The Sage Hill Writing Experience is 20!
A Retrospective by Dave Margoshes
The Saskatchewan summer writing program celebrated its 20th anniversary this summer with a party and a visit by Richard Ford, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American author with more than a passing interest in Saskatchewan.
Sage Hill may be 20 years old, but its roots go back almost 60 years, in an unbroken thread.
Sage Hill wasn’t born in a vacuum – indeed, it rose out of the ashes of the late and sadly lamented Saskatchewan Summer School of the Arts at Fort San, and followed a tradition of summer writing workshops that dates back to 1952.
As usual, there were six programs going on at Sage Hill’s quarters at St. Michael’s Retreat just outside of Lumsden during the last 11 days of July this year:
- Introduction to Poetry and Prose, led by Victoria poet Susan Stenson and fiction writer John Lent from Vernon, B.C.
- a poetry workshop with Karen Solie, a Saskatchewan native now living in Toronto;
- fiction workshop with David Carpenter (filling in for an ailing Terry Jordan);
- poetry colloquium (for writers close to bringing a book to fruition) with Vancouverite Daphne Marlatt;
- fiction colloquium with novelist Catherine Bush from Toronto;
- and children’s lit, with Governor-General’s Award winner Arthur Slade from Saskatoon.
Two teen writing camps, held in libraries in Regina and Saskatoon, were going on at the same time; one in Moose Jaw was conducted the previous week during the Festival of the Words in that city, and a fourth teen camp was held in the spring in La Ronge. The spring Sage Hill poetry colloquium, led by Griffin Prize-winner Anne Simpson, was held in May.
More than a few of the writers who came to hear Ford eloquently speak about his life as a writer were alumni not only of Sage Hill but of the Fort San program which operated for years in the ‘70s and ‘80s near Fort Qu’Appelle, in another part of the beautiful Qu’Appelle Valley.
Summer School’s Roots
The summer school, run by the Saskatchewan Arts Board at the old tuberculosis sanatorium, had components for many arts disciplines, but its writing program in particular was legendary. It had its roots in writing workshops led by the celebrated novelist and playwright W.O. Mitchell in Fort Qu’Appelle starting in 1952, only three years after the Arts Board was created by a stroke of Premier Tommy Douglas’s pen. The Liberal government of Ross Thatcher which succeeded Douglas’s Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation in 1964 pumped more money into the Arts Board to allow creation of a full-fledged summer school of the arts starting in 1966, with the pie-in-the-sky notion of developing it into a year-round school along the lines of the then-pubescent Banff Centre of the Arts.
But under the Conservative government of Grant Devine, the Arts Board and the School of the Arts first prospered, then choked. When the Arts Board pulled the plug on the summer school in 1989, it sent shock waves through the province’s artists, but only the tightly knit writing community did anything about it.
A couple of generations of Saskatchewan writers had cut their teeth at the beloved Fort San and were horrified at the province’s loss.
In late fall, Ven Begamudré, a Regina writer who was then president of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, wrote to a couple dozen high-profile writers inviting them to a meeting in Davidson to discuss the possibility of starting a writing school to replace it. A dozen or so people showed up. Begamudré remembers that he opened the meeting by asking if there was in fact any interest in starting a school. “Someone (he can’t recall if it was Anne Szumigalski or Gertrude Story, both well-known Saskatoon writers) said, ‘well, we’re here, aren’t we?’ And that was that.”
A steering committee was formed and Saskatoon writer Steven Ross Smith was quickly hired to run the show. A location for the school was found at an abandoned military base, part of the old DEW line of radar installations, at a isolated place called Sagehill, near Bruno, not too far east of Saskatoon. Poet Gary Hyland suggested the word “experience” be added to the name.
Move to St. Michael’s
After three years, Sage Hill moved into the more modern, definitely more comfortable St. Michael’s, a former Franciscan monastery, while keeping the military base’s name. An auxiliary program, the fall poetry colloquium, originally held at St. Peter’s Monastery near Humboldt, was also moved to St. Michael’s after several years, and eventually shifted to the spring.
Smith recalls that he “had no idea what Sage Hill would become.” A poet with background in television and video production, he’d moved from Toronto to Saskatoon a few years earlier after attending a writers’ colony and falling in love with Saskatchewan. A stint as writer in residence in Weyburn, during which he put together a writers’ festival, and some earlier literary event organizing in Toronto, gave him the chops for the job.
“My normal MO when given a task is to put my nose down and go for it,” Smith says. “The only thing I had in the way of vision was to find some money and make it a national thing – the board wanted to make sure it had more than just a Saskatchewan focus.”
Considering that he wasn’t hired till late December and the first program was just six months away, Smith says he was “surprised by how smoothly things went” that first year.
And, taking a long look back recently, he added: “It’s been pretty smooth ever since.”
