Writer-in-residence program marks four decades of connections

As Western’s Writer-in-Residence program, hosted by the Department of English, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, it’s important to keep its role and necessity in mind, said Manina Jones, professor and vice-chair in the English department.

“The writer-in-residence is a sort of lightning rod for creativity on campus, for making connections with the community. They bring people together and they don’t just serve the university. They hold office hours for students and members of the public,” Jones said.

The longest-standing program in the country, Western’s has, over the years, welcomed some of the best-known names in Canadian literature, among them Margaret Avison, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, Daphne Marlatt, Austin Clarke, Emma Donoghue and Joan Barfoot.

The writer-in-residence is significant, Jones continued, because the individual, each in their  own way, brings the community together, lending to creative life in the city, all while breaking multi-faceted barriers.

“It’s amazing how different they can be, and how they can contribute in very exciting ways unique to their personality,” Jones said.

She noted playwright and author Drew Hayden Taylor helped the university establish connections with local Native communities while the current writer-in-residence, Ivan Coyote, is making strides in reaching out to and forging a bond with many groups, including local high school students, teachers, alumni and members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.

In uniting the community, Jones said the position breaks the town-gown divide by way of the arts. It’s a role that nourishes and fosters connections and creativity, one that will always be necessary.

“It’s a unique position. It’s not a teaching position. It’s a mentoring position and it’s a community building position and a creativity building position. We don’t have anything like that. It’s an experience that enriches everything else and I don’t think there’s anything to replace it.”

What’s unfortunate, she said, is that writer-in-residence programs are increasingly endangered because of funding cuts. The University of Windsor recently put out calls for donations, indicating its program is in trouble and may be cancelled for 2012-13.

Western’s program – one of 24 in the country – isn’t facing any imminent dangers of extinction, she continued, noting the James A. and Marjorie Spenceley Fund contributes $10,000 annualy. That funding is usually matched by the Canada Council for the Arts.

“It’s money that’s not stretching as far as it used to. I’m hoping we’ll be able to top up stable funding in a way that will give us more to operate with,” Jones added.

Limited funds, however, make it difficult to attract writers of stature, and provide them the space and resources for their work and creativity.

“What we’ve been told is that in order to make it worth their while, we have to be able to offer them some money and it’s just not stretching that far. We’ve done some additional fundraising this year and were experiencing this year how amazing it is to have someone on site, in town.”

Jones said there are many stories students and members of the community can share because of their interactions with Western’s writer-in-residence.

As someone who’s been at Western since her undergraduate days, she’s eager to share her own memories of Austin Clarke, dubbed “the father of African-Canadian literature.”

“His idea of contribution was to start a writers’ group and put out a publication. We met every week, had amazing dinner parties. He would tell stories and make us think of what it means to be a storyteller. It was the highlight of my university career, no question about it,” she said.

“To have access to someone of his stature, to have the opportunity to meet with him privately and to have the mentoring – it was amazing.”

In fact, the program’s reach is looking to expand.

The English department, together with the University Students’ Council, is in the process of working out a student writer-in-residence position to run concurrently with the main program. The student would be chosen by the two bodies and be a mentor for others, fostering creativity on campus.

Jones noted there would be an honorarium as well and that, as it stands, the plan is to have a student writer-in-residence for the winter term.