On compositional improvisation and Music at the Heart of Thinking: An interview with Fred Wah

August 14, 2020

Fred Wah's  Music at the Heart of Thinking (Talonbooks) is is a lifelong poem project that responds to readings in contemporary writing, art, and ideas from the past forty years. It works through language as a practice of thought and improvisation as the tool that listens to and notates thinking. 

Below, poet James Lindsay ( Double Self-PortraitWolsak & Wynn) talks to Fred Wah about compositional improvisation, the history of Music at the Heart of Thinking, repetition as insistence, and more.



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James Lindsay: The poems in Music at the Heart of Thinking are described as "improvisations." Was your method of writing these improvisations different from how you would usually approach writing a poem? 

Fred Wah: Compositional improvisation has an edge of release from the “intention” of most other approaches. That is, improv feels more open to the synaesthetic, always looking for an unpredictable connection and/or juncture. A more patient position might be driven by syntax or grammar, say, or anything schematic. Though improv is always open to iteration, as in a more “normative” poem, such particulars seem to me more instanter and don’t necessarily shape what’s next. Cadence, for example, could be put aside or even ignored, though its insistence is present, but usually not ominously. MHT has always seemed to me to look for the non-expectant; at least that’s the performative proposition. Like, pick it up and play it. Now. Shape has something to do with it. The shape I’m in(side). Of. Your question poses the “methodological” which seems more apropos the intentional. Maybe there isn’t any difference, just what’s inside. Out. It all gets kinda cute just talking about it. 






JL: Perhaps we should back up before moving forwards. What brought you to compositional improvisation? Can you tell us a bit about the history of MHT

FW: The “Notes” to the collection try to answer most of this. As I say there, "I had been attracted to the prose poem through my attempts at the utanikki, the poetic journal. Within the prose poem I was interested in upsetting the tyranny of the sentence as a unit of composition. The resistance to closure and syntactic predictability implicit in contesting the sentence is a dynamic also shared with the long poem.” I’ve always thought of MHT as a long poem, extending out of that 1970s obsession I share with many other poets. Again, as I explain in the notes, the series "was provoked by a request from bpNichol, in the early ’80s, for material for an Open Letter series that he and Frank Davey were editing, on “notation.” The first run was published in 1987 as Music at the Heart of Thinking followed by Alley Alley Home Free in 1992. This present collection extends into MHT 106–170, written since the early ’90s. They "seem more dispersed. Though they continue to be responses to texts, many of them are occasioned by a sense of seriality. Collecting them now for this edition, the aftertaste of the serial can be located in the kind of randomness that is important to writing as thinking that I found in Robin Blaser’s Syntax (1983) and Pell Mell (1988).” In a loose way, the series can be characterized as reflected readings of texts, art, and music - pensées, but always dwelling on composition as event.


JL: You’ve been steadily working on MHT for over thirty years and it touches on so many different works and influences you encountered during this time. Almost like a diary or journal of interior impressions. Preparing the poems for this collection, did you discover anything in the work that you didn’t notice previously? Something unconscious you didn’t see before? 

FW: Putting this collection together was supposed to be simply adding on to the two o.p. collections (Music at the Heart of Thinking 1987 and Alley Alley Home Free 1992) the pieces I had written, sporadically, since. I discovered, not necessarily unconsciously, that the “project” had transitioned somewhat away from an exploration of the long poem mode and its generative resistance to closure to, I guess, a more pointalistic occasion for composition to simply be available for response. That is, I continued trying to notate moments of reading, listening, and seeing but not as reliant on the prose poem as before. MHT became more of another chart to play, more part of a “fake” book in the midst of other projects, mostly collaborative work.

Besides some re-editing of the earlier books, I should, perhaps, also point to a re-take on the visual/formal layout of the text. I’ve usually worked with a justified right-hand margin for prose poems, but working through the pieces again I felt they could open up a little with a ragged right-hand margin. The arbitrariness of the justified margin now seems to me to interfere with the syntactic noodling I play within. Most of the blocks of prose poem are intended as runs and I don’t want to interfere with the phrasing. I guess that might have been a formal unconsciousness I didn’t recognize earlier.

When I eventually came to putting the collection together I discovered that, though I had still worked on intentional segments, like Gail Scott’s novel The Obituary, I had also used, I feel, a similar improvisatory stance to certain collaborative work and other attentions. For example, the discourse around translation spurred by hard-working poets like Nicole Brossard, Erin Moure, and Daphne Marlatt, overlapped with some of my thinking around racialized poetics. The notion of “inbetweeness,” the hyphenation in “trans-,” spread through most of my work. Virus-like. So much so, I think now, that the “project” (i.e. as a long poem) has settled itself into the poetics tool bag and is, thankfully, there for use.

In terms of “something unconscious” I hadn’t seen before I should note the conundrum of repetition this so-called “life-long poem” has awared me of. As I grow older and continue writing I’ve encountered that “déjà vu” I’m sure other writers have discovered. I frequently find myself treading the same river of words I did years ago. Why am I writing this? This is weirdly familiar. I think I wrote this before somewhere. So that’s a challenge for my modernist sensibility to “make it new.” But it also sometimes feels like a new disjunction. I’m excited by new conversations and listening to new voices. 


