Two of the 13 titles on last week’s Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist were penned by graduates of the University of New Brunswick’s master’s program in creative writing – Craig Davidson (MA’03) for Cataract City, and Wayne Johnston (MA’85, DLitt’03) for The Son of a Certain Woman.
Shannon Webb-Campbell delved into the “unsung literary hotbed” at the University of New Brunswick this weekend; “One for the books” was published in the Telegraph Journal on Saturday, September 21.
Wayne Johnston will be reading from his new book on October 3 on the Fredericton campus, and October 4 on the Saint John campus.
The Giller shortlist will be announced on October 8.
ONE FOR THE BOOKS
FOR THE TELEGRAPH-JOURNAL
20 SEP 2013 03:14PM
If biology is destiny, then geography must be fate.
With several creative writing master’s programs in Canada, the University of New Brunswick’s is the only one of its kind in Atlantic Canada. Given its size, it boasts an incredible success rate for graduates who go on to publish – poets in particular. It’s an unsung poetical powerhouse.
Known historically as the Poets’ Corner of Canada, Fredericton is the birthplace of Francis Joseph Sherman, Bliss Carmen and Charles G.D. Roberts, as well as the longtime home of Governor General’s Award-winning poet, playwright and journalist Alden Nowlan.
“What makes an Atlantic Canadian program unique in Canada is the long and rich cultural heritage we inherit from Atlantic Canadian writers,” says Ross Leckie, a poet and professor in the English graduate program at UNB.
But those names most commonly associated with the school predate the Nobel Prize and modern Olympic Games, and there’s no need to go back that far to find literary landmarks. Just this past week, Craig Davidson, who graduated in 2003, and Wayne Johnston (’84) were longlisted for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
So far, in 2013, MA grads from the past 20 years have published 17 books. That’s the most releases in the last two decades. Last year, 11 books were released. Since 2003, on average, about eight books a year have been released by recent MA English graduates.
Leckie, who is also the editor of The Fiddlehead and poetry editor for Goose Lane Editions, notes the rich literary history of the region, as well as a penchant for poetry, as integral to the program’s triumphs.
“And the smaller size of our program, which allows intensive and personal attention given by faculty to students; we are not the UBC factory.”
Leckie came to the university in 1997 as the director of creative writing. He took to the region, city and university immediately. He fell for the Victorian architecture, walking and biking trails, and the full moon winter nights when the tin rooftops shimmer.
“I was amazed at how easy the living is here – short walks to the university or to the downtown – great pubs,” says Leckie. “In our first year we lived a block from the market, and now live two blocks away. In those days it was much more quiet than it is now.”
Leckie has published three books of poetry, most recently Gravity’s Plumb Line (Gaspereau Press, 2005), which includes the Saint John River poems, starting on the day of his arrival in New Brunswick. He has dedicated his lifetime to poetry – the writing, reading and teaching of it.
Given the university’s success rate, measured in publications, Leckie believes it starts with the faculty. It’s integral to the formation of the material as well as the writer. He’s deeply proud of the program, faculty and students.
Founded in 1968, the university’s English graduate program was started by Canadian poets Fred Cogswell, Robert Gibbs and Kent Thompson. The early years were lean for creative writing though, as most aspiring writers didn’t see the need for a graduate degree.
Leckie, who received an MA in English from Concordia University in 1982, counts himself as one of the first generation of writers to embrace graduate studies as part of a writer’s career path. He says it wasn’t until the back half of the ’80s that writers en masse began embracing graduate studies. Now, it is the norm.
In the past decade, creative writing graduate programs have been established at University of Toronto, University of Saskatchewan, University of Victoria and so many more it overwhelms Leckie’s memory. He says the rise reflects not only a professionalizing of writing, but an increased respect for Canadian literature.
“When I was student, Canadian literature was barely even taught, let alone there being many writers,” says Leckie.
Although attitudes in the writing field were shifting and UNB’s program achieved grand successes with its graduate students such as Alistair MacLeod, Wayne Johnston and Frances Itani, by the mid-’90s it was in a state of transition. By the time Leckie arrived, esteemed faculty Don McKay and Jan Zwicky had left the school and Bill Gaston was only working part-time. Applications had begun to dip and class size had shrunk to two students.
“There was a sense among other universities that maybe UNB wasn’t going to continue. People were uncertain if we were hiring new people. It wasn’t immediately obvious,” says Leckie.
The program doesn’t have an admissions quota, and admission is based on writing samples, not grades. “We only accept the students we think will be successful in our program,” says Leckie. So, rather than adjust entrance standards or go on a publicity blitz, the university let the results do the talking, and the list of successful writers has been on the rise ever since.
