“Tracing the Lines: A Symposium on Contemporary Poetics & Cultural Politics in Honour of Roy Miki”
Over the course of the past half decade or so, I’ve been invited to speak at conferences celebrating the retirement of two seminal Canadian writers, Fred Wah (University of Calgary in Alberta) and Roy Miki (Simon Fraser University in BC). Since I started my blogging here at Harriet with some notes on restaurant culture and class, let me start by saying a few words about Wah’s work and then move on to Miki and the “Tracing the Lines” conference.
If one were to be asked to give as gift a single book to the waitresses and fast food/diner restaurant workers of the world, my choice would be Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill. Dubbed both a “biotext” and a “gastro-graphy” (by Rosalia Baena in her essay on Wah in a recent issue of the Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal)--though probably oversimplified as memoir by the stateside genre gendarmes--Diamond Grill is a stunningly lyrical-critical reading of the everyday workings of race and class in a family owned diner in Nelson, BC. Unlike the elegiac tone (and form) that subsumes so much US class-based writing (where working people, it seems, are always doomed to their material conditions and live lives utterly without agency), Wah’s Grill serves as a site of constant race-class negotiations and is written in a way that pushes far beyond the standard working class social realism. (Maybe, at some point, I’ll blog on the excellent commentary on my first post and try to sketch out some terrain for what I see as a much-needed shift from social to socialist realism in contemporary working class poetics--there’s a hint of it in my invocation of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People articulated to the Johnson-Forest Tendency of C.L.R. James, Grace Lee (Boggs), and Raya Dunayevskaya).

