canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: George Elliot Clarke

Suggesting a Potential Canon

Interview by Spencer Gordon 

George Elliott Clarke, OC (born February 12, 1960) is a Canadian poet and playwright. His work largely explores and chronicles the experience and history of the Black Canadian community of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, creating a cultural geography that Clarke refers to as "Africadia".

Born to William and Geraldine Clarke in Three Mile Plains, Nova Scotia, Clarke has spent much of his career writing about the black communities of Nova Scotia. Clarke worked as a parliamentary assistant to Howard McCurdy, MP in Ottawa. He also served for a time in the African-American Studies department at Duke University.

He earned a B.A. honours degree in English from the University of Waterloo (1984), an M.A. degree in English from Dalhousie University (1989) and a Ph.D. degree in English from Queen’s University (1993). In addition, he has received honorary degrees from Dalhousie University (LL.D.), the University of New Brunswick (Litt.D.), the University of Alberta (Litt.D.), the University of Waterloo (Litt.D.), and most recently, Saint Mary's University (Litt.D). He is currently an English professor at the University of Toronto.

Source: Wikipedia

May 2009

SG: Aside from being a well-respected writer, you’re also a professor and faculty member in the English department at the University of Toronto. What does regular lecturing and mentoring at the undergraduate and graduate level do for your writing process? Does academia provide you with the same sort of pleasures it did when you first received your Masters or your PhD?

GEC: Like most poets and many writers (apart from bestselling novelists), I cannot expect to survive—or live well—on book royalties or occasional prizes (though both are always welcome). So, one is forced to have a ‘day job,’ and teaching in the academy is one of the better options (apart from having a rich, generous, and non-censorious patron). Even Nobel Laureates in Literature are faculty members at one institution or another, and one presumes they are already well-compensated in terms of royalties and awards. So, what is the pleasure in teaching and mentoring? First and foremost, I think, is that one gets to engage in a serious, playful, and intense discussion of provocative texts with an array of other intelligences: this process of conversation and argumentation can only spark more fruitful thought and writing for each participant. Also important is the ideal that the university is an environment of ‘free speech’—a site for the exchange and exploration of ideas in a respectful manner: I love the fact that the Canadian and Ontario people pay me to read and talk about books and writers I find interesting—and to voice ideas and do research that some may find ‘problematic.’ In short, the academic setting/exchange/milieu is generally liberating, supportive, and beneficial. The downside is, as inspiring as teaching can be, it does decrease one’s creative writing ‘time’—and some of the essential bureaucratic functions of the position can be stultifying. But there are worse jobs for a writer!

SG: On a related note, you also teach grad courses in creative writing at the U of T. The value of creative writing courses has always been somewhat contentious; W.H. Auden, to name but one celebrated poet who weighed in on the issue, believed that teaching creative writing is "dangerous" – that it’s perhaps harmful to the bourgeoning writer to be instructed (in an institutional setting) on anything beyond technical aspects of form or structure. How do you feel about teaching creative writing? How (if at all) has the occupation assisted or hindered your own writing?

GEC: I think that Auden’s view IS right— teaching creative writing is "dangerous" but only if an instructor or faculty believes that ‘he,’ ‘she,’ or ‘they’ own the ‘rights’ to effective methodology or aesthetics. Such a belief will result in ‘cookie-cutter’ styles of writing, so that, for instance, products of Iowa look a lot like the other products of Iowa. I like to think that what makes a writer exciting is his or her originality and individuality—and neither tends to be fomented in ‘schools’ that impose a single, preferred mode of creativity. I like to say, after Blake, "There are many paths to the palace of Poetry," and the best thing an instructor or ‘school’ can do is point out some of them, then let the student-pilgrim make his or her own way.

