In June 1984 the BC Social Credit government forced the closure of the David Thompson University Centre, a small liberal arts college located in Nelson, BC, as part of economic measures of spending ‘restraint’. DTUC’s thriving writing program had attracted many poets and writers from across Canada and abroad to the small community. Protests were held, including a 96-day occupation of the David Thompson Library by 7 volunteers as well as several demonstrations from Nelson residents. Ultimately DTUC remained closed and many of the writers associated with the DTUC faculty were faced with little choice but to leave Nelson.
Many headed for Vancouver, including a group of the writers comprising Colin Browne, Jeff Derksen, Alicia Priest, Tom Wayman, Gary Whitehead and Calvin Wharton. Another group, comprising Pauline Butling, Paulette Jiles, Rita Moir, Irene Mock, John Newlove, Blake Parker, Fred Wah and Caroline Woodward stayed in Nelson. The two groups remained linked by and focused their energies on the formation of a new organization, The Kootenay School of Writing, in order to continue their work. The name commemorated the mutual origin of the group in Nelson which is in the Kootenay region of British Columbia. Each group worked in separately in tandem until the late 1980s, but have since operated independently.
In Vancouver, Colin Browne and Tom Wayman looked for and found a place to house workshops, courses, readings and events. A second floor office space at West Broadway at Oak was found, and KSW opened in the fall of 1984, offering various instructional courses including poetry, journalistic writing, fiction, non-fiction. The curriculum was modeled on the course materials that had been developed for DTUC, and the school was envisioned as an alternative to increasingly homogenized institutional writing programs.
In Nelson, the group continued at DTUC, operating out of the old DTUC student union building, sharing offices with other arts groups and continuing to use the lounge with bar that had been home to literary events over the years.
The direction and ethos of members of the KSW group varied, and though they are referred to as a collective, they often worked toward individual aims through the similar means enabled by the school’s not-for-profit structure, as opposed to a consensus-based group that had a single ideology.
In 1985, the KSW organized the New Poetics Colloquium, a four-day symposium on that brought together ‘language writers’ from across Canada and the US, including Charles Bernstein, Nicole Brossard, Barbara Einzig, Daphne Marlatt, Steve McCaffery, Michael Palmer and Ron Silliman. This colloquium has been seen to be an important moment for many KSW writers, who continued to work with and toward the ideas raised by this congress of writers.
An alternate stream of interest at KSW, called ‘work writing’ was also being developed, producing the Split/Shift Conference of 1986. KSW also became the home for Writing Magazine, which had begun in 1980 under Fred Wah, David McFadden, and Julian Ross. Writing continued in Vancouver after the formation of the KSW, and became a key publishing venue for the organization.
Along with these activities, the KSW operated as a resource for those who wanted to know about literary events in Vancouver, taking on the role of the recently closed Vancouver Literary Storefront. In 1986, the activities of the KSW led to the founding of Artspeak, an artist-run centre that began as a gallery in the KSW office space, which later branched off into its own organization.
In the earliest days of the school funding was secured through the Canada Council to support visiting writers. The administration was kept purposely lean, and a resistance to institutionalization prevailed. Some of the writers who had been faculty at DTUC donated their time, supporting themselves with severance funds from the closure of the university, though ultimately this was not sustainable, leading to their departure.
Over the years, KSW has drawn both accolades and ire from the community, such as when it sold fake university degree certificates as a tongue-in-cheek fundraising initiative (eliciting attacks from UBC writing professors). After many years in transition, it continues its operations today in an increasingly ephemeral form, operating without a space but collaborating on events from time to time.
The names of the first board of directors
Ann Cowan Buitenhuis
In South Slocan:
The Founding Writers
Date of Incorporation
Sept 14, 1984
The KSW Mission
From an early pamphlet avertising KSW courses (1986):
Welcome to the Kootenay School of Writing. This independent artist-run post-secondary school was established in defiance of the order to shut down David Thomspon University Centre [Nelson] in May 1984. Ex-students and faculty from the DTUC program have organized centres in Nelson and Vancouver to serve a consituency interested in courses and workshops on the writing craft taught by working writers. At the heart of both centres dwells a dedicated group of volunteers who are convinced that schools such as KSW are necessary in the face of an education system labouring under seemingly vindictive industrial policies. KSW welcomes your involvement.”
From an early grant application to the Explorations Program (1985):
“Our objective is to serve as a parallel gallery for all aspects of the language arts, and to offer a place for exploration of how the written word influences and is influenced by the theatre, visual arts, etc.”
“Writing magazine is a forum for primary and critical writing that does not take the limits of language for granted. Rather than trying to scrape language clean of ideologies, the work in Writing hauls these structures to the surface for examination A poem is more than a sum of its deices and meaning is not a commodity that is cashed by a reader. The social role of writing; the relation and influence of arts to writing; and the movement away from theory to praxis form the focus of Writing.”
The editors of Writing were:
David W. McFadden, issues 1 – 5
John Newlove, issue 6
Colin Browne, issues 7 – 22
Jeff Derksen and Nancy Shaw, issues 23/24 – 28
Starting in 1999, KSW began publishing W.
105 – 1045 West Broadway (1985-1987)
306-152 West Hastings (1987-1995)
112 West Hastings (1995-1999)
Robson Square (1997-1999)
103-480 Smithe Street, with the Or Gallery (1999-2000)
201-505 Hamilton Street (2000-2005)
309 – 207 West Hastings (2005-2008)
KSW no longer has a public office.
The KSW website hosts an incomplete but extensive archive of images, sound files, an event chronology, information about Writing and W magazines. Archival records are also housed at the SFU Library Special Collections at SFU Burnaby.
Title Image: The Four Horseman (Steve McCaffrey, Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, bpNichol) reading at David Thompson University Centre, 1979.