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Q&A with George Elliott Clarke

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A little while ago, I got to speak to one of my favourite poets: George Elliott Clarke. Originally from Nova Scotia, Clarke now lives in Toronto, where he is currently the appointed poet laureate. Clarke has 13 published collections of poetry and is in the process of writing his life's work: a three part epic poem, his version of Dante's hell. An expert in the academic field of Black Canadian literature, Clarke puts the study in perspective, and shed some light on the current situation of Black Canadian authors and poets.

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your work?

...I've been a poet since I was the age of 15 or 16 and the reason why I have a little bit of hesitation over which age to use is because I didn't start out at age 15 wanting to be a poet. I wanted to be a songwriter, but in learning how to become a songwriter, I kept reading I had to be like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, I had to be like them, I had to be a poet first if I wanted to be a decent songwriter. So by the age of 16 I began to write poetry as opposed to songs. So I've been 40 years now, a songwriter/ poet, since 1975. 

I am working now at age 55, I am working now to I hope, knock on wood, to achieving my life's work, which for me will be the completion of an epic poem. The first book of which is to come out next year from Guernica, titled The Canticles and I envision this book as actually three books, in order to make one epic poem. The first book is going to deal with basically, my version of Dante's hell… and the poetry that I am writing with this first book deals three interconnected themes: Trans-Atlantic slavery, the image of the black in the West…and also Western imperialism, European, American there's room for Canadian imperialism in there too, although I don't really focus much on that. But the imperialism that essentially ended up colonizing the rest of the "coloured world" over centuries. 

Many black Canadian authors had their work published much later than other Canadian writers. Do you think there was a reason for this?

First of all, we have to look at the history of segregation and lack of access to quality education… In my mind when we talk about African Canadian poetry or literature in general, it is a tradition of writing related to people who have been on the move. They are transients, they are refugees, they are fugitives from slavery, they are themselves sometimes ex-slaves or still slaves...They are economic migrants or they are fleeing tyranny in former colonies that have now become independent nations, such as in Africa. [Then] landing in Canada where they still face discrimination, racism and economic marginalization, which has always been part and parcel in the practice of racism in Canada. 

Racism in Canada has always been tied to class stratification and anybody who doubts that can go back 50 years to John Porter's Vertical Mosaic, don't take my word for it, just read Porter… I will be the first one to say or the last one to say, if necessary that the findings of that book: that Canada is erected on a basis of class stratification based on race, religion and ethnicity is still true, with those of white Anglo background being at the top of that pyramid and those of especially First Nations or Indigenous Background being at the bottom of that pyramid, with black people occupying the strata right next to or just above Native people. 

…What I'm trying to get at here is that what helps to get to the point of the later publication dates is the fact that educational segregation in Canada did not end until the 1950s in Nova Scotia and 1960s in Ontario. So that happens right around the same time we have the beginnings of immigration to Canada from the Caribbean, which has by the way a great educational system. 

This is one of the things that makes African Canadian literature so complex and so rich, and also poetry, is at the same time, I was thinking specifically of The Great Black North, at the same time that at the first time in centuries, black Canadians, that is to say those of many centuries or many generations of residents in Canada are beginning to have access to post-secondary education as well as secondary education, which really means the 1960s…

...[T]here begins to be a pressure on the Canadian publishing industry to open its doors to black writers, and this happens in several ways. First of all, with great thanks to Austin Clarke, [he] blasted open the doors of Canadian publishing by being the first contemporary, he wasn't the first black Canadian novelist, a lot of people think he was but he wasn't. But he was the first in the 1960s, publishing his first novel in 1964 with a major press, to begin to make white Canadian publishers and, critics importantly, to begin to understand that there might possibly be a black Canadian literati...

What was it like being part of The Great Black North and can you tell me a little bit about that experience?

 ...I've seen many aspirants come and go. People interested in doing one thing or another in terms of especially national black activities, which as I say usually come and go and normally without much legacy... 

