Creative Writing at Brandon University: An Introduction

by Di Brandt

The Creative Writing program at Brandon University is quite new. It grew from a few courses in the English Department, taught sessionally by award-winning playwright Dale Lakevold and songwriter and poet Jane Scott in the early 2000s, into a program with courses at every level and in several genres in 2005, constituting a major in Creative Arts, and a minor in English.

BU received two full-time appointments in English and Creative Writing in 2005: Dr. Di Brandt, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Creative Writing and Canadian Literature, and Dale Lakevold, now Associate Professor in Creative Writing and Canadian Literature and Creative Writing program head. We continue to hire sessional instructors including Jane Scott for courses in several genres.

In 2006 we held our inaugural 4rth year Creative Writing thesis defence, with the talented Aboriginal artist and poet, Vincent Harris, whose project was a manuscript entitled Politically Correct Language of an Undomesticated Indian: A Collection of Poems, supervised by Di Brandt. with committee members Dale Lakevold and the critically acclaimed Aboriginal playwright Tomson Highway, who was the BU Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Arts for 2007-2008.

Since then, we have graduated eight students in the program, with thesis projects ranging from poetry to drama, to children’s writing and multimedia, to life writing and memoir.

Di Brandt’s CRC project is titled "School for Ecopoetic Experiments (SEE)," and came with a $70,000 CFI-funded Poetry Video Lab, in which to experiment with and develop innovative multimedia approaches to poetry production. The lab has been used for courses in Multimedia Poetry with Professor Di Brandt, Mixed Media Visual Arts with Professor Kevin DeForest of the Department of Aboriginal and Visual Arts, and several workshops including a Multimedia Poetry Workshop with ManLab Graphics of Winnipeg. The Lab has been very ably managed by multimedia artist and technician Derek Gunnlaugson, who also teaches audio-visual editing in the lab courses.

The Creative Writing program has been very busy and productive these past several years. Di Brandt has published five books since she arrived at BU: Re:Generations: Canadian Women Poets in Conversation, a multimedia poetry anthology edited by Di Brandt and Barbara Godard (Black Moss 2005); Speaking of Power: The Poetry of Di Brandt, a teaching anthology of selected poems as one of the first titles in the WLUP Poetry Series, with Introduction by Tanis McDonald and Afterword by Di Brandt (WLUP 2008); So this is the world & here I am in it, a collection of poetic essays (NeWest Writers as Critics X, ed. Smaro Kamboureli, 2007), which was nominated for the McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award; Watermelon Syrup: A Novel, by Annie Jacobsen with Di Brandt and Jane Finlay-Young, with Introduction by Finlay-Young and Afterword by Brandt (WLUP 2007), which received the Foreword Magazine Gold Medal for General Fiction; and Wider Boundaries of Daring: The Modernist Impulse in Canadian Women’s Poetry, a collection of essays re-assessing the achievement of Canada’s women writers in the modernist movement, edited by Di Brandt and Barbara Godard (WLUP 2009). For more information on these and other works, see her website at www.dibrandt.ca.

Di Brandt also wrote the lyrics for Emily, The Way You Are, a one-woman chamber opera featuring the life and work of Emily Carr, with musical score by Jana Skarecky, which premiered at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario in April 2008, with Ramona Carmelly, mezzo-soprano, and the Talisker Players directed by Gary Kulesha. Her forthcoming poetry manuscript is titled Walking to Mojacar.

Di Brandt’s multimedia poetry work in collaboration with musicians Rebecca Campbell and Carol Ann Weaver and the poetry of Dorothy Livesay (Awakenings: Poetry and Music in Four Voices), was featured in performance at BU in 2007, and has been performed by Rebecca Campbell and Carol Ann Weaver around the world since it was recorded on CD in 2003. Di Brandt’s multimedia poetry work with internationally renowned installation artist Aganetha Dyck and honeybees, which premiered at the De Leon White Gallery in Toronto as Working in the Dark in 1997, is currently exhibiting as part of an exhibition titled Collaborations at the Burnaby Art Gallery in B.C.

In addition to these projects, Di Brandt has hosted an annual Literary Speakers Series at BU since her arrival here in 2005, generously supported by the BU Faculty of Arts, the Canada Council for the Arts, the League of Canadian Poets, The Writers’ Union of Canada, the Manitoba Writers’ Guild, and Canadian publishers. Writers featured in this series include Lee Gowan, Stan Dragland, J.S. Porter, Marilyn Dumont, Clarise Foster, Anna LaPointe, Birk Sproxton and numerous others. A highlight event was a Red Carpet Reception for award-winning author and actor Miriam Toews, followed by showing of the Mexican Spanish-Plautdietsch movie, Stellet Lichet starring Toews (who received an honorary doctorate at BU in 2007), and a talkback with Miriam and others.

Di Brandt also hosted a National Ecopoetics Symposium in 2007, featuring 20 Canadian women poets in dialogue and performance, including Erin Moure and Rhea Tregebov, and a Poetry Science Symposium in 2008, featuring a dozen poets, scientists and other experts in dialogue and performance, including Christian Bok, Jeff Williams, Bruno Tomberli, Steve Smith, Mari-Lou Rowley and BU President Lou Visentin, along with an art exhibition by Lou and his son Patrick Visentin in the Glen P. Sutherland Gallery.

