‘It’s stunning, rugged & beautiful’

Why more than 60 writers have chosen to live and work in the Kingston area

The opportunity to watch the sun rise over Lake Ontario is one of the many reasons why writers find themselves drawn to Kingston.
The opportunity to watch the sun rise over Lake Ontario is one of the many reasons why writers find themselves drawn to Kingston.

Me, I keep on living here, without meaning to.
Friends ask me why, I say light,
I say lake, I say cost of housing,
but it doesn’t add up and most of them know it.

—Bronwen Wallace on Kingston, “Place of Origin,” Common Magic (1985)

Steven Heighton. Bronwen Wallace. Diane Schoemperlen. All are distinguished members of a large group of professional writers who have come to Kingston for one reason or another—whether to go to Queen’s, to enjoy the less expensive cost of living, or simply to enjoy the scenery—and ended up staying here permanently.

Carolyn Smart—who is herself a resident of the Kingston area, a Queen’s English professor and a published author—said she believes there are approximately 65 professional writers living in and around Kingston.

“I think [writers are drawn here] partly because it’s so central to Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal, and because it’s cheaper to live here than in those cities,” she said. “It’s also a big draw with the lake, and the landscape.

“I live at the edge of the Canadian Shield, and it’s stunning, rugged and beautiful. I love it.”

A wide variety of writers have been drawn to the Kingston area over the years as the Canadian literature canon has developed and expanded. Al Purdy, one of Canada’s best-known poets thanks to his larger than life personality and the distinctive verses he penned over his 40-year career, was one of the figures at the head of this trend.

In the 1960s, Purdy built himself an A-frame log cabin on Roblin Lake, between Kingston and Belleville, and the landscape of the area loomed large in his vivid and energetic poetry.

Purdy also played an important mentoring role for rising Canadian authors until his death in 2000. Over the years, he invited many up-and-coming writers—including a young Michael Ondaatje and Dennis Lee—into his home to talk about their shared passion for writing.

“He was so generous, he would just invite people over to talk about poetry and language—about the craft, which is so important,” Smart said.

Ondaatje went on to set down roots in the area and bought a cottage north of Kingston, in the same area as the summer homes of fellow writers Stan Dragland and the late Matt Cohen.

Purdy was ably seconded in his efforts at mentorship by David Helwig and Tom Marshall, both of whom taught at Queen’s while publishing and becoming well-known writers themselves.

Marshall—a poet, novelist, critic and editor—earned a BA in History and an MA in English from Queen’s before becoming a professor here in 1964, two years after the similarly multi-talented Helwig took up a teaching post.

Both writers taught and inspired a wide variety of young authors like Steven Heighton, whose 2004 poetry collection, The Address Book, includes a verse that references Marshall after the latter’s death in 1993.

A significant crop of women writers have also called the Kingston area home. The list begins at first glance with Bronwen Wallace, the poet and short story writer whose untimely death in 1989 at age 44 represented a major loss for Canadian literature.

Wallace, the descendant of United Empire Loyalists, lived in Kingston all her life, and much of her poetry, like Purdy’s, makes reference to the people and landscapes she encountered in this region.

Any list of female writers living and working in the Kingston area must also include Smart and fellow poets such as Jan Allen and Mary Ellen Csamer, as well as writers of fiction like Diane Schoemperlen and non-fiction like Merilyn Simonds.

“Bron [Wallace] drew me to this town—she published me in Quarry [a literary journal that showcased the work of many a rising Canadian author] while she was editor, and she took some of my poems and really encouraged me,” Smart said. “And then I met her at a reading, and we just became the closest of buds instantly.”

Schoemperlen, who won the Governor General’s Award for English fiction in 1998 for her short story collection entitled Forms of Devotion: Stories and Pictures, is another member of the talented cadre of female writers who have settled in Kingston.

Though she has lived in places as diverse as Thunder Bay, Canmore and Banff—where she studied under Alice Munro, the reigning queen of short story writing—Schoemperlen chose Kingston for its natural beauty.

“Diane came here because she thought it was beautiful—and she came here from the Rockies,” Smart said.

For more on Steven Heighton, please see the interview on page 15 and visit Indigo Bookstore tomorrow at 3 p.m. for his live reading.

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