Interview: Fred Wah, 2009

  Interview: Fred Wah, 2009

  documentary of the time.’

  in conversation with
  Robert McTavish, Vancouver, 2009



The Vancouver Poetry Conference, hosted by the University of British Columbia in the summer of 1963, is seen by many as a landmark event in the history and development of West Coast Canadian and North American innovative poetry – and indeed a major early manifestation of the Sixties West Coast Zeitgeist. Organized by UBC English professor Warren Tallman and American poet Robert Creeley, the conference was an intense, freewheeling three-week program of discussions, workshops, lectures, and readings at which a rising generation of Canadian and American poets, including George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, Fred Wah, Jamie Reid, Michael Palmer, and Clark Coolidge, was exposed to and, in many cases, profoundly influenced by the personalities and ‘New American’ open-form poetics of the visiting poet-instructors Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Margaret Avison. For many of the student participants the conference played a key role in providing them faith that the pursuit and practice of poetry could constitute a meaningful calling and life’s work.

The Vancouver poetics conference in 1963 was echoed and expanded in Berkeley just two years later. See the outline of the 1965 papers at Berkeley here, and for a poet’s personal view of the actual experience, see Californian poet Rachel Loden’s piece here. She was young (very young!) at the time!

Photo by Allen Ginsberg, Vancouver, 1963: see caption below.
Photo by Allen Ginsberg, Vancouver, 1963: see caption below.

Vancouver, Canada, 1963, photo reproduced with the generous permission of the Allen Ginsberg Estate. From a collation of Ginsberg’s notes: L to R: back row: Jerry Heiserman (later Sufi “Hassan”), Dan McLeod (later editor of Georgia Straight underground paper), Allen Ginsberg, Bobbie Louise Hawkins (Creeley), the host Professor Warren Tallman, Robert Creeley, next row down: seated left Thomas Jackrell then student poet, Philip Whalen, Don Allen (Don Allen the anthologist of The New American Poetry), Charles Olson, last days of Vancouver Poetry Conference late July 1963, car parked in front of host professor Tallman’s house at 2527 W. 37th Ave., Kerrisdale, Vancouver — he’d sent me a ticket to come back from a year and half in India for the assembly — which included Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Copyright © the Allen Ginsberg Estate at

Aaron Vidaver’s notes and Vancouver links: Various links relating to the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference At:
Warren Tallman: Poets in Vancouver (1963) 2009/08/10
Introduction and Notes by Aaron Vidaver
From Vidaver’s introduction: Poetry in Vancouver and elsewhere, of course, persisted, and many participants marked the conference not as an ending but a beginning: a “life-defining experience, founding moments in the memory narrative of my life as a reader/writer/critic of contemporary writing” (Butling 2005: 145); “the beginning of my introduction to the society of poets. into the company of poets” (Palmer 1995: 172); “the first time I ever saw a woman [Denise Levertov] hold a whole audience with the magic of her voice” (Marlatt 1991: 101); “mind-boggling to be immersed in those poets and the way hey talked, incredible / When I left Vancouver, I was driving home and I couldn’t stop crying” (Goodell 2009); “of love’s collision with desire begat / in July 1963, and in Vancouver / where and when this book began” (Bromige 1988: 3). And Tallman himself has been credited as the one who “really brought western Canada’s poetry into the international world it now helps to define and keep possible”. (Creeley 1994).

Fred Wah was born in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, but grew up in the interior (West Kootenay) of British Columbia. His Canadian-born father was raised in China, the son of a Chinese father and a Scots-Irish mother. Fred Wah’s mother was a Swedish-born Canadian who came to Canada at age 6. Wah studied literature and music at the University of British Columbia. While there, he was a founding editor and contributor to the literary magazine TISH. He later did graduate work at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. He has taught at Selkirk College, David Thompson University Centre, and the University of Calgary. Well known for his work on literary journals and small-press, Wah has been a contributing editor to Open Letter since its beginning, involved in the editing of West Coast Line, and with Frank Davey edited the world’s first online literary magazine, SwiftCurrent. Wah won the Canadian Governor General’s Award for his 1985 book Waiting for Saskatchewan. Wah retired after forty years of teaching and lives in Vancouver, British Columbia with his wife Pauline Butling. He remains active, writing and performing public readings of his poetry. From 2006 to 2007, he served as the Writer-in-Residence at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. In 2011 Wah was appointed as Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate, the fifth poet to hold this office. In 2013 he was made an Officer in the Order of Canada.

Robert McTavish is a Canadian documentary film-maker whose works include Ghosts on the Land (2001), Fiddler’s Map (2003) and What To Make of It All?: The Life and Poetry of John Newlove (2006). He also edited A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove (Chaudiere Books, 2007, afterword by Jeff Derksen) which was hailed by the Globe and Mail as ‘a fitting monument to the poet’s consummate craftsmanship, and a cause for national celebration’.

Karen Tallman, daughter of Ellen Tallman and Prof Warren Tallman, took the photos reproduced here at the age of ten, with a Brownie camera.

Paragraph 1 follows:

McTavish: Who was Fred Wah in 1963?

2 follows:

Wah: He was a young, excited UBC (University of British Columbia) student who had just switched over from music to English and really gotten into poetry and was excited by it… The kind of poetry he was interested in then and is still interested in was the new. It was all new. There was this sense of newness and possibility that opened up. So I think that that was where I was at…

The young Fred Wah, Vancouver, 1963. Photograph: Karen Tallman, with permission.
The young Fred Wah, Vancouver, 1963. Photograph: Karen Tallman, with permission.


Wah: We had been publishing TISH magazine for a couple of years before then, about a year and a half, so we had been pretty involved — the TISH group of poets out at UBC — with trying to articulate these new possibilities in poetry and articulate our excitement about it and at the same time we had gathered a whole, if you like, at least a North American community of like-minded young poets. We had a substantial mailing list, so that by the time the Conference in the summer of 1963 rolled around we felt fairly confident, I think, as a group of young writers, of the kind of poetry we wanted to explore, the kind of poets, and the poets we wanted to read, and, of course, it was totally exciting to us to have a chance to meet these poets who had become, not heroes, but we really had kind of glommed on to certain aspects of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, which had come out in 1961 and had been almost a bible to us, in opening up not just contemporary poetry but in a sense it opened up a whole view, the whole view of poetry. In other words, we were all of a sudden able to read people like William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, Louis Zukofsky, poets who had been around all century if you like, but who were, I guess because of the Academy, marginalized or minimized in a way.


McTavish: Even the poets coming to the conference were marginalized. How did you know them. They weren’t on the class lists, were they?


Wah: No, no. They weren’t on our class lists and it was only through Warren Tallman, of course, that we were introduced to any of these poets. But don’t forget that we had just had in the mid-1950s the Beats and this kind of groundswell through Ginsberg, of protest poetry, of the avant-garde. Evergreen Review was a major magazine in the late 1950s, and magazine publishing generally picked up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, so that even in Canada there was Louis Dudek’s Delta and [Alan Bevin’s] Evidence. The technology of the mimeograph machine opened up not just magazines, but if you look at the history of the mimeograph machine, in the late 1950s it was incredible publishing all over the world because of the mimeograph machine. So lots of little books, lots of privately printed books, there wasn’t vanity publishing in that sense; the possibility was there for us, for writers, to put their own hands on their own work.


