ROBERT KROETSCH keynote address:
Sage Hill Writing Experience 30th Anniversary,
Muenster, Saskatchewan, July 6, 2019

Steven Ross Smith

Robert Kroetsch Keynote Address Forenote

The Kroetsch Keynote Address is dedicated to the memory of Robert Kroetsch. The
audience is made up of Sage Hill summer program participants and the broader
I’m honoured to be invited to stand before you to deliver an address to celebrate
30 years of Sage Hill Writing, to touch on the life and work of Robert Kroetsch,
for whom this talk is named, and to take a few personal tangents along the way.
Please forgive me for any memory slippages.
Robert Kroetsch was born June 26, 1927 in Heisler, Alberta. I was not present
… I was not yet born.

What was to become known as Sage Hill Writing Experience was conceived as
an idea in late 1989, and I was there. The program began to take shape through
the winter and spring of 1990 and came into the world as a program in the
summer of that year.
I was there at the conception, I was there at the birth. And now I’m here at the
30 th anniversary. Who, as they say, would have thought?
But, as I tell the story, I’ll be correcting the historical record as attributed on
the current Sage Hill website, at least that which I recall.
As I’ll play a bit loose with the time arc in my narrative, for clarity I’ll give a
few important dates here:

1986: I came from my hometown, Toronto to St. Peter’s Abbey for a
two–week retreat run by the Saskatchewan Writers Guild.
1987 summer: I moved from Toronto to Saskatoon
1987 fall: I moved to Weyburn Saskatchewan
1989: I was hired to start a new writing program in Saskatchewan
1990: Sage Hill Writing Experience was born.
I hope this helps alleviate confusion along the way.

Way back when, before I got to Saskatchewan, before Sage Hill existed, and
for several summers, beginning in 1967, the Saskatchewan Summer School of
the Arts flourished in the Qu’Appelle Valley, northeast of Regina. It was a
multi-disciplinary summer arts retreat. For a couple of decades, thousands of
artistically inclined youth and young adults received summer tuition, activity,
and instruction in dance, music, visual art, theatre, and writing. It was known
colloquially as “Fort San”, because the facility was a former TB sanatorium.
The writing program was distinctive, as it was at a professional level.
Instructors were pros and the writers were, for the most part young adults,
some already published.

I was not there – I was in Toronto getting influenced by that milieu, and
Toronto was where I first heard of, then met, Robert Kroetsch, some time in the
early ‘80s. Toronto was the centre of my world. I’m sure I hosted Robert as
part of the Kontakte Reading Series I helped organize, along with my friend
and collaborator writer Richard Truhlar, but I can’t find record of that. At that
time, I was completely unaware of the Saskatchewan scene.

The Fort San program was supported by Saskatchewan public dollars, but as
the ‘80s wound down, so did government financial support, and the school
officially closed in – I’ve seen different dates, but in 1990 or 91.
You can read some about the Fort San days in editor David Carpenter’s
excellent volumes of The Literary History of Saskatchewan, published by
Coteau Books, over the past decade or so, now three volumes long.
Robert Kroetsch spent time at Fort San as an instructor in the writing program
for parts of the summers between 1974 and 1977 or 78. He was then teaching at Binghamton at the State University of New York, but was longing for
Canada. In a letter to a friend he says that he is looking forward to spending [I
“two glorious weeks at the Saskatchewan Summer School near Regina.
Want to immerse myself in the language of the prairies, want to work
with students who come off these prairies, want to feel that god-dammed
sky over me again, the wind on my neck.”

Two years before the first iteration of the Saskatchewan School of the Arts,
Kroetsch had already published his first novel, But We Are Exiles, in 1965.
Over his career he was published in at least 30 books, chapbooks, and
ephemera – novels, novellas, poetry collections, interviews, critical essays and
so on. His titles are iconic to some readers and many writers – What The Crow
Said, Field Notes, The Seed Catalogue, Words of my Roaring, The Hornbooks
of Rita K.

And he was always a generous supporter of aspiring, emerging and
accomplished writers.

Yukon poet Clea Roberts wrote to me the other day and said “I always
remember him so fondly. He was so encouraging to me when I published my
first chapbook and his work will always be an inspiration.”

