“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754
Disputed oil pipelines, bank bailouts, the Occupy movement, threats to Canada’s pension system, and now electoral fraud in Canada’s last federal election. In a time of seemingly out-of-control corruption and expanding public attention to social issues, the Convergence Writers’ Retreat in New Denver May 11 to 13 will consider writing that focuses on social justice.
Every great social movement needs writers to articulate its ideas, whether through songs, poems, stories or other means of conveying the message. With the current interest in social justice as expressed through developments like the Occupy movement, the time seemed appropriate to offer this event.
For most of my writing career I’ve encouraged poets to embrace social justice in their writing—often, it seems, to deaf ears. In fact there’s a long and honourable history of writers taking the lead in exposing hypocrisy and fraud, going back to the classical Greek tradition. Particularly since the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, writers such as Voltaire, Rousseau and others have articulated the goals and ideals of humanity’s ever-evolving social contract. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s On the Social Contract—which was responsible for coining the term—made a strong argument for democracy and social empowerment at a time when the European monarchy was finally beginning to collapse under its own corrupt weight.
A century later, Emile Zola’s vindication of French-Jewish military officer Dreyfus, falsely accused of treason, was another watershed moment in writing for social justice. Largely as a result of Zola’s newspaper article J’Accuse, the Dreyfus case was re-examined and he was eventually pardoned. The tradition continued into the 20th century with writers like George Orwell, a master of both journalism and allegory whose books took on everything from poverty in Paris and London to the rise of totalitarian governments. It’s early yet in the 21st century but writers like Naomi Klein and Chris Hedges are already doing vital work on behalf of social justice.
Meanwhile Canadian poets have lagged behind their American counterparts—Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Wendell Berry, and Denise Levertov to name a few—writing for social justice. The torch seems to have been carried in Canada mostly by Tom Wayman, Gary Geddes, the late Milton Acorn, and the earlier poetry of Margaret Atwood. The ‘slam’ poetry scene that arose in the 1990s has always been unabashedly political but remains largely an underground phenomenon. ‘Name’ poets tend to shy away from it, partly due to career concerns and partly due to the difficulty of crafting lasting political verse.
Thanks to the support of Heart’s Rest Retreat Centre owners George Meier and Therese DesCamp, as well as fundraisers extraordinaire Anne Champagne and Tom Wayman, Convergence Writer’s Retreat will offer writers the chance to participate in the social justice tradition. Convergence will offer three presentations on aspects of social change writing, three writing workshops on a variety of themes, and a Sunday, May 13 afternoon public reading and musical performance. Heart’s Rest Retreat Centre, located on a ridge above New Denver’s Carpenter Creek, offers an eagle’s-eye view of Slocan Lake—a stunning location for a writer’s retreat.
I’ll open up the weekend on Friday evening with a presentation entitled From Rant to Slant: the Political in Poetry, with a chance for discussion afterwards. This presentation will focus on the various ways poets craft political poetry. Other presenters at the retreat are Heart’s Rest co-founder Therese DesCamp, whose subject is The Mind’s Alchemy: Understanding Metaphor, and Heart’s Rest co-founder George Meier who with DesCamp will offer What Sustains Us: The Work of the Heart, on techniques for overcoming despair in the long hard struggle for beneficial social change—the easily overlooked spiritual element. DesCamp studied under linguistics expert George Lakoff, whose books on cognitive ‘framing’ are a must for anyone wanting to understand the resurgence of the extreme right in recent decades.
On the Saturday and Sunday morning, Retreat participants can attend a workshop at which their own writing will be the subject of attention. Although submitted writing by participants can be on any subject, each of the three offered workshops will have a nominal focus. Workshop facilitators are Nelson editor and educator Verna Relkoff, who will help participants understand how to reach their intended audience, i.e. how to avoid ‘preaching to the choir.’ New Denver writer and visual artist Judy Wapp will zero in on the rant as an effective literary form, and Winlaw author and educator Tom Wayman will look at the use of humour in social change writing. It’s a great honour for me to be working with these people.
The Convergence Retreat coffeehouse on Sunday at 2 p.m., open to the public, will showcase singer-songwriter Dominique Fraissard as well as readings by Retreat participants. Dominique has released five albums on indie label Drink From the Trees and his songs effortlessly blend poetic lyrics with social conscience. Recently Dominique completed recording tracks for a film soundtrack entitled Reveal the Path. (See links)
The Convergence Writers’ Retreat has received support from the Columbia Basin Trust and Heart’s Rest Retreat Centre. Registration for the retreat is now open; cost is $236, which includes meals throughout the event. Five scholarships are available for attendees between 18 and 30. And the first 10 registrants of whatever age receive a $15 gift certificate from Jennie’s Book Garden in Winlaw—a great source of books on social justice. Registration, scholarship application, accommodation information and directions to Heart’s Rest are available at www.heartsrest.com/convergence/convergence-writers-retreat
We are however limited to a capacity of 25 registrants. Hope to see you there!