Poetry, Passion, People and a Plan: EVENT Interviews George Elliott Clarke
George Elliott Clarke is a seventh-generation Canadian of African-American and Mi’kmaq Amerindian heritage. Born in Windsor, Nova Scotia in 1960, Clarke’s academic career has been devoutly Canadian: Clarke has a BA in English from The University of Waterloo, an M.A. in English from Dalhousie University, and a Ph.D. in English from Queen’s University. As an esteemed poet, dramatist and novelist, Clarke has taught African-Canadian diasporic literature at the University of Toronto since 1999, where he is now the inaugural E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature. His many honours include the Governor General’s Award for poetry and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award. In 2013, Clarke was appointed Poet Laureate of Toronto. We are very honoured to showcase Clarke’s vibrant and charged poetry in EVENT 43.3, and for the opportunity to ask him about the influences and forces that have inspired and shaped his distinct poetic voice and spirit.
EVENT: Your work explores a cultural geography that you’ve referred to as “Africadia” – can you tell our readers a bit about the experience or history of this place?
George Elliott Clarke: “Africadia(n)” is my 1990 neologism to represent/respect the distinct, historical experience of African-heritage peoples in the Maritimes, especially Nova Scotia. We do call ourselves African-Nova Scotian, officially, and “Scotians,” unofficially. But I wanted a term that would connect us to our landbase, just as Acadien/Acadienne connects Acadians to a heritage of land ownership/land use. Keeping in mind that Nova Scotia and Acadia are both palimpsests on Mi’qmak territory, I do acknowledge that Africadia is similarly problematic–as well as similarly unavoidable. In any event, Africadian literature is writing by folks born in–or residents of–Africadia, an archipelago of black communities extending back to 1605, but gelling mainly as of 1783-1815.
E: I’ve read that Walter Borden was one of your most important mentors early on, as well as your great aunt Portia White – can you expand upon their influence on your work?
GEC: The playwright and poet, actor and essayist, Walter M. Borden educated me in poetry, journalism, and Black History principally when I was 17-19 (1977-79). He was a model black intellectual for me, and we remain friends (of course). My Great Aunt Portia White was–before Oscar Peterson–Canada’s first internationally acclaimed black artist: She was a contralto who took New York City by storm and sang twice before royalty, including the Queen of Canada. She was–is–an important symbol of artistic achievement for me. Other influences? The GREAT literary critic THE John Fraser (see his Violence in the Arts), various Nova Scotian political activists, plus, at a distance (of course), Bob Dylan, Malcolm X, Miles Davis, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Ezra Pound, Derek Walcott, Irving Layton, Alexander Pushkin….
E: As Poet Laureate of Toronto, do you have the opportunity to mentor and inspire young writers?
GEC: Not as much as I would like! I’ve done a couple of workshops and I’ll have another soon. But “ars longis, vita brevis,” and the time needed for teaching slightly older young writers also detracts from my ability to be available to all aspiring poets all the time. But I pray that I can say that I’ve striven to be as helpful as I can be–via letters, messages, classroom appearances, and face-to-face meetings.
E: You’ve said before that your sense of a racial identity developed in the 1970s, in your later teenage years. Can you talk about the experience of coming-of-age in Nova Scotia?
GEC: High school is the last stage of initial social stratification: It’s where class (economic status) predilections are confirmed. The process of “streaming” begins in elementary school, but is finally confirmed in secondary school, for it is this cohort who will go on to university or college (confirmation of bourgeois status) or trade school (confirming working-class and/or bourgeois status) or “nothing” (dooming most to Lumpenproletarian status). Hence, it was in high school that I learned that I was “black,” meaning lower-class socio-economically and powerless politically, which also had an impact on dating choices, etc. When I earned my doctorate in English in 1993, I was one of only five Africadians to have taken that degree in over 200 years of settlement in Nova Scotia. I say again–PLAINLY: Race is tied to class; class is tied to race: In Canada as in the U.S. As a black youth, demarcated, necessarily, as lower-class (and/or “low class”), I found it necessary to try to organize other black youth, study black history (mainly African American, then African-Canadian), pick up a little bit of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism–just a bit—so I could understand better the interlocking mechanisms of class and race oppression.
E: Did this process of mobilizing other black youth play into your desire to write and/or inform the spirit of your early writing?