What distinguishes the university’s program from similar creative writing degrees – such as the ones at the University of British Colombia and the University of Guelph-Humber, in Toronto – is its focus on scholarship. The University of New Brunswick’s MA means graduate students study literature, as well as workshop their creative writing. If they desire, they can go on to apply for PhD programs, whereas MFA programs are considered terminal degrees.
“I’m biased, but I think all of the advantages lie with the MA in literature and creative writing. I find a surprising number of MFA’s have read a gloss of contemporary work and not much else,” says Leckie. “The study of literature is the best way of expanding one’s horizons and realizing the endless possibilities of writing.”
At the university, students also have the opportunity to work on the editorial boards of both the nationally distributed graduate journal Qwerty or the internationally renowned journal The Fiddlehead, the oldest literary journal in North America.
Fred Cogswell edited The Fiddlehead from 1953-67, championing many writers like Al Purdy and Margaret Atwood when they were starting out. Many now-famous writers had their first publication in The Fiddlehead, some of whom became faculty, including Bill Gaston, Jan Zwicky, Don McKay and David Adams Richards.
Current faculty member Mark Anthony Jarman, a lauded short story writer, took the MA route, and is a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He’s taught at the University of Victoria, the Banff Centre and also edits fiction at The Fiddlehead. He came to Fredericton for a temporary position in 1999, before becoming permanent in 2000.
“I was worried when I first came. It seemed small. But now I really like it. The scale is very human,” says Jarman. “Good microbrews and bread; I walk and ride my bike everywhere, avoiding road rage, which I am prone to; affordable real estate; and I can carry the kayak across the road to the riverbank, see eagles, ospreys, herons, deer, etc.”
For some, picking up the stakes and moving to Fredericton is a gamble, though many are drawn to the quietness, history and uniqueness of the area. The far-flung nature of the geography still attracts major authors like Thomas King and Wayne Johnston, a graduate of the MA program, who will read from their latest books this fall at the university.
For Halifax-based poet Matt Robinson, who graduated from the program in 2000, and has published several collections of poetry, most recently Against the Hard Angle (ECW, 2010). He is now in the midst of proofing a collection of chapbook poems, A First Made and Then Un-Made (Gaspereau Press, 2013). It was the quaintness of Fredericton, proximity and history that drew originally lured him.
“At the time I wasn’t aware of all of the other options, but I specifically chose UNB because of the location – being in the Maritimes, and close to home – and the tradition and history,” says Robinson. “The Fiddlehead, in particular. Really, the city, campus, and the program’s small, intimate feel were key. Knowing what I know now, I’d still choose UNB over the other programs.”
As director of housing and conference services at Saint Mary’s University, Robinson notes his time spent at UNB as essential to developing his poetry, and writing career.
“I was able to fully experience a real hothouse effect while in Fredericton. All of the other poets, and Ross, were invaluable in terms of sharing ideas and time,” says Robinson. “Learning the craft, being exposed to different writing styles, what others were reading, and even the different markets and publications folks were engaging with were all really important.”
The University of New Brunswick’s current writer-in-residence Douglas Glover, who studied at the Writers’ Workshop with Jarman, now lives in Vermont and edits and publishes the online magazine Numero Cinq, dubbed Fredericton as one of the centres of the writing world.
Glover is the winner of 2006 Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Timothy Findley Award, as well as a Governor General Literary Award winner, and finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His latest book Savage Love was just released with Goose Lane. The Fredericton publisher has published, or republished, almost all of his work.
Given that the university has the longest continuous writers-in-residence program in Canada, this is Glover’s second stint. The last time he was writer-in-residence was 1988.
Over the years, he has spent a lot of time in New Brunswick, having taught philosophy in the early ’70s at the university’s Saint John campus, and worked as a reporter at the Evening Times-Globe and Telegraph-Journal. He also befriended Alden Nowlan.
While Glover is in town he is available to graduate students and the community to talk about writing and publication; this time, the students get to witness him in the midst of promoting his new book.
“Fredericton is a surprisingly central place in my writing life,” says Glover. “It’s a heady and vivid town for writers.”
Following the success of his former students is a gratifying thrill for Leckie, one he wishes the wider public in New Brunswick and Atlantic Canada could also celebrate. Too often, he believes, the local audience is focused on writers born and raised regionally.
“There’s a part of it that cuts against Maritime defeatism,” Leckie says. “We should be taking pride in that international success and national successes, because other people do.”
– Shannon Webb-Campbell is an award-winning writer, journalist and photographer. She is an MFA student in the University of British Columbia’s optional-residency program, and lives in Halifax.