And to their great credit, I've really got to emphasize this, to their great credit they were so committed to making this project happen, that they sought out people like me and Karina [Vernon] for intellectual back up and support, scholarly support, for structuring this book and also the understanding of the national dimensions of black communities, plural, because our communities are not just plural in terms of location in the country and not just in major cities but also in parts of the country: South-West Ontario, Mid-Northern Alberta, of course mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, we can talk about there being actual black communities…

Then also the fact that we are talking about bringing together poets that might work primarily with voice and stage as opposed to with print and page. Then on top of all that not only are we talking about grouping together poets geographically across a country… but also coming from many different cultural backgrounds. I mean when we talk about black Canada, African Canada, we're talking about a multiculturalism within a multiculturalism… 

And you asked me again a very simple, short question about how does it feel to be working with them? Astonishing is the best single word answer. Astonishing, because they achieved the project, they made it happen….So I congratulate them on winning the Robert Kroetsch Award and Frontenac House for winning that prize as well. It is well deserved and I've said publicly and I'll say it now for rabble, that I think that this is the most important anthology of English poetry in Canada in the last 50 years. 

So that kind of ties into my next question, which is what does this book mean in the greater landscape of Canadian literature?

Well it means that we need to drop our biases, quite frankly. I'm not going to say that those biases are necessarily racial… but there are ways in which we can look at the marginalization of so-called spoken word poets from so-called mainstream poetry in English Canada to be really precise, being tied to engrained racial biases. 

The engrained racial biases being that when we think about black poets or poets who might look black and so on and so forth, then we should expect a poetry that is mass-based, that is interested in performances and staging and drama as opposed to being reflective and intellectual and cognitively challenging, and so on. The racial biases here that might be in the background are very clear, what we were thinking about then would be the minstrel figure vs. the ivory tower figure and that can play out in our literature in very pernicious ways, not only in literature but in general Canadian culture, very perniciously.  

We are eager to give stamps of approval to folks who happen to be Caucasian, which is almost automatically thought to mean imaginative intellectual and are less likely to offer those stamps of approval so to speak to those who might be considered black because that is considered to be low-brow...For example, I know I'm speaking in very brutish ways here but that's to try and indicate that we need to think more comprehensively about our critical reception of poets who look black, or sound black, or act black or claim to be black, and not to be too quick to relegate them to some dungeon of perceived second-class poetic.

Courtesy of the City of Toronto

I was wondering how poetry and art like this can be used to bring light to issues in the black community like #BlackLivesMatter?

Well, I mean these are of course topics of consideration for any poet who wants to consider himself/herself black and probably therefore wants to espouse something of a social consciousness, which can touch on many different matters. I think that this is true of The Great Black North

The poetry in The Great Black North is not only anti-racist but also anti-imperialist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, liberal in general, humanitarian in general, sometimes more black nationalist in tone and so on and so forth. This is a short way of saying the poetry is encyclopedic in its interest in something that might be called social justice. 

...Every writer is an intellectual sooner or later, you have to be because you're dealing with ideas. You're a writer; you're thinking, that means you're an intellectual pure and simple, whether you ever publish anything or not. You're a writer; you're an intellectual, that's my short hand. 

So that means that black writers, if they consider themselves to be black, are first intellectuals, which probably means that they are concerned about many different things. Some of their concerns may very well be Afro-centric, black focused, concerned with police violence against black people, which aught to be a concern for everybody because police will act violently against any citizen, against any community if they feel that that is their directive from political authority. 

Well we can think about #BlackLivesMatter as being important, and it sure as hell is, we've got to remember that all lives matter. I'm not saying this to suggest that black lives matter less than all persons lives or all civilians lives, absolutely not. What I am saying that a focus on an issue like #BlackLivesMatter or police violence against black people and a poet's attention to that should also be raising consciousness for everybody, about the subversion of democratic rights by increased police authority in our society in the name of keeping us safe from "terrorists" and other violent, subversive threats to the peaceful functioning of democratic society. 

I do put myself with those who believe that an accurate balance can be struck between the need to protect the polity from the amoral violence of those with a particular agenda to put forward, as well as guaranteeing our fundamental rights to dissent and to express the dissent publicly and loudly, with a degree of civil disobedience if necessary without getting into a violent confrontation with the state… 

Does poetry matter politically? Yes and no...That's an open question and I will leave it to scholars to answer but my gut feeling is probably not very much… I take that as an example of the idea, and we can all think about W.H Auden here, that 'poetry makes nothing happen,' as he says in his elegy for William Butler Yates. On the other hand, what poetry does do is raise consciousness. 

If you change minds you can change politics. You change somebody's mind, you change the minds of a lot of people; you can alter the political landscape...This is a long way of saying literature does matter, poetry does matter, but it matters not necessarily in encouraging citizens to take up "arms" but rather in encouraging people to change their minds or free their minds. 

Lauren Scott is rabble's books intern.

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