Notes on Events


Writing the Line: A Creative Writing Conference at the University of Winnipeg, March 2-4, 2017

Notes on the events (panels, workshops, and readings)

Writing the Line: dinner and keynote

Thursday March 2, 5:30 p.m.

Over 100 people attended the dinner and keynote speech. Ticket sales for this event raised approximately $1,000.00 for the University of Winnipeg's Carol Shields Writer-in-Residence Program.

Katherena Vermette, the 2017 Carol Shields Writer-in-Residence, gave the keynote speech to open the "Writing the Line" conference. She spoke about crossing the lines between genres, describing how her project "this river" crossed over from poetry to film and back into poetry. She spoke about the history of the Red River, its role as a site of beauty and tragedy, and about the relationship between waterways and women in traditional Indigenous knowledge. She read her poem "River Woman," which embodies these concepts. She then described her work with filmmaker Erika MacPherson as they joined the activists of Drag the Red, who patrol the Red River, searching for missing persons. Afterwards, they co-wrote this river, the NFB film they made about their experience. After making the film, Katherena said, she crossed ("or danced") over the line again into poetry, as she illustrated by reading her poem "this river," which "came out of" the process of making the film. The keynote set the tone for the following two days of writers sharing their creative experiences, explorations, experiments, and work

The Poetic Line: a panel

Friday March 3, 10:30 a.m.

Poets Méira Cook, Colin Smith, Joel Ferguson, and Hannah Green took part in a panel, while an audience of 63 people listened. Panel members took turns reading from their work and talking about the process involved in its creation.

Hannah Green spoke about her process of taking notes all the time, the importance of continuing to write and record one's experience, whether or not the situation is particularly inspirational. For example, her poem "death and donuts" is based on notes she took while waiting in line at Tim Hortons. She also spoke about the importance of going out into the world and experiencing it. She commented that she'd never have thought of the donut poem while at her desk. She also related the experience of a trip to Kenora and back "for no particular reason," and demonstrated how valuable such a simple experience can be to your writing, if you are aware and recording what you see and hear.

One of Joel Ferguson's poems is constructed of lines from video games and manuals made into a poem, a kind of a cento made out of the "inane babble text that flows around us constantly" to which "we usually don't pay any attention." As he tried to "find the secret story within" these texts, he discovered that "video game manuals make bad advice for living." The contrast created some sharp irony and humour, as well as insights into popular culture. Another poem, "Percocet in November," draws on the poet's experience with a serious illness during which he watched television coverage of the American Presidential election. In both these poems, the poet uses the juxtaposition of disparate elements to create meaning through dissonance.

Méira Cook addressed the problem of the lyric mode and the way that it complicates identity. She quoted Colin Smith, who once asked her, "is it my imagination, Méira, or are your poems becoming even more pervertedly lyrical?" She said she was grateful to him for noticing the ways in which she tries to interrupt, or disrupt, the lyric through humour. "I feel constrained when writing in the first person," she said. "The monologues [in her book Monologue Dogs] allow me to say things I couldn't say myself." The "I" is "hiding behind a character."

Colin Smith took up the topic of the lyrical "I." He talked about ways that the first person pronoun can be "suppressed and redistributed," through poetry, saying, "Language is bigger than me." He quoted Miles Davis, who said, "don't play what's there. Play what's not there." The poem Colin read is a kind of "rollicking dystopia," a "tribute to human failure and hubris," which draws on war, economics, and abuses of power. He spoke of the current political situation as having the "structure of a vortex, centripetal and centrifugal," raising for the audience the question of the role of poetry in dystopian times.

The presentations were followed by a lively question and answer session.

Stretching the Line: a workshop

Friday, March 3, 1:30 p.m.

Jennifer Still led 30 participants in a generative workshop with a focus on the role of visual elements, especially form, in poetry.  She began with an inspirational talk about experimental form in poetry. She spoke about approaching the creative process with an attitude of “lightness” and “an inquisitive, curious opening.” She quoted the Japanese poet Yoshimasu Gozo, who said that ongoing receptivity is an ethical stance. She introduced participants to numerous examples from poets and artists in a variety of different media who employ visual elements in their aesthetic, including Carolyn Bergvall, Jan Bervin, Eric Zboya, Irwin Huebner, and André Vallias.