Dale Lakevold has also been very productive. In addition to a full-time teaching load in Creative Writing and Canadian Literature, he has published two plays together with Darrell Racine, Misty Lake (Loon Books 2008) and Stretching Hide (Scirocco 2007), which both received premieres in Winnipeg. In 2004 Stretching Hide won an award for Best Full-Length Play at Theatre BC’s Canadian National Playwriting Competition and was a featured play at Weesageechak Begins to Dance . He also wrote and directed Under Western Eyes, an adaption of Joseph Conrad’s novel by that same title, with students and faculty of the BU theatre program. Together with sound artist Derek Gunnlaugson and visual artist Shandra MacNeill, he produced his play Notes for a Speech on (Canadian) Flagmaking (2003) as an audio installation at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba. Other plays include University of Winnipeg productions of Cross Creek (2000) and Wild Geese (1999), and Theatre Projects Manitoba productions of L-Love’s Body (2000) and Never Never Mind, Kurt Kurt Cobain (1998).

Dale Lakevold has been the coordinator and dramaturge for the Brandon Playwrights (2004-present), the Brandon Aboriginal Playwrights Unit (2000-2003), and the Brandon Rural Dramaturgy Project (1998-1999). Each of the three workshop programs has been developed in conjunction with the Manitoba Association of Playwrights. Featured dramaturges have included Mike Bell, Nancy Drake, Neal McLeod, Bruce McManus, as well as Governor-General Award-winning playwright Ian Ross. Recently two very popular Emerging Playwrights Festivals have emerged as a result of the dramaturgy program, one in 2007 and one in 2009, featuring works by Marie Baker, Laurie Block, Di Brandt, Bruce Sarbit, and Donna Wallis, and the work of veteran professional theatre artists from Brandon and Winnipeg, including Mike Bell, James Forsythe, Sherry Phillips, and Brian Richardson.

In 2007-2008, we were joined by internationally renowned award-winning playwright Tomson Highway, as the BU Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Arts. Tomson Highway gave readings and performances, consultations, courses, and a weekend playwriting workshop attended by numerous professional theatre people from Brandon and Winnipeg.

Reinhold Kramer, Professor of Canadian Literature and Critical Theory in the English department at Brandon University, has also received national literary fame for his creative writing works, and we are honoured to feature an excerpt of his critically acclaimed biography, Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain (Oxford UP 2008), which received the Canadian Jewish Book Award and the Gabrielle Roy Prize from the Association of Canadian and Quebec Literatures, and was named one of the "Top 100" pop culture mementoes for 2008 by CBC.ca. We are also delighted to feature "Escape Attempt," an excerpt of his unpublished screenplay, Hilda Blake, adapted from his biography, co-written with Brandon University archivist Tom Mitchell, Walk Towards the Gallows: The Tragedy of Hilda Blake, Hanged 1899 (Oxford UP 2002), which received the Margaret McWilliams Award from the Manitoba Historical Society.

Aboriginal literature and cultural awareness has been an important component of the Creative Writing program at BU. We have numerous Aboriginal students, and regularly feature Aboriginal writing in our courses. We have included traditional Cree hunting songs by northern Manitoba and Quebec hunters William Jack, George Pepabano and Joseph Rupert , on this site, by way of acknowledging the poetic heritage of our country and its Indigenous peoples (as collected by BU BUNTEP professor Lynn Whidden, in her recent internationally acclaimed award-winning book, Essential Song: Cree Hunting Songs from northern Manitoba and Quebec, WLUP 2007).

We also feature poetry by Metis philosopher and poet Lorraine Mayer, Associate Professor of Native Studies at Brandon University, and editor of the Canadian Journal of Native Studies, whose first book of poetry and memoir, Cries from a Metis Heart (Peguis 2007) was launched in our Literary Speakers Series.

Di Brandt, Dale Lakevold and Lorraine Mayer co-hosted the premiere national Brandon Aboriginal Literary Festival in Canada in 2007, together with BU University Librarian Linda Burridge, BU graduate student Roberta McKinnon, and student Jill Oman. The Festival was co-hosted by the Brandon Friendship Centre and the Manitoba Metis Federation (Southwest Region). THIN AIR International Writers’ Festival of Winnipeg coordinated a writing workshop in Winnipeg, and a northern tour to The Pas, Flin Flon and Dauphin as satellite events featuring Festival authors. The Festival featured more than two dozen Aboriginal authors, including Maria Campbell, Beatrice Culleton Mosionier, Gregory Scofield, Tomson Highway, Marilyn Dumont and numerous others.

The Festival has become a bi-annual event, due to popular demand. The second OGAMAS Brandon Aboriginal Literary Festival will be held on the weekend of October 15-17, 2009 – mark it on your calendars and hope to see you there!

Di Brandt holds a Canada Research Chair in English and Creative Writing at Brandon University. Her website address is www.dibrandt.ca.



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