Novelist Angie Abdou of Fernie wrote: “I met him at Sage Hill. Such an
inspiration. I feel so lucky to have known him.”

Calgary writer Anne Sorbie wrote: “Our time in the novel colloquium with
Robert Kroetsch was such an honour. Remembering him fondly.”
Those typify comments I’ve heard from so many others.

Kroetsch writes in “I Wanted to Write a Manifesto” in his sort-of memoir A
Likely Story, the Writing Life:
“It was my grade twelve teacher, in the city of Red Deer, Alberta who
told me I should make a career of writing, and never for a moment since
that late afternoon when I stood by her desk in the fading winter light –
the only student left in her home room, the only boy who ever lingered
after class – never since she said “You’re always writing. Why don’t you
become a writer?” – I was seventeen – have I for a moment doubted how
I must spend my life.”

Interestingly, in that same essay, Robert attributes another formative moment
to the day, as a young boy, he reached over his head in a freezing church into
the baptismal font to touch the holy water, and found the water frozen. I leave
you to discover the implications for yourself. That narrative demonstrates,
within the same confession, Kroetsch’s propensity for the tall tale, myth, the
imaginative narrative leap, the flirting with magic realism. It’s a marvellous
essay, typical of his often genre-bending, narrative-fiddling tropes.
I’m sure you, as can I, recall some formative moment that led you on your
writing path that finds you here today at Sage Hill.

I have a path as a writer, and a key fork on that path happened in
Saskatchewan, right here at St. Peters. And that fork later led me to Sage Hill,
and to enhancing my connection to Robert Kroetsch.
Let’s see if I can weave this all together.

When Fort San’s impending closure was announced, a group of writers formed
a hasty committee with the aim of keeping a writing program alive. They
acquired a bit of seed money from – I think it was, the Saskatchewan Arts
Board, or maybe SaskCulture – and began to imagine what they could do. At
that time, I was still getting familiar with Saskatchewan. I’d gone from
Toronto, the cafes and bars at Yonge and Bloor and Queen Street West, to the
Donut Hole beside the grain elevators in the town of Weyburn in Saskatchewan’s southeast, where I was the Public Library’s Writer in Residence for 1987-88. But that’s another story.

I don’t recall everyone who was on that original writing program committee
but I know that Gary Hyland was a prime mover – other likelies might have
been Robert Currie, maybe Brenda Niskala, perhaps Ven Begamudre and
Bruce Rice.

In 1986 I’d come to Saskatchewan from Toronto to a writing retreat at St.
Peter’s, desperate to reconnect with my poetry and fiction, which had fallen
away in a busy media career. One afternoon on a solo walk on these grid roads,
intent on angling around the whole square grid, as I passed the first corner,
about a mile over there, I had an epiphany. It basically said “quit selling your
soul to the media devil, get out of expensive Toronto, and focus on your
creative writing.” A year later, 1987, I loaded my belongings into a van and
drove to Saskatoon to settle into a new life, dedicated to that epiphany. A few
months later I was on my way to Weyburn. As they say, I haven’t looked back
since, and the horizon in front of me has been a continuing series of
exhilarating revelations.

By 1989 I was back in Saskatoon taking freelance administrative contracts in
the writing realm, organizing events and programs.
But back to the committee. Being a wise committee, they had determined that
they should pay someone to do the groundwork to serve their hopes.
Committees often can initiate, but aren’t always the best at the daily detail
work. I don’t know more about that group’s early deliberations, but I do know
that they approached me in, I think it was November or December of 1989, to
ask if I would take a contract to research and organize a writing program. I

To keep the narrative crisp, I’ll just say that, with the committee’s backing, I
searched, and seeded, planted and grew the first iteration of a writing program, for the summer of 1990. We’d got some grant support, and began to hunt for a
location. One place we visited was a site near Dana, northeast of Saskatoon, on
the top of the highest hill around – it was a decommissioned radar base – part
of the ‘Pinetree Line’ of defense.

