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VerseFest: Phoebe Wang on identity

By Kabriya Coghlan on March 23, 2017

VerseFest, Ottawa’s annual festival of poetry, is currently running until Sunday, March 26.

Canadian poet and critic Phoebe Wang will be presenting at VerseFest as part of the Arc Poetry discussion panel at 3pm on Sunday, March 26. The poetry reading will take place at Knox Presbyterian Church on Lisgar St. and will also feature the voices of Jill Jorgenson, Lisa Robertson, and Robyn Sarah.

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Photo by Guillaume Morrissette.

Wang frequently explores themes about identity and belonging in her writing. In an interview with Apt613, she said she’s always done so since she began writing as a child.

“When you write about the world around you, you feel more like you belong,” Wang explained.

“My parents are immigrants from Hong Kong, so writing about my landscape or writing even just nature poems – they usually make me feel more of a sense of belonging in the place I am.”

Wang was born in Ottawa and attended Canterbury High School before her family eventually moved to Vancouver. Her parents raised her and her sister with connections to their heritage, celebrating Chinese holidays even while they themselves were trying to adapt to life in Canada, Wang explained.

“I was born in Canada, and they always kind of – people step back, be a bit apologetic. We don’t have to assume that because you’re not Caucasian, you’re not Canadian. So that always made me think about ‘What is Canadian?’”

Writing about the fluidity of her identity came naturally, she said, because writing in itself is a fluid form of expression.

“Identity is something that you’re forced to explore when you’re an immigrant, because you have so many people asking where you’re really from,” Wang said.

“I’m like, I was born in Canada, and they always kind of – people step back, be a bit apologetic. We don’t have to assume that because you’re not Caucasian, you’re not Canadian. So that always made me think about ‘What is Canadian?’”

She tackles that question in her upcoming book, Admission Requirements (McClelland and Stewart), which will be released this spring.

The book is about “Canada as a kind of Eden,” Wang explained. In it, she writes about how Canada is “a garden that we try to enter. And the whole idea sometimes of the Western World is kind of like that, like you have to be really, really lucky to be born inside this garden, and also what do we do with all the people wanting to clamber in or get into the garden? Who makes the rules about who gets to go in, who gets to leave, so who gets to live there? That became the back thought of the book.”

Wang is also a poetry critic, and her reviews have appeared in publications including Arc, The Malahat Review, and The Toronto Review of Books. She began writing reviews a few years ago, after seeing a U.S. organization’s report on the gender breakdown among reviewers at established literary periodicals.

“I have to read [these books] otherwise no one else will, right?”

“The numbers were just appalling,” Wang recalled. “There are some cases and certain publications where men were writing about 75 per cent of the reviews, and 50 percent [of all of the reviews] were [men] reviewing other men’s books… And that has a trickle down effect.”

Reviews are significant because they can translate into visibility and cultural prestige for the authors and poets, Wang explained. She decided to focus her reviews on books by women, people of colour, and First Nations poets, who frequently weren’t being afforded the same opportunities.

“I have to read [these books] otherwise no one else will, right?”

At VerseFest, Wang will be presenting some of her garden poems from her upcoming book as well as other poems she’s written about diaspora and identity. She hopes the variety of the different poets who are presenting will make for an enjoyable afternoon.

“It’s a treat for the audience to just be able to hear and enjoy poets, and we kind of almost need it more than ever right now, with what’s happening in the news,” Wang said.

“So if people have a free afternoon, [they can] come and sit and hear and hopefully [they] will see something that will be good for their soul.”


VerseFest tickets can be purchased online. Tickets are $18 for a weekday pass or $25 for a Saturday or Sunday pass. The schedule of poets presenting throughout the festival can also be found online at www.versefest.ca.

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