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The write track

Nearly half a century since its inception, Concordia’s Creative Writing Program continues to flourish beyond its founder’s wildest dreams
May 5, 2014
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By Aviva Engel

OTT1106-BLAIS1 Creative Writing Program founder Clarke Blaise received an honorary doctorate from Concordia in 2013. Credit: Patrick Doyle

Award-winning author, literary-arts advocate and recent Concordia honorary doctorate recipient Clark Blaise, LLD 13, was barely 26 years old when he approached the chair of Sir George Williams Department of English, Sidney Lamb, with an idea.

It was 1966. Blaise had recently moved to Montreal from Iowa and was working as a literature and writing professor in the department alongside colleague “Peggy” (better known as Margaret) Atwood. He proposed to create a program geared exclusively to creative writers. “Lamb thought it was interesting,” recalls Blaise. “He didn’t say goodbye. He was receptive, which I didn’t think would happen.”

Blaise also could not have imagined that almost 50 years later — and decades after he left Concordia in 1978 — the program he envisioned would not only survive but thrive on its reputation as one of North America’s finest. “I came to Montreal out of programs in Iowa that were so devoted to creative writing,” he says. “In Montreal, I saw extraordinary talent. If I had not had such incredible students at Sir George Williams, I probably wouldn’t have been fired up.”

Launched in the early 1970s, Concordia’s Creative Writing Program was based on the same curriculum Blaise had studied as a graduate student in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. (Blaise would later become a professor and director of the Iowa program, which is a residency.)

In May, a new curriculum will be unveiled at Concordia. Its author, Terence Byrnes, MA 80, was the Creative Writing Program’s coordinator until fall 2013. For Byrnes, the program has certainly come a long way from its fledgling years. And he should know — Byrnes was a first-year Concordia graduate student in the Department of English when he attended Blaise’s weekly writers’ workshops in 1975.

byrnes Terence Byrnes, the Creative Writing Program’s coordinator until fall 2013, designed its new curriculum. Credit: David Ward

“Clark held his course in his living room in Westmount. Every Friday he would have hard cider and coffee waiting for us,” recalls Byrnes. “In that class, I remember a Welsh wom­an who was a translator for the NFB, a fellow who had not long before gotten out of prison, a Canadian who had joined the U.S. armed forces to fight in Vietnam and then become a mercenary soldier, and a number of poets,” says Byrnes, a prolific writer and president of Maisonneuve magazine’s board of directors. “I had been writing for Rolling Stone and Esquire and had just moved back to Canada from the States. There was even an undergraduate student in our class, Peter Behrens, who would win the 2006 Governor General’s Award for English fiction. There were about 20 students in total. It was a more varied and probably somewhat older group of people than you tend to find now, from a lot of directions in life.”

From living room to classroom

Today, the Creative Writing Program offers several programs of study: an undergraduate major and minor in creative writing, an honours in English and creative writing, and a graduate degree in English with a creative writing option. Some 350 students are currently enrolled in creative writing programs at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, led by seven full-time faculty and, at the moment, seven part-time faculty. According to program coordinator and associate professor Stephanie Bolster, the department receives many more applications than can be accepted. The teacher-student ratio is deliberately kept low and the classes are conducted in seminar-style whenever possible, with desks configured to facilitate eye contact and communication.

“The graduate program in particular tends to draw students who are really engaged as readers, and pretty self-aware as writers,” says Bolster, an award-winning poet. “Because they gain insight through their reading, they bring that insight into their own work. We’re certainly willing to take risks on writers who seem promising, if there’s something original in what they’re presenting. We’re looking for something that really stands out. Our standards are quite high and the level of writing and criticism in the classes is impressive. We attract students who are interested in developing their work and are open to learning — not those who just want to come in and walk out as literary stars.”

A unique program in a “writer’s city”

Concordia’s MA in creative writing requires its students to complete an equal number of creative writing and academic courses prior to composing a creative thesis. “Our students take creative writing workshop courses but might also take classes on the Victorian novel, or Milton, or Shakespeare,” says Bolster. “So they’re usually equally at home on both sides.”

didur Department of English Chair Jill Didur says the Creative Writing Program’s award-winning faculty are a great draw for students. Credit: David Ward.