I’ve taken creative writing courses as an undergraduate at the University of Waterloo, and at The Banff Centre (three occasions: 1983, 1993, 1999). All these courses were beneficial, especially my Banff exposures. But the course that taught me the most about writing poetry was an academic course titled "Tradition and Experimentation in Modern Poetry, 1880-1920," offered at Dalhousie University, 1986-87, and taught by THE John Fraser—the finest critical mind I have ever encountered—and mercifully free of jargon and prejudice. Fraser’s class was not creative writing, but it was concentrated thinking and directed reading. His approach was simple and powerful: read a group of modern(ist) poets and explain why some are better than others—or more effective than others, and why some poems—or parts of poems—are better than others. To answer such questions, one needs to consider everything—biography, social context, form, etc. Fraser’s academic approach remains my preferred approach to ‘teaching’ what cannot be taught, i.e., writing creatively.

SG: Would you be able to speak briefly on your involvement with and thoughts on the documentary *City of Dreams* (2009), and its focus on the Toronto District School Board's decision to open an Afrocentric, Black-focused school that would, according to its advocates, "liberate" African-Canadian young people from a Eurocentric education system?

GEC: This question is huge and would require an entire book to answer adequately. It is also an emotional and complex one, and it needs to be considered carefully—and as reasonably as possible. First, let’s talk about the failure of the political class—especially the Ontario Liberal Party and government—to address the crisis of the secondary school drop-out rate of African-heritage youth. To me, elite and talking-head recourse to emotional rhetoric, accusing black parents of an atavistic desire to regress from ‘integrated’ multiculturalist education to ‘black-only’ schools, instead of saying that WE have—all of Ontario has—a problem when so many promising youth fail to pass tests in basics and graduate to enter trade schools, colleges, and universities, is an object lesson in political cowardice. My own personal response to this crisis in African-Canadian youth education is to say, a la William Lyon Mackenzie King, "Afrocentric schools if necessary, but not necessarily Afrocentric schools." In other words, it is essential that we—as a society—come up with methods and models that educate black youth successfully, and perhaps Afrocentric—NOT black-only (there is a signal difference) schools are one part of a possible strategy. What I do think COULD be viable is to have a school—or preferably classes available in many schools—where ALL students interested could learn more about our COMMON, African heritage in ways that are uplifting for black students in particular. One might say that such is unnecessary: Black people can succeed without having an Afrocentric education. True: just look at President Obama. BUT we cannot forget that, historically speaking in Canada and in the U.S., the education of black people was not a social priority: it was understood that "Negroes" or "Coloureds" did not require much education, for their position in a racist society was to be unskilled workers and ‘gifted’ minstrels. Expressly, it is partly this history of deliberate ‘suppression’ of education for black people that ‘Afrocentric’ school advocates desire to address. If there are better solutions (INCLUDING more parental involvement in black youths’ schooling) than ‘Afrocentric’ schools for advancing young black educational and socio-economic progress (which we all should desire), then the Government of Ontario should be seriously researching and funding these approaches, instead of demonizing the advocates of ‘Afrocentric’ schools.

SG: I & I (Goose Lane 2009) is composed almost entirely of couplets - while an appropriate form for a narrative poem recounting the relationship between two lovers, it also engages with Stephen Scobie's theory: "The artist is always divided into I and I ... ". Some of your other books – Whylah Falls (Polestar 1990) and Black (Raincoast Books 2006), for example – contain numerous experiments with traditional forms. What do you find attractive about form and structure, limits and restrictions? Did you find sticking to couplets throughout a book-length project exceptionally challenging?

