Being asked to be the inaugural Carolyn Smart Writer in Residence at Queen’s University was an unexpected honour, and a daunting one. I mean, just look at the department’s most recent writers in residence: Omar El Akkad, Kaie Kellough, Canisia Lubrin, Catherine Hernandez, Karen Solie, Steven Heighton… yeah. This was the year they revamped the program, renaming it in honour of Carolyn Smart, a person whose contributions to Canadian literature are significant. It was also the first in-person residency since before the plague. No pressure. None whatsoever. So yeah, I felt my mouth go dry when the invitation came.
The Carolyn Smart Writer’s Residency is a two-month residency in February and March—right when I was expecting contractors to come and dig up the foundations to our house. Fortunately, Queen’s agreed that we could do a hybrid residency, so I spent February in Katarokwi|Kingston and then came back to Edmonton for March. February in Katarokwi|Kingston involved long walks along the lakeshore, listening to the symphony of melting ice along the shoreline, migrating birds, and people. As much as writers’ residencies are about giving authors the time to engage with their own work, they are also about community, and I wanted community to be central during my time in residence. I decided before the residency even started that I wanted to be as available as possible during my in-person tenure: I was on campus every day and maintained an open-door policy. It did not give me much time to write, but it did lead to many wonderful conversations with students, with faculty, and with members of the local writing community.
I met with graduate students on the first morning before my inaugural talk—I’d barely swallowed my first sip of coffee when they began to ask questions about writing, about editing, and about publishing. What I lacked in writing accolades compared to my predecessors, I made up for through my experience working for a press and as a freelance editor.
My inaugural talk renewed the case for littérature engagée. Now more than ever, I believe it is time for writers to speak out against inequalities and the encroaching dangers that beset our society. I did not consider it coincidental that Freedom to Read Week fell during the last week of my in-person residency or that the Association of Canadian Publishers (ACP), in partnership with the Canadian Publishers’ Council (CPC), were about to release the results of the 2022 Canadian Book Publishing Diversity Baseline Survey a week later. These are important matters for writers to be aware of, and I intended to use the opportunities at my disposal to raise awareness.
I followed my talk with two workshops on creativity and self-care for authors that built on the inaugural talk. In addition to the workshops, I also offered a series of informal discussions around key questions: Why do I write? Why do I edit? Why do I read? What compelled me to start writing? How to I bring activism into my writing? Can writing effect change?
The highlight of the month I spent in Ontario has to be the launch of Otoniya J. Okot Bitek’s A is For Acholi. Sadiqa de Meijer, poet laureate of Katarokwi|Kingston, welcomed everyone. The past two writers in residence, Kaie Kellough and Canisia Lubrin, read too. What a delight to hear three of Canada’s leading poets read together. What made the evening even better was hearing the young poets read their work—such energy! On quiet nights, I still hear echoes of Billie Kearns (Billie the Kid), Jhordan Layne, Shamara Peart, Abena Green, and Ashley-Elizabeth Best sharing their work. If residencies are about community, as I believe they are, and writing is about actively embracing the shifts in Canada’s literary landscape, it rarely gets better than this.
But let us not forget that residencies are also about giving writers the space to engage in their own writing. I had just completed a novel when I arrived and frankly, the creative well felt dry. Fortunately, the community gave back generously, providing the seeds for what that will eventually become a new book. Thank you Otoniya J. Okot Bitek and Sadiqa de Meijer for the early discussions from which my ideas keep growing. While I didn’t get much writing done over the two months, I did spend the time conceptualizing the new project and applying for grants (thank you Edmonton Arts Council for the gift of an Explorations Grant to continue my work on this planned project).
What are residencies for, if not to engage with other writers and to draw regenerative energy from the writing community? What worth is a residency if we do not make use of the opportunity to impress on people the importance of what we writers do.
When Peter Midgley let out his first yelp, the doctor said, “F$%^! Put a stopper in that!” So the nurse shoved his foot in his mouth, which is where it has been ever since. He takes it out only to change feet. He is the author of twelve books and plays, and numerous articles, and has been editing books since neolithic times. Peter’s awards and accolades fill the drawer of a filing cabinet, but highlights include receiving the Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence and the Lois Hole Award for Editorial Excellence; being a joint recipient of the IBBY-Asahi Award for Literacy Promotion in 1996 for his children's book, Thuli's Mattress; having his poetry collection, Unquiet Bones, shortlisted for the City of Edmonton Book Prize; and seeing let us not think of them as barbarians (NeWest Press) on the shortlist for the Stephan G. Stephansson Award in 2019. He did once receive a trophy for winning the three-legged race at the church fair when he was in Grade One. You can explore his verbal contortions at www.midgley.ca
Author photo credit: Shawna Lemay
Other photos: Seasmain Taylor