The Pinetree Line was a series of radar stations located across the northern
United States and southern Canada, here at about the 50th parallel north. It was
run by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). The
stations in Canada were manned by personnel in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
The line was the first coordinated system for early detection of a Soviet bomber
attack on North America. Nowadays the Russians apparently bomb us on the
internet. Anyway, the 1950s radar technology quickly became outdated and the
Pinetree Line was in operation only for a short time. But the site was mostly
left standing.

The facility, by 1990, was managed by a rural development corporation, who’d
done very little to update the place. It had officer quarters – kind of like motel
bedrooms – an industrial kitchen, meeting rooms, and a bar-room. The names
of officers were still on a letter board outside the bar area. It also had a two-
lane bowling alley where one lane’s pin lifter didn’t work. It had a swimming
pool that was still being used for community swims. Down the hill was a
crescent of mobile home concrete pads, empty of the vinyl sided trailer-homes
and giving way to weeds and grasses. Also remaining, at the very top of the hill
was the radar tower’s two or three storey concrete block structure minus the top
cone. The tower’s red warning lights still turned on automatically at night and
the structure gave off an eerie hum. We chose this exotic place as our first
writing program home. It provided a unique immersion in a distinct
Saskatchewan landscape, with native grasses, wheat fields, and natural sloughs
with red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds. And the Bruno bar was a
fifteen-minute drive on the gravel roads.

The first program was just 5 days with 3 workshops – fiction, poetry, and non-
fiction. The faculty were David Arnason, Dennis Cooley, and … was it Lorna
Crozier or Edna Alford? I think it was Edna. But the writers who came there
that first year – from all across the country – threw themselves into the
program. They gathered and wrote and talked and sipped and walked and
shared and wrote. It was a success. We remained at that location for four
memorable years. We had made something vital out of almost nothing. Then
when the rural corporation closed the facility – it had never really invested or
promoted its viability – we moved south to St. Michael’s Retreat Centre, a
Franciscan facility near Lumsden, back in the Qu’Appelle Valley, but west of
Fort San. At St. Michael’s, Sage Hill ran for another dozen years or so, before
it had to move again. The writers brought a distinctly secular ambience to this
primarily religious location. But the Franciscans welcomed us. And we
provided a significant source of revenue for them.

There’s an interesting side note about the links between writers and religious
centres such as St. Michael’s and St. Peter’s in Saskatchewan. These places
have provided economical venues with enough accommodation spaces, the
right degree of quiet and focus, and a need for secular revenue, to enable an
odd kind of partnership, much more suitable to creativity, than urban hotels or
convention centres.

Along the way, as part of our expansion of the annual program, in the early
mid-90s I think it was, we implemented a fall and/or spring poetry colloquium,
for just a handful of writers, held for a few years at St. Peter’s Abbey. As I
mentioned earlier St. Peter’s already had a history of providing space for
Saskatchewan Writers Guild retreats. In those days St. Pete’s had a limited
guest capacity, so could only accommodate small groups – smaller than our
gathering today.

I stayed with the writing program known as Sage Hill Writing Experience as
Executive Director for eighteen years. During that time, along with the writing
programs, we introduced baseball and ultimate Frisbee into the leisure
activities, we visited local bars, we hiked the gravel roads past gorgeous
summer fields abloom with blue flax and yellow canola flowers, and we gazed
at the star-filled sky, sometimes lying in blankets and sleeping bags on grassy
hills in the dark, free of light pollution, to thrill at the Perseid meteor showers.
Speaking of baseball … Kroetsch wrote in Advice to My Friends:

What would happen if, just as you
slid into home plate,
the pitcher threw the catcher
an orange?

That didn’t quite happen at Sage, but I recall a couple of notable moments on
the ball diamond at Lumsden. It was an ungroomed small town field. Once
Saskatoon poet Elizabeth Philips, in jaunty shorts, slid into gravelly first base
and scraped her right thigh pretty badly, etching a bit of a bloody tattoo.
Another time, playwright and actor Pam Bustin took a line drive off the bridge
of her nose. She sported attractive shades of blue and purple for awhile after
that. Who says writing retreats aren’t dangerous?
But the true star of the diamond was our own Jeanette Lynes – forgive me
Jeanette for telling tales – Jeanette showed up to play ball in sneakers and a
black miniskirt, lending a stylish mode to the un-uniform uniforms. Her
baseball nickname became “Skirt”, designated so, poetically, I think, by Don

Every summer, the gatherings were, each in their own way, unique
experiences. Speaking of “experience” I should tell a bit about how Sage Hill
got its name.

