New Creative Writing program offers unique opportunities

Capilano University has long been recognized for its contributions to avant-garde creative writing. Literary masters Pierre Coupey, Daphne Marlatt, and Sharon Thesen once helmed the creative writing faculty, and legendary poet Robin Blaser was a frequent visitor of the college in the ‘70s. Now, Capilano offers a full Associate’s Degree in Creative Writing. But if you dream of being the next John Grisham or Stephen King, the program may not be for you.

“The difference between our program and those at UBC or UVic is that it isn’t market-oriented,” explains Reg Johanson, convener of the Creative Writing program at Capilano. “Those programs encourage students to adjust to the market, and this promotes a certain style of writing and a certain way of thinking about writing.” Rather than learn how to write a best-seller or get a six-figure advance from a corporate publishing house, students at Capilano are encouraged to become active in the writing community, to support small press and DIY publishing, and to experiment with new genres and forms.

The program is based on intensive workshop classes, in which students are expected to bring new writing every week, offer constructive criticism to their peers, and produce a strong portfolio of writing by the end of the semester. But new courses have also been introduced, including program-specific sections of English 100 and 103. Students not only learn how to write research papers, but also how to write artist statements, grant proposals, and critical reviews. “Rather than study texts and writing from a purely academic perspective, students study them from a literary perspective,” says Johanson.

It’s an idea that has already proven to be extremely popular. The program had a total of 183 applicants this year, of which only 50 to 60 students could be accepted. This impressive demand has led the faculty to consider a portfolio requirement. If this requirement is implemented, the program will become more exclusive and prestigious. However, the faculty’s goal is not to compete with existing Creative Writing degrees at UBC and UVic, but rather to offer a unique program unlike anything else available in Vancouver.

Johanson, along with creative writing professors Roger Farr and Crystal Hurdle, hopes to encourage a sense of community for writers at the University. “At Capilano, we try to create a situation that is more horizontal than vertical,” he explains. “We emphasize a greater connection between the community and the arts. The program finds its ultimate expression in smaller readings, like the Open Text series on campus, where the audience is on an even level with the writers, and writing is understood as being a shared process.”

An important component of the program is publishing, of course, but Johanson emphasizes that the program does not encourage students to abandon their style or write for specific markets in order to be published. “The writer’s individuality or uniqueness is always important,” he says. “We always start from a point of asking, ‘What do you want from this piece?’ Then we can introduce students to the expectations of publishing and work towards the quality of published work.”

The program has proven so successful that the Creative Writing faculty hopes to turn it into a four-year degree. Discussions are taking place about what kind of degree to offer, and the future of the program will ultimately depend on the still-uncertain future of Capilano as a University. Since the transformation of the College into a University in 2008, the discussion among the administration and faculty has focused on whether to offer specialized “niche” degrees unique to the university, or to offer general arts and science degrees similar to those available at SFU and UBC.

According to Roger Farr, the faculty initially visualized the Creative Writing program as being of the specialized “niche” or “applied” variety, but is now considering the possibility of building inside a general arts degree. However, discussions are still underway, and there may be a long way to go before Capilano University offers a Bachelor's degree in Creative Writing. All that Farr can confirm at this time is that third and fourth-year creative writing courses are in development.

Farr hopes to expand the program to introduce writing students to new media and creative methods. One proposed course is tentatively titled “Adaptation, Collaboration, and Performance”, in which students would adapt work from previous semesters for public performance, possibly in collaboration with students from other faculties.

Also in the works are courses in Creative Non-Fiction and Documentary Poetics. Creative Non-Fiction is self-explanatory, but Documentary Poetics may be a new genre to some. It evolved in the 20th century with the rise of journalism and film, and appropriates the methods of the documentary film for poetic purposes. This can mean using found text, or simply using the imagery, tone and style of documentary to break with the conventions of poetic form.

These courses are still in the planning stages, and students may not want to get their hopes up for a full degree program in the near future. However, they can take comfort in the existing program, which offers unique courses and knowledgeable, involved professors. The program also supports student publication The Liar, and encourages students to get involved with the university's twice-yearly poetry publication The Capilano Review. Students are encouraged to drop by the Capilano Review office, located in FIR 456, to find out more.

The department also organizes the Open Text Reading Series, a series of free readings on campus, which commenced in September with local poet Fred Wah. The next reading, featuring Montreal poet Angela Carr, will be on Thursday, October 8th, at 11:30 am in CE 148. Students may check for details on upcoming events.

//Laura Kane

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