GEC: THE John Fraser suggested in his research notes for his Dalhousie University course in Theory, about 15 years ago, that ‘form’ should be understood as an extension of the importance of ‘rules’ in sports and games. It is the performance of players—within the constraints/rules—of the game that allows one to measure the extent of their achievement. To use the sports analogy, if Muhammad Ali had demolished every opponent he ever encountered in a weekend tavern brawl, he would not be ‘The Greatest’ fighter—just a successful brawler: it was his performance and achievement literally within the ropes—the constraints—of the ring that gave his pugilism meaning and prominence, and, importantly, allowed commentators and critics to compare his merits against those of his opponents. To return to poetry, then, if one writes a sonnet—within the ‘rules’—it means that one’s performance may be measured against that of others (say, Shakespeare—or Shelley—or Frost, etc.). Just as vitally, it allows one to determine one’s own relationship to the history of form and to make adaptations where they seem sensible. In short, form is constraint, and constraint tests ability. (This point is true for vers libre too, which is also extremely demanding: the big problems in free verse are where and how to end the poem—and how to maintain rhythm or cadence over a ‘lengthy’ passage or poem.) In I & I, I gave myself the constraint of unrhymed couplets to allude to classical song, popular song, and narrative balladry. Yet, I fell into the form by accident: it just seemed to be the best way to tell a tale I describe as "pop song-opera" and "comic-book ballad": a ‘light’ classicism. It was challenging in terms of deciding the narrative/descriptive content of each couplet and the line-breaks. But, after awhile, the breaks began to seem ‘natural’ as opposed to forced. Now, when I read the book aloud, I am personally amazed at how ‘musical’ and ‘flowing’ it truly is. It is a delight for me to read aloud, for it sounds like natural speech, but also maintains a measure of conciseness and imagery.

SG: Various couplets throughout I & I are footnoted. Often these footnotes are short riffs of verse, expanding or elaborating on what’s been said in the body text proper. Why isolate these fragments as footnotes? In other words, what makes the footnotes bristle against inclusion in the main text? Are the footnotes included to incorporate a digressive quality to the narrative – in other words, an attempt to break or disjoint linearity?

GEC: It was Erin Moure’s Furious (1988) that showed me, for the first time, the possibility of using footnotes to expand upon the lyric, to make it more of a dialogue—or drama, for the footnote is almost always a different perspective, even when voiced by a consciousness identical to the speaker in the body of the poem. M. NourbeSe Philip followed a similar practice in her She Tries Her Tongue, her Silence Softly Breaks (1989). I’ve always been comfortable with endnotes and forewords/ prefaces and even such ancillary matter as epigraphs and discographies, which I usually attempt to use—like footnotes—to give a slightly different (though still—I hope—playfully informative) slant on the text. But I first used footnotes directly in the text in Trudeau: Long March / Shining Path, where some information just had to be related at once (such as the origin of Trudeau’s quip, "The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation": he was quoting a journalist; the remark wasn’t/isn’t his). But I also had fun with a few of the informational asides, and so I saw it as a sensible device in I & I—just to provide an extra arena for ‘play’—as well as, occasionally, actual information. In my novel-in progress, in the first draft, I allow my (currently) first-person-narrator to provide a few digressions from the central story, and to do so via footnotes. (This time, I must acknowledge the exemplary practice of J.M. Coetzee in his Diary of a Bad Year [2007].)

SG: Most of your published works include several photographs, illustrations, or illuminations. Whylah Falls contains extracts from provincial archives; I & I has pen and ink drawings by Lateef Martin; Lush Dreams, Blue Exile: Fugitive Poems (Pottersfield Press 1994), Beatrice Chancy (Polestar 1999), Blue (Raincoast Books 2001), and Illuminated Verses (Kellom Books 2005) are graced by black and white photographs by Ricardo Scipio; you’re even included in several photos in Black. Are certain photographs or illustrations – or certain artists – typically in mind while composing a book, or are they more of an afterthought? How does your body of work participate in the long-standing tradition of poets working in collaboration with visual artists?