As our organization was about to incorporate as a non-profit, in 1989, the
committee had to come up with a name. Various possibilities were tossed
about. At one point it looked like we were going to be Westward Writing. But
that name had an echo, as if it already existed somewhere else, and I think it
did. I’ve neglected to tell you that the Pinetree radar base near Dana was called
Sage Hill, so that name seemed as if it might be suitable.

This was the late ‘80s, but a number of the committee members, and I were,
generationally, “flower children” – the golden glow of the sixties had not yet
worn off. Jimi Hendrix’ guitar riffs were still in the air. I don’t think there were
other substances in the air, as our committee was a bright, focussed,
responsible crew – but I recall Gary Hyland proposing we call our program
Sage Hill Writing Experience. And ta-da, that was it. The name stuck …
though sadly, the term “Experience” seems to have been dropped recently.
I think Robert Kroetsch would have opted to keep the term. He loved history.
He was permanently back in Canada by this time, teaching at University of
Manitoba. In Advice to my Friends in the poem “Seeing the Bear”, in the
second verse, just after waking from a vision in a dream, he writes:

Smaro begins to laugh, she laughs,
repeating my question. At last,
I tell her, I have begun the poem
of my country, you are present
at the moment of conception,
I wish that John Cabot could be with us,
and Champlain, and maybe Susanna Moodie,
here in our bed, in Winnipeg.
So, for Sage Hill Writing – Experience – like those
historic figures, could be
with us, still, here in our Muenster beds.

I hired Robert Kroetsch a number of times at Sage Hill – once or twice for a
spring poetry colloquium, an intense two-week session with just a small group
of poets – five or six I think, here, in fact, at St. Peter’s.
One notable iteration of that program I’ve been able to recall is the colloquium
group of five women that Robert worked with here in 1999. They were young
and lively, and Robert, outnumbered by gender, managed gallantly. I think it
was just toward the end of the colloquium that they published a chapbook.
They named it Chickweed. The chick-poets were Kimmy Beach, Holly
Borgerson Calder, Rebecca Campbell, Heidi Greco and Catherine Greenwood.
Robert was credited as the editor. I remember the vibrant creative energy of
those days and the warm and heady bonding, the feelings of accomplishment
and celebration.

I hired Kroetsch later for a few years running, at the summer program at St.
Michael’s Retreat Centre. He was always an inspiring light, a wise and witty

For all Robert’s talent, skill, wisdom and charisma he was a humble man.
Dennis Cooley writes in The Home Place; Essays on Robert Kroetsch’s
“Though Kroetsch spoke eloquently and forthrightly to literary matters in
classes and in countless conferences and interviews, in person he often
was reticent, even private – “neurotically private” were his words. He
was a shy man, painfully so at times.”
Robert Kroetsch, egoless with himself, was humble with fellow writers, and
humble in the face of the writing act. In “The Poetics of Rita Kleinhart” in A
Likely Story, he writes:
“Every poem, one might say is a failed translation, an accidental
imposter manufactured by the incompetence of a weak-eyed translator
sweating in the light of a lantern whose wick is badly in need of

There’s a great definition of a writer – “a weak-eyed translator sweating in the
light of a lantern whose wick is badly in need of trimming”. Do you ever feel
like that? I know I do.

So here we are – Sage Hill has circled, partly so – back to St. Peter’s, and I’ve
come full circle too. It’s 33 years since my grid road epiphany. But we’re here
today to celebrate the fact that it’s the 30 th anniversary year for Sage Hill
Writing. I’m so pleased that it’s still thriving. I was amazed that it ran, with my
help, for eighteen years and now it’s been twelve more years since I let go of
the helm, and it appears to remain in good hands – those of a board of directors
and an Executive Director who are handling it well and keeping it going for the
benefit of writers from near and far.