GEC: The result of the organizing and the reading, a kind of university-of-the-streets, including the reading of a LOT of Black and/or African American poetry, made me conscious of a need to represent my own specific and distinct society/identity, a combo of boxers and bagpipes, jazz players and justice-now protesters, Mau Mau/Mao sympathizers and Chicken Chow Mein and Green Tomato Chow-Chow “dieters”…. I grew up in a Nova Scotia of class stratification and racial division, plus the royalist/military heritage, plus in a city with North America’s highest number of bars-per-capita AND six universities: Elizabeth II, Malcolm X, sailors, scholars…. A concoction! In the end, then, Africadian writing–and my own–is a reflection of Maritime/transatlantic/Eastern Seabord influences, connecting Montreal, Halifax, London (UK), Bermuda, Boston, New York– an entirely cosmopolitan nexus: No problem in Halifax to have Russian philosophy and language in the Seahorse Tavern or to meet Allen Ginsberg (as I did) in a South End, Dalhousie professor’s house, or to have Harry Belafonte over for supper at the home of a Black Leftist activist. When I heard that Barack Obama had studied Saul Alinsky, I couldn’t help but remember the deep influence that Alinsky’s theories had for local activists in HFX (or YHZ), back in 68-72. Geez, Halifax had the only Canadian Black Panther Party chapter! That’s the maelstrom/delirium that gives birth to my poetic imagination…. (Halifax also is the only Canadian city to regularly experience black/white race riots! AND, on another note, it was the site of the greatest human-made explosion–in 1917–before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.)
E: What roles do artists and writers play in shaping collectivity and inspiring social justice today?
GEC: All writers are intellectuals: To write is to think. However, some of us think in socio-political terms consciously and some of us don’t. I would never be prescriptive–and argue that poets MUST do politics. But I MUST appreciate those who do, especially if their politics are fundamentally progressive. I imagine that the reason for this predilection is that we are imagining our readers as being, essentially, “like-minded” to ourselves, and that as we wish for a better and more humane society, we imagine that our readers also wish for such a society. I think we tend to think of our readers as already inhabiting a progressive commune, and should like to see such effected–“writ large” (excuse the pun)–in real-life society, but through democratic and humanitarian means. I disagree with Auden. It’s not that “poetry makes nothing happen.” It’s that poetry alone may make little happen. One needs poetry, passion, people and a plan….
E: How do you see the relationship between creative arts and civic engagement in Canada in particular?
GEC: I do think that artists/poets need awareness that a Republican Party-clique effected a coup inside the old Progressive Conservative (Red Tory) Party and has steered Canada toward more plutocratic and Rightist conventions, denying our traditions of communitarian and civic engagement. Thus, our dollar is a Texas-style petro-dollar; our foreign policy follows Geo Bush II-style unthoughtful interventionism; our domestic policy funnels more riches to the rich and constructs more prisons for the poor; only the Supreme Court of Canada continues to stand between the utter evisceration of our historically left-of-centre social contract and its replacement by a law-and-order plutocracy that stifles dissent in the name of “security,” but, really, so as to preserve their privileges. Poets and artists don’t have to address these facts. But I think it’s good that we do–if we care.
E: Can you tell EVENT about any projects that you are currently working on?
GEC: The poems in EVENT (43.3) are part of a larger project. I’m writing a 3-part epic poem, “Canticles,” of which the first part–my Dantean “Hell,” so to speak–is to be published in Fall 2016 by Guernica. This first section, which will be about 300 pages, treats the transatlantic slave trade and debates about it; some parts also deal with the image of the “black” in the West and imperialism. I follow Pound’s dictum that “the epic is a poem containing history” and I follow him in having “a” story that is composed of many separate elements. Part II–my “Purgatorio”–will consist of rewritings of biblical and other sacred texts from an
Afrocentric perspective. Part III–my “Paradiso”–will feature a discussion of the creation of the African Baptist church in Nova Scotia and the history, politics, and theology of that enterprise/entity. I hope Book III will appear by 2021, bringing my epic to a close.
There are other works–in the works–including a novel due out in February 2016. But I think I’ll pause here. Many, many thanks for the questions; thanks to EVENT for the interest and the publication. All is appreciated.
Interview by Brittany McGillivray