So whereas before, and in a sense now it’s kind of returned to that, writing has become kind of a commodity that gets funneled through an industry, right? So the whole possibility of publishing a little magazine, that was incredible. So here, who shows up for the Conference? Robert Creeley: he published The Black Mountain Review. Whew! One of the major magazines in our minds for documenting this new young poetry in the 1950s. The whole idea of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, we had heard a lot about this. Duncan had taught there. Creeley had been there. Olson, John Weiners, Fielding Dawson — all these people we were reading in The New American Poetry anthology, a lot of them… had been to Black Mountain College. So there was a place that we could refer to that, I don’t know… part of a whole scene. Leroi Jones’ Floating Bear magazine was important, [and] Cid Corman’s Origin was coming in to Vancouver. Half a dozen of us in Vancouver received it; you couldn’t subscribe to Origin, you kind of got it by telling Cid how much you loved it and then he would send it to you for free — this beautifully printed magazine, letterpress printed in Kyoto, Japan. It was just stunning.


McTavish: Was it a repressive academic culture they were reacting against to get heard? Or was it just a development of the new technology?


Wah: I think it was a little bit of both at least, and I’m not sure how much it was a reaction or reactive situation for people like Creeley or Olson. Ginsberg was reacting to a social post-McCarthy culture in the United States. In Canada, at least for myself, I was certainly reacting against the hegemony of a colonialist, colonizing culture, colonizing voice in poetry. I mean, poetry for me up until that time had been pretty much keep yourself awake in Monday afternoon English class and read some Wordsworth. It was interesting, but it wasn’t that exciting. So this new poetry, the poetry that was lifted off the page — this was the big thing then, they were reading poetry out loud!


Kenneth Patchen performing poetry and jazz. The performative aspect of poetry as a possible dynamic, that was new. Prior to that, poetry had been on the page, pretty silent. You’d go to an English class and what you’d do is talk about a poem. No one would read the poem. ‘Has everybody read Gerard Manly Hopkins’ ‘The Windhover’ today? That’s what we’re going to talk about today. Now what is that line in the third stanza mean?,’ etcetera, etcetera. It was talking about it, it was all on the page, it was just the mind trying to solve these cryptic puzzles in poetry. Poetry, at least for myself and I think most of the people who were my age then, had been a fairly static and conservative, although possibly beautiful, cultural thing.


But then all of a sudden the whole culture was sort of — the media culture was rising, jazz had had a great impact, the LP was, you could buy jazz! You could go into a record store in Vancouver and buy Oscar Peterson, the Newport Jazz Festival, Dave Brubeck, this stuff was all available. And there was a kind of commerce around that materialization of our culture. And so that became true in poetry, too — that a lot of these poets who were at the 1963 Conference, the teachers anyway, we had read in magazines like the Evergreen Review or Louis Dudek’s Delta, and so forth, and Don Allen’s anthology. But they were like discoveries. We had to go and find them. We had to look for them. We’d go into Duthies bookstore and Binky, a fellow who paid attention to Little Presses and Chapbooks and things like that, and Binky would have all that stuff in the poetry corner and say ‘Oh, we got all this stuff in last week’ and he would ferret this stuff out along with a lot of political stuff and other stuff, so the kind of publishing, there was a kind of pre-condition about publishing to the 1963 Conference that existed. And certainly for us in Vancouver it had been TISH magazine, especially for the students around UBC


McTavish: As a member of TISH were you an anomaly in the academic environment with your interests?


Wah: I guess we were. I hadn’t experienced being at UBC before; I don’t think there had been a lot going on there.


McTavish: Creeley, Duncan and the like were not on the lips of most Universities.


Wah: That’s true, but once again there was this subculture of publishing that had been going on for many years, so if you look at early Duncan publications going back into the 1940s, [they were] beautiful letterpress publications, specialty publications. So those things had been around and a few people had them and they would surface and they weren’t the popular thing, but at UBC there was a student literary magazine called The Raven. I remember Dave Bromige was very involved with that for a while, sort of anti-TISH — there was this sort of oppositional thing going on at UBC, the more established student and official stamp of approval thing for The Raven literary magazine and TISH, which wasn’t official at all, which was printed on stolen paper and printed [first] on a mimeograph machine and then we bought an offset press for eighty bucks and made it work. You know, we were just doing our own thing. The fact that we were doing it on our own became, provided a kind of energy around that poetry, that kind of poetry, that sort of came to a culmination in 1963, at least at UBC


But I think in Vancouver, too, because there was the downtown poetry scene going on with Bill Bissett and Gerry Gilbert, so there was a city scene, a sort of university and a downtown scene, and there were certain people who were usefully straddling or bridging — like Roy Kiyooka was a major player in straddling those two areas, downtown and UBC. But at UBC ourselves, I don’t think we were necessarily seen as, we certainly weren’t rebellious — I mean we weren’t, we were reacting but everyone was reacting to something in those days. And there are these other critical aspects, socio-cultural aspects in what was going on in Vancouver and probably many other cities during that time; it was the rise of the middle class… And so all of us were people who had not come out of Vancouver — Jamie Reid was the only one who had come out of Vancouver, the rest of us were from smaller towns. So that, if you like, the myth of the working class — its not really a myth but its partly there — starts to come up. So there’s a sort of a class consciousness you start to recognize.


Gee, Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish,’ that’s a voice that’s speaking from a marginalized place. And we hadn’t, we really hadn’t in our culture even thought of voices coming from marginalized places before. Jazz itself was a kind of experimental form, it wasn’t standard music, you couldn’t dance to it. It wasn’t that easy, when I was in high school in the 1950s, it wasn’t easy to get hold of jazz at all. You had to drive down to Spokane to even find a record store that would have a Chet Baker album or something. So in the early 1960s, this had all changed a great deal, just the material culture around, being able to buy jazz records, being able to go into a bookstore like Duthies and get new poetry. I mean even to be able to buy Dylan Thomas, which was kind of new in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A play like Under Milkwood was a modern play. Modern! The word modern was used a lot.


1963 becomes a point at which I think a lot of forces and a lot of elements come together and those teachers, those people who were brought in for that conference were products of a slightly earlier generation. I know Pauline [Butling] and I were talking earlier today about the fact, because she was watching the Bobbie Creeley photo shots, probably the oldest person there was in their late thirties or early forties… we were all in our early twenties, the teachers were in their thirties! So they were a product of a prior generation coming out of the post-war American 1950s and with still those threads of the McCarthy years and the Second World War and the Korean War… Ginsberg kind of rightly frames this culture that he’s raging against, railing against. This setup of a new world that he wants to be able to say something in it. Yeah, gee, for those of us who for whatever reason feel marginalized, might feel a little bit on the out, either through class or race or economics or social status or intellectual status or whatever — it was open. All of a sudden everything became open.


