By Venta Rutkauskas –
Community Arts Council collaborates with poet Sonya Littlejohn on creative workshops focusing on wildfire experiences.
Let me tell you a story.
Since the wildfires, I have been searching. Pulled by a will to feel centred, to record and understand, I have turned to my notebook, composing to match the visions of ash, upheaval, and renewal that marked me. I listened intently, to the ground, the smoke, the nerves, the voices of my friends. Out of these poured streams of emotion and colour, needing a place to settle and call home.
When you least expect it, the collective consciousness responds and brings together the elements in such a way as to create the fulfillment of desire. One afternoon I invited poet Sonya Littlejohn to meet me at the Community Arts Council office. She came and delivered the idea I’d been searching for, just like that… A Fire Anthology. A soul-knowing ‘yes’ lit up my heart, setting in motion a chain of events that lead us to this point.
It begins like this: Throughout June, with Sonya as our guide, our first series of three workshops, entitled 1001 Recipes for Ashes, will gather the stories that emerged from a summer of fire. We will create a welcoming space in which you can share. Why? Perhaps filmmaker Sarah Polley says it best: “Stories are our way of coping, of creating shape out of the mess.”
Our goal is to create a beautiful book, an embodiment of recovery and a document filled with diverse perspectives, teachings, longings, and a rainbow of emotion.
Sonya’s passion for teaching and facilitating the writing process evolved with WordPlay, a Vancouver Poetry House initiative where, “Contemporary active poets give relevance and immediacy to poetry in the classroom.”Sonya empowered young writers through WordPlay’s focus on experimentation and self-expression. Sonya explains, “The work with WordPlay solidified my role as a writer by owning the ability to perform and teach.”
The craft came to Sonya at an early age, inked like the first clicks of a new typewriter on a fresh page. Blessed by a mother’s keen guidance, she quickly began reading and before long was writing. She shares visions of writing stories that paired with her early drawings. “In my mind, the stories were epic,” says Sonya, “but probably they were only a few words.” In grade 7, she encountered Loyd Csizmadia’s vivid and energetic teaching style. “He gave a liveliness to language that other teachers who were more serious didn’t,” Sonya remembers. She would have him for English several times throughout high school. Mr. Csizmadia had an irreverent way of working with the curriculum, she explains, and he opened his students’ eyes to the creative potential in language and grammar. Eventually, Sonya moved on to study Canadian Anthropology at UBC, and then remained in Vancouver, carving out a life as a poet and spoken word artist.
Sonya has now returned to the Cariboo. She, too, listened intently to the community around her, eliciting the desire to compile the impacts wildfires have had. Our work here is an experiment. What happens when thousands of people face a collective experience like this? Maybe something beautiful, Sonya explains: “The community spirit of supportiveness and care many saw triggered during the fires and evacuations was something hopeful I experienced. It stretched from the center of the fires out as far as the rest of the world.” This series of workshops will centre on vivid imagery. “I intend to guide the participants with imagery of the home and our natural surroundings, to explore the ideas of safety, support, and stewardship as we move forward recognizing what we passed through and what may be on the other side.”
So here we are, the editors of the anthology. We are seeking reflective essays, poetry, art, and photographs. We want your stories, experiences, and reflections of community care and co-operation, resilience, mental journeys, physical journeys. Tell us of loss, challenges to status quo, fears, threats, promises, and plans for future seasons. “This is all grounds for poetry,” Sonya points out.
Whether or not you are a writer, we want to ensure you we can hear your story. We seek to offer these workshops to writers, storytellers, oral historians, lyricists, and visual artists who were affected, and who wish to connect in community around this common experience. Get in touch with us. Come to the workshops, held at the Central Cariboo Arts Centre on Saturday, June 2, Wednesday, June 13, and Saturday, June 23. We are grateful for the support of the City of Williams Lake and the Cariboo Regional District via the Central Cariboo Arts and Culture Society, the BC Arts Council, and the Province of BC. It is my honour to walk this path in partnership with Sonya. It will be my honour to witness you and the unfolding of your story.
Venta Rutkauskas is the co-ordinator for the Community Arts Council of Williams Lake (CACWL). See williamslakecommunityartscouncil.com to learn more about CACWL & local artists.