GEC: My own theory of the book is that it is—or should be—a total, sensory experience (as much as possible). For me, then, book design is absolutely important—from typography (where I do often try to decide the font or fonts used) to paper quality to illustrations. I first noticed book design in looking at Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970): it is a complete text—even though the photos and illustrations included are not, for the most part, accurate depictions of the events narrated and personalities described. They are present more for mood and context. Still, in working on my second book, Whylah Falls, I knew that photos would be an essential element in the text, and I was lucky and happy to find rare, archival photos of young black women—amid the Nova Scotia greenery—in 1939, just being themselves: it was a coup for the book. After that, I knew that visual matter should always be vital for me. Yet, it is surprising how often the photos get misread. In Execution Poems (Gaspereau Press, 2001), I include two photos of a Salvadoran Native lynched during an uprising in El Salvador in 1932. The information as to his identity (Jose Ama) and the context is given in the back of the book. Yet, some critics have presumed that the photos are of my two executed cousins, George and Rufus Hamilton, both hanged in Fredericton in 1949. I also use deliberately contextualizing, but imprecise photos in George & Rue (HarperCollins Canada 2004), and one is of a grave in Venice, Italy, a fact reported in the novel. Yet, one academic has written that the grave is that of one of the brothers! In I & I, I was a stickler for Lateef’s ‘graffiti’ art—to bring a youthful, urban tone to a story of young lust and tragedy of black lovers in 1970s North America. (I was thinking of Parliament/Funkadelic album covers of the era, as well as the cover of Miles Davis’s On the Corner.) But I also chose the typeface: it is deliberately reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s 1970s song lyric collections (set in Monotype Antique—or Bookman Old Style). Likewise, in Beatrice Chancy, I had to have Fournier—nothing else but Fournier—which has the sweetest italic face in all of typography!

SG: Many of the allusions you employ in your poems are more than simple nods or borrowings from other texts; in many instances in I & I, your allusions are direct references, or blatant invocations, even going so far as to suggest, in the lines themselves, that the reader should seek out other works that might better evince a particular setting or mood. Why shirk all allusive subtlety? How did you develop this approach to intertextuality?

GEC: Northrop Frye’s basic argument is that literature comes from literature. If I’ve learned anything from Frye, it’s that. But Frye can be easily expanded and adapted upon: literature does not only come from literature—but from ‘art’—in general. For us, that means graffiti, movies, music videos, paintings, sculpture, video games, etc. Certainly, part of the experience of being an intellectual or an artist is to engage with art or works that are not part of one’s primary practice. So, Linda Hutcheon is a renowned theorist of postmodernism and irony, but is also a foremost critic of opera because of her respect for the form, the art. As someone who began as a poet in my teens—the 1970s—by listening to Top 40 pop music radio and watching the films and popular TV of the day, it was necessary, in I & I, to remember those pop culture roots—the comic book and Elton John/Bernie Taupin, The Planet of the Apes films and Marvin Gaye. Generally, too, in my work, I have tried to voice respect for the art and literature I have encountered—and to direct readers to works they may otherwise not know. In Quebecite (Gaspereau Press, 2003), I introduce the work by referring to films like Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) and the great Bollywood work, Devdas (2002) and Hitchcock’s only Canadian film, I Confess (1953). My hope in making such intertextual linkages is that the experience of the text will be enhanced in some way. Likewise, in Beatrice Chancy, I direct readers to Taverier’s film, La Passion Beatrice (1988), set in witch-burning, medieval France, while Ricardo Scipio’s photos highlight the physicality of the enslaved black body.

SG: You seem committed to recording where and when the poems in any particular collection were written. At the end of Black, you write that the book "flared up" out of Durham, Barcelona, Bellagio, Sliema, Monte Carlo, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Banff, between the years 1994 and 2005; similarly, at the beginning of I & I, you indicate that the work began to take shape in a hotel in Bonn, Germany, in 2005. Obviously, you’re quite the globetrotter. What are some of the less well-known, writerly advantages of extensive travel? Furthermore, in what way is your recording of setting and environment a distinctively Canadian awareness of place, an acknowledgement of Frye’s classic question, "Where is here?"