McTavish: Does that make Vancouver an appropriate place to have a conference like this? As opposed to this all-star line-up in New York or San Francisco?


Wah: I don’t know why it was in Vancouver other than the people who were instrumental, like Warren Tallman, in making that happen here. I don’t know why the writers or academics in San Francisco or New York or Seattle wouldn’t have done this. I don’t know why. I know that two years after Vancouver, Berkeley said ‘Hey, Vancouver just did this big thing, lets do it!’ and they did a kind of repeat performance.


I don’t know why Vancouver. Perhaps because Vancouver’s on the edge. It’s on the western margin and it really didn’t have any kind of centrality like San Francisco or New York or perhaps any of these other centers might have had. So it wouldn’t have had as large a central core or conservation, for people to react against.


McTavish: What about the border?


Wah: I don’t think so, because all of us Canadians live close to the border. [‘an estimated 75 percent of Canadians live within 161 kilometers (100 miles) of the U.S. border.’ National Geographic] Why not Toronto? I mean, Toronto, they’re a big border town, too. Toronto, Hamilton, Niagara. You know the reaction from down east from the eastern Canada was very minimal in a way. David McFadden started a magazine. Victor Coleman was getting into a little bit of publishing. But it wasn’t, I don’t know why Vancouver.


McTavish: How did it feel to have it here?


Wah: Didn’t think about it. Didn’t think about it being in Vancouver, just thought, ‘Well, we know what poetry was…’

L to R: Ellen Tallman (photographer Karen’s mother and professor Warren Tallman's wife), US poet Robert Duncan, Vancouver, 1963. Photograph: Karen Tallman, with permission.
L to R: Ellen Tallman (photographer Karen’s mother and professor Warren Tallman’s wife), US poet Robert Duncan, Vancouver, 1963. Photograph: Karen Tallman, with permission.


McTavish: Because you said these guys were superstars.


Wah: They were in the sense that they were published in Allen’s anthology and they were the ones doing the most exciting work. But I think they must have been superstars to a lot of people in North America. I don’t know. There was this kind of sense that had been cultured here with Robert Duncan from San Francisco, so he had been around for a couple of years, and then Creeley came in in 1962. So there was this sort of north-south connection for Vancouver. Vancouver, at least for myself and I know my friends in TISH, we felt ourselves marginalized from central Canada. In fact, in my story, my sense of one of the initial moments in TISH was a letter, some letter in Evidence magazine or some magazine from Toronto, sort of responding to what was going on in Vancouver, the TISH stuff, was that ‘well, we’re not so interested in this cross-Canada connection, our alignment is more north-south with New York.’ This was Toronto talking. And I thought well, fair enough. You’re quite a ways away and I’m not interested in what you’re doing anyways. But our connection really was more with California, with San Francisco, Portland, and the West Coast.


McTavish: You’ve mentioned an anti-colonial bent coming from your small town, of Wordsworth, and such. Was there any worry of replacing it as a branch-plant of the Americans? I’ve heard charges…


Wah: We didn’t think of it that way then. Of course later, with people like Robin Matthews and his sort of anti-American element of Vancouver, sort of raised its ugly head, but at the time we weren’t, didn’t even think at the UBC English department, ‘Hey, a lot of the profs are British.’ Or then all of a sudden all the younger profs are American… That was the way the world was in Canada in the 1950s. And when I was in high school the music teacher, the guy that turned me on to music so heavily, was a McCarthy exile from Hollywood, Ed Barravale. He was very much an American. He came here because he had to leave the States.


My sense is we didn’t think about those kinds of divisions or splits or classifications then. We didn’t even know what it was like to be a Canadian. We hadn’t even kind of worked out that identity at that point. That wasn’t in the discourse. When did we have a Canadian flag. When did that happen? It was around that time and all of a sudden there was a Canadian thing. I mean, Canada was still a colony. As far as I was concerned, we sang ‘God Save the Queen,’ ‘God Save the King’ until 1951 and then it was ‘God Save the Queen.’ I had no idea that there was a world of difference. All I knew was that the world was supposed to be white, was supposed to be primarily British, European, and that all the ideas came from Europe. That was the end of the world. So to read Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of 100 Chinese Poems — whoa! This was exotic! Not just exotic, but totally new. To hear about Zen Buddhism, Gary Snyder, woo, what’s this? And here we are in Vancouver and we’ve got this Asian population and we have this connection with Japan and its just across the water and we’ve just done this horrible thing to our own Japanese-Canadians… it was just kind of a mash, a mish-mash of things going on, but also new possibilities coming up.


And as you know, the 1960s became that decade of freedom… One of the interesting things about the 1963 conference that occurred was that people like John Keys and Drummond Hadley and Clark Coolidge and Michael Palmer showed up. So here all of a sudden were our contemporaries from the states. Some of them hitchhiked, however they could get here, they came to Vancouver for this, and gee, they wrote poetry, too, and they published magazines, too! They’re not that different from us! We never talked about difference. We never talked: gee Clark Coolidge, you’re an American. That wasn’t, it just didn’t ever…


McTavish: Did they speak the same language?


Wah: Absolutely the same language, listened to the same music, read the same poets, drank the same booze, smoked the same dope. [laughs] It was a very, it was a cultural thing.


McTavish: Did you have expectations for the Conference?


Wah: I can’t remember any specific expectations I had. I remember being totally excited by it. I quit my job out at the peat bogs two weeks before the Conference started and had saved up enough money so I didn’t have to work during the Conference that summer. [Note 1] We weren’t graduate students really. In fact, I had just graduated with a BA and then went off to graduate school in Albuquerque with Creeley, but a lot of us were just out. I don’t think it was fair to call us graduate students really… George [Bowering] and Frank [Davey] and Pauline [Butling] were all finishing off their masters degrees, but the whole thing wasn’t… to think of it in terms of graduate school today, it wasn’t like that. It was more of just this companionship around a particular kind of poetry that we liked, and so it was, there was a shared language and a shared desire to make new poetry.


McTavish: It seemed to be a very concentrated event. Was this something you’d seen before or was this something totally new?


Wah: It was pretty new. UBC had had a couple of festivals, spring festivals, with people like John Cage and Merce Cunningham and Stan Brakhage had been up here and a number of poets came in, I think Irving Layton [Canadian poet] came in and Lawrence Ferlinghetti [from San Francisco], so UBC performed that for its students in a way, or for the community, for a few years prior to 1963. So it didn’t feel like a surprise; it felt just like ‘Wow, this is just a great intense collection of all that we’re interested in.’ And there was a lot to do. Most of us were really busy trying to help out, putting people up — I got very involved with recording the sessions…


McTavish: How did you come to the decision to record the sessions? Even today it’s somewhat unheard of.