The only thing Smith, Begamudré and the others involved “had in the way of vision was to find some money and make it a national thing,” Smith says. “The board wanted to make sure it had more than just a Saskatchewan focus.”
The SWG gave the new organization a $3,500 forgivable loan – never repaid – and Fort San scholarships that had been administered by the guild were transferred to Sage Hill. The Arts Board chipped in a small grant, and altogether it was enough to run a small program for one summer – none of the founders knew if Sage Hill would last longer than that. The first year, 1990, there were three programs, two in fiction and one in poetry, led by Edna Alford, David Arnason and Sharon Thesen, conducted over an intense, heady five days.
“Our plan was to run it just for one year, and see what happened,” says Begamudré, who in 1990 became Sage Hill’s first president while serving as the SWG’s past president. “And that first year was pretty lean. But it was a success, so we decided to go year by year.”
“An obvious hunger”
There was “an obvious hunger” for what Sage Hill was offering, Smith says, and “not a lot of competition in those days.” The Arts Board, perhaps feeling twinges of guilt over closing the summer school, was keen to see it going.
By the second year, with better funding established, the program had been extended to a full week (it’s now 10 days), and more sessions were added, including an introductory workshop.
In the 18 years since, over 200 fledgling writers from all over the country have gotten their first real taste of the craft they love in that introductory course alone. They’ve been joined by hundreds of other, more experienced writers, taking more advanced courses in fiction and poetry, and rotating workshops in children’s writing, nonfiction, and drama. Teen writing camps, in Saskatoon, Regina and Moose Jaw were also added, partnering with those cities’ public libraries.
The decision to make Sage Hill a separate entity, rather than an arm of the SWG, was deliberate, Begamudré says.
“We didn’t want Sage Hill’s fortunes tied to the guild’s.” And, because the new school was envisioned as being more rigorous than the writing program at Fort San, “we didn’t want guild members complaining when they couldn’t get in.”
Sage Hill, he says, was modeled on equal parts Fort San and Banff.
Although the tradition at Fort San was one of inclusiveness, in which few applicants were turned away, the new school was envisioned as being more rigorous, Begamudré says. “Sage Hill was never meant to be for the occasional writer. It’s elitist in as that only the best get in, and I don’t apologize for that.”
Indeed, right from the start it was decided each workshop level would have entrance criteria and that applicants would be screened by independent juries. And, much more than Fort San’s writing program had been, Sage Hill was conceived as “national” – writers have come from all over Canada, including the territories, and a handful from the U.S. have attended, although usually a quarter to a third of every year’s crop is from Saskatchewan, and the major funder continues to be the Saskatchewan Arts Board.
Luminaries on faculty
As at Fort San, where luminaries such as Robert Kroetsch, Rudy Wiebe, Eli Mandel, Leon Rooke, Jack Hodgins, Hugh Hood, Clark Blaise, Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane had taught, faculty have been recruited from the best writers in Saskatchewan and nationally.
Among them are Governor-General’s Award winners Kroetsch, Crozier and Lane, Nicole Brossard, George Elliot Clarke, Tim Lilburn, Kevin Major, Don McKay, Erin Mouré, Colleen Murphy, John Pass, Kit Pearson, Sharon Pollock, Art Slade, Rosemary Sullivan, Jane Urquhart, Guy Vanderhaeghe and Fred Wah.
Other faculty over the years have included Edna Alford, David Arnason, Sandra Birdsell, Ven Begamudré, Marilyn Bowering, Di Brandt, Bonnie Burnard, Catherine Bush, Sharon Butala, David Carpenter, Lyn Coady, Warren Cariou, Dennis Cooley, Susan Crean, Robert Currie, Marilyn Dumont, Steven Galloway, Beth Goobie, Lee Gowan, Sue Goyette, Phil Hall, Mark Anthony Jarman, Terry Jordan, Myrna Kostash, Janice Kulyk Keefer, Judy Krause, John Lent, Wendy Lill, Jeanette Lynes, Annabel Lyon, Dave Margoshes, John Murrell, Elizabeth Phillips, Bill Robertson, Gerry Shikatani, Karen Solie, Floyd Favel Starr, Susan Stenson, Sharon Thesen, Betsy Warland, Dianne Warren – and John Steffler, former poet laureate of Canada.
Among the several hundred students: best-selling novelist Lisa Moore, Griffin Prize-winning poet Sylvia Legris, G-G drama winner Vern Thiessen. From Saskatchewan alone came former poet laureate Louise Halfe and current laureate Bob Currie; and Brenda Baker, Sheri Benning, Donna Caruso, Hilary Clark, Larry Gasper, Joanne Gerber, Eric Greenway, Trevor Herriot, Jill Robinson, Leona Theis, Dan Tysdal and Paul Wilson – all Saskatchewan Book Award winners.
