Chances are, one of the books sitting on your bookshelf was written by an alumnus of UBC’s Creative Writing Program, one of the oldest of its kind in the country. An educational collaboration with the Vancouver School Board extends its reach into high school classrooms, where UBC MFA students are tending Canada’s youngest writing talent.
One flight up from Philosophy, on the fourth floor of Buchanan E, carefully selected clippings from literary journals and newspapers line the walls. Announcements for writing contests and prizes are tacked to cork boards, alongside calls for lyrics and librettos. To read from one end of the UBC Creative Writing Program hallway to the other is at least an afternoon’s worth of literary and poetic immersion, culminating in the glass showcase housing a selection of books written by either graduates of the program or their instructors. Among many others of note there is Blood Sports, one of two bestselling novels by Eden Robinson, a Hailsa author and alumna whose first book, Monkey Beach, won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and was a finalist for the 2000 Giller Prize. And there’s The Cripple and his Talismans by another grad, Anosh Irani, whose novel The Song of Kahunsha was published in 13 countries, became a bestseller in Canada and Italy, and was a finalist for CBC’s Canada Reads. These two are just a small sampling of the writers who achieved what they came here for: seeing their stories in print.
The UBC Creative Writing Program, which continues to produce accomplished authors, is one of the oldest and most distinguished in the country, and these walls chart its history. Among the clippings, a few pages torn from an old issue of The Walrus magazine hang as a reminder of what “an increasingly influential cabal of Canadian poets” can become: black and white photographs from the summer of 1970 show a young Margaret Atwood, a sultry Michael Ondaatje, Milton Acorn seated in a stand of trees, and Earle Birney “having a nicotine fit” on Charles Street in Toronto. None of them is a grad, but it was Birney who established UBC’s Creative Writing Program five years before this photo was snapped.
As both poet and professor, Earle Birney (1904-1995) encouraged generations of students and his inspirational words can still be found in print up and down the fourth floor corridor. When it began in 1965, the program was Canada’s only credit-course in creative writing. As a template, Birney used the University of Iowa’s creative writing program. Founded in 1936, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop has amassed 28 affiliated Pulitzer Prizes earned by an impressive list of faculty and graduates. Notable writers include Flannery O’Connor, John Irving, Raymond Carver and the poet Tess Gallagher, Carver’s widow. What sets both the UBC program and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop apart is the learner-centred approach based on workshops that allow students to critique one another’s work. There is also a strong philosophy of mentorship.
Today, American poet Tess Gallagher is visiting UBC to address a class in room 476. She has just applied bright magenta lipstick and her eyebrows are drawn on in the fashion of a Hollywood actress from the 40s. When she speaks, her voice is musical and full of mirth. “Keep the doors and windows of your poems open,” she tells the students in Rhea Tregebov’s graduate class. “You never know what might fly in.” As if to prove her point, in the ensuing hour of poetry and personal anecdotes she shares with the class Gallagher conjures images of the Vietnam War, the executed Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, Oliver Cromwell and the blood stains of Irish monks still visible on monastery walls in Ireland, a hummingbird in torpor sealed in a wooden box, a Guatemalan mother cradling her dead child, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, and the grave of W.B. Yeats. Gallagher calls Yeats her poetic relative and says it is through him that she was “kidnapped by poetry.” His poetry came to her at the age of 18, through her first writing teacher. “It is like how singers pass songs down,” she says. “You pass your favourite poets down to your students.”
UBC creative writing professor Rhea Tregebov, a novelist and poet, met Gallagher at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival in 2010. By then, Tregebov had been reading the poet since the 70s, and credits her with inspiring a confidence to write in what was then a male-dominated world of poetry and prose. Tregebov invited the poet to visit her UBC class at a time that coincided with the launch of Gallagher’s latest poetry collection Midnight’s Lantern, recently released by Blood Axe Press. “I love that name,” Gallagher says to the class, “a bloody dripping axe cutting through everybody’s resistance to poetry.” The eight students seated around the table haven’t any aversion to poems. Many are doing their manuscript-length theses in verse. Emily Davidson, a graduate student in her third year, says she is attempting to complete a collection of poetry between 40 and 60 pages in length. “The page is where we go to make sense of being alive,” she says. But the process is slow-going. That is because, as Gallagher reminds the students, writing is rewriting. Gallagher’s late husband, Carver, was a celebrated short-story writer who lived by this basic rule. “Consider the moment of revision,” Gallagher says, “to have the equal possibility of creation.” Sowing these seeds in new writers is important because, like love, writing is easy to fall into. It is the sustaining and nurturing that is the challenge.
On the wall just outside the Creative Writing Program’s office are some words from Birney. “The feeling of companioning and helping young writers to survive and mature still sustains me,” he’s quoted as saying. This sentiment has found form not only in “the house that Birney built,” as the program at UBC has come to be known, but also in an extension program that takes creative writing MFA students into high schools where, instead of getting advice from established writers like Gallagher, they are the ones imparting the poetic and literary insight.
