Rita Wong talks water and oil through environmentalist poetry

Award-winning writer introduces new book at Owens:

A small group gathered inside Owens Art Gallery last Tuesday evening eager to hear the insightful poetry of Canadian writer Rita Wong. Sequestered inside the Marshlands Inn by blustery blizzards for the previous two days, Wong was more than ready to share her love and knowledge of the very thing that had kept her behind closed doors: the environment.

Wong’s talk fit in harmoniously with other speakers such as Naomi Klein, Boris Worm and Tzeporah Berman who have visited Sackville recently to commemorate the Year of the Environment. An award-winning poet, a professor at Emily Carr University and an environmental activist, Wong has the passion, experience and power to wield words which, despite her soft-spoken nature, demand audience attention. Finding inspiration from the tar sands, the Fraser River, whaling communities in western Canada, the water from her tap in Calgary and even Bruce Lee, Wong weaves poetic masterpieces that blur the border between hopeful and chilling.

Wong’s range of work is both diverse and focused. Her 1998 collection Monkey Puzzle reads like a meditation on the labour behind the materials we use and wear on a daily basis. The Dorothy Livesay Awardwinning Forage (2008) tackles issues surrounding the genetic modification of food and technological waste. Her most recent publication Undercurrent (2015) explores the complex relationship between humans and water. The book’s cover art is a creation of Tla-o-qui-aht artist Marika Swan, which Wong said functions as “a reminder to strive to become worthy of the gift of life and the gift of water.”

“I look into [climate issues] because I think they can change, and I think they need to change.”

Of the selected poems read by Wong from Undercurrent, a clear theme of reimagining the dynamic of the human-water relationship surfaced. Reflecting upon an epigraph to the collection, Wong stated “It’s [water] on loan. We use it as a gift. If the water owns itself and we are given the gift of the water for a while, I guess the question is how do we respond to that gift.” She responds to this question in her poem “Declaration of Intent,” that “water will return what we give it.” To this effect, Wong calls for the need to reimagine our relationship with water as one rooted in humility and respect.

Wong’s creative journey with Undercurrent brought her “unexpectedly” into contact with oil. From pipelines in the Fraser River to walking the tar sands, Wong found oil where she found water. While current societal attitudes towards oil tend to conjure negative emotions, Wong has love for oil as she does for water.

“For me loving the oil and loving the water is […] about leaving the oil in the ground,” said Wong. “[Oil] should be honoured, valued, and respected. Not dug up as fast as you can burn it.”

What comes across most in Wong’s eco-poetry is a spirit of hope that still acknowledges the reality of the current climate crisis. When questioned as to how she remains positive in light of such “doom and gloom,” Wong responded, “I don’t look into these things because I am a doomsayer. I look into these things because I think they can change, and I think they need to change.”

Similar sentiments are found in her poetry; as Wong writes in “Declaration of Intent,” “Maybe we are system change as well as climate change.” Maybe we are, but one thing is certain: With Wong leading the way, hope for the future is wellrooted in writing and water.

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