Beyond its educational allure as a first-choice institution for many aspiring young writers, Concordia is well positioned in the heart of Montreal’s booming multilingual arts scene — a huge draw for international students. “Montreal tends to be a city that attracts writers,” says Jill Didur, associate professor and chair of the Department of English. “It’s a very lively city and there’s a large community of anglophone writers here. Many of our faculty and graduates contribute to programming and events that take place around Montreal.”

Bolster agrees. “There’s a strong spoken-word scene [writers who perform their work on stage] and a strong digital media community in Montreal, and that’s becoming increasingly important for some of the students in our program,” she says. “It’s a vibrant and relatively affordable city to live in, and this attracts a lot of students from elsewhere.”

Accomplished faculty

For Byrnes, the strengths of the Creative Writing Program lie in faculty members’ openness to various artistic viewpoints. “Faculty are very adept at switching into other aesthetic perspectives. One sign of this is their ability to pinpoint a graduate student’s strengths and to direct that student to a colleague who might be an ideal thesis supervisor,” he says. “There is none of that kind of resentment that’s based on political or ideological commitments to art that one sometimes finds in both English literature and creative writing programs. I can honestly say that everyone in the program is entirely committed to the best teaching and supervision that a student can be given.”

Professors’ reputations as top teachers, mentors and distinguished writers in their own right inspire creative writing students to pursue their degrees at Concordia, says Didur. “Pretty much every creative writing student who applies to our program specifies an interest in working with a particular professor. Students are very aware of who our faculty are.”

And they are, largely, winners and nominees of prestigious national and international literary honours. Assistant professor Sina Queyras, MA (Eng.) 95, for example, is a prize-winning poet whose work was shortlisted for both the Governor General’s Award and the Amazon First Novel Award. Queyras’s literary journal, “Lemon Hound” (lemonhound.blogspot.ca), is one of “the best known online poetry journals in North America,” says Didur. Another faculty member, Professor Josip Novakovich, was recently short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize for fiction. (To read an excerpt of Novakovich’s work, see Iceon page 33.)

“Our faculty are doing their best to keep active careers themselves,” says Bolster. “This creates a dynamic envi­ronment for our students.”

Star alumni

Concordia’s creative writing students have done their teachers proud. “I cannot think of a significant literary prize in the country for fiction or poetry that one of our students has not won,” says Byrnes. From Johanna Skibsrud, MA 05, whose bookThe Sentimentalist won the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, to two-time Governor General’s Literary Award winner Nino Ricci, MA 87, who won in 1990 for The Lives of Saints and in 2008 for The Origin of Species, to Kate Hall, MA 06, whose book The Certainty Dream was shortlisted for the 2010 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize, Concordia alumni have made an indelible mark in the literary world.

“Carmine Starnino [MA 01], one of the most important poet-critics in the country, was co-founder of Maisonneuve, while Arjun Basu [BA 90] was the editor of Air Canada’s enRoute magazine,” Byrnes adds.

Bolster points out that creative writing graduates aren’t limited to pursuing careers in the arts. “Alumni of our program are everywhere — not just in the expected places. We have alumni who are writing video games, doing journalism, teaching in CEGEPS, teaching ESL or doing translation work,” she says. “Wherever they are, they bring attentiveness to language and to communication that has been enriched through their time in the Creative Writing Program.”

A glimpse into the future

In addition to a new Creative Writing Program curriculum, the Department of English is currently developing an MFA program that will enable students to take courses in other non-English disciplines that contribute to their creative work. “The program will broaden to accommodate an all-consuming sensibility that writers have,” says Byrnes. “They need to know so much about the world and we are helping them do so by giving them access to all kinds of studies which will feed their creative work.”

Reflecting on the program’s early days and the degree to which it has flourished, Clark Blaise appreciates its ongoing success and enduring reputation — a reputation he established from the start. “I run across graduates of the Creative Writing Program in the States and Canada who I had nothing to do with, but they knew to go to Concordia as the place for polishing and for learning fundamentals,” says Blaise, who is currently penning his fourth novel and 25th book. “They felt confident that once they left, they had not only passed the bar — they had risen above the bar. The bar was sufficiently high that if you got your degree at Concordia and went through the Creative Writing courses, you were as prepared as anyone else anywhere in the world.”

If not more so.

— Aviva Engel, BA 02, is a Montreal freelance writer




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