist-run centre Artspeak will be hosting “book ends (west)”, or what I’m calling ” an exhibition of interesting-looking books from interesting people”. As curator, my intent is to look for work produced, for the most part, in western Canada. I want to emphasize that I’m not necessarily looking for work produced by established artists, or even by people who consider themselves artists. What I am looking for are books of any kind—literary, visual, playful, whatever—which challenge the very idea of “bookness”, produced by anyone who has an interest in the question of making books. Work included in this exhibition may be books produced in multiples or as unique pieces. They may be made from paper, wood, or any other material you can imagine. But most importantly are the producers of the bookworks themselves: to reiterate, I’m hoping to receive work from a range of people, from established artists and writers to those who have never considered themselves to be creati e producers of any kind. Of particular, but not exclusive, interest for this exhibition are “bookproducers” who consider themselves disenfranchised from general cultural/artistic circles.

    Please submit work or queries to me c/o English Department, University of Calgary […]

    All accepted work will be reutrned after the exhibition.

    Deadline for submissions is Nov. 1, 1994

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