In 1992 I went to Waterloo to celebrate Robert Kroetsch’s seventieth birthday.
Many writers had gathered to fete the man. It was a grand party, with readings,
talks, performances, and more. I wrote a suite of poems for Robert, inspired by
the party and by my reading of his work. I’ll read one of those. It contains
quotations from and allusions to Kroetsch, and it wanders some. It’s from my
book fluttertongue 3: disarray.

Exactly what happened? I ask your pages. Seek mirror-struck images for
hints of the plot of you. Are you the poem? The man? Which is which?
Which has been loved by talented women? You’re going to die of love,
according to Lang, to braggadocio, or to posturings of the poem-story.
The priapic and griping Sad Phoenician, finishing his bawdy tale, body
tipsy, adrift, inchoate (Nichol’s road). The page is a window in the tree
house. The poem the lover you bed there. Words are inches I crawl
between the covers. Tips of myself. This glance, this finger, this nose in
words, in the coupling seen through cracks in the planks. Snooper for
aporrhoea. For truffles or treacherous triple entendre. The lovely
treachery of words. The courting chase in the viney field.
The poem must
resist the poet. Delay learns desire’s fervour, waits the small death. If there is an afterwards, the poem lights up, turns toward the wall.

I’ve given you some of my recollections of the history of Sage Hill. There is a
kind of conundrum – a blessing and a curse – entwined with being a director of
a writing program and being a writer too.

The blessing is that you dwell constantly in the network, the society, the fabric
of the writing community, writers from everywhere … you find your people …
they come to you every year. And as a writer, you understand what they need
to find a productive environment in your program. That deep understanding
should make for a secure and rewarding program for almost all of your visitors.
You make opportunities for writers to develop. So to avoid jealousy or
cynicism, you have to make opportunities for your own development. I feel
fortunate that I took care of my practice too, while leading Sage Hill.
What I realized at my first retreat at St. Peter’s was that I needed to initiate a
daily writing practice. I’d been unable to do that in Toronto, with work
pressures, and I wasn’t one who could get up at 4 a.m. and write before going
to work. But at St. Peter’s I determined to be more consistent until I could
escape the fast lane of Toronto and move to Saskatchewan.

Finally, in 1987 my one-year writer in residence term in Weyburn allowed me
to kick-start that daily attention. I learned that the bum is an important writing
muscle. It has to be applied to the chair – the upholstery, as I say – consistently
– to actually make words and ideas work to your creative benefit. I know that
your instructors here today practice this, and I bet that all of you who chose to
come to Sage Hill have, or yearn to achieve, such consistency – consistency at
the desk, in the face of doubt, discouragement, inspiration, unknowing,
criticism, rejection, lust, financial instability, success, fear, envy, sickness,
family responsibilities, social media, and all the other distractions and pressures we face. Your choice to come here is a sign, and I hope you’ll take it
as an indication that you deserve to initiate and/or maintain a daily practice.
Okay, enough of the sermon.

Kroetsch writes, in A Likely Story:
“I do confess, almost blushingly, that my generation still believed
strongly that one should go out and have experience.” (p.25)

And Kroetsch did go off in such a search, apparently to write a novel, in 1947.
He went north [quote] “to slip out of the fastenings of night and day into other
versions of light and dark … I had swerved away from the Western world and
its secure sense of the structure of time.” That’s from “Why I Went Up North
and What I Found When He Got There” in A Likely Story, [p. 15]. There he
worked tossing boxes of frozen beef, he sweated on a dock unloading dynamite
for gold mines in Yellowknife, he served as a purser on a riverboat that ran
from Fort Smith to the Beaufort Sea. Such adventures – exploration, the exotic,
the dangerous, and so on, have fed tales and verses, and it still works for some
writers – experience. But living on the edge in unfamiliar locales is not
necessarily a writer’s required lifestyle. Today we can find our edges, our
adventures in many different ways, even sometimes without leaving town or
rural sections. Time’s passing changes things.

