The department of English and writing studies and Faculty of Arts & Humanities are celebrating 50 years of the Writer-in-Residence program, founded in 1972 to bolster the profile of Canadian literature as a discipline of study at the university.
Fifty years on, Western has played host to 53 writers of different backgrounds, styles and genres, including poets, culinary writers, playwrights, and essayists, from famed literary minds like Alice Munro to vital and new voices like Alicia Elliot and Zalika Reid-Benta. Michael Milde, dean of the faculty, refers to the past writers-in-residence as a “who’s-who” of Canadian literature.
“Over these 50 years, Canadian literature has been transformed,” notes Milde, “going from largely unknown and unsung to garnering international accolades, including the Booker and Nobel prizes in literature. I think it is reasonable to say that Western’s Writer-in-Residence program had a hand in that development. It offered, and still offers, writers a chance to practice their craft, and to mentor students and aspiring writers.”
This year also marks the tenth anniversary of the companion Student Writer-in-Residence program, which provides an undergraduate student with the opportunity to take on a creative leadership position on campus. Created in partnership with the University Students’ Council, the program provides the student writer-in-residence with a platform for their own work, as well as the facility of offering feedback and support to other student writers.
Over the course of their year-long residency, the writers hold weekly office hours at University College, open to members of the public as well as the Western community. The writers also host readings and other cultural events both on and off campus. It is their mission to provide the community with the opportunity for feedback from a seasoned and professional writer, and engage those members of the community who may not have been involved with literary arts in the past.
The writer-in-residence also holds office hours at the London Public Library’s central branch as part of the mission to engage the creative community beyond the boundaries of Western. Pauline Wakeham, vice-chair of English and writing studies, says the program has been “absolutely vital” in “fostering a dynamic culture of creativity and a sense of community that builds relationships between authors, scholars, students and the broader London area.”
The department recently hosted an evening of performances and storytelling commemorating 50 years of the program. Held at Museum London during the annual Words Festival, the event titled ‘Down the Rhyming Road’ invited guests to celebrate Canadian literature and writers. In addition to three video presentations, the evening featured a ceremonial opening by Indigenous Elders Dan and Mary Lou Smoke, and performances by former writer-in-residence and current Alice Munro Chair in Creativity Ivan Coyote, student writer-in-residence Matthew Dawkins, and current writer-in-residence January Rogers.
The evening coincided with efforts across campus to commemorate five decades of the program and the appreciation for Canadian Literature which originally inspired the creation of the position.
As part of the year-long celebrations, archivists and librarians at Western Libraries have established two displays in Weldon Library focused on the legacy of the Writer-in-Residence program. A physical collection of books by former writers-in-residence now sits as one of the first collections featured in the new Weldon Learning Commons bookshelves, as does a display of archived materials, such as news clippings, memorabilia and other materials honouring the history.
Led by collections and contents strategies librarian David McCord, Western Libraries have also curated a digital collection with over 1200 titles from 53 authors— their largest collection to date. The longstanding relationship between the writer-in-residence and Western Libraries is well-documented, with Weldon having played host to the writer-in-residence for numerous events over the years. Weldon too opened its doors in 1972.
Ultimately, this year offers a chance to reflect on the impact of Western’s writer-in-residence program—the first of its kind in Canada—and on Canadian literature as a field of study.