Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Profile on George Elliott Clarke, with a few questions

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George Elliott Clarke

I first met writer and critic George Elliott Clarke in the mid-1990s, most likely around 1995, when he was still living in Ottawa, a few years after he worked as a parliamentary assistant to Howard McCurdy, an east coast Member of Parliament. An engaged and prolific writer and performer, George Elliott Clarke’s publication history is quite varied and includes the poetry/verse collections Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues (Pottersfield, 1983), Lush Dreams, Blue Exile (Pottersfield, 1994), Provençal Songs (Magnum Books, 1993; above/ground press, 1997), Gold Indigoes (Carolina Wren Press, 2000), Blue (Polestar, 2001), Execution Poems: The Black Acadian Tragedy of George and Rue (Gaspereau Press, 2001), Illuminated Verses (Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2005), Black (Polestar, 2006), I & I (Goose Lane Editions, 2009) and Red (Gaspereau Press, 2011), a verse-novel, Whylah Falls (Polestar, 1990; 2000), the novel George & Rue (HarperCollins, 2005), four verse plays, Whylah Falls: The Play (Playwrights Canada Press, 1999; 2000), Beatrice Chancy (Polestar, 1999), Québécité (Gaspereau Press, 2003) and Trudeau: Long March, Shining Path (Gaspereau Press, 2007).

Much of Clarke’s work engages from the focal point of his Nova Scotia roots, expanding out to the Black histories of the East Coast, Canada and abroad, and critical explorations of social and racial upheavals, tragedies and triumphs through a complex mix of formal language and slang, local dialects and song.

His Execution Poems: The Black Acadian Tragedy of George and Rue won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. Beatrice Chancy, with music by James Rolfe, has had four stage productions and a broadcast on CBC television. He wrote the screenplay for the feature film, One Heart Broken Into Song (Dir. Clement Virgo, 1999), and Whylah Falls was staged in Venice in Italian (2002). He is editor of the anthologies Fire on the Water: An Anthology of Black Nova Scotian Writing, Volume One (Pottersfield, 1991), Fire on the Water: An Anthology of Black Nova Scotian Writing, Volume Two (Pottersfield, 1992) and Eyeing the North Star: Directions in African-Canadian Literature (McClelland & Stewart, 1997) and author of the critical study Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature (University of Toronto Press, 2002). He has received numerous awards, as well as honorary degrees (including over a dozen honorary doctorates), the Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award in 2004, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellows Prize, Montreal, 2005. In October, 2006, he was appointed to the Order of Nova Scotia.

Currently the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto, he has taught English and Canadian Studies at Duke University (1994-1999), including an appointment as Visiting Seagrams Chair in Canadian Studies at McGill University, before becoming a professor of English at the University of Toronto in 1999, where he was appointed E.J. Pratt Professor in 2003.

His most recent work, the poetry chapbook Selected Canticles (above/ground press,2012), was originally produced for free (with purchase) distribution through Ottawa’s Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeebar for this year’s Poetry Month, and continues a dialogue with Shakespeare, slave histories, Rimbaud and Christopher Columbus’ Caribbean histories, among other subjects.

Q: Your poetry very much works in the story-in-verse tradition, one that isn’t often worked by contemporary Canadian writers. What is it about the form that appeals, and who are the writers you’re aware of when writing?

A: The lyric poem — even a haiku — is always a little drama, a little story — just as every snapshot is a truncated tale. So, as soon as one compiles a bunch of lyrics, they almost always begin to compose a narrative. One reason why the general lyric collection is so often subdivided into themes is because one particular set of lyrics seems to carry on a specific conversation that another set of lyrics avoids or prefers to circumscribe. It is merely an extension of the principle that each lyric is a story, to begin to imagine a whole book as comprising a narrative-in-verse, with characters/voices, plot, set pieces, etc. Then, once comfortable with this idea, one can begin to see the idea and principle of the “epic” — and go back to classics — Odyssey, Inferno, Paradise Lost, Idylls, Cantos, Omeros — and many others, including Longfellow's Evangeline, Benet's John Brown’s Body — for poetics of form/structure. Thirty years ago, I read an argument that even Ginsberg's Collected Poems could be understood as comprising an epic-of-sorts. Now that I'm trying to compose an epic of my own, I feel that Benet’s work is most instructive.... But there is also scripture — The Bible, to name one religious epic. As a black poet, I also see the examples, not only of Walcott, but of Cesaire (Cahier d'un retour au pays natal), Tolson (Harlem Gallery), Toomer (Cane) and Dove (Thomas and Beulah).

Q: Over the past 20 years, you’ve written poetry, fiction, librettos and plays and done academic work as well as editing anthologies. How difficult is it for you to move from one genre to another, or do you find the differences arbitrary, or even fluid?

A: Prose is more work — sheer WORK — LABOUR; and critical prose / scholarship is torture. Unless you can find an underlying “story” for your argument or “song” structure to cadence the sentences. Generally, though, I do find it difficult to go from poetry to prose; poetry is an escape from prose. Yet, there are moments of poetic opportunity, so to speak, even within academic prose, and I do my best to be alert — awake — to those moments. The creative element is always “story” and “song.” SO, I’ll often begin essays with an anecdote, or occasionally even a poem: To remind myself that language is rooted in music and narrative, no matter how learned the discourse may be.

Q: I’ve always been fascinated by your contemporary workings through writers such as Shakespeare, for example, and wonder how is it you are able to breathe contemporary life through that language in your poetry without falling into a kind of dated parody?

A: I do appreciate that commendation! I try to understand the contemporary relevance of the historical language of the writer, or text, and then “revitalize” it or “reanimate” it by rewriting it in a contemporary idiom. Pound, following the Chinese, said, “Make it new.” That was his practice, too, if one thinks of thetranslations; the point was not just to translate, but to rewrite in a more contemporary English, to achieve a crisp clarity, the goal of imagism.

Q: Selected Canticles is obviously part of a much larger manuscript, and seemingly one that follows a number of your themes, ideas and structures. Given that Black and Red are very much connected collections, are you conscious of working a much larger single project, even one that includes your fiction and libretto works?

A: That’s a huge question! I do see my work as dividing into “bundles”: the “colouring books” — Blue/BlackRed — are meant to group miscellaneous lyrics — the ones that don’t fit into poetic narratives like Whylah Falls/ Execution Poems/ I & I. The plays and libretti are a group — Whylah Falls: The Play/Beatrice Chancy/Quebecite/Trudeau: Long March, Shining Path. Maybe Whylah Falls/Beatrice Chancy are related to Execution Poems and George & Rue (my novel) in all exploring aspects of Black Nova Scotian (or Africadian) culture and history. And Execution Poems/George & Rue tell the same story — in verse and in prose — but in different ways. Selected Canticles is from my epic-in-progress, “Canticles,” which is meant to present the historical event of slavery as a series of discourses, debates, disputes, denunciations and even various forms of song. I see it as a separate entity from other work, even though it may share some themes. There’s also a set of sonnets I'm preparing that may belong to Provencal Songs/Illuminated Verses in another “bundle.” And also a second novel, The Motorcyclist, which likely goes with George & Rue/Whylah Falls. So long as health — spiritual, mental, physical — holds up.... The academic books and anthologies should also be bundled together....


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than 20 trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

Photo of rob mclennan by Christine McNair

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