Wah: My little anecdote about my switch from music to poetry was that I sold my trumpet and my marimba vibes in order to buy a Wollensak Tape Recorder, so I could record poetry. Because we were having readings all the time. Warren knew I was interested in recording and he had bought, or his father-in-law had bought for him, a brand new 4-track tape recorder that we were going to record the Conference with, the readings anyways. And it broke down the very first night or the very first day and I had to use my own Wollensak to do that. But in any case, recording in those days was pretty simple. You have a tape recorder and you have a microphone. You put the microphone on the table and you had this long cord and you sit off to the side with headphones on listening, you know, just recording it. And I had known nothing about recording it and certainly wasn’t very professional. So my whole experience of the Conference, of all the readings anyway, was that I was off to one side just paying attention to the recording level and then I’d put it away at the end of the evening and then on to the next.


McTavish: Readings weren’t that common in the era previous, and you guys were lifting the poems off the page. But you recorded the morning talks also. What was the rationale?


Wah: Not the classes. We had panel sessions in the morning.


McTavish: Why?


Wah: Just because these people were saying interesting things. Warren probably wanted it recorded. He was kind of saying, yes, record this and this… let’s do this, so I would do that. But other people were essential. Pauline, she was the registrar, she was the person who got all the class lists for Warren and compiled all that sort of stuff. And people putting on parties, people running around getting stuff, you know, ‘Charles needs this, would somebody go and get it.’ That kind of thing. There was a very communal kind of thing; it wasn’t like ‘Gee, here’s a bunch of students going to school.’ It was an event. I still have a hard time thinking about it as a course. It was an event that was just an intense event with these great intense people where you had panels in the morning, classes, workshops in the afternoon — the workshops weren’t like writing workshops that they have in creative writing now. They were, they’d talk about ideas. That’s all. They would talk about poetics, they would talk about what they’re doing, maybe talk about a poem.


McTavish: So this wasn’t a creative writing class?


Wah: Oh, absolutely not. I could be wrong; I didn’t go to all the classes… I think what we did was we shifted around, a week with each of the three teachers. But it wasn’t creative writing. We weren’t producing stuff. I could be wrong, maybe some people handed in… all I remember is the journals… Warren asked everybody to keep a journal and submit that. I think that was one requirement.


McTavish: Did the grouping, was there a clear group there?


Wah: It was primarily Black Mountain. It was primarily Olson, Duncan, Creeley… and Levertov — I don’t know if she’s necessarily part of, if she’s seen as part of [Black Mountain], I haven’t looked at the Donald Allen anthology for years but it was broken into groupings: there was sort of Ginsberg and Corso, the Beatniks group; there was the New York School, Leroi Jones and some people like that; and then there was the Black Mountain group, and another grouping… But our interest was primarily, because Creeley had taught here and he was an organizer of the Conference, besides the fact that he was one of the most interesting writers in the Anthology to those of us here in the TISH group if you like. It was mostly Black Mountain, I guess.


McTavish: Because poetically you’d think they were all over the place.


Wah: Not really, because Olson, Creeley, Duncan would be very simpatico in view of Black Mountain, and so would Levertov, because she was very close to Duncan particularly. Avison was the Canadian, the token Canadian, almost, if you like, but an entirely brilliant woman and easy to like. She knew poetry and no problem for her with any of the poetry there. Ginsberg was the outside one. That’s why I say he brought in Phil Whalen and that scene when Duncan’s talking and ‘I want in! I want in!’ and that was Ginsberg, actually created for those people there, and my sense was that that was happening then and this was interesting, was that Ginsberg was opening up this New American Poetry to not be those kind of groupings, that Ginsberg too was part of what they were doing. That was very enlightening. At least to myself it was enlightening and I think to many others, that Ginsberg’s poetics, if you like, could in a sense exist alongside Duncan’s very esoteric kind of poetics. And you could kind of use both of them if you like or be aware of both of those forces in poetry.


So that was new, and I think it became an interesting turning point for New American Poetry and Vancouver for that to happen, because now two years later you have Berkeley, as I say, replicating this thing, in two years the whole thing is kind of blown wide open, all those distinctions are gone. I mean, I was in Olson’s seminar in Buffalo and there was a knock on the door and there’s Gregory Corso. Right? So there was this sort of leveling out of what at least The New American Poetry could be, and in Canada there was this similar leveling out because very soon after that Coach House Press started in Toronto and a lot of the energy, the poetry energy that flowed into Coach House Press with Stan Bevington and Victor Coleman the main guys there. And it became spread out. I was in Buffalo, by 1964 I was in Buffalo, so a year after Vancouver I was in Buffalo and John Sinclair in Detroit and Leroi Jones in New York and many other writers in New York and the whole Toronto scene. There was a lot of traffic. Very open.


McTavish: Creeley and Ginsberg both said ‘You don’t have to write a good poem anymore.’ Was it unnerving for an aspiring poet to see your heroes say ‘Hey, I’m not certain what a poem is?’


Wah: Oh no, that wasn’t unnerving. To hear them say ‘I feel bankrupt,’ I thought that was just a ploy, a ‘where can we start?’ kind of thing. I mean the incredible thing was that the way poetry was presented wasn’t so much if you like as ‘the poem,’ but as the site of incredible possibilities for thinking. Like, the most exciting time for me in the whole conference was the morning session with Olson talking about his poem ‘Place and Names.’ That blew me away. It opened up poetry for me like nothing else has ever since. I thought, ‘Wow, we can go through this poem and he can talk about the ideas or the mind that makes a poem, behind this, and all the connections between words and the connections between minds that just start. Wow, this is more than just writing a poem; something that sounds good or something that rhymes or something that has rhythm or something that just happens. It’s like a, as Williams called, a mind machine… its just like get in there and all kinds of things happen.’ For me, and I can’t speak for others, that was really an opener that one.


And then many other people had similar things with other presentations or talks there. And so to hear poets work things out at the table. To hear Duncan and Ginsberg work out, not just their anxieties about one another as poets, not just about how famous you are or how much traction you can get out of going this way or that way but ‘What’s the investment?’ as Duncan had said, I think I mentioned this, at some lecture at UBC he’d given earlier that Spring. He gave this lecture and he said, ‘Well’ — talking to a crowd of about forty young poets, he said — ‘Maybe only two or three of you will be writing poetry when you’re forty years old. Think of that.’ We couldn’t believe him. No way. I’m here for life. It’s true, most of us are lifers that way. But that kind of threat at having to simply produce poetry was relieved. We were relieved from that, by the 1963 Conference.


McTavish: One thing on all the poet’s lips were ideas in Projective Verse. Its discussion of the relationship between form and content seemed to be almost a common ground. Looking back, was that something fuelling the tank at this Conference?


Wah: Oh, I think so. The ‘Projective Verse’ essay, even though it had been written in 1948 or something, a long time prior to that, published in 1950, but I’m sure that most people who came to that Conference had that on the tips of their tongues. I mean, we had that, we knew what Projective Verse was. We knew the whole question about the line and the whole formulaic thing Olson gets into in that.


McTavish: Was it a common consensus as to what Projective Verse was back then?