GEC: In reading Canadian poetry of the 1960s, especially the work of Leonard Cohen, Earle Birney, Irving Layton, and Al Purdy, one sees a constant referencing of the place of composition. Add George Bowering and Gwen MacEwen to that list too! On the African-American side, in the same era, novelist James Baldwin was also constantly referencing, at the conclusion of each novel, a series of cities (usually including Istanbul—where he lived for many years) where the work had been composed. I have to confess to borrowing this stylistic ‘tic’ from these writers. In terms of the benefits of extensive travel, there are two: a) the provocation to observation that a new or different environment encourages and b)—simply—escape from the demands of home-and-office. Other than that, I can’t say that actually writing abroad helps or hurts my work. BUT it was certainly nice to write a draft of Trudeau in Tahiti—where my subject met Margaret Sinclair in February 1968; and it was also nice to write a draft of George & Rue in Paris— just because it helped me to think of Halifax, N.S., more clearly. As for the ‘Canadian’ identity element of your question, I think that, being the product of imperial conflicts (French and British), and also being cannon fodder for empires (British and American), Canadians tend to be cartographers and communications specialists—in terms of the intellectual work we do and the art that we make. True: Frye asks, "Where is here?" But the black intellectual in the African Diaspora often has an additional question to face: "What home does the ni—er have?" For me, travel has been a way of trying to figure out my specific identity as an "Africadian" (African-Nova Scotian) in relationship to Nova Scotia, Canada, the United States (and African America), Europe, and Africa. Hence, I visited the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, France, in March this year, and it was a moving experience, though I had to add, for myself, the missing African-Canadian subtext/context to The Great War and the thousands of heroic Canadian dead. But also important for me was the adjacent, smaller, less visited, decaying, and decrepit memorial to the soldiers of Morocco, slain in France for the glory of that Republic. In terms of my experience of racial alienation, I may have more in common with the dead troops of Morocco than I have with the majority of the dead soldiers of my own country. But the larger point here is that it is the experience of travel that makes such self-questioning and cultural juxtaposition possible ...

SG: Were you privy to Jon Paul Fiorentino’s selection process for the poems chosen for Blues and Bliss: The Poetry of George Elliott Clarke (Wilfred Laurier UP 2008)? Moreover, what do you believe are the main strengths of Neil Besner’s Canadian Poets series? How does it feel to be included in the series? What is it like to see a selection of your work sandwiched between Fiorentino's introduction and your own afterword?

GEC: I selected Jon Paul to select and introduce my work because I was impressed by his on-line essay, dating back to 2002 or so, reviewing Blue and other titles of mine, and really tussling with my work—in pro-and-con ways. I really appreciated his taking me seriously as a poet, even when disagreeing, legitimately, with some of my personae or aesthetic decisions. So, I left him alone to make his choices as he saw fit, though he was kind enough to show me a list of his choices and to ask me to point out any salient omissions (as far as I was concerned). Hence, I ended up arguing for—and Jon Paul accepted—one of my first published poems, "Watercolour for Negro Expatriates in France" (1978-1979), as well as my rewrite of Ezra Pound’s translation of Li Po’s poem, "The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter," which I title, "The River-Pilgrim: A Letter" (1988). I was happy to see these works included and happy with Jon Paul’s choices overall (and I should add that his—or our—work has won the collection The Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry 2009). Yet, he is most interested in Blue, and so the selection is dominated by its poems, and there is nothing from Illuminated Verses (which is a shame), and little from Black—which is, I think, my best collection of lyric poems. Also, I would have liked to have added an extra ‘blues’ poem or two. BUT, in the end, it was Jon Paul’s selection, and one set of judges has already given it a ‘thumbs-up,’ and I think it reads well ‘aloud’ when I give readings: always a vital consideration for me.

Of course, I’m delighted to be part of Neil Besner’s series, for it is a bit of a snapshot of a career—or an introduction to ‘the work.’ It does for Anglo-Canadian poetry what The New Canadian Library does for Anglo-Canadian fiction and prose—SUGGEST a POTENTIAL canon. I’m especially glad to see Louis Dudek and Al Purdy represented because we poets and critics do such an abysmal job of remembering and honouring our departed poets. Every other self-respecting, literary nation bothers to remember the birthplaces, towns and cities, and the graves of their writers: we don’t—and we forget 'em as soon as they’re dead. We care only for our hockey players (true primarily in Quebec) and slain soldiers and dead politicians and living-and-dead (British) royalty. (In fact, I think the only Anglo-Canadian writer honoured with a statue is Darcy McGee—and his statue has less to do with his stature as a poet than with his status as an assassinated Father of Confederation.)

