Sparking creativity in the community

(Edmonton) A Killam Cornerstone Grant awarded to Christine Stewart, a professor of English and film studies at the University of Alberta, and Daniel Johnson, a PhD student, has helped the duo to share resources at the U of A with the community.

The grant allowed them to run a creative writing workshop called “Writing Revolution in Place” at Boyle Street Community Services, a community-based adult literacy centre in Edmonton. Stewart says they engaged in experimental creative expression with adult learners who have had little access to formal learning situations.

Stewart says experimental creative writing forms are generally concerned with social change, challenging the status quo, and articulating ways of life and modes of thinking that are often overlooked or disallowed by more normative practices.

The research team also considers whether “creative research and expression can enliven us to the world in inventive ways,” she says. “Can methods of experimentation in creative writing help us locate new modes of expression, different forms of learning and thinking? What happens when we use particular creative forms to create pleasurable and politically aware relationships with language? How might formal and inquisitive language play give those who have been silenced the opportunity to speak?”

The duo has been working with two students in English and film studies, Norman Mack and Jason Moccasin, and with Denis Lapierre, co-ordinator of the Learning Centre in Boyle Street Community Services. Stewart says they wanted to know whether adult learners can develop linguistic skills that lend themselves to social activism if they are given the opportunity to learn innovative forms of inquiry and communication.

Sharing UAlberta’s intellectual wealth

The class has also been a way to share the university’s intellectual wealth with the community. “I wanted to be able to do an outreach program, so that we could share what we have here at the university, our resources and ideas, with the community,” Stewart says. “How might innovative writing classes work in a community of inner-city students, some of whom live in poverty and all of whom have difficulty accessing formal education?”

During the course of the two semesters, the class has discussed the works of writers such as William S. Burroughs, Simon Ortiz, Paulo Freire and Anthony Apakark Thrasher—all of whose works have critiqued systems of power and authority, Stewart says. The class has also examined the initiatives behind cultural movements such as Dadaism, Surrealism and the Situationists.

The group also visited the U of A’s special collections to see William Blake’s work, a copy of Treaty 6, and Edward Curtis’s photographs. Dwayne Donald, a professor in the university’s department of secondary education, led them on an historical river walk, giving the history of Edmonton’s river valley from a Cree and Blackfoot perspective.

A showcase for imagination

Class participants were part of the formal opening of the Edmonton Poetry Festival, one of the city’s premier cultural events, on April 23. They hosted a reading in the foyer at City Hall called The Eutopia Project, to showcase their imaginations of Edmonton.

“The participants have considered how they might write their city into a different place, how they might re-word the world they inhabit. Specifically, the reading at City Hall focuses on the idea of Edmonton as a Eutopia. Not as a Utopia, an impossible fantasy, but as a Eutopia, as a good and possible place,” Stewart says. “Through poems, prose, manifestos and photographic montages, participants seek to redefine, re-describe, re-sign and re-inscribe their city and its spaces, and they do it in the very heart of their city.”

Stewart says the benefits of the class are mutual. “We all work together to open up our worlds to each other. We bring our skills from our work at the university, and the participants bring their rich array of skills, experiences and knowledge. The participants at the Learning Centre are brilliant, compassionate and funny. They have a real ability to sit and discuss things at length and in a way that you don’t see much anymore.”