Still encouraged participants to look at the materiality of language, to look at the poem as a shape, as movement on the page, as an image as well as something vocalized.

Still then took participants on a walk through the halls and down the spiral staircase to the University of Winnipeg’s Gallery 1C03, where they viewed the art exhibit “Cafeteria II” by Elvira Finnigan and Lisa Wood. Participants responded to, and engaged with, the visual art by writing, using a variety of implements and media, especially transparency sheets (the kind used with overhead projectors) to create poetry in a wide variety of shapes (spirals, etc.). Participants then returned to the workshop room to share experiences and methods. They placed the transparencies on the room’s windows, projecting the images of the poem’s shapes against the backdrop of the cityscape, so that the writing appeared to be imposed upon the towers and the prairie sky.


Friday, March 3, 3:30 p.m.

Poets Garry Thomas Morse and Steven Ross Smith performed pieces from their own works for an audience of 22 people. These readings were recorded, and the videos can be viewed on the webpage for Writing the Line.

Opportunities for Writers

Friday, March 3, 5:00 p.m.

A panel of arts professionals, including arts officer Martine Friesen, journal editor Clarise Foster, festival director Charlene Diehl, program co-ordinator Steven Ross Smith, assistant editor Lindsey Childs, and consultant Andrew Eastman, gave presentations on the missions, methods, and creative strategies of their various organizations, ranging from government granting agencies to festivals, journals, and innovative new initiatives for artists. These presentations, along with the question and answer session that followed, provided a rich source of knowledge for writers about available opportunities for support in their artistic projects, and how to apply for them. Discussion touched on the current state of opportunities for writers and the question of how artists can pursue their practice while making a living in Winnipeg.

Bringing Your Stories to Life: Voice and Physical Delivery

Saturday, March 4, 9:00 a.m.

Tom Soares led 21 participants in a workshop on voice. He handed out copies of Shakespeare's sonnets to use as reading materials and also encouraged people to read from their own work.

He emphasized the importance of posture, explaining that a speaker’s physical stance shapes emotions. A speaker can become receptive by using receptive gestures.  Open palms suggest “I come unarmed” and “Welcome, you can trust me.” Neutral hands are held together, loosely and lightly, not clenched, close to the body.  Using too much gesture can distract from a speaker's message. A good stance is receptive and happy.

He also emphasized breathing, advising partiipant to "find the natural breath." He said that holding the breath high is associated with fear, while holding it low (diaphragmatic breathing) suggests calmness. If a speaker is breathing high, the muscles become tense, and tension bleeds into the shoulders. The speaker must then push the voice and that’s hard to sustain. The diaphragm should be doing the work.

To increase resonance in the mouth and throat, Tom encouraged participants to "open up." The voice should be forward and out. He advised everyone to try yawning, then to try humming and try to increase sensation in the bones in the front of the face.

Speakers need to be very aware of what they are saying. His instruction to artists is "Go deep, find out what your experience is and then come back up and reveal what you found."

Overall, Tom emphasized the close relationship between the voice and the whole body. He demonstrated how to mark thought shifts, or turns (e.g., if, but, yet, or, etc.) with hand gestures and encouraged participants to practice this while reading. He advised speakers to "embody the sense" of what they are saying, to find key words, and to identify the main thoughts and the "sub thoughts" (subordinate thoughts) of the content in order to present the content most effectively.

Character in Every Line

Saturday, March 4, 11:00 a.m.

Novelist Joan Thomas led 26 participants in a workshop exploring the role of character and the ways in which characters shape perceptions of fictional events and create the fictional world.

Joan referred to Henry James who viewed the novel as “a document in consciousness.” A story is grounded in a particular consciousness, she argued, and narration is the unspooling of that consciousness. Each character is a peculiar, idiosyncratic thinker, and the reader experiences an intimate relationship with the characters. Therefore, choosing a point of view is choosing your story.

Joan related her experience of reading the article “Reversal of Fortune” in The New Yorker, in January, 2012, about a documentary film shown at Sundance. This raised her interest in a historical event concerning white missionaries in Ecuador in the 1950s, and she began to research their lives. She used a photograph of several women and children from the missionary families to raise the novelist's question of which point(s) of view to use.  She pointed out that the task of creating a character is similar whether the character is “given” (i.e., based on a historical person) or completely fictional. In both cases, ideology interacts with reality.