JL: That reminds me of a Gertrude Stein quote I've been thinking about a lot lately,  "The inevitable seeming repetition in human expression is not repetition, but insistence." Maybe not unconsciously, but it's tempting to look at our minds' repetition as insistence. What are some of the themes, the insistences, you see coming up over and over and has your perspective on these themes changed over time? What are the new conversations and new voices? 

FW: One of the “innovations” we’ve used for this new compilation of MHT is the index. Jeff Derksen, who helped edit the book, and who is very familiar with my writing, suggested the index as a reader’s aid to what is admittedly a “difficult” text. It’s there not so much as a database but as a different angle from which to approach the work. It’s a lexical collation, perhaps, of some of the insistent repetitions recognizable throughout my writing. I don’t think of these references and words as thematic so much as linguistically cellular; they are recurrences frequently beyond this book. My mangling of the word “dendrita,” for example, linked from “dendrite map” from some other text. The index has been interesting to me in that sense of “perspective,” not as a measure of change but as a different planar frame, almost a spatial reminder of the attention’s spread.

Recent conversations have been largely related to collaborations. Since the '90s I have collaborated with a variety of visual and other artists. A very recent project with Rita Wong and other artists addressing the Columbia River has been central to my awareness around repetition. The Columbia is part of my Kootenay yard so revisiting that geography has revealed to me how central “water” has been to my writing, curiously most poignant in Breathin’ My Name with a Sigh, a crucial writing through race in the late 70’s. Rita’s an eminent water knowledge poet so that conversation has been quite valuable for me. Another important recent conversation I’ve been having is with Christine Stewart (Treaty 6 Deixis 2018) around the language of listening and decolonization. Younger poets like Cecily Nicholson (Wayside Sang, 2018) and Kaie Kellough (Magnetic Equator, 2019) have, thankfully, kept the notion of contemporary alive for my greying mentality. And there are older voices that stay new. Stan Dragland’s book The Difficult (2019) came along just as I was finishing up the new MHT manuscript and substantiated for me that my writing was still engaged with “learning (…how to read) the simplest things.” But I’ve always insisted to myself the value of re- as an honest poetics; so there’s a continuous sense of beginning.


JL: In the "Notes" section of MHT you write about improvisational composition being "the practice of negative capability and estrangement I've recognized for many years through playing jazz trumpet, looking at art, and writing poetry."  You've mentioned some of your literary influence, but I was wondering if you could also bring up some of your improvisational influences from music and visual art. 

Interesting question, particularly re visual art. Most of the “visual” I’ve worked with lately has been with photographic projects. Though a collaboration I did with Bev Tosh in the 90’s (Articulations) worked with her anthropomorphic paintings/drawings related, for her, to Chernobyl. For that project, and most of the collaborations collected in Sentenced to Light, it was conversation that seemed to generate the writing. So, much of the time the improvisation has been located in the dialogic.

In the earlier edition of the MHT’s, Alley Alley Home Free, representational art came out of a project I titled “Artknots.” There were thirty-four of them and they were mostly in response to some time I spent in Paris in the '80s. In order to delimit the overwhelming performance of visual art in Paris I created a particular context around image-text; that’s what I sought out in my art gallery rambles. For this edition I decided to splice them in as a sub-series spatio-temporally constructed as an afterthought.

I guess the “improvisatory” nature of looking at and responding through a poetic naiveté points to, for me, improvisation as necessity, faking it. But that’s jazz too; make it up. I’ve always loved the disjunctive in jazz progression; you know where you are but you don’t know where you’re going. Here’s a response from a Judith Fitzgerald interview from a few years ago that is worth recycling;

In high school I played trumpet for the Kampus Kings, a 50’s dance band pre-rock ‘n roll mainly swing. And we had a quartet, Mulligan, Chet Baker, Brubeck, etc. I did a degree in music and English at UBC (composition) and then in the 60’s listened to Coltrane, Sun Ra and welcomed Miles Davis back with “In a Silent Way.” I picked up the trumpet again for a few years in the early 80’s and did a bit with friends in Nelson. Braxton, Kenny Wheeler, yes!

Now I listen to Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden a lot. I like the immersion, the extension. The element of “extension” is an aspect of improvisation I’ve found very attractive. The last piece included in this edition, #170, like #119 (“cat’s cradle”), is interesting to me for its compositional persistence to sustain the movement. Rap is interesting that way, though it often gets contained by lyric or narrative predictability.



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Fred Wah lives in Vancouver and in the West Kootenays. His poetry, fiction, and non-fiction has received numerous literary awards.

James Lindsay is the author of Our Inland Sea and the chapbook Ekphrasis! Ekphrasis! He is the co-founder of Pleasence Records and works in book publishing. He lives in Toronto, Canada.



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Thanks to James Lindsay and Fred Wah for this insightful interview! Music at the Heart of Thinking and Double Self-Portrait are available on All Lit Up. 



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