Western's writer-in-residence provides safe environment for budding authors

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Sandee Wong
Thursday, January 21, 1999
The University of Western Ontario is located in a part of Canada with an active literary culture. Yet, it is a university with only one creative writing course. The traditional way for universities to accommodate students interested in creative writing is to have a writer-in-residence. To this end, Robert Bringhurst is Western's writer-in-residence for 1998-99.

Prof. Alison Lee, coordinator of the writer-in-residence program, says Bringhurst is "an extraordinary man who has published a huge amount. He has worked in different media. He's produced documentaries, critical works, and poetry. We're incredibly lucky to have him. He communicates his love for what he does to people who don't have the wealth of experience he does."

Bringhurst, 52, has written more than 20 books in poetry and prose, four stage productions, and a one-hour documentary for the CBC called The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, directed by Alan Clapp. His work has been anthologised in more than 30 publications. Recent readings in London included parts his book The Calling: Selected Poems 1970-1995.

"I enjoy the ambience," says Bringhurst of university life. "I enjoy dealing with students, but I don't want to have to grade papers. I don't want to have to go to committee meetings. I don't want to have to teach a full course load year after year, or any year. This is a relationship with the University that allows me to get what the University can offer me and to give it some of what I can offer in return."

The writer-in-residence program offers a safe space for budding writers to have their work reviewed and critiqued. The English department has sponsored a writer-in-residence for the past 26 years. The program is funded by the James A. and Marjorie M. Spenceley Lectureship and Literature and Literature fund as well as by the Canada Council for the Arts. Bringhurst is also the writer-in-residence for the London Public Library. LPL applied for the program in conjunction with UWO's English department.

Bringhurst is available Mondays and Tuesdays on campus for consultation. Writers from any faculty submit their work to Bringhurst for review by making appointments through the English department office.

Born in south central Los Angeles, now a place "full of barbed wire and broken glass," Bringhurst immigrated to Canada at the age of five. His father was an ambitious man with little education. His mother taught him to read and write at the age of three.

"She used to give me legal pads and a pencil," says Bringhurst of his mother. "She taught me the alphabet first of all and I spent hours happily filling the pages with letters before I could read or write anything. She would come along and find the words that I had written quite by accident"

Bringhurst's mother also instilled in him a love of books. "She used to read stories to me which I would memorize," he says. "I can remember she would get bored reading these stories over and over again and would change them, and I would then correct her because I had memorized them. So I was using my mother as a tape recorder, which is a terrible thing to do to anybody, especially a mother."

Bringhurst was writing by the time he was 12, and published his first book when he was 25, but it was not "commercial," he says. "Poets don't make money by writing poems. I don't think I published anything of any interest or importance until I was almost 30."

The self-described poet has spent much of his academic life studying language and linguistics. He has also studied philosophy, literature, physics and architecture. To him, "University is like a big candy store. The shelves are lined with interesting things." He spent ten years - "by no means too long" -- getting his bachelor's degree in comparative literature.

A Canadian citizen, Bringhurst is fascinated by the native cultures in Canada. "If we taught history and culture and politics honestly in this country, one of the first things every student would learn in school is at least the names of all the languages that are traditionally spoken here," he says. "Instead, we teach people the names of all the languages that are spoken in Europe. . . It's not that I'm uninterested in European or Asian people, but why on earth would I ignore the culture of the place where I live?" Most North American universities do not have departments of literature, but departments of English, "as if that were the only language that mattered," he says.

Bringhurst also has a master's degree in creative writing. He compares writing to playing the violin. "If you're not willing to put that much time into writing and to learning to do it well," he says, "you can expect the same results that you would get if you just played the violin on Saturday afternoons for an hour."

"Perhaps [becoming a writer was a decision] made for me by my mother who did not happen to be able to play the piano or the violin or to paint or to speak Yiddish," says Bringhurst, "but she did know how to read and write and it occurred to her for some reason to teach me these skills very early."

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