UAlberta Writer-in-Residence program marks 40 years on campus

Department of English & Film Studies' Writer-in-Residence alumni list reads like a who's who of CanLit

Angelique Rodrigues - 29 February 2016

In 1976, award-winning Canadian novelist Rudy Wiebe founded the Writers-in-Residence program in the Department of English & Film Studies at the University of Alberta. The nine-month residency program is now the longest running program of its kind in Canada, and marks its 40th birthday this month.

It may be the 40th anniversary of the program but there have, in fact, been 45 writers-in-residence at the U of A over the years - a few were kind enough to share their residency with a fellow author.

The late Canadian novelist and children's author Matt Cohen (1942-99), was the university's first Writer-in-Residence (WIR) way back in 1976. He had just published the first in his acclaimed Salem Quartet series, The Disinherited, and released two new novels shortly after his residency: Woodhunters and The Colours of War.

The program, it seems, was a hit and lured many a talented writer and poet over the years, including Giller Award winning author David Adams Richards, Canadian poet and novelist Elizabeth Smart (1913-86) and author and literary activist Marian Engel (1933-85).

"The list of former Writers-in-Residence at U of A is a who's who of Canadian Literature," says Fred Stenson, a novelist and film writer and the program's current WIR. "The fact that the U of A has a 40 year Writer-in-Residence program is of major importance in that it verifies the deep roots of creative writing at this university."

Like the many who came before him, 20 per cent of Stenson's role is to work with students and the writing community. He holds office hours every Monday and Wednesday and anyone interested can book a private writing consultation with the author or pop by to pick his brain.

As beneficial as it is for students to have a living resource like the Writer-in-Residence on campus, the role has been equally beneficial for the writers themselves. Over the years, several former WIRs have given credit to their residency for inspiring their writing and introducing them to a supportive network of writers.

"UAlberta's Writers-in-Residence has been of great importance to many writers in Edmonton and surrounding communities. One of the greatest side benefits of the program has been that it brings writers from other parts of Canada here, and establishes a connection with local readers and writers," says Thomas Wharton, chair of the WIR program, associate professor in the department and a former Writer-in-Residence himself. "Many of our local writers have told me how much it meant to them to make new friends and acquaintances among those from elsewhere in the country."

There will be even more opportunities for making connections this month as the Writer-in-Residence 40th Anniversary Celebration kicks off on March 3. Twenty-three of the past Writers-in-Residence will be attending and the department has planned a number of events for the writing community - and any interested members of the public - to attend.

The festivities will begin Thursday (March 3) at 7 p.m. with a writers' cabaret at City Halls' Kids in the Hall Bistro. The event will feature readings from six former Writers-in-Residence including Gary Geddes, Catherine Bush and Trevor Ferguson. Wiebe will also be on hand, along with the program's major donor and former U of A creative writing student, Jason Kapalka.

Two public panels on Engaged Writing are set for Friday (March 4) afternoon in the Humanities Lecture theatre starting at 1 p.m. Some of the writers involved include Gary Geddes, Marilyn Dumont and Richard Van Camp.

And, on Saturday (March 5) five writers-in-residence will take over Audreys Books (10702 Jasper Avenue) for a WIR Celebration Reading at 2 p.m. Wharton says it will be a relaxed event, open to the public and presented in the style of a "pop-up reading." Among the pop-up's readers are Don McKay and Tim Lilburn.

The Writer-in-Residence program has been around as long as it has largely thanks to grants and donations from the public, including a very generous gift made in 1995 on behalf of Sandy and Kay Pearson, and a major endowment from English & Film Studies alumnus Jason Kapalka ('92 BA/'94 MA), who will be on hand Thursday at the Writer's Cabaret.

For anyone interested in the Writer-in-Residence position, Wharton recently revealed they've already chosen the next WIR, but he's keeping mum on the author's identity. But, he says, there's always the year after. The application is open to the public, and anyone interested in applying should visit the Writer-in-Residence website.