Incoming student writer-in-residence Gray Brogden set her sights on her new role early on – within hours of her first visit to campus.
“I learned about this position at Fall Preview Day and immediately decided that was my goal: to become student writer-in-residence,” said Brogden, a fourth-year student in the department of English and Writing Studies and in the School for Advanced Studies in Arts and Humanities.
Established more than 10 years ago, Western’s student writer-in-residence program provides support for an accomplished undergraduate writer, while allowing other students to benefit from the writer’s creativity, expertise and organizational skills.
Brogden wasted no time working on her portfolio and taking in experiences that would help deem her suitable for the role.
“Since the first day I heard about it, I’ve picked my courses with it in mind, my extracurriculars with it in mind and I’ve published with it in mind.”
Two weeks into her first year, she connected with then student writer-in-residence Courtney Ward-Zbeetnoff.
“I remember being on a call with her, saying, ‘I want to be you.’”
Similar conversations took place in Brogden’s second and third year as writers-in-residence Ashley Li (2021-22) and Matthew Dawkins (2022-23) filled the role.
Earlier efforts toward her goal where underway even as she entered her last semester of high school in Sudbury, Ont.
On December 31, 2019, Brogden made a new year’s resolution to write a new poem every day. Little did she know, most of those poems would be penned during a global pandemic. Lockdown fueled a lot of emotions, and a lot of content, allowing Brogden to complete her first full collection of poetry shortly after finishing grade 12.
“I filled two and a half journals with these really bad poems, but there were a couple of good ones that came out of it,” Brogden said. “I’m still really proud I kept my resolution. It helped me get in the habit of writing more frequently.”
Penned by Western
Brogden comes to her new post with a catalogue of approximately 700 poems, including those published in both Symposium and Semi-Colon, the Faculty of Arts and Humanities Students’ Council undergraduate publications, and as the recipient of the 2023 Marguerite R. Dow Canadian Heritage Award and the 2023 Lillian Kroll Prize in Creative Writing.
She also brings experience as the current president of Penned by Western, a club she’s particularly keen to promote as part of her work in encouraging and helping aspiring writers across campus.
“It’s made up of the greatest group of students I know, and they come from all faculties,” Brogden said, noting the two former presidents were science students. “Everyone is so supportive. I’ve made some of my best friends through the group. We share this space where we can be vulnerable with each other. There’s no judgement – it’s about being yourself and practicing your art.”
The club celebrates creative writing, poetry and the spoken word, offering weekly workshops where writers of all genres can hone their craft and share their work.
“People tend to have this image of the writer as Ernest Hemingway in a dark room with a glass of whiskey, which just isn’t always the truth for most people. Writing is a community event.”
From lyrics to love poems
Brogden’s journey as a writer began as a young girl growing up in Regina, Saskatchewan.
“I wanted to be Taylor Swift, so I tried writing songs. Unfortunately, I’m next to tone deaf, so Taylor Swift’s not going to happen.”
While love songs may not be in her wheelhouse, Brogden found her fit embracing the performative and lyrical aspects of poetry.
“People will tell you, ‘Gray writes loves poems.’ It’s my thing,” she said.
Her passion for spoken word performances was sparked in grade 10, when her English teacher shared a TED Talks video of writer Sarah Kay performing her poem, If I should have a daughter.
The style appealed to Brogden’s outgoing nature and desire to connect socially. There was another bonus.
“Poetry didn’t have the commitment issue that novels have–it tends to be a lot shorter. I had a good habit of starting novels but getting to about 500 words and abandoning them.”
Her first published poem, The Sound of Lonely was featured in the Sudbury Star, which led to her performing and placing third in a local poetry slam.
“Poetry is the best blend of truth and fiction. It’s confessional, but you can add fictional elements. It’s a really nice way to be yourself and talk about your feelings, but the part I love most, is going even further than that,” she said.
An ambassador for creative writing at Western
A big part of Brogden’s role will be holding office hours to help other writers.
“Anyone from any faculty with any creative writing endeavours can come see me to get editing tips or suggestions to improve their work.”
She will also be working on a collection of love poetry as her fourth-year creative writing thesis under the supervision of professor and poet David Barrick.
“Everyone could use a good love poem,” Brogden said. “They might be about romantic love, love in friendship or self-love,” she said.
She’s eager to embrace her role as “an ambassador for creative writing” with plans already underway to host open mic events and writing circles, and to collaborate with organizers of Words, London’s literary and creative arts festival.
To reach her goal and be recognized with the student writer-in-residence title feels “phenomenal,” Brogden said. “I’m really excited to connect with new students and to take my experience of being in the writing club, reading others’ work in this role. I really love seeing everyone’s creativity.”
Student writer-in-residence office hours for the fall semester are from 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Thursdays, beginning Sept. 7. Appointments can be made by email