Fred Wah’s Permissions was the 2013 Garnett Sedgewick Memorial Lecture, a lecture series that honours the first head of English at the University of British Columbia, who served from 1920 to 1948. It was an interesting event if only because the TISH writers have not been especially welcome on the UBC campus in the fifty years since 1963. This frostiness has occurred partly because of ideological splits within the English department during the TISH years, partly because TISH mentor and professor Warren Tallman viewed most of the department as “drones” (see my When TISH Happens 190) and in return was regarded, together with some of his students, by many of his traditionalist colleagues as insufficiently academic, and partly also because of hostility from UBC’s careerist Department of Creative Writing (see http://bcbooklook.com/2014/03/17/ubc-creative-writings-50th/) that was founded in 1964.
Not surprisingly Wah indicates some unease about his situation at the beginning of his lecture, noting that he’s been away from university teaching for ten years and is “feeling a little numb and rusty about the kind of discourse you might expect of me,” and confessing that even during his teaching years there had been “a necessary pretense in my critical writing” (9). Of the original five TISH editors, he was the only one, as I recall, who had not been a major in the Garnett Sedgwick-founded Department of English – an irony of which he was possibly aware.
Having noted his reservations, he then presents an accurate two-page summary of the 1960-63 TISH years and the North American literary context in which they occurred of “flare-ups” in search of "permission" to practice "a poetry
After the discussion of TISH poetics and Wah’s own experiences of them (pages 9-17), Permissions has two more parts. Pages 18-25 contain his reflection on “Thereafter,” which is a reflection not on any TISH thereafter, as a reader might have expected, but on the development of his personal poetry and poetics following 1963. Three of these seven pages are his poem “Outskirts” and two others are mostly passages from his poems – a good way to find relief from “necessary pretense” (as well as to get one’s poems circulated).
I think this approach to ‘thereafter’ is fair. Wah didn’t remain in close contact with the other TISH writers during the later 1960s, but lived in the US and edited and published almost entirely within a US poetry community. In Canada in the 1980s he made a swerve into identity politics which most of the TISH writers and his Language-writer colleagues in the US did not make.
The third part is a five-page addendum to his apparently too-brief lecture. He introduces pages 26-28 as “a short description of the 1963 event which I wrote for the BC Writers Federation in 2009” and pages 28-30 as a passage “from a forthcoming essay on feminist movements and the ’63 conference [another of those lapses I was mentioning]” by his partner Pauline Butling. These are also both accurate and useful contributions to the historiography of TISH and helpfully confirm much of what has been already written by Butling and others.