Wah: Not so much that there was a thing that you could say, ‘Oh, that’s projective verse,’ but that the essay itself ‘Projective Verse’ had a number of ideas that were pretty interesting, pretty usable. In terms of form, in terms of content, in terms of how the poem happens as a kind of physical body-given thing. One of the addendums to ‘Projective Verse’ was the ‘Letter to Elaine Feinstein,’ which didn’t get talked about too much, at least at that time it was a more cryptic type of thing but it was part of ‘Projective Verse’ in, at least in the Don Allen publication, an addendum to it. That ended up providing in the couple of years after 1963 a lot of discussion around topos, tropos and typos, the three things Olson gets into in his letter to Feinstein. [He is] echoing Pound’s phanopoeia, melopoeia, logopoeia, kind of tripartitie view in poetics. But they’re three different terms.


But what I’m trying to say is ‘Projective Verse’ was more, not so much a description of a thing called ‘a projective poem’ if there is such a thing, but ‘Projective Verse’ is a kind of poetics of possibility when you take a certain stand towards not just how the poem operates in the world, but the syllable. So right from the minute and the particular to the public, that essay was really useful. So I think Rachel [Blau DuPlessis]’s very right in that it certainly changed whether one likes it or not or believed in it, it ran into all kinds of detractors, and certainly in reaction to it the so-called Language Poets — the kind of humanism it proposes was reacted to by the next wave of innovative poets in America.


McTavish: Composition by field… did your music background affect how you approached these ideas?


Wah: Oh very much so… I ended up going into linguistics. I thought that was what I should look at in order to write poetry because of the literal connections between phonology and sound and rhythm and the kind of material details of language. And, of course, that comes up in ‘Projective Verse’ and in [Duncan’s] ‘The Structure of Rhyme.’ You know, that you can pay attention to the syllable as a unit of composition. But not just that, then you put alongside that Creeley’s proposition that it is where it is. You don’t get there before it’s there. That whole notion of preconception is something that you’re trying to avoid, you’re trying to be at the moment. So you start treating the syllable as a moment and not part of a message, then that changes certain possibilities as to where a poem can go. A poem can follow, as Shakespeare knew this, can follow the sound of words rather than the meaning of the words. There are other elements in other words, other linguistic elements that one could pay attention to. So all these things start to come together.


You listen to Ginsberg and somebody says ‘Whitman. Oh, Gee, I better read Whitman. I’m interested in Ginsberg. I don’t know Whitman. Oh, let’s have a course or seminar on Whitman.’ Things start to cohere; things start to come together.


Duncan’s erudition was so incredible, I was pretty struck by it. I had to sit back. I didn’t know half the stuff he was talking about; I hadn’t read or listened to it. The paintings? I didn’t know painting. I didn’t have that background. So the erudition was interesting; things like, for me, to have Whalen there was really useful because Whalen came out of that kind of Snyderish era that I was interested in because I come from the Kooteneys and I worked in the bush and I knew those poems. I was so excited to read Gary Snyder’s ‘RipRap’ because I had just spent the summer doing riprap for the Forest Service. Wow, you can write a poem about what you do?! I thought that was pretty open, that was a great opening anyway for a new kind of poetry…


All these things started moving together and the 1963 Conference was so amazing for that because there were three weeks of crossover. You could be listening to Charles Olson speak about ‘Place and Names’ in the morning; you could go into an Allen Ginsberg class in the afternoon where he’s talking about Hart Crane; you could then go into a reading by Robert Duncan that night where he’s reading the Pindar poem: at the end of the day you’ve been all over the place. It was amazing! It was exciting. I find it… I never did find my journal, I don’t know where it is. I never did sort of take note of those specific things other than to know what I carried out of it, and I carried out of it a lot. It fed me for my graduate years, my linguistic studies, for a lifetime of thinking…


US Poet Charles Olson, Vancouver, 1963. Photograph: Karen Tallman, with permission.
US Poet Charles Olson, Vancouver, 1963. Photograph: Karen Tallman, with permission.



McTavish: How do you remember Charles Olson?


Wah: I remember Charles through many subsequent meetings as well because I worked with him in Buffalo afterwards. But I will never forget the first night that we met him. A number of us had gone over to the Tallman house and Olson had arrived that day — I’m sure others have talked about this moment — and we were joking, before walking up the steps at 3537, Warren and Ellen’s house, that Olson was going to come to the door and say ‘Hello [breath] my [breath] name [breath] is [breath] Charles [breath] Olson, [laughs] because we were joking about the breath line in poetry. He actually did come to the door and we were just whoa! and he was 6 foot 8, 350 pounds or something. He was huge. He was huge! He came to the door and stuck his neck out of the door because he was higher than the door and he was so gracious and wonderful and we came in and he immediately asked about Sam Perry who had written a piece about Olson’s ‘Maximus’, which we had published, and I thought ‘Wow, this guy’s sharp. He’s interested in what we do; he’s responded to what we’ve done.’ I mean, we’d sent him [TISH and other writings], we’d never heard from him, but we kept sending him stuff. So I was pretty impressed with the fact that he was on to us; that was a pretty amazing thing. I was in awe of the man and he was also such a gracious, gracious person to be around. Perfectly polite and humourous and witty, but incisive intelligence. Look right through you; knows exactly where things are. So I was pretty blown away by that.


McTavish: And he stayed true to that first impression?


Wah: He did for me. I know that others had, the biography by Tom Clark was kind of a vicious attack that I felt badly about… Olson was going through a lot, as he lost his wife the following year to a car accident and went through a kind of a hard time in his life. He only lasted, when did he die?


McTavish: He was seventy.


Wah: Seventy, yeah.


McTavish: Was he at his peak at the Conference?


Wah: No, I don’t think so. I think in Vancouver he had been coming out of a seclusion at Gloucester. He had been there for a few years, very short of money. I don’t know how their money situation went but I know they were very poor. So it was a bit of a money gig for him too — here was a way he could make a bit of money. Although I don’t know he had really been trying to do that.


I think his powers — the Vancouver thing spurred him. So he got very animated and very moved and excited by what was going on around him and all the talk. He’d stayed at the Tallmans’ house, so every night at the Tallmans’ house, after all the things were over, some of the poets, whoever was staying at the Tallmans’ house, Charles and others, would talk. And Charles doesn’t go to bed at night; his work habit is he stays up all night. He goes to bed about five in the morning and gets up about three in the afternoon, that’s his, that’s what he likes to do. He wasn’t able to do that in Vancouver; he had to work a little harder. So he was up every night talking and I think that, at the end, the last week he was in Vancouver, he got this job offer from Al Cook in Buffalo to go to S.U.N.Y. Buffalo to teach. And this was a big thing; this was an opening. So he was on the phone to Betty Olson, his wife in Gloucester, and he took the job. And went to Gloucester, they packed their bags and moved to Wyoming, New York, just on the outskirts of Buffalo. So, when I had him, I wasn’t in Buffalo his first year, I was there his second year and he was brilliant. The seminars were just brilliant, incredible. I mean he was, in my mind, he was the top of his form.


