Comprised of two lines of poetic text flowing along a 114-foot-long map of the Columbia River, this powerful image-poem by acclaimed poets Fred Wah and Rita Wong presents language yearning to understand the consequences of our hydroelectric manipulation of one of North America’s largest river systems.
beholden: a poem as long as the river stems from the interdisciplinary artistic research project “River Relations: A Beholder’s Share of the Columbia River,” undertaken as a response to the damming and development of the Columbia River in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, as well as to the upcoming renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty. Authors Fred Wah and Rita Wong spent time exploring various stretches of the river, all the way to its mouth near Astoria, Oregon. They then spent several months creating long poems along the Columbia, each searching for a language that evoked the complexities of our colonial appropriation of it. beholden was then assembled as a page-turning book that reproduces the two long poems as they respond to the meanderings of the river flowing two thousand kilometres through Canada, the United States, and the territories and reserves of Indigenous Peoples. Visual artist Nick Conbere then transferred this winding footprint into a monumental, 114-foot horizontal banner.
beholden: a poem as long as the river “reads” the geographic, historical, political, and social dimensions of the Columbia River, literally and figuratively, proposing two contrasting kinds of attention. As both a stand-alone poem and an accompanying piece to the visual installation exhibited at various galleries, beholden represents a vital contribution to a larger dialogue around the river through visual art, writing, and public engagement.
Fred Wah was born in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, in 1939, and he grew up in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia. Studying at the University of British Columbia in the early 1960s, he was one of the founding editors of the poetry newsletter TISH.
Of his seventeen books of poetry, is a door received the BC Book Prize for Poetry, Waiting For Saskatchewan received the Governor General’s Award, and So Far was awarded the Stephanson Award for Poetry. Diamond Grill, a biofiction about hybridity and growing up in a small-town Chinese-Canadian café, won the Howard O’Hagan Award for Short Fiction, and his collection of critical writing, Faking It: Poetics and Hybridity, received the Gabrielle Roy Prize.
Wah was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2012. He served as Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate from 2011 to 2013.
Rita Wong was born in 1968 and grew up in Calgary. She has taught English in China, Japan, and Canada, and currently lives in Vancouver where she remains active as a writer, activist, and archivist. In 1997 she received the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop emerging writer award. She is currently teaching at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver.
"The fun that these two fine writers had in engaging with the Columbia is evident in the wordplay of the poetry"
—Frances Boyle, Canthius