Joan suggested several questions writers should ask when creating a character:

--how open is she?

--how honest with herself?

--what risks is she willing to take?

--what happens when her ideology collides with her perceptions?

Point of view (POV) needs to be consistent in fiction. Joan noted several "violations" of consistency to avoid:

--conveying information the character does not know

--entering the minds of other characters

--describing the POV character from the outside, e.g., “a look of amusement on his face”

--providing background information that the POV character is not likely to be thinking about at that moment (e.g., in a café scene, the amount of time spent describing a waiter determines the amount of interest the character has in that waiter)

These breaches of consistency in POV, Joan argues, are not just technical; they break the spell for the reader.

Joan also examined the choice of using first- or third-person narrative and discussed the difference. For example, in fiction employing third-person narration, there is a sliding scale of degrees of closeness between the POV character and the narrative. The scale ranges from objective to subjective discourse. The writer may choose various ways to convey the story, such as stream of consciousness or free indirect discourse. Joan presented numerous quotations from published fiction as examples and discussed the effects created by each technique.

Fiction/Nonfiction: What's the Diff?

Saturday, March 4, 1:30

Host Lara Rae led a discussion with panelists Ginny Collins, Maurice Mierau, and David Alexander Robertson, for about 30 people in the audience. Lara used a variety of quotations about fiction and truth from famous writers, such as Charles Dickens, in order to spark a discussion that was wide ranging and free wheeling. Playwright Ginny Collins spoke about the process of turning fact into fiction. She discussed the research for her play "The Flats," set in Churchill, and spoke about the difficulty she had deciding how to go about telling a story that wasn't hers to tell, and how to weave her research into her narrative. She elaborated on the thin line a writer must walk as a story teller and a conveyor of the histories that influence the story. David Alexander Robertson spoke about the very serious nature of his recent children's book, which deals with the residential school system and colonization, saying that we need to trust children with these kinds of harsh truths in story. He spoke about how it is possible to do this in a way that is educational rather than premature or harmful. Fiction can convey truth. Maurice Mierau spoke about his experience as a memoirist, telling truths about his personal life and his family, using some of the techniques of fiction while dealing with nonfictional material. The panelists took questions and comments from the audience after the panelists' presentations.

Writing Dialogue: Playwriting Techniques for Creating Scenes in Prose or Poetry

Saturday, March 4 at 3:30 p.m.

Rick Chafe led this workshop on dialogue for about 30 participants. He began with the premise that all characters are lying. Stories move toward the revelation of the truth and the revelation of character. He said that playwrights don’t trust words. Characters use words to pursue what they want--even if the character might not be aware of what that is. Dialogue is most effective when characters are not telling the truth. Rick led participants in an exercise: in pairs, create a dialogue between two strangers; first, create conflict, and second, let the characters agree, but keep them talking. He then asked participants to act out the dialogues. It was apparent that the agreeable dialogues did not lead to action. He then asked participants to read the nice, agreeable dialogue in a variety of different ways, without changing the actual words: as though angry, or on a first date, trying to avoid the other person or trying to seduce them. The characters have intention and the audience knows what it is, but the words the characters say are not what they mean.

Then Rick talked about conflict, subtext, and intention (goal). In a scene, two people’s intentions must conflict. Rick defined a scene in theatre as two characters with differing intentions. The scene continues until one person either wins or loses or the scene is interrupted. To illustrate this technique, Rick assigned an exercise to write a dialogue in which one character is angry and the other is sorry, but neither will say so.

Exposition needs to be woven in to dialogue in ways that move the plot. Characters cannot be telling each other things they already know. Characters tell each other things because they want something. The only purpose of information should be to move the plot forward. For example, one character might provide exposition in order to hurt another character. An audience will go along with obvious exposition only if they want to find out what’s going to happen, or if they are invested in, and identify with, the characters.

Open Mic

Saturday, March 4, 7:00 p.m.

To close off the conference, Molly Cross-Blanchard hosted an open-microphone event, where participants read from their own work.