Keeping creative writing alive

Despite budget cuts, Queen’s writer-in-residence program will continue to bring in writers

Billeh Nickerson, last year’s writer in residence, says writers in residences are walking institutional memory and the literary ambassadors of Canadian literature.
Billeh Nickerson, last year’s writer in residence, says writers in residences are walking institutional memory and the literary ambassadors of Canadian literature.
File Photo
This year’s writer in residence, Helen Humphries (right), is holding office hours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 2 to 5 p.m.
This year’s writer in residence, Helen Humphries (right), is holding office hours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 2 to 5 p.m.
File Photo

What does it take to supply Queen’s with a writer in residence? A lot of love and no small amount of change.

Recently retired Queen’s English professor and Kingston resident, Elizabeth Greene, told the Journal in an e-mail that many universities, beginning in the 1960s, had a writer in residence program.

“It took Queen’s 40 years to catch up,” she said. “Queen’s was one of the last on the block to get a writer in residence. People I ran into couldn’t believe we didn’t have one.”

It wasn’t until 2005, when Karen Hitchcock attended an English department meeting and asked the professors their “dreams” for the department that the idea began to take shape.

Greene said she told Hitchcock she dreamed of having a writer in residence—and Hitchcock was extremely receptive to the idea.

“She said how important creative writing was within a university,” Green said. “I then arranged a meeting with Pat Rae and Carolyn Smart and they did the work of liaising with the administration and liaising with Lillian [Allen].”

Greene said after Smart was successful in her application for a Canada Council grant, they brought Lillian Allen, an internationally renowned poet and writer who specializes in the writing and performing of dub poetry, to Queen’s in 2006.

“Although we have an absolutely amazing and wonderful teacher of creative writing at Queen’s in Carolyn Smart, she is only one person,” Greene said. “A writer in residence will give a different reading.

“In the best of times, a writer in residence is a link to the living tradition of writing that is being done even as we speak,” she said. “The writer in residence embodies writing, part of our contemporary experience on this planet and makes us want to engage with it as readers or as writers.”

Greene said a writer in residence is able to provide a network of acquaintances that extend outside the University itself.

“Lillian Allen had a budget for bringing in other writers and arranged a fantastic dub festival in November,2006,” she said. “Some people said it was the best thing they’d encountered since coming to Queen’s.”

Last year’s writer in residence Billeh Nickerson also had a budget for bringing in writers. He used that budget for Lighting the Candles, the reading that kicked off the Bronwen Wallace conference last spring.

Nickerson said he greatly enjoyed his time spent at Queen’s and the city of Kingston.

“I met a lot of amazing students and faculty members,” he said. “There are so many talented writers in Kingston and in Queen’s.”

Nickerson said the writer in residence program is vital to both Queen’s and the community at large.

“The writer in residence is basically walking institutional memory,” he said. “They are the literary ambassadors of Canadian literature.”

During his day-to-day routine as a writer in residence, Nickerson would consult with students, faculty and members of the Kingston community.

“Some are just beginning and others are much more polished,” he said. “I would give them management and career advice. Writing is something you do by yourself, but speaking to someone who is an active writer ... is a very life-affirming thing for them.”

Nickerson said the writer in residence program is great for the English department and Queen’s.

“Every institution is deserving of this kind of program,” he said. “It needs that kind of program. Writers need to share their writing. It’s what writers do. It’s really hard to work in a vacuum, but that’s what this program does—it brings the possibility of meeting these writers across the country that students can learn a lot from.”

Nickerson said his only worry is the economy, because the arts are quite often the first thing to get cut.

“But these programs inspire students and contemporary research,” he said. “They prep the seeds for future generations, new work, new students and creativity in general.”

Even before the writer in residence program initially got started in fall of 2006, Rae, English professor and former head of the English department from 2002 to 2007, said the English department hadn’t always offered a creative writing option.

“For a very long time, creative writing was not acknowledged as a credit for the English program,” she said. “During my headship, I was devoted to seeing creative writing getting a more central place in the department.”

Rae said Smart, the only creative writing instructor at Queen’s, was a constant advocate for bringing in creative writers.

“She was devoted to the cause of creative writing and she kept it going.”

Rae said Mark Jones, former English undergraduate chair, finally instituted creative writing as a credit in the English program a few years ago with Smart’s help.

“It was quite a significant change in the history of what counted in literary studies,” she said. “It was one of the first steps.”

Rae said the funding from Canada Council had been an opportunity for a department generally known as literary critics to acknowledge the creative side of language and literature.

“A great number of English and other students are creative writers themselves,” she said. “It’s very important that part of their lives as writers be acknowledged and legitimized as part of their academic life. Having a writer in residence every year, if we can, is a way of respecting that as an institution.”

Rae said the English department managed to get the funding from a variety of places—the principal’s office, the faculty of Arts and Science, the department of English alumni fund—and a considerable amount of lobbying was required.

Kirsteen MacLeod, a student in Smart’s creative writing master class and a Kingston resident, is someone who has greatly benefited from the writer in residence program.

MacLeod said after she learned she could visit Helen Humphries, this year’s writer in residence, she immediately signed up for some one-on-one time.

“Having Helen Humphries give me advice was pretty amazing,” she said. “When you’re kind of inexperienced and you don’t really know how things go ... she just looks at your work and she knows where to guide you.”

MacLeod said being face-to-face with Humphries provided her with valuable feedback, not only on how to better her writing but also with information on where to publish it.

“She suggested places to publish my work and advised me about getting grants,” she said.

Not only does the program help people on an individual level, but it also benefits the Kingston community, MacLeod said.

“The program brings cultural vitality to Queen’s and the wider community,” she said. “It’s not just for individuals who are developing their ability to publish, but for general questions. These writers have been through it and can give you advice to help you learn and grow.”

Marta Straznicky, English department head, said the program’s future depends on the department’s ability to match the funds that Canada Council puts forward.

“For the last two years, when we had Lillian and Billeh, the grant came from the principal’s office,” she said. “The Artists in Residences Grant was an internal competition within Queen’s and you can apply for up to $25,000.”

Straznicky said although they got the Canada Council grant this year, they did not acquire the remaining funds. Instead, the funds went to an international film maker and director.

“This reflected the shift to Queen’s international perspective,” she said. “Helen is definitely not just Canadian but she is a local writer.”

To match the Canada Council grant, Straznicky had to make a lot of phone calls over the summer. After much lobbying, she got the funds from the English department, Queen’s Archives, the office of the vice-principal (academic) and the Faculty of Arts and Science.

Straznicky said if funding can’t be met next year, she will try to continue the program on a smaller scale.

She said the Canada Council application has already been submitted for next year and she is already making plans to fundraise for the department, both for the writer in residence program and the Giller Prize Book Event, a program that gives copies of the Giller Prize-winning book to all graduating English students and hosts a panel with the author.

“We’re going to pursue it and keep it going in the same form it’s been running for three years,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s alive.”

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