When you look back along a timeline, you can see the critical moments that shape your life—those chance encounters with a specific person or a transformative idea. With the benefit of hindsight, you can track the almost imperceptible shifts in direction, those little surges of heat when new dreams begin to take shape.
We may have ideas and plans, interests and appetites, but we don’t really know what we’re walking toward. In a way, we can only chart where we’re going by where we’ve been—we’re all improvisers, backing into the future.
Three decades ago, I was a recent university graduate eking out a living teaching about a million piano lessons a week in a cramped little studio at a piano store. The economy was in crisis, jobs were scarce, and I was using the year to do some serious wondering about My Life.
On one of my days off, I took the bus to the U of M to check out a Canadian literature conference. I’ll admit I felt shy. I didn’t have the language to keep up to the debates that flew through the air, and I felt conspicuous amongst people who all knew one another.
And yet… I wanted to see this session called “Music at the Heart of Thinking.” Head and heart, linked by music: it felt like a beacon. The poet was Fred Wah, and he read yet-unpublished poems in that crowded room, poems that flew around in unpredictable ways, poems that careened from abstract philosophy to sensory experience to verbal jokes, creating shifting contexts of knowing and understanding.
I had never heard anything like it. I could follow only about 5% of it. But I fell in love, and a new door swung open…
I learned later that one of Wah’s major influences is jazz—he was a serious trumpet player, and sought to capture in his writing the particular surrender to creative impulse that is essential to jazz. In a way, the poems I heard that day are like the brilliant solos of Dizzy Gillespie: highly virtuosic, wildly unpredictable, and absolutely integrated.
Wah would go on to publish Music at the Heart of Thinking, along with many other books, including Waiting for Saskatchewan, a poetic remembering of life in his father’s Chinese restaurant in Swift Current, which won the Governor General’s Award. He continues to explore the challenges of racial hybridity (despite our country’s reluctance to acknowledge its issues with race), and he continues to make language fresh and vital, over and over again.
Fred Wah is now the Parliamentary Poet of Canada. It’s an extraordinary honour, and because Fred is Fred, it also an opportunity to ask pointed questions about the confluence of private and public roles for artists. I’m thrilled that Fred Wah will be reading at McNally Robinson on April 16. I hope some young kid will sidle into the back of the crowd and feel the heat of a new dream taking shape…