In downtown Port Hope, Ont., ads for computers have replaced movie posters in the windows of the empty Capitol theatre, closed since February, 1987, because of poor attendance. But although the home video revolution has taken its toll on moviegoing in the picturesque, 154-year-old Lake Ontario town of 10,500 people, the printed word appears to be alive and well. A few steps away from the theatre, business is brisk at the town’s public library. And one
attraction is poet Jane Urquhart, the library’s writer-in-residence. Under an innovative Ontario program known as “Writers-in-Libraries,” Urquhart has been working at the library since February—helping aspiring local writers to improve their skills. And those writers are not the only ones to benefit from the program, now nearly two years old. Said Urquhart, 38: “In a situation like this, you’re back in touch with real people, as opposed to the insular world of writers.” Urquhart, whose complex poetry and fiction—including The Whirlpool, a novel—have brought her lavish praise as one of Canada’s most gifted new literary talents, is currently one of 21 writers-in-residence in Ontario libraries. Modelled on the success of similar programs at Canadian universities, the Ontario Writers-in-Libraries project was initiated by the provincial government in the fall of 1986 and has so far received close to $700,000 in funding. Individual libraries seek out the writers of their choice and then apply for government funding. The writers,
hired for terms of between three and 12 months, can earn up to $30,000giving them the financial stability to effectively pursue their own work. Said Urquhart: “That is a lot more than most of us have ever made in our professional lives.”
But Urquhart and her colleagues— other writers-in-libraries include novelist and short-story writer Katherine Govier in Parry Sound and children’s writer Janet Lunn in Kitchener—work
hard for their money. Twice a week Urquhart travels the 153 km to Port Hope from her home in Wellesley, Ont., 45 km northeast of Stratford. Her days at the Port Hope Library are filled with appointments during which, like a literary doctor, she examines the health of manuscripts and suggests improvements. And besides offering both technical and marketing advice, she holds workshops, organizes public readings and vigorously promotes a wider interest in books, especially Canadian writing.
On one recent Monday morning one of the first visitors to Urquhart’s tiny office was 34-year-old youth service worker Lorne Whyte, who counsels young offenders in nearby Cobourg. “I’ve been writing poems since high school,” Whyte said, “but I lacked the skills to polish them. Jane has been helping me do that.” Other visitors included a short-order cook, the town veterinarian, a housewife, a 12-year-old student, a lawyer and Marion Garland, a retired teacher who has written what she calls
a “fictional memoir” based on her 21 years as the only female instructor at Port Hope’s Trinity College School, a private school for boys. Said Garland: “The encouragement I have gotten from Jane and the group is what helped me finish this thing.”
The group that Garland refers to consists of about 20 local writers whom Urquhart sees on a regular oneon-one basis. As many as 15 of them at a time also attend Urquhart’s two-hour Monday evening workshops, where they read each other’s work and discuss books and issues such as censorship and libel. Recently, Urquhart said, she assigned a collective writing project “to stimulate memory and imagination by having them write detailed descriptions of their childhood bedrooms.” Urquhart says that she was pleasantly surprised when one man brought his moth-eaten teddy bear to the workshop and a woman produced an illustrated book she had written in 1930 at the age of 11. “It was,” said Urquhart, “a very moving evening.”
Not all workshops have the same emotional pitch, but in a town where stately Victorian mansions rest in the shadow of Eldorado Resources, the giant uranium refinery, the sessions invariably bring together an interesting assortment of people. They range from bearded short-story writer Liam McCann, 19, in his red beret and black army boots, to 85-year-old Catherine Wade, regal in a fur coat and silver bracelets. Wade’s romance novel was rejected two years ago in a literary contest, but she shows no sign of discouragement. Said Wade with good humor: “The fastest service in the country is getting a manuscript back.”
Urquhart is the Port Hope Library’s second writer-in-residence. Head librarian Victoria Owen explained that Urquhart’s predecessor in the Port Hope program—Ottawa nonfiction writer Sharon Drache—“sowed the seed” for its popularity. Said Owen: “I had people write letters and call me about when we were getting someone else.” One important result, says Owen, “has been to expand the library into a resource and cultural centre for the community.” It is a community that Urquhart already feels at home in. “People here have been enormously welcoming,” she said. The opportunity to meet their readers is something that many writers seek— and the chance to discuss their work with published writers is something that most aspiring authors only dream of. The Writers-in-Libraries program has gone a long way in translating those mutual ambitions into reality.
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