McTavish: So Vancouver was confidence building for him?


Wah: I don’t think it was confidence; he had a lot of confidence. But it propelled him, it got him back into discourse, into the… I mean The New American Poetry had come up and Olson was in it, but I don’t think much had come of that in the United States for some reason, I don’t think…


McTavish: No legitimizing effect for these poets then?


Wah: Absolutely, yeah.


McTavish: A foot in the door of academic institutions?


Wah: It was [that] also, of course; the universities have always stepped in as a way to save writers, save their ham and bacon. It wasn’t just him. I think they all kind of treated this as a way to step forward. Probably if you went back or somebody who knew more about it went back and looked at those couple of years after Don Allen’s anthology came out just to see what effect it had. In fact, when you go to New York you might ask some of these people about that. I’m sure they’re different impressions. What was going on.


I know Creeley went back to Albuquerque; I know his salary, I think, they offered him was 3800 dollars and he was going to get 3600 dollars at UBC. That was a major thing, to get that much money, for him. So the money thing was there for these people; they were in their thirties. Olson was older and I don’t know why he hadn’t been working or didn’t have the money… I think they all felt, I shouldn’t say rejuvenated — how can you feel rejuvenated when you’re young? — I think they felt it as a kind of propellant. It was a generative experience so they were pushed on to things. And once again the other coalescing aspect was for them that they had come together, right?


Now Ginsberg had some fame. Of the poets in The New American Poetry, Ginsberg was the only famous one by 1963. Oh, as well, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind, City Lights Books. So Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg were the only two famous poets out of that whole group. In a sense, you might think even though Olson was a lot older and had been around, a lot longer, getting together with Ginsberg was a kind of, culturally, must have been a very substantiating experience for him. ‘Yes, I am an American. Yes, I am part of this. Yes I can talk to Allen and we can share. We have like minds in a way about certain things, about politics, ideologies about religion. Politics, religion, and epistemology were the three subjects that Olson was most interested in. So that sharing aspect was really important to them. Now, you’ve got to remember that Creeley had already tried to do this in Black Mountain Review, on paper. In the Black Mountain Review magazine, he had already brought poets, a few poets from different sectors if you like, but they had never met. They were simply in a magazine. I think being able to meet in Vancouver in a kind of neutral space, [since] it wasn’t San Francisco, it wasn’t your city / my city, it wasn’t American. Also, the beer here was stronger and better. It was politically an unthreatening place to be, I would think.

Drinking beer. Vancouver, 1963. Photograph: Karen Tallman, with permission.
Drinking beer. Vancouver, 1963. Photograph: Karen Tallman, with permission.


McTavish: What about Ginsberg then? Because politically he had a threat. The RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] were watching.


Wah: Oh, but he was used to that. He had been hassled all over the world. Long hair. Right? He had just spent I don’t know how long in India, five or six months in India. He was not just a Beatnik, he was also a hippie. Hippies weren’t even born yet, but he was one of those people, singing, playing his cymbals. He didn’t feel threatened by police. He just would go out and kiss them and love them. [laughs]


McTavish: Is there a moment for you that speaks to who Allen Ginsberg was at that Conference?


Wah: Well, of course, the balcony at our party. He’s out on the stairs at our party singing, chanting. And the RCMP come up to find out what’s going on at this party, and the party is on University Boulevard right next to the RCMP station, and the RCMP come up and say ‘we’ve had complaints from the neighbours.’ Well, you’re our neighbours!’ [laughs] Anyways, Allen is out on the landing, the stairs, with a bunch of people and they’re sitting around, chanting away, nyunnnh nyunnnh… and Allen’s got this big smile on his face and he just welcomes the police and was very loving. Which was quite neat.


McTavish: What did they do?


Wah: They left. They just said keep it down. They left. They didn’t come in and say where are the drugs; they were pretty good. But Allen was just — he was a wonderful… mediator. He made people feel equal around him. He had a good memory. I ran into him over the years after that and he remembered me and we never had much to do with each other concretely or specifically, yet he was very… I think it really made a big difference to people like Duncan, too, to be able to work out Ginsberg’s poetics as opposed to this popular Walt Whitmanesque character, kind of figure, the poet as public figure. Duncan was more interested in the poet as a magician, as more cryptic. It opened it up for everyone.


McTavish: What was Duncan like then?


Wah: It’s kind of hard because Duncan was such a — and you’ll have to ask Pauline more about this — but you’ve got to remember that Duncan had been in Vancouver for a few years, in and out, so Vancouver was his city. He kind of laid claim in a way to this. Duncan… was excited by a lot of the young poets around. He was excited by the fact that people were interested in his — you have to remember that a lot of these poets come out of the woodwork, they just stay home and write. Olson was coming out of Gloucester; I don’t think he had even been out of there for a couple of years. Duncan is a kind of studio poet. He works at home and he works in San Francisco. He doesn’t do a lot, not like today where poets travel all over the world and give readings and that. They weren’t doing that then. There weren’t many opportunities to travel and move out. So I don’t know about Levertov. My sense is that she and [her husband] Mitch Goodman were pretty much in New York, but she was also a studio poet — she worked in her study and wrote poetry. She wasn’t a teacher.


None of these people worked in a university. None of these people had jobs… and Duncan likewise. This was a chance to have a dialogue about poetry that they wouldn’t have had a chance to in any other situation. It had to be a made situation. Duncan and Olson had a correspondence. Duncan and Creeley had a correspondence. Duncan and Levertov had a correspondence. You know they wrote letters back and forth responding to one another’s poetry. But they were a very small group of people. If you go and look at Duncan’s or Creeley’s or Olson’s correspondence about their poetry, they talk to very few others about it.


McTavish: They hadn’t all been in the same room before either. Did you see excitement about this?


Wah: Oh yeah. Duncan and Olson had been together before, and Creeley and Olson had been together before, and Creeley and Duncan had been together before, but I don’t think all three had been together. So there was an excitement there. And Ginsberg, I don’t know that he had met any of them… he’d met Duncan and Creeley? Oh, okay.


McTavish: With regards to Duncan, did anything stand out in 1963?


Wah: A few private things, but I won’t get into those. His ability to… every time he would read, he read at least two or three [times], and he gave a lecture, two readings and a lecture. One of the things he did at the Conference, at least his lecture, I believe, he formed his lecture around Kenkyusha, the Japanese-English phrase dictionary. So what he did — he was into divination anyway — and he used Kenkyusha as a way to divine things. So he said what he had done was he had gone to Kenkyusha for three topics or three things he should talk about. And then he would take out of this notebook or envelope he was carrying a Kenkyusha saying. Then he would proceed to talk about this for half an hour. So it’s all kind of this effervescence coming out of his brain. It was amazing just to hear that. Yeah, his lecture was pretty impressive. I had heard him read before and Pauline had been working on his writing… We probably knew Duncan’s work better than I knew others, Creeley second, Olson third, I guess.


