Commemorating Common Magic

Conference honours Kingston writer and activist Bronwen Wallace, 20th anniversary of women’s studies department at Queen’s

Common Magic will celebrate the work of Kingston activist and author Bronwen Wallace.
Image supplied by: Supplied photo by Chris Whynot
Common Magic will celebrate the work of Kingston activist and author Bronwen Wallace.

Twenty years after cancer claimed Bronwen Wallace’s life, her cultural and political legacy lives on in Kingston. As the world gets ready for International Women’s Day this Saturday, activists, scholars, writers, residents and students are gathering for a three-day conference to meet, discuss and celebrate Wallace’s work as a Kingston writer and activist.

Aptly named Common Magic, after a book of Wallace’s poetry, the conference, which begins this Friday afternoon, will provide a forum to discuss and explore her writing and political work in the Kingston community.

The conference brings together nationally acclaimed writers from near and far such as Lorna Crozier, Phill Hall, Michael Crummey, Alison Pick, Sonnet L’Abbé and Queen’s own Carolyn Smart.

Wallace was 44 when she died. She spent the majority of her life working to foster creativity in her hometown. She held a Bachelor of arts and a Master’s in English from Queen’s, but quit academics while working on her Ph.D. because she found it too removed from the world around her, according to conference organizer and politics and women’s studies professor Margaret Little.

Wallace advocated for women’s and children’s rights in the shelter movement—trying, over the years, to create and maintain community shelters for battered women. She established a children’s program at Kingston’s Interval House (KIH), a shelter for abused women. She told the stories of women through compelling poetry and prose that won awards such as the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, Du Maurier Award for Poetry, Pat Lowther Award and the National Magazine Award.

Known for her unique and conversational voice, Wallace primarily wrote poetry but dabbled in prose. Her book of short stories People You’d Trust Your Lives To tells of the inner lives of women—she’s known for pulling women’s lives from the periphery and making them the central focal point in her writing. Her poetry books such as Common Magic speak openly about violence against women and children and the emergence of love, and her book Keep That Candle Burning Bright celebrates the power of music through poems inspired by folk musician Emmylou Harris.

She also made films, wrote the the Whig-Standard’s first feminist column and taught and mentored other writers in the community by running workshops, working closely with friends who were writers and teaching at St. Lawrence College and Queen’s University.

Smart, a writer, creative writing and English professor at Queen’s and Wallace’s close friend, helped organize the conference in Wallace’s honour.

“We were envisioning a conference that wasn’t just a writing conference. It mirrors her own life, in all its myriads,” Smart said.

“[Organizing the conference] has been really rewarding, because even 19 years after she’s been gone I try my best to stay as close to her as I can. This is another way to commune with her.

“She was so essentially Canadian. She lived here all of her life and she felt you could write anything in the world from your own backyard,” Smart said.

“I think those things are important to remember and work from.”

Although writing will be a huge part of the discussion, it’s only one aspect of the conference. Alongside poetry readings, the conference will feature academic presentations about Wallace’s writing, panels on women’s issues and activism past and present, and screenings of Wallace’s two films, All You Have to Do and That’s Why I’m Talking. Music and drama students will perform original compositions inspired by Wallace and Canadian folk stars Kate and Anna McGarrigle will perform Saturday night at Sydenham Church.

Wallace’s husband, Chris Whynot, and her son and executor of her literary estate, Jeremy Baxter, will both speak this evening as part of the conference.

“We decided early on it wasn’t simply to be about reminiscing about Bronwen but rather about how her spirit lives on and what is going on now,” Little said.

Little heard Wallace speak about women’s literature when she was a graduate student at Queen’s and has been an enthusiastic admirer of Wallace’s writing and passionate advocacy work ever since.

She said the community’s response to the conference has been overwhelming. “She’s touched people who are award-winning poets across the country. She’s touched people’s lives who are young artists with the Bronwen Wallace Award for emerging writers. She’s also touched all kinds of people in the Kingston area who read her columns in the Whig-Standard,” Little said.

“We have had phone calls from people in the community who have saved those columns that were 20 years old and said ‘I saved this one or that, would you like it?’”

Planning for the event began two years ago when the women’s studies department started planning celebrations for its 20th anniversary. A conference in Wallace’s name seemed the best way to encompass what women’s studies is about—the political and personal, the academic and activist, and a meeting place for a range of disciplines.

“I think that this is a very important moment for women’s studies. This is the heart of our 20-plus anniversary,” Little said.

“We now have enough security and have some time to run about organizing a conference, something we couldn’t have done 20 years ago when we were pleading with people to do a free lecture.

“I also think this speaks to what women’s studies is. This is so much a town-gown event. This has been a lot of sweat from feminists in the community who have been really instrumental to how this conference has taken shape.” Little assembled an organizing committee of influential writers and feminist activists from Queen’s and the Kingston community, such as women’s studies founder Elizabeth Greene and Jeanette Lynes, a Wallace essayist and women’s studies writer-in-residence.

“At our first meeting someone said, ‘Let’s not be afraid to dream big,” Little said. 

Funding for the conference came from a grant from the Social Sciences Humanities and Research Council, in addition to donations from the community, the Canadian Arts Council and several departments at Queen’s.

Common Magic is the first conference the women’s studies department has hosted. Aside from attending Common Magic, students have also lent a hand in volunteering with other Kingston residents to ensure the conference runs smoothly.

Wallace was instrumental to the department’s humble beginnings in the 1980s. When Greene established the University’s first women’s studies course she invited Wallace to speak about women’s writing. Years later, people are still vying to talk about Wallace. Tickets to the conference, which were offered on a sliding scale to be more accessible to students, sold out in January. But the conference has a few free events on campus in an effort to open the dialogue up to all community members.

Friday afternoon Queen’s writer-in-residence Billeh Nickerson will open the conference with Lighting The Candles, a poetry reading and ceremony. Nickerson, Toronto novelist and poet Zoe Whitall, Vancouver writer Michael V. Smith and student poet Lisa Kellenberger will read in Wallace’s honour.

Kellenberger, ArtSci ’08, is the only student-writer reading. Her involvement means three generations of writers will be coming together this weekend.

“Anyone with the sort of influence that Bronwen Wallace had is important to talk about. This sort of thing brings an opportunity for students regardless of discipline,” she said.

To host the weekend’s events, Queen’s alumna and CBC radio personality Shelagh Rogers is flying in from British Columbia. Rogers met Wallace while attending Queen’s but her work at the CBC brought her closer to the author.

“She had a real democracy in her writing. I think we can all really learn from that. She wrote so openly,” Rogers said.

“The circle around Bronwen is unbroken and very strong. The people who knew her and loved her still know each other and love each other.

“It’s a lovely opportunity to recall her name, say her name out loud and make her come to life again.”

Wallace touched people not only politically but on a personal level as well. Diane Schoemperlen, a local writer who moved from Alberta to Kingston in the ’80s after visiting the town for a writer’s workshop and meeting Wallace, is attending the conference as a participant in commemoration of her friend.

“Bronwen was one of the first people I met when I moved to Kingston,” Schoemperlen said.

“She helped me get to know the other people who were here. She was always ready for a conversation, a laugh, a hug. I think somehow she managed to do that for everybody.”

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