George Elliott Clarke writes poetry in Black ink

On Nov. 15, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented poet George Elliott Clarke reading from his most recent collection Black. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

Only the dream of Africadia is written here.
District after district, sunflowers glisten.
Some of them are girls.
(Choose the darkest ones for lovers.)


from the collection Black
                                                                                    by George Elliott Clarke

There’s a little bit of James Brown in George Elliott Clarke (right). Reading his poetry for the Canadian Writers in Person series, Clarke growled and gesticulated like the godfather of soul with perhaps a hint of the way his "great-granddaddy preached". Clarke read from his recent collection, Black, as well as his operas Beatrice Chancy and Trudeau.

Clarke was 16 years old in Halifax when he found an anthology of poetry in the garbage. The book included The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter by the Chinese poet Li Po and translated by Ezra Pound. "I thought I heard Mississippi blues," said Clarke, who was then inspired to a lifelong interest in poetry. His own writing became an answer to these old voices: "Literature is a conversation with other writers, both living and long dead, friends and readers," said Clarke.

The late Canadian prime minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, was another hero of the young Clarke, and some might have been surprised that he wrote an entire opera about him. However, Clarke felt that it was "important as a black Canadian to deal with this symbol of Canada, to interject a black voice into a consideration of who he was". It is also necessary to maintain a critical perspective on one’s sources and influences, says Clarke. Many of his heroes, such as Trudeau, Malcolm X and Ezra Pound, are flawed and contradictory people and Clark said his great admiration of Pound’s work and influence is tempered by the modernist poet’s racism and anti-Semitism.

When asked about how long it takes to write a piece, he said, "every poem determines how much time it takes before [it is] complete." As an example, he described searching among the "dreck and dross" of his juvenilia, and finding some lines and images that "weren’t so bad". He wrote a new poem out of them, "Lust Tussle", 30 years after he wrote the original lines. Recomposing new work from these bits and pieces also demonstrated that everything can be poetry. Clarke said he likes to juxtapose unusual images and pieces of dialogue he picks up while eavesdropping on the subway, at parties, from newspapers and the radio. "Poetry is always percolating in different levels of discourse," said Clarke.

When asked whether his authenticity as a "black" writer is ever questioned, Clarke bristled: "Who gets to define what ‘blackness’ is? Blackness is every colour. We’re all related. It’s about knowing who you are." For Clarke, poetry means speaking one’s version of the truth, "stating things that are uncomfortable, telling the truth in human experience in words that will carry the charge long after the poet is gone. It’s about speaking to the heart of human experience in your own life."

Clarke’s next work will be an epic poem about the African diaspora, a process he estimates will take him 10 years. He offered one final piece of advice to aspiring writers, one that will likely carry him through this long project: "Laugh, argue and go on writing," said Clarke.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. A schedule of upcoming readings is available on the Canadian Writers in Person Web site.