Conducted by Linda Russo
I met Rita Wong because I wanted to buy her book. She had just read from undercurrent (Nightwood Editions, 2015) as a keynote speaker at the 2015 Association for the Study of Literature and Environment conference in Moscow, Idaho. The poems in undercurrent convey a strong bioregional sensibility with their emphasis on Indigenous and place-based knowledges. As she read, it was as if she was speaking a language that I both understood and longed to understand, as though perhaps these two languages were entwined. I needed that book. I waited patiently at the back of the small throng gathered after the event. I don’t remember what I said when my turn came up; I remember that Rita was entirely approachable and somewhat transcendent (buoyant?) at the same time. We greeted, I gushed, and, though she had only the copy she’d read from, she let me buy it, sticky-noted and all. In truth I began planning this interview soon after that day.
She has described undercurrent as “a book that contemplates how we perceive and interact with water,” and the poems emerge through investigations and experiences pertaining to that inquiry, making this something of a documentary work—a work that documents her own, and her culture’s, and humans’ impacts on each other and our shared natural resources. One of the amazing things about undercurrent is how the poems create a sense of the uneasy intimacy between (permeable) bodies, water, and chemicals, toxins, and waste. Sometimes this is cumulative, as in “Flush.” This is not a poem about sewage treatment (that has its place in this book, too). It’s about rain, “bountiful abundant carrier of what everyone emits into the clouds, be that exhale or smoke, belch or chemical combustion, flame or fragrance […].” As a prose poem, “Flush” heightens the sense of permeability—the form does not create divisions. Sometimes the uneasy intimacy that comes with bodily permeability is more direct, as in “Body Burden,” which concludes with several questions including “atrazine in your armpits?” The questions suggest the continuity between the external and internal environments: “the” environment and “our” bodies are interrelated such that distinctions suggested by “the” and “our” begin to break down.
As I was reading undercurrent, I thought of this quote from Lusiah Teish, an Oakland, California-based African spiritual leader:
our alienation from indigenous mind is what allows us to poison ourselves, kill each other, and poison the environment. In this time of change, take note of the place in nature where you are regenerated and go there. If you are child of the river, or the forest, or the mountain, or the thunder—wherever it is in nature that regenerates you—go to that place. Declare yourself one who learns from that place and is nurtured by it and is a defender of that place and that energy. Then live it. (“Plane ‘Hood: Making the World our Home”)
undercurrent honors Indigenous mind and is a result of following the directive to “go to that place”; it does so with a powerful combination of fierceness and humility. I would include it in a curriculum for decolonizing the mind of a western imperialistic view of the earth as a collection of resources for exploitation.
It took a while to track Rita down for this interview—she was working with a group of First Nations people protecting a site targeted for a dam by BC Hydro. It made sense to focus on undercurrent, which strikes to the heart of an issue that is absolutely vital to life.
LR: Water is life, but in its depths and complexities, it hides life, even as “what we cannot see matters as kin” (“Pacific Flow”). undercurrent emerged from the Downstream Project, which was as I understand it a collaborative arts project around cultural and political issues related to water. Could you say a little bit more about that project, and how it enabled this book?
RW: I don’t think water hides life, exactly; it’s our cultures and socialization that hide its importance to us, to life. I think many of us are raised in cultures that disregard the wonder of water and life, desensitizing us to it, so we need to reorient our cultures to honor both water and life if we want to survive as a species on this earth. We need to become more fluent in water’s depths and complexities, what we can learn from and with water, if we pay attention. I believe we are capable of this fluency and sensitivity, but like a muscle, it needs to be exercised and strengthened. And playing/working creatively with water is a wonderful way to start attuning ourselves to how our collective well-being depends on having better relationships with water and each other.
The Downstream Project began as a response to Dorothy Christian and Denise Nadeau’s call to Protect our Sacred Waters, a gathering they organized in 2007, with the goal of bringing together people from many different cultures for the sake of water. I wasn’t able to attend that gathering, but I responded to their call by developing a humanities course focused on water, thanks to a fellowship from the Centre for Contemplative Mind. Subsequently, Dorothy and I organized a gathering in 2012 for World Water Day, which brought together writers, artists, scholars, activists, elders, and more, all working with water in different ways. It was a very inspiring meeting, and we edited an anthology after this event, which we launched in time for World Water Day in 2017.
undercurrent and perpetual both came out of learning process that I’ve undertaken with water, involving lots of reading, but also lots of journeys to acquaint myself with the watersheds that make my life possible—journeys along the Fraser River, the Peace River, the Columbia River, the Athabasca River, the neighborhood creeks that have been buried under concrete in the city where I live, and much more.