The New Shoots program is an educational collaboration between the UBC Creative Writing Program and the Vancouver School Board (VSB). For the last 27 years, graduate students have been paired with high school teachers and invited into secondary school classrooms as creative writing mentors. Past New Shoots mentors have included Billeh Nickerson, Charlotte Gill and Andrew Westolle, recent recipient of the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary non-fiction. Mentors work with high school students on submissions for the New Shoots anthology: a collection of poems, stories and original cover art by secondary students, selected and organized by a team of UBC student editors.
This year will see the publication of the 27th volume of New Shoots. Natalie Thompson, a prairie poet and graduate student in Tregebov’s class, is the program’s coordinator and says this year was the biggest ever for New Shoots, with 14 UBC students placed at 13 high schools across Vancouver. Her VSB counterpart, Ian MacLeod, a teacher at David Thompson Secondary School, has been involved with New Shoots since 1995. He says the program is important because it teaches students to use words to express themselves. “There are so many sides of ourselves that we pack away,” he explains, but New Shoots allows students space to investigate things in their lives that are challenging. “One girl explored honour killing,” MacLeod remembers. “It was very chilling what she wrote.”
Evelyn Lau, Vancouver’s current poet laureate, remembers high school as “the death knell” for anyone who was different as a teenager, “especially for the creative brooding literary types.” Lau’s parents had their sights set on their daughter as a doctor, but from a very early age the poet knew she needed to write.
“A lot of writers feel it but don’t trust it,” she says. Lau had poetry published in the New Shoots anthology the year before she ran away from home. She was 13. “Nobody takes you seriously at that age,” says Lau, whose first poem was published when she was 12. “When you start out you need validation and I was always looking for that.” Lau recalls being brutally determined and hungry for constructive criticism. She was fortunate enough to find one teacher, Robert Best, who read her critically and taught her not to be satisfied with early drafts.
Gene Derreth, a UBC alumnus and teacher at Vancouver Technical School, says that high school poetry is full of emotion but often lacks imagery. Then there are the vampire stories, lots of them. “But who am I to judge?” he says, noting he can’t ask the students to write like Raymond Carver but he can ask: “did I see any evidence of editing?” Unlike other schools across the district, Van Tech offers a suite of writing classes, and Derreth teaches them all. He asked New Shoots mentor, MFA student Ajay Mehra, to do one-on-one consultations with the students. “They work extra hard with the person from UBC,” says Derreth. Van Tech has a Poetry Cafe, an annual event started by Derreth, now in its seventh year. The 2012 Poetry Cafe took place in February and sold out days in advance of the event. Apparently, poetry is not yet dead.
On the walls of the fourth floor of Buchanan E, the words of Earle Birney speak to why poetry persists: “None of us wants to live but to affirm life. We all need the therapy of fancy and play, honest emotion, pity, laughter, joy. Especially the joy. That comes when the words move someone else from mere living to being Alive, Alive-Oh.”
The 2012 Poetry Cafe took place in February and sold out days in advance of the event. Apparently, poetry is not yet dead.
A student from Tregebov’s class in Bucanan E asks Gallagher about her ability to dance with agile grace around issues of sentimentality. In the hands of an inexperienced poet, sentimentality becomes sloppy soup but Gallagher easily incorporates nostalgic imagery to tear-jerking effect. The images are visitations, Gallagher explains. We use words to remind us of the wordless ways we are touched, she tells the students, but adds caution by quoting Flannery O’Connor: No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. Whether through poetry or song, theatre or film, everyone has, if even for a fleeting moment, been transported, touched, transformed. Then you are pulled out of the reverie and on you go back to the world of weighty affairs. “That reasoning part bears down on us so heavily,” says Gallagher to Tregebov’s students after reading “Prayer for Nettles” by Romanian poet Lilliana Ursu, “but there is an underworld that poetry borrows from that is so important to us.” That nether world allows Gallagher to co-translate Ursu’s poetry, with Adam Sorkin, even though she doesn’t speak Romanian. “I cannot tell you how that is true,” Gallagher explains, “but I could get the resonance and the spirit just like you can when you hear Edith Piaf sing in French.” The students sigh audibly in recognition. Ah, poetry.
A poem written by Vancouver Poet Laureate Evelyn Lau when she was a teenager participating in the New Shoots program:
By Evelyn Lau
Sun! explosion of light defying darkness heat blossoming corroding shadow shadow imitating man shadow flung from symmetry wild precise. Sun! sky lights up sun casting dreams dreams of brightness in little men; sun to scorch and sun to warm sun reflection in stranger’s eyes brushing fire illuminating creating Sun! No world without magic light.
A poem from this year’s anthology by Isabelle Fau from Eric Hamber Secondary:
The World is a Forest
By Isabelle Fau
The world is a forest, A sea of evergreens and dogwoods— Some trees in clumps, Others wanderers Collecting their own rays of sun Alone in a meadow. How I dream of wandering, My roots having space to Reach Grow Unfurl Into the vast earth that must be tapped Of all its knowledge and mysteries. I want to feel the sun on my face, The wind in my leaves, And the birds rest on my boughs. Instead I rest under the shade Of larger oaks, Their thick branches Only filtering some light And residual raindrops. One day I shall walk in flowers With a patch of sunlight All my own.
UBC Creative Writing’s online magazine includes information on local book launches, book clubs, volunteer opportunities and alumni news.
Continuing Studies Courses
UBC Continuing Studies offer a selection of creative writing programs, including one for teens.