New Writer-in-Residence mentors students by teaching, and by example

Poet Margaret Christakos follows opportunity - and language - wherever they take her

Donna McKinnon - 10 November 2017

English and Film Studies' new Writer-in-Residence,Margaret Christakos, works with words the way a sculptor works with stone. It is a revelatory practice, reflecting a vibrant and deliberate embrace of the creative potential and mutability of language. Within shifting word formations and fluid interpretative processes, themes of motherhood, sexuality, the body, identity, and social media discourse are explored.

Playfulness, experimentation and collaboration define Christakos' life's work, which to date numbers nine collections of poetry, a novel, a memoir, and a wealth of cross-country teaching experiences, literary community-building, and residencies.

Christakos is excited about this new residency, which she says affords her the opportunity to mentor emerging writers and, secondarily, allows her the time and space to reconnect with her own fiction practice (she is working on her second novel). Relocating from her home in Toronto, Christakos is also looking forward to new creative engagements with writing communities on and off campus - a side benefit of such a residency.

One of the first things that struck her about the University of Alberta was its deep connection to the river valley.

"I didn't realize how much that ecosystem is merged into the campus," she says. "I haven't really been in a city that is so in dialogue with a river."

This is Christakos third residency. Her most recent gig was a Canada Council Writer-in-Residence at the University of Western Ontario, which ended earlier this year.

"My life is very flexible because it's also very precarious," she laughs, echoing the lived reality of many working writers and freelance artists in this country.

Christakos believes that acknowledging these real-life challenges is a crucial aspect of the Writer-in-Residence role.

"I think the position itself gives an important imagination to emerging writers about what the writing life actually is - and what it can encompass," she says. "But, I can also have conversations with students about their work that is not about the grades. It's really nice when that conversation shifts and it's more about probing why someone is writing what they're writing - who they are as writers, apart from the syllabus model."

One of the writing engagements she is facilitating this fall is a project called Canopy, a series of workshops and discussions which asks participants to consider their relationship to a single tree, or grove of trees, on campus, inspiring what she calls the "branching, boughing or rooting" of new writing. The next Canopy discussion will take place on November 22.

Christakos says that an improvised, collaborative project like this allows writers to feel like they've moved into a broader sense of what writing can do.

"I like to be able to give students a chance to really explore work they might not know even exists," she says.

Embracing possibility is the creative through-line in Christakos' multi-faceted, multi-media career. Initially trained as a visual artist, she credits the early 80s confluence of critical and feminist discourse, and the advent of performance, video, and conceptual art she witnessed (and participated in) as both an undergraduate and graduate student in Ontario as the inspiration for her own creative mutability.

"That was a very strong introduction to just being experimental and being open to playing with form and working across form, which is something I still do," she says.

Poetry, however, remains her deepest passion.

"I really love poetry, and I'll never stop producing it, whatever form it takes. We make language but it doesn't remove us from having that cauldron of unintelligible, churning movement of whatever it is we are. I've always been aware of wanting language to find its shape, and I think that's why I moved into writing. Something about working with language makes me feel located. Writing seems to be the thing that attaches me to this earth, this being. There is so much contact with the beautiful in language, the scary, and ugly, the unformed and deviant, but also just the shape becomes present for me. It's a form of art-making I really do feel is incredible, and it's never exhausted."

Margaret Christakos' most recent collection,Space Between Her Lips: The Poetry of Margaret Christakos, was published in Spring, 2017.

Visit Writer-in-Residence Margaret Christakos in her office, 3-91 Humanities Centre
Drop-In: Wednesdays, 1 - 5 p.m.
Appointments: Tuesday and Thursday, 1 - 5 p.m.
Phone: (780) 492-7811