LR: Your method in writing undercurrent included a lot of walking along waterways and even into the infrastructure we rely on to ensure water for our consumption (water treatment plants, urban streams). I like this because it breaks down the perception that nature is “out there”; even the most basic “natural” element is essentially a human product. What did walking enable you to experience? Did it shift your relationship to water, or culture, or anything else?
RW: Walking is important because it’s about taking the time to meander, slow down & pay attention to what’s around you. It’s an embodied practice or experience that most of us could benefit from doing more of. It’s a great way to get to know the feel of your neighborhood or watershed, to consciously breathe the air that enters and exits us, to follow the topography that has been created by water flows. Vancouver had over 50 wild salmon streams that flowed. Though most of these are now buried underground in sewers, you can hear them at the manhole covers when the incline is steep, and you can track where they flowed if you think about how water follows gravity, and with the aid of historical maps.
LR: You included travels to Alberta’s tar sands on your investigative walking. This makes sense because as we are reminded again from recent struggles in British Columbia and North Dakota, the oil industry’s methods of extraction and transportation, trains and pipelines, threaten water, and more specifically threaten Indigenous land and Indigenous people’s rights. When did you first become aware of conflicts between the interests of oil and water?
RW: I was born in the traditional territories of the Niitsitapi (Blackfoot), Tsuut’ina, and Nakoda (Stoney) First Nations, Treaty 7 area, also known as Calgary, which is the corporate office location for many companies undertaking oil or bitumen extraction in Alberta. I grew up knowing how economically powerful the oil industry is, that I was beholden to it for helping to fund the education system and the scholarships that I benefited from when I went to university, for instance. Living there, it was almost unthinkable to critique that industry. I am grateful for some of its benefits, and the question then arises: how do I best use my education to take care of the place where I was born? In light of where I grew up, I have a responsibility to the government of Alberta, and the land itself even more, and the best way for me to give back is to plan for a transition off fossil fuels. It is to support ways for the land to regenerate in the face of global warming, not to accelerate the destruction. When I discuss the tension between oil and water, it is with utmost love, compassion and respect for both. It is not easy. I will forward you a letter I wrote to the Mayor of Calgary recently, in response to his unfortunate comments that BC should consider pipelines to be in the national interest; I pointed out to him, that accelerating fossil fuel extraction is not in humanity’s best interests, and thus not in our national interest either.
I became aware of the vast theft and destruction of Indigenous lands in 1988, with the Winter Olympics in Calgary, when the Lubicon Cree First Nations protested the effects of oil extraction on their traditional territories. Millions or billions of dollars of profit have been made from this, while Lubicon Cree families still go without running water in their homes, as Melina Laboucan Massimo has pointed. They used to be able to drink straight out of the rivers, before that was wrecked and polluted by industry. To be clear, Melina’s community is making the transition to renewable energy because they understand how important it is to do this in light of impending climate destabilization.
LR: In a 2008 interview, you admitted to feeling as though you “will spend the rest of [your] life trying to learn and articulate the culture of this land.” By this you meant the Indigenous cultures that were colonized, fragmented, erased. You refer to Vancouver (BC) being located on “unceded Salish territory” to highlight colonization. There is some historical awareness in this phrase, but it seems to me also the point is more real when one is walking—when you leave the roads (a form of colonizing geographic space). Did you find walking important to you/your poetry’s relationship to (de)colonization? What would it mean to write decolonized poetry?
RW: Good question. I think I would want to write decolonized poetry in the Musqueam language, hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ for instance, though it is probably possible to write it in English or Chinese too. It would involve speaking from a place where heart, mind, body and spirit are well-balanced and equally respected, I think. It could mean finding ways to turn the poems into gifts for the land and water, that have a material effect of reconnecting us to them, not only symbolically. I think for instance of Basia Irland’s ice books. I think there are many possible answers to your question because decolonizing means acknowledging the autonomy of individual people while also balancing that with respect and effort for collective well-being, I think. If you’re looking for examples of decolonizing poetry, I would start with Lee Maracle’s Talking to the Diaspora or Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love.
LR: Your poem “A Moving Target” mentions the “profusion / [of] seepage from decomposing bottle not just / plastic but democracy degrading.” It seems to me that your projects and the poems that arise from them work against the degradation of democracy. What, for you, is the connection between poetry and democracy?