As a relative newcomer to Saskatchewan, Smith had never attended the summer school “but I’d certainly heard the tales of Fort San. I knew it had kick-started the careers of so many Saskatchewan writers, and I knew its values.”
Twenty years later, those values are still alive at Sage Hill, and the torch lit in the Qu’Appelle Valley almost 60 years ago by W.O. Mitchell is still burning brightly.
Sage Hill 20th Anniversary
July 25, 2009
HOW SAGE HILL HAPPENED
W.O. Mitchell, in 1951, led Saskatchewan’s first residential creative writing course housed in several war-time buildings at Fort Qu’Appelle. After a hiatus of several years, the course reappeared in 1966 as part of the new Saskatchewan Summer School of the Arts, which included band and choral music, drama and visual arts, at the Briercrest Bible School near Moose Jaw. In 1967, that program moved to Echo Valley Centre, a renovated TB sanitarium, and went from 350 to 1212 students attending 28 classes over a seven week period.
In 1974, to meet growing demands, fall and winter sessions were added in some areas and the summer program was expanded to twelve weeks. By 1976 the faculty numbered 122.
For over twenty summers, the Echo Valley Centre (a.k.a. Fort San or The Fort) filled with thousands of writers, musicians, visual artists, dancers, potters, vocalists, photographers, and dramatists. Besides Saskatchewan, students came from across Canada and throughout the United States. Instructors hailed from the United Kingdom, the USA and the Soviet Union as well as Canada. These artists mingled in a collegial atmosphere of mutual interest and support, leading to many interdisciplinary projects. Under the direction of the Saskatchewan Arts Board, the School contributed to the development of numerous artists who went on to attain professional standing.
In late 1989 after cutbacks in funding, the Board announced that the School would close. In spite of a campaign to save the school, the closure took place. The Sage Hill Writing Experience is the only ongoing professional level residential program to have survived the collapse of the Saskatchewan School of the Arts. Sage Hill was initiated by the Saskatchewan writers Guild which called a meeting of concerned writers on Dec. 22, 1989. That meeting of ten people considered several options and set up a steering committee to ascertain if a summer program could be offered and to determine a structure to operate a writing school. This original Steering Committee was Susan Andrews Grace, Ven Begamudré, Pam Bjornson (executive director SWG), Regine Haensel (chair), Gary Hyland, Dolores Reimer and Anne Szumigalski.
They hired a part-time director and concentrated on mounting a viable summer program of three courses. With a loan from the Saskatchewan Writers Guild and a Saskatchewan Arts Board Grant, the courses were successfully delivered at Sage Hill. In August of 1990, the Steering Committee, decided to continue as a body independent of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild. The Sage Hill board of directors now consists of nine volunteer members dedicated to presenting the best possible programs in creative writing.
Some developments of note:
|Jan. 1990||First Steering Committee Meeting|
Steven Ross Smith hired as part-time administrator
Sage Hill (ex-radar base) site near Saskatoon selected, used until 1993 inclusive; name Sage Hill Writing Experience adopted
Three 5-day courses conducted
Four 7-day courses, plus Saskatoon Youth Writing Camp
Jerry Rush estate donates books; our library’s inception
Revenue Canada grants Sage Hill charitable status
Five 7-day courses plus Saskatoon Youth Writing Camp
Incorporation as Sage Hill Writing Experience Inc.
Six 10-day courses, plus Saskatoon Youth Writing Camp
Five 10-day adult courses, the first at St. Michael’s Retreat Centre, Lumsden
First 3 week credit Fall Poetry Colloquium at St. Peter’s College
Youth Writing Camp at Moose Jaw initiated
Youth program names changed to Teen Writing Experience
10th Anniversary summer program
Teen Writing Experience La Ronge initiated. Runs for two years
Lucky 13th year
Fall Poetry Colloquium moves to St. Michael’s Retreat
Fifteenth year. President’s Council Initiative
Sixteenth year. Professional development for E.D. initiated in Fundraising
Program Assistant (part-time) Sue Stewart hired
Instructors have included: David Arnason, Sandra Birdsell, Marilyn Bowering, Di Brandt, Nicole Brossard, Warren Cariou, George Elliott Clarke, Dennis Cooley, Lorna Crozier, Marilyn Dumont, Mark Anthonly Jarman, Myrna Kostash, Robert Kroetsch, Patrick Lane, Tim Lilburn, Kevin Major, Dave Margoshes, Daphne Marlatt, Don McKay, Frank Moher, John Murrell, Kit Pearson, Elizabeth Philips, Sharon Pollock, Rosemary Sullivan, Merna Summers, Anne Szumigalski, Sharon Thesen, Jane Urquhart, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Fred Wah, Betsy Warland, Dianne Warren, and more.