For instance, when Sage Hill began, there was no internet. We promoted via
brochures and announcements through writers’ organizations’ printed
newsletters. I corresponded with writers by letter and phone. Every year I took
group pictures, had them processed in a photo shop in Saskatoon and then
mailed the glossy 4 by 6 images out by post to that season’s participants.
I don’t remember the exact year, but when it was suggested that we develop a
website, there was even some uncertainty from board members of its necessity.
There were of course, no cell phones. But we took the leap into cyberspace.
Requiring year long, part-time administration, Sage Hill was primarily a one-
person operation, with Board support – but I had important contracted help along the way. Lawyer Jim Russell did our early navigation, pro bono, on our
application for charitable status. Poet Sylvia Legris did important clerical work,
promotion, and other duties. Poet Tonja Gunvaldsen-Klassen filled in part of
one grant year for me. Holly Luhning, an aspiring fiction writer, then young
and unpublished, worked as an on-site assistant, I think for a couple of
summers, gaining a scholarship to attend the program. There were others, and I
apologize to those, whose names I’ve forgotten. The Board of Directors was
always active – some of those members over the years included writers Gary
Hyland, Brenda Baker, Katherine Lawrence, Dave Margoshes, high school
teacher Paul Jacoby, and many many more … & gosh, I’ve forgotten who they
all were, too.

In 2008 I left Sage Hill to become Director of Literary Arts at The Banff
Centre. I was surprised and pleased to discover that all the skills I had learned
through Sage Hill were transferable to a larger institution with a more
ambitious program, bigger budget, and many more support staff. But it is Sage
Hill that remains close to my heart – its intimacy, its productivity, its grass-
roots focus, its peer equality, its landscapes, its venues, and even its
eccentricity, and it makes me enormously happy to see it thrive.

One benefit I was granted at Banff Centre was to travel to some events. I was
fortunate in 2010 to attend the Alberta Lieutenant Governor Arts Awards in St.
Albert, and to see Robert Kroetsch honoured that year, as one of two awarded
artists. He was in pretty good form, after a shaky period, given that he’d been
receiving treatment for Parkinsons, but was on the right medication by then,
and seemed strong. I still treasure a photo that his daughter took of the two of
us grinning together. It hangs, framed in my study.
The next year Robert was on a road trip with a young Italian scholar who was
writing her thesis on his work. That trip included a stop in Canmore, Alberta,
just down the road from Banff to appear at a writer’s festival. I thought I would
attend, but his appearance was on Father’s day, and I’d also been invited to

spend the day with my son and his mom. So I opted for the family event,
certain that I would see Robert later. I had, on occasion, dropped in at Leduc
and visited Robert in his seniors’ home and a few times we went out for lunch.
I figured I’d do that again in the fall.

Robert loved road trips. He’d been known to take such with the likes of Rudy
Wiebe and others, or on his own. He’d turned his trip to Canmore into one of
these adventures. After his appearance at the festival, off they went to
Drumheller, where he showed his thesis writing companion his beloved and
dramatic landscape that was the setting of his novel, Badlands.

Well, you may know the rest of the story. On a bend on a rainy highway, on
June 21 st, 2011, not far from home, while making a left turn, his car was hit
hard by another, and Robert received fatal injuries. The flow of his words and
wit and imagination was done.

For his family, friends and colleagues, it was a shocking, untimely end. But if
there can be a good note in a tragic event, it is that he went out in good mental
shape, decent physical condition, and doing something he loved. Rest in Peace
Robert Kroetsch. We remember you and honour you fondly today. And your
work remains with us.

Yes, here we are, thirty years after Sage Hill day one; twenty years after
Chickweed; ten or eleven years after I stepped off the Hill and turned to the
mountains; with Sage Hill in its fourth iteration of leadership, the current team
now in the fifth year, if I’m not mistaken, and in the able hands of Tara Dawn
Solheim. There are many things to celebrate, not the least of which is the
presence of all of you, all of us.

To each of you, I toast your epiphanies, your creative desire, your willingness
to consistently put your rear end on the chair, an act which has and will result
in writing achievements, the ones so far, and the many more to come.

To conclude I’ll take a small liberty with Robert Kroetsch’s first verse in
“Family Reunion Cowboy Poem.” He wrote it for Heisler. I’ve adapted it for
Sage Hill … the same syllable count in those names.

Hello Sage Hill, we’re all here
It’s time to serve the sausage and beer
We’ve come to visit old friends and new
It’s time to tell a story or two.

Cheers. Thank you for the experience.