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Twenty years of nurturing young writing talent

Twenty years of nurturing young writing talent

Teaching creative writing has its exciting moments. Just ask poet and memoirist Carolyn Smart who this year is celebrating her 20th year as writing ringleader and professor in the Department of English.
Carolyn SmartCourtesy of Carolyn Smart

"Well, one time a student read his 22-minute pornographic vampire story at a public event we held at the end of term," she recalls. “When he finished, the audience sat in shocked silence – until one wit shouted, 'Read it again!'"

Back in 1989, when "people thought teaching creative writing was the equivalent of teaching basket weaving," Smart had no idea she'd become the animating spirit behind a thriving creative writing program here at Queen’s. However, she did see the need for a place where students could “explore English literature in a meaningful way by truly entering it, and learning from the inside out.”

Over the years, about 1,000 aspiring authors have passed through her workshops – which have grown in number from one to five single semester courses, and still don’t meet demand. Offerings include a specific course dedicated to poetry, another for short fiction, an on-line class offered through Continuing and Distance Studies, plus a semi-annual advanced writers’ workshop, which publishes the Lake Effect anthology.

Former students include many successful writers, some of whom have gone on to publish widely. Smart also draws the wider literary community to Queen’s. “I realized that many students had never even met a living writer, aside from me, and I don’t count because I’m just the prof,” she says with a laugh.

Smart has six well-received books to her credit, her latest, Hooked – Seven Poems, was released by Brick Books in February 2009.

Through the reading series she launched in 1989, she introduces students to the best of Canada’s emerging and established authors. Lorna Crozier; Michael Crummey, MA’89; Michael Ondaatje, MA’67; R.M. Vaughan; and Jan Zwicky have all visited campus in recent years.

For Smart, packed-to-the-rafters readings at Chez Piggy, the popular downtown restaurant, evoke particularly fond memories. “We called the series the Literate Pig, the proverbial feast of Canadian literature,” she recalls. “But eventually, so many people showed up that numbers exceeded fire safety rules, so we had to stop hosting there.”

The Queen’s writer-in-residence program, now in its third year, is another product of Smart’s energy. Queen’s, with support from the Canada Council for the Arts, hosted novelist and poet Helen Humphreys in the 2009 winter term.

So what do Smart’s students say about her? She’s a generous mentor, and has a reputation for being tough, but fair. And for being forthright; if the writing is weak, she doesn’t mince words.

Only the truth can help a writer advance,” she says.

In her workshops, Smart seeks to foster intense, but honest and productive discussion. On occasion, passions can boil over. “I do have to get the bull-whip out sometimes,” she confirms. “There’s no need to hurt one another’s feelings. There’s enough of that if you become a professional writer.”

To assist young talent, Smart founded the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers in 1994, a tribute to the Kingston writer and activist who died at age 44 of cancer. Smart was also involved in organizing Common Magic, a three-day, sold-out conference in March 2008 honouring Wallace’s legacy.

Bronwen Wallace, BA’67, MA’69, was Smart’s best friend and mentor. She was also her predecessor as creative writing teacher at Queen’s. Wallace died shortly before the fall term began in 1989, and so Smart’s first year at Queen’s was rough. “But after that I realized I loved it. I’ve never looked back,” she says.

So what lies ahead for her? “Creative writing is still not recognized as a major in the Department of English. I’d like to see that change,” she says.

At the same time, she aims to keep fostering creative writers at Queen’s. “I want to offer encouragement to people with talent, because that’s really what anyone needs: just some encouragement. Writing is a tough thing to do. There’s no money in it as a rule. It’s a lonely, strange profession, and you need somebody who is in your corner to tell you the truth.”

[Queen's Alumni Review 2009-2 cover]