RW: Well, it’s been said that poetry’s role is to speak truth to power. That is one of its many tasks, and in that truth speaking, I hope we can keep the spirit of equity, freedom, peace, love and justice alive despite all the corruption and systemic obstacles we face today in these bleak, hatemongering times. In his poem “We Have On This Earth What Makes Life Worth Living,” Mahmoud Darwish includes in his list “the tyrants’ fear of songs.” The examples of poets like Darwish, Neruda, Cecilia Vicuna, come to mind, as do Joy Harjo, Fred Moten, Layli Long Soldier. Yolanda Wisher comes to mind and so does Helen Knott. I’m not sure that democracy is even the right word, but it gestures toward the possibility of what I am working toward—sustainable, land-based, ecologically literate communities that respect and value both the human and more-than-human worlds (animals, plants, water, land), in symbiotic, regenerative relations rather than oppressive, destructive, wasteful ones.
LR: In your experience, what work can ordinary creative writers do to take part in larger political conversations?
RW: Poets for the Peace is a good example of how creative writers can take up an issue that is one of ethics, at its core, though it is simultaneously political, cultural, and environmental. In the province where I live, the Site C mega dam is a 9 billion dollar human rights abuse being pushed by the BC government, even though it was not properly assessed by the BC Utilities Commission (the review body responsible for such things) as to whether it is needed. It will destroy valuable agricultural land that we need, as well as sacred Indigenous lands that are the traditional territories of the Treaty 8 First Nations. Internationally, UNESCO has pointed out that this dam threatens a downstream world heritage site, the Peace Athabasca Delta. Amnesty International has made the dam a focus for its #Write4Rights campaign because it is a global scale human rights abuse. Each year a Paddle for the Peace happens where people gather to spend time with this river that we love. When I was up at that Paddle for the Peace last year, I was talking to Helen Knott (mentioned in the previous question) and I was feeling devastated by the clear cutting that has started (but there are still millions more trees to protect from being flooded and killed), and asked, “what can we do?” She said, “could you organize a poetry slam?” So we did, in August last year. After that, a poet in Victoria contacted me and asked, should we try to hold more events across Canada? I said yes, absolutely, and events have spread in all sorts of places—it is one part of a much bigger movement. Poetry by itself isn’t enough, but it can and does nurture people’s spirits and awareness so that we can do the other hard work that also needs to happen, to protect water, and to understand why we urgently need to prioritize water first in how we plan for the future.
LR: I want to mention one aspect of this book that I absolutely love. Quotes from different writers inhabit the margins of the page. They are italicized and set in lines like ripples of water, and appear on a gray background, separated from the poems with a wavy line. I love this because it looks lovely, but also because it brings poems (and readers) directly into conversation with other bodies of knowledge (philosophical and scientific, Indigenous and settler). Your book also includes a bibliographical section titled “References & Influences,” making this a hybrid creative-scholarly work. How did you come to bring this “scholarly apparatus” to the fore?
RW: I’m an avid reader when I have time, and I wanted to share some of the reading journeys that made the book possible. I feel like I’m contributing to a much larger discussion and trying to share some of the interlocutors who’ve helped shape my thinking and my ongoing process.
LR: Who are some writers who have helped sharpen the lens through which you look at our world, or whom you draw on for strength or inspiration?
RW: For starters, Lee Maracle, Sharron Proulx-Turner, Richard Van Camp, Leanne Simpson, Fred Wah, Roy Miki, Larissa Lai, Hiromi Goto, SKY Lee, Dionne Brand, and many more than I can name here. A whole community of writers in Vancouver, Calgary, and other places…
LR: You talk about the subject of this book in terms of reimagining the future. “How people imagine water, and a participatory water ethics, has a major effect on the kinds of societies, communities and futures that we build towards.” What would you say to someone who is feeling inspired by this interview and wants to continue learning along these lines, or possibly start making changes in their acts or practices to help, as you say, reimagine the future?
- Get grounded in the local watershed—is there a stream or a body of water you can befriend and build better relations with? What was it like a hundred years ago? What do you hope for it a hundred years from now?
- How do we improve urban and rural relations? In Canada, most of the population lives along the south of the colonial border, but the north is where most of the water is, and where we owe a huge debt in terms of how it subsidizes our lives through everything from clean air to hydro-electric power to resources that have been mined out of those lands, poisoning watersheds. It’s time to clean up the mess. Start with somewhere that matters to you.
- There is so much amazing work being done. Follow your curiosity—read, go to events, outdoor walks, talks, connect with others who share your passions.
- Dedicate attention to being or becoming grounded in your own heritage, and also reach out to build relationships with Indigenous land protectors in your area, or nearby areas if you are living as an uninvited guest on someone’s Indigenous homelands. Canada has a huge amount of reconciliation work that needs to be done, as does the US. That is the responsibility of settlers/unsettlers. We can’t change the violent colonial past, but we can change how we and our society respond to it if we want to build a better future together.