The strengths of Besner’s series are fourfold: a) the critical summary of the poet’s work; b) the selection of poems; c) the pairing of critic and poet (especially when they appear to be ‘opposites’ as I do hope is the case for Jon Paul and me); and d) the poet’s own defence/explanation of his or her poetics. I’d like to add a volume to the series as a critic, and the poet I’d like to select and introduce is Irving Layton: frankly, I think I could do a better job of selecting his best poems than some other anthologists have done. I also would love to read Roy Miki’s take on Earle Birney or Louise Halfe’s critique of Gwendolyn MacEwen. Yes, perhaps the greatest strength of this series is—or should be—unexpected pairings ...

Finally, even though my work appears between Fiorentino’s fine intro and my deliberately popular-song-oriented afterward, I think—or hope—the poems answer both to Fiorentino’s postcolonial and interests (though he may make too much of my appreciation of Derek Walcott) as well as to my emphasis on urban experience and popular song. I do think that if I bring anything original to Anglo Canadian poetry, it is the melding of African-American song and the British poetic tradition.

SG: In your afterword to Blues and Bliss, you mention that you’ve been working on an epic, tentatively titled Hymns: Canticles of the Colored Baptists of Nova Scotia. You go on to say that the "catalyst is Walcott, the model is Pound, and the result, should [you] succeed, will be a type of Bible". Can you briefly elaborate on the book’s structure? What do you find fascinating about the ways in which Walcott and Pound engage with the epic genre, in Omeros and The Cantos, respectively?

GEC: I’m still working on and working out Hymns, and so much may change between now and its completion—likely a decade or half-decade away (so long as I live to see it through, God willing). However, I do see the work as falling into four main parts: a) an introductory series of meditations on slavery; b) a review of the history of slavery, resulting in the arrival to Nova Scotia of ex-slaves who will eventually become ‘Coloured Baptists’; c) a rewriting of significant passages of the King James Version scriptures (Hebrew and Greek) into the Africadian idiom and contexts; and d) the ministry of Rev. Richard Preston and the creation of the African Baptist Association of Nova Scotia. I do see the work as being, itself, a kind of Bible. So far, the ‘working form’ is ‘Books’ (the four main ones outlined above), then chapters and verses (generally ‘free,’ occasionally structured, and mainly narrative). The example I’ve presented publicly is "The Gospel of X"—a retelling of Christ’s story, in first person, Africadian English, and it is drawn from my Africadian Bible—"The Book of Beauty."

Walcott’s Omeros engages with the Western epic tradition, taking its story from Homer, its structure from Dante (partially), and alluding to Virgil, Milton, and Pound, among other epic writers. Pound’s Cantos—even if considered as an inglorious failure—is still a landmark (or landmine), for its suggestion of how history itself may be used lyrically and of how ‘free verse’ can still be constructed to provide a lyrically compelling and encyclopedic narrative.

SG: So, more specifically, how is this work coming along, and what other projects have you been working on? Was Hymns put on hold while I & I was sent to press?

GEC: Hymns is already about 200 pages long—BUT much editing is needed, and much more work will be needed to write the next 800 pages or so, including a concerted study of other epics—from Beowulf to The Bible, from Norse sagas to African ‘orature.’ Hymns was not ‘put on hold’ for I & I: It is the successor to I & I and my other narrative-verse, especially Whylah Falls. However, Hymns is ‘on hold’ while I finish up a new novel manuscript, The Motorcyclist, and a new verse collection, Red (the successor to Blue and Black—my other ‘colouring books’). And there’s a new collection of academic essays in the works!




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