McTavish: What about Creeley at the Conference? Was he the same old Bob?


Wah: He was in a sense the same old Bob. He was a little bit looser, actually, at the Conference in some ways than he had been in the previous year because I think in the previous year… there was the possibility that he might be rehired and so he was kind of watching, keeping tight in that way. I think at the Conference he was beautiful in many ways, how he opened things up, how he always had a way to open things up to a dialogue. And very sharp; his intelligence at moving between Ginsberg, Duncan, Levertov, etcetera was pretty amazing.


Like that very first session, I think, only he and Ginsberg were in town for that very first Monday morning we all went in and it was just the two of them. I think that’s when they said they were bankrupt, and Creeley said, ‘Frankly, I use HP pencils, and what kind of paper do you write on?’ [laughs]… but in a very useful way. None of this was placed as being outside the purview of poetical thinking, because in the next phrase there might be something about politics or the imagination or about a Jack Spicer poem. In other words, everything was open and laid out. There wasn’t anything that you needed to not look at. Part way through the Conference, Olson’s talking about the psychedelic, the mushroom, and his experiments with LSD and psychedelia. And there was a guy there who edited, was he part of the Psychedelic Review?


McTavish: Tom Jackrell


Wah: Tom Jackrell, yeah. Olson talked with him publically. So there was that kind of openness about the hallucinogenic drug thing, as well as what kind of book do you write in or what kind of typewriter do you have. Or who would publish this and why and why would you want that place to publish it…

British-US poet Denise Levertov, Vancouver, 1963. Photograph: Karen Tallman, with permission.
British-US poet Denise Levertov, Vancouver, 1963. Photograph: Karen Tallman, with permission.


McTavish: Denise Levertov, how did she come across to you?


Wah: Denise came across as a quite young, but very serious poet. [Levertov was forty at the time.] Just physically, my impression of her was she was pretty intelligent. She had horn-rimmed glasses and the way she dressed — very serious. She could talk to Duncan, particularly, about a lot of esoteric things. [She] had, at the time, a fairly kind of interesting Jewish cosmology to refer to. I was interested in her, her enthusiasm for reading, for performing her work — she seemed very serious and very, in hindsight I realize that that probably meant an awful lot to a lot of women, to hear her perform the way she did… She had this wonderful, mixed British-American voice that comes through wonderfully. [Levertov was born in Britain in 1923, married an American writer in 1947, and became a naturalised American citizen in 1955.] So her poems at that time were, I thought, really pretty there, pretty much part of it at that time. Because she wasn’t one of the teachers, I didn’t have anything more to do with her, and during some of the panel discussions she didn’t usually say much. She would talk once in a while. I can’t remember her saying anything kind of profound, as she did a couple of years later when she argued with the breath line in print, sort of got on a bandwagon about Olson and the breath line later on. But none of that was there in 1963.

Canadian poet Margaret Avison, Vancouver, 1963. Photograph: Karen Tallman, with permission.
Canadian poet Margaret Avison, Vancouver, 1963. Photograph: Karen Tallman, with permission.


McTavish: Margaret Avison, did she fit in?


Wah: Oh yeah, as best she could. I mean this was pretty much a male Black Mountain thing. This was pretty much Olson / Creeley / Duncan, with Ginsberg kind of there to stir things up. And Levertov and Avison were fairly on the outskirts of that. I mean they were around; they were present. Avison was always just very steady. She and Olson talked a lot. They would wander off and have walks together and they would talk a lot. Avison had a kind of solidity about her that was kind of beyond the others. She wasn’t as animated by it all. At the same time, she wasn’t shy or reticent, but once again like Levertov she wasn’t one of the teachers, so our only experience of her was at a few of the panels she sat in on and… Someday I’ll have to sit down and map out what panel…


McTavish: I think they were both there one week, the same week.


Wah: Margaret Avison was just a very solid, pleasant presence.


McTavish: What about Philip Whalen? Was he even supposed to be there?


Wah: Philip wasn’t supposed to be there, and Allen sort of brought him in and then he showed up and he was a bit flippy. He was a bit contestatory… I remember he, during the Olson thing on ‘Place and Names,’ he walked out. ‘Bah humbug, a bunch of bullshit!’ and walked out. And he was like that but… he kind of hung around. His reading was a wonderful reading; he gave an enjoyable reading. [He was] kind of a devil’s advocate on some of the panels. I don’t think he liked Duncan; I don’t think they got along too well. Partly because he walked out of the Olson thing, but my sense was that he was doing a kind of representing a voice from San Francisco who thought that Olson was a bit of a blowhard and, you know, wasn’t so much anti-Olson as he… Philip [Whalen] was young and you had mentioned he had been depressed and showed up… and he was the youngest of all those people, I think. Yeah, he seemed younger than any of them.


McTavish: The idea of getting the poems off the page. How important was it that you got to hear everybody read?


Wah: It was very important. It was important for the Conference, because that was the public aspect of the Conference were these evening readings. These were also very exciting readings and you must know that a poetry reading in 1963 was a minimum of an hour, more likely two to three hours, with a break. But some of these readings were quite long. And I think, for example, Olson read two nights, as I think did Ginsberg, but these were really important readings. People were very excited by them. Here we were hearing work that we had perhaps read and never heard. I had never heard Olson read. In other words, I hadn’t heard even a recording of Olson before he read. You have to remember that recordings weren’t that available then.


McTavish: Did it change the way you read him?


Wah: Yeah. Yeah it did. It changed, and I kind of knew that from hearing Creeley and Duncan, that as soon as you hear them read poems and get into them, of course, it opens, it makes a huge difference to how one can read them. I’m not saying that you have to hear them in order to read the poem, but it certainly changes I think how you approach the poem on the page after hearing them read.


McTavish: Looking back in retrospect, how did you feel when it was over?


Wah: For both Pauline and me, it continued to be a very exciting event because after the event we simply got in our Volkswagon and continued on to San Francisco and then on to Alburquerque. In fact, almost immediately after it was over we had to pack up our things because we were moving to Alburquerque to work with Creeley. And we went down the coast to San Francisco with the Tallmans, went with them as a group, and got to San Francisco and met Don Allen at a cocktail party for us and he took us out to dinner. I met Jack Spicer, Stan Persky, George Stanley, met these San Francisco people. I got to go to Cody’s books, City Lights Books. I felt great at the end of it, and, for me, I think that Conference lasted a good three or four years. Because I just kept going, doing a whirling dervish thing through the poetry world and ended up going to Buffalo for a few years before coming back to the Kootenays [in Canada].


McTavish: That whole open structure… was it counter-cultural?


Wah: No, I don’t think it was counter-cultural at all. I think it was pretty much in sync with, as it turns out in hindsight, with a lot that was happening at the time. Also in hindsight, I realize how valuable it was to have that event, to be at that event. I don’t think it was necessarily valuable because it was in Vancouver, but I think Vancouver in its graciousness and neutrality and openness and Westwardness provided a kind of grounding for that openness… It wasn’t so much a cultural thing as, at least for myself, it is cultural, you know, open verse / open mind. My mind was just… I learned how to think. I’m a fake thinker, because I never learned how to think properly in the structured way so this was what helped me. This was what enabled me to think poetically, politically, whatever…


McTavish: This wasn’t avant-garde, as well?