Transitioning from Wah to the festivities surrounding Roy Miki and his retirement from SFU, I should note that the exceptional new “MIKI” issue of West Coast Line (one of the few North American literary/cultural journals I diligently read from cover to cover) was lovingly edited for Miki’s retirement by none other than Fred Wah. In many ways, the “MIKI” issue stands as testament to the community that has developed during the tenure of Roy’s years at Simon Fraser and includes a bounty of new work from former students, colleagues, and fellow travelers such as Rita Wong (recent winner of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Larissa Lai, Wayde Compton, Jeff Derksen, George Bowering, and many others. During a reading from the special issue one night during the conference at the Anza Club, more than a dozen poets performed their contributions. One of my favorites was Marie Annharte Baker (Miki’s grammar school classmate in Winnepeg, no less!, and an incredible poet and critic herself), who wowed the crowd with her “Cuntajunta” and “Duck Tape War”:
...Go with current news media
Duck tape the mouth mind
American people use duct tape
Windows of opportunity shut
Canada might duck tape itself
Out of the war into that zone...
“Tracing the Lines” spoke volumes to the varied public, institutional, and poetic spaces Miki has inhabited and extended throughout his prolific career. For US-readers unfamiliar with his work, its extraordinary range and depth include seminal works of editorship (including the journal West Coast Line and Pacific Windows: Collected Poems of Roy Kiyooka), poetry (recent collections include There and Surrender, winner of the 2002 Governor’s General Award), and scholarship in poetics and cultural politics (Broken Entries: Race, Subjectivity, Writing and most recently Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice).
The symposium began with a keynote reading at the CBC Building downtown, where Miki shared a series of both old and new poems, punctuating them with everything from intimate biographical footnotes to experiments in visual documentation of the consumer culture in his Vancouver neighborhood. The next morning, the opening panel was anchored by Monika Kin Gagnon’s insightful paper on media coverage of the recent “reasonable accommodation” debates in Quebec (which paralleled, in my mind, work done on the media coverage of the Seattle/WTO protests, such as Thomas McFarlane and Iain Hay’s “The battle for Seattle: Protest and Popular Geopolitics in The Australian newspaper,” Political Geography 22: 2 (February 2003): 211-232.)
A panel on “Asiancy” featured talks by Hiromi Goto, David Fujino, and my newest favorite poet, Phinder Dulai (check out his books Basmati Brown and Ragas from the Periphery); a panel followed on “Contemporary Poetics” that featured Louis Cabri on the “pre-poetics” of Roy Miki (taking a note from Roy’s first critical book, The Prepoetics of William Carlos Williams: Kora in Hell) and a collaboratively performed work by the Sibyls (Rita Wong, Larissa Lai, and audience participants); the last panel of the day featured Mike “If I Had a Hammer” Barnholden, Jacqueline Larson, Wayde Compton, and movie-telling excerpts from Walter K. Lew.
The next day, more terrific panels: “The Politics of Imagination” (with Susan Crean, Jeff Derksen, Marwan Hassan, and Marie Annharte Baker), “Art of Redress” (with Cindy Mochizuki, Baco Ohama, Grace Eiko Thomson, and Mona Oikawa), and “Generative Generations” (with Alessandra Capperdoni, Mark Nakada, Nicole Markotic, and Jerry Zaslove). The conference concluded with a keynote lecture by Smaro Kamboureli.
Had I been blogging at the time, I would have posted more in-depth daily reports on each of these panels. But as I’m coming to it now, I want to end on this note.
In a class I teach on global social justice movements, I begin the semester by spreading open on the floor a map of the world. I then tell a story about a man I met in a bookstore in Buenos Aires several years ago, when I travelled there to visit the worker-occupied factories at Zanon, Brukman, and elsewhere across Argentina. Upon finding out that my wife and I were (originally) from New York, the man (Marcel) told me that he went to school for a few years in Brooklyn. His impression of the USA now under Bush2, he told us, was that it “was like Iceland in space.” I write this phrase on the board the first class: “The United States is like Iceland in space.” I ask the students what they think this means and whether or not they think it’s true. Those born and raised in the States typically try to deny it. Then I ask a student to give me a penny. I place the penny on St. Paul, Minnesota, and ask them what country the edge of the penny touches. I then say to the students, “If we got in a van right now and drove north we could be in Canada for an early dinner tonight. Now, name the leader of this country.” Never does a hand go up. (Note: I performed the same test on a group of 150 university faculty from Minnesota, and perhaps only 2-3 hands went up). I then ask my students to image that, on our trip to Canada, we walked into any first year class (let alone a senior seminar) at the University of Winnipeg or the University of Manitoba and asked the students “Who is the President of the United States?” How many hands would go up? My students inevitably answer: “All of them.” And so what does this tell us about USAmericans? (Can you say Iceland in space?)
So I’ll end this blog entry simply by saying that if your hand is down, not only to the political leadership question but on the names of speakers at the conference as well, if you’re not familiar with the writings of Roy Miki or Fred Wah or Rita Wong or Jeff Derksen or you can’t name at least a dozen fantastic Canadian poets whose work you love and read and study diligently, head to your nearest independent bookstore (or one of the few unionized bookstores across North America or across the globe) or order online directly from the publishers more than a few of these books (and don’t forget to add Dionne Brand’s most recent poetry collection, Inventory, as well as Marlene Nourbese Philip’s A Genealogy of Resistance: And Other Essays). Perhaps I’ll blog on a some of these books myself as the summer heats up (though I’m in Texas now, and I see very little besides 90+ degree days on the horizon).
Until next time...

Originally Published: June 9th, 2008

Mark Nowak is the author of Revenants, Shut Up Shut Down (afterword by Amiri Baraka), and Coal Mountain Elementary (2009), all from Coffee House Press. His writings on new labor poetics have recently appeared in The Progressive, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan...

  1. July 7, 2008
     Rita Wong

    I'll say it: "Iceland in space!" Thanks for the anecdote; I may try that exercise sometime when I'm in the states. And thanks too for your great presentation at Tracing the Lines, which demonstrates some of the exciting ways that poetry can give back to the communities that sustain it/us.
    Verb on!