Markin writers Finley and Caple

By Jesse Keith

Calgary’s literary scene has begun to show some life in recent years. With the annual Wordfest, regular readings at bookstores, journals such as dANDelion and Filling Station, and a small, but strong community of writers, Cow Town isn’t looking so backwater anymore. Regardless of all the positive growth, Calgary is still far from being a literary Mecca. Writers aren’t exactly beating down the door to get in, which is why Calgary philanthropists Allan Markin and Jackie Flanagan set up the Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writers Programme.

The programme aims to bring distinguished writers to Calgary for short periods, and promising new writers for extended stays. Since its inception in 1993, the foundation has brought an impressive list of writers including Timothy Findley, Thomas King, Michael Ondaatje, and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. Each year the Markin-Flanagan programme also brings to Calgary a promising Canadian writer for the writer-in-residence program.

The fall brings Ontario based writer Natalee Caple to campus to replace outgoing Nova Scotian writer, Robert Finley. Over the past year Finley has used his time in the program to develop two works exploring his native province: Water and The Harbour. Finley found the real blessing of the writer-in-residence program was the introduction to a new community and new landscapes.

“The thing that impresses me most about that program is that it’s more that just a grant,” Finley said. “I’ve had writing grants before, which free up time for writing, which is a wonderful thing, but this [program] gives you that as well as this whole other context for writing. The thing they have worked out really well is that you fly in with your projects in hand that you’re going to work on, and you get the time to work on those, but you also get this key to the writing community in Calgary and an attachment to the writing program at the U of C.”

Although Finley spent his time in Calgary working on projects related to Nova Scotia, he found the inspiration for future work in his new surroundings.

“I was working on my Eastern pieces while I was in Calgary, but apart from working on the things I brought with me there are new things that I’m working on. So I’m going to be sitting in here in Nova Scotia, working on an essay on the short grass prairies,” said Finley. “It seems to have become my lot to be writing about somewhere else.”

Caple will also be coming to Calgary to write about other parts of the world. She’s working on a novel about a home-sick Canadian journalist covering the conflict in Chechnya. Like Finley, though, she hopes to find inspiration in her new setting.

“I hope to have a real adventure, and meet new people, and get new ideas. I think that just being in a new space and seeing a new landscape will be very healthy for my imagination. I want to leave myself open to the new ideas that will come from being in a new place,” Caple said.

The Markin-Flanagan program helps promote Canadian literature by providing the time and support a writer needs to work. As Caple explains, “It’s very difficult when you’re working [other jobs] to find time to write. Not just the literal time, but also the headspace.”

The program not only helps promote Canadian literature, but also supports writing on campus by providing students with free manuscript consultations with the writer-in-residence.

U of C creative writing student Michael Davie values this program.

“For me, as a developing writer, the Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writers Programme has provided invaluable access to established writers’ knowledge, expertise, and experiences. Robert Finely took me deep into my own writing, helping me to sift out what was unique and individual. The experience provided me with a whole new confidence and fueled my ambition to develop my work in new and innovative ways.”

Finley found these manuscript consultations just as helpful to the writer-in residence as they were to the students.

“Through doing the manuscript consultations, you get this immediate introduction to the place through other peoples stories,” Finley explains. “I gained a lot from those consultations–apart from the fact that I gained a lot just talking about writing–I gained a lot in terms of a sense of place as well.”

A reading on September 16 provides Calgary with a farewell to Finley and an introduction to Caple. Finley will read from works he developed while in Calgary, and Caple will read from her latest novel, Mackerel Sky.

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