Wah: I didn’t see it as avant-garde. I see it as — of course these terms are difficult terms to deal with — but I certainly feel more comfortable seeing it as radical. If you could say the 1963 Conference was a radical shift, it was a radical shift in certain ways for an awful lot of people. It was a radical shift in terms of poetry as a public performance. All of a sudden there was this big poetry event in Vancouver. Vancouver became, because of that event, a poetry city. In fact, it still is today considered a poetry center. Kootenay School of Writing continues today to field a lot of requests from particularly American poets. ‘I’d love to be able to read at the KSW because it’s in Vancouver and Vancouver has this reputation.’ The reputation goes on. The notion of staging this extravaganza was reiterated again when Warren Tallman eighteen years later did [the] ‘Poetry in our Time’ Conference. Sold a thousand tickets. Passes to four big readings, sixty bucks; sold a thousand tickets. In Vancouver!


McTavish: Was it a harbinger of things to come?


Wah: It was a harbinger of things to come when you think of Berkeley happening two years later [The Berkeley Poetry Conference, 1965; see] and the kind of development of those poets, the public development of those poets in North America. It was a harbinger of things to come. But it all seems to me to be kind of smoothly shifting gears through the 1960s into all kinds of connections. All of those people who were at the 1963 Conference spread out and become poets and publishers; they get involved here and there. The number of people who were at the 1963 Conference who are still writing poetry is probably pretty high, the proportion is pretty high… So I think it was kind of a crystallizing moment, and at the same time a part of the energy or thrust that was happening culturally at least throughout North America. And Vancouver was extremely important to this because it was on the edge, it was out on the margin, it was up in the corner, it wasn’t a place that was going to threaten anyone else, and it had already had several years of a strong tradition of radical or innovative poetry. Not avant — the term avant-garde wasn’t [used]; none of those terms were used. We were interested in Projective Verse. [laughs]


McTavish: Carol Berge said nothing bright, sharp or new came out of the Conference.


Wah: She dumps on the Wahs, Pauline and Fred, which is fine. I don’t want to get into personal things. Carol was, I don’t know, I don’t know why she would have said such a thing except that for her, nothing new happened. There were other people from New York. John Keys, kind of in cahoots with her in New York, became the New York editor of Sum Magazine, which I started after that conference. John and I corresponded for years and he was enthused about it. You’ve got to remember in New York there was this very strong New York School of Koch and O’Hara and Ashbery… The New York people always kept out of that Black Mountain thing. Creeley was able to go into New York. I don’t know if Olson, for example, was ever invited to New York to read… In terms of that kind of comment from Carol Berge, she was kind of New York elitist in that kind of thing, in her attitude towards what was going on.


McTavish: Was it harsh?


Wah: Of course, it was harsh — nothing new, nothing bright! There were people who were blown away by this! New York’s never had an event like this. New York simply, you know, masturbates itself into… here go the poetry wars. You can talk to Charles Bernstein about… none of that really works for a lot of us. There’s all kinds of truck with New York and San Francisco and Buffalo and it goes all over the place…


McTavish: Did you ever feel any cultural cachet due to having been at the Conference?


Wah: I do now because you’re interviewing me and I get requests from graduate students: ‘Can you talk about this?’ So there’s that aspect to it. At the time, it was a great event but we didn’t measure it as… we didn’t compare to other possible cultural activities… this is what we do, this is how… you know, you publish a magazine and you have to print it. You have to do it. You want to read all these poets? Well, Warren would say ‘Let’s just get them all together! Lets just do it!’ Right. So there’s that actual, that kind of… to actualize what it is you believe in, or what you’re interested in, that’s all it was. It was just an event.


Same with TISH. We’re all knocked away that TISH became this kind of, it got picked up for years and years and years after this — the TISH poets! We never called ourselves the TISH poets! There was no such thing!


McTavish: Bukowski wrote a poem called ‘The Seminar’ from notes of the Conference. What had it built up to? People were aware of Vancouver…


Wah: Yeah, we had already talked… I think we published Bukowski. We had corresponded with Bukowski around Sum Magazine. He was living in St. Louis at the time. He wasn’t interested. He was doing something else at the time. Look, lots of people spite the — I mean the Black Mountain thing has been a thorn in the side of all kinds of people, [laughs] whether a thorn in the side of the English Department at UBC or San Francisco Scene or New York. So what. All those poets, Duncan, Creeley, Olson, they did their work. They died. They have an incredible body of stuff one can read.


McTavish: Olson’s statement that the ‘Latest tape recorder a lie as opposed to what we know went on.’ What went on?


Wah: Well, you don’t get how the people in the audience are hearing. There’s two things happening there; there’s a performance and a reception. People are talking and people are listening. And the largest number of people are listening. What they’re all getting — I was interested in reading Berniece’s journal — it’s a surprise. I wasn’t paying attention to what they’re getting. I wasn’t interested, in a sense, in what they were getting. I was trying to codify and work through all the stuff that I was picking up. But each of us was picking up cross-fire/talk… The tapes are going to give you a kind of vague, hazy, fuzzy idea of what they’re talking about and maybe even who’s there, though now its hard to tell who’s speaking — the tapes are going to give you that. The transcriptions are going to help ferret out some of the actual meaning of what someone said, but a lot of it’s just all this crossfire, all these sparks going all over the place.


What did it do to make George Bowering keep writing and paying attention to how he writes? Obviously, it was an important thing. Daphne Marlatt becomes a serious… dedicates her life to writing. A lot of us, it affected our lives. It wasn’t just an event, it was part of — and I say ‘part of’ — a movement through a life of writing. So, the event itself, it’s nice to use it as a kind of node to tweak the memory and the imagination there, and you can start configuring all kinds of interpretations of how you want to situate that, including Carol Berge saying it didn’t mean anything and Clark Coolidge saying ‘Wow,’ but… For example, for someone like Clark, after that — I mean Clark had been writing before that, but Clark became a pretty major Language poet for the rest of his life. David Bromige became a poet for the rest of his life. Michael Palmer became a poet for the rest of his life. Countless people then spent the rest of their lives, not ‘then’ but it was part of this thing that went on.


Now you could say perhaps the same thing about someone who went to Iowa, went and studied in Iowa, and then wrote a novel, and then taught here and taught there, that’s fine; that happens in other ways too. I think the Vancouver thing is interesting because it happened in three weeks and it was a kind of intense kind of documentary of the time. Simply that.

[1]  peat bogs] not a metaphor like ‘salt mines’, but actual peat bogs on the Fraser River near Vancouver where I worked a few summers ‘mining’ peat moss. The site was close enough to the city that I could still participate in the active poetry scene there. — F.W.


2 Replies to “Interview: Fred Wah, 2009”

Leave a Reply