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ARC POETRY MAGAZINE
    POET LAUREATE GE CLARKE INTERVIEW       
Poem of the Year Deadline Extended to February 13! Grand Prize  - $5000.00!

Arc's annual Poem of the Year (POTY) Contest will be accepting submissions emailed or postmarked until February 13, 2017!

The $35.00 entry fee for the POTY Contest allows entrants to send two unpublished poems and  includes a year's subscription to Arc.

A shortlist of poems will receive paid publication online for Reader's Choice voting and will also appear in the print issue.

For submission guidelines, click through!

 
 
"Maracle’s free verse col­lec­tion, Talk­ing to the Dias­po­ra, func­tions as a tran­scrip­tion and song of a life that has spanned decades of per­son­al expe­ri­ence and polit­i­cal activism. The poems mod­u­late from ele­gy to anger and back again: bones and songs, flutes and drums, are com­mon tropes that run through the poems."
 
Read Kim Trainor's review, "Words Lodged in Muscle and Bone: Lee Maracle's Talking to the Diaspora," and our other ongoing reviews and essays online. 

A revered poet, George Elliott Clarke was born in Windsor, Nova Scotia, near the Black Loyalist community of Three Mile Plains, in 1960. A graduate of the University of Waterloo (B.A., Hons., 1984), Dalhousie University (M.A., 1989) and Queen's University (Ph.D., 1993), he is now the inaugural E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. 

An Assistant Professor of English and Canadian Studies at Duke University, North Carolina (1994-99), Clarke also served as the Seagrams Visiting Chair in Canadian Studies at McGill University (1998-99), and as a Noted Scholar at the University of British Columbia (2002) and as a Visiting Scholar at Mount Allison University (2005), and as the William Lyon Mackenzie King Visiting Professor in Canadian Studies at Harvard University (2013-14). 

He has also worked as a research, editor, social worker, parliamentary aide, and newspaper columnist. He lives in Toronto, Ontario, but he also owns land in Nova Scotia.

His many honours include the Portia White Prize for Artistic Achievement (1998), Governor-General's Award for Poetry (2001), the National Magazine Gold Medal for Poetry (2001), the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award (2004), the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellowship Prize (2005), the Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction (2006), the Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry (2009), appointment to the Order of Nova Scotia (2006), appointment to the Order of Canada at the rank of Officer (2008), and eight honorary doctorates. He has recently completed his three year term as the City of Toronto’s Poet Laureate.

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NH:  You were courted and commissioned to write many of the poems in your most recent colouring book, “Gold.” Several of the poems were written on trains and planes, varying between the 90s and 2016. It certainly jives with the mythology of what we presume a poet laureate does in creating work that reflects realities from coast to coast. Recently, you said you felt somewhat underused in this role. Is this symptomatic of how we generally view the role of the poet in public discourse?
 
GEC: I was under-utilized as Parliamentary Poet Laureate, up to October 2016, mainly because Parliamentarians were unaware that they could request poems from me. Since then, I've had a steady series of requests for poems, and I'm grateful. However, the initial 'silence' of Parliamentarians towards my role is reflective of the general silencing/suffocation of poetry in public life--at least since the radical, people-oriented 1960s, when Black rights, women's rights,  environmentalism, anti-(Vietnam)-war, and (Canadian) nationalist poetry was de rigueur.
 
Indeed, up until the 1960s, poetry was a salient feature of Parliamentary discourse, only falling on hard times--ironically--after the poetry-quoting Pierre Trudeau became prime minister. The fault was not in him, however, I believe, but in the press corps, who had become overly enamoured with the alleged science of political economy, to the detriment of respecting the humanist side of political science, which is partly in poetry as much as it is in economics or theories of governance or bureaucratization. Pierre Trudeau was the product of a classical education which made a great deal of space for poetry (as was also true for JFK), but his successors have been less-educated in this regard (save, maybe, for Mr. Justin Trudeau), generally.
 
Provincially, the role of poetry in public discourse is also evacuated, save for specific governments, such as Rene Levesque's Parti Quebecois or the Newfoundland administrations of Brian Peckford and Clyde Wells. In either case, both of those provinces have been blessed with educational systems that saw value in poetry.
 
 

NH: With a Poet Laureate’s carte blanche, what would you put in your Magna Carta of literary liberties to protect poetry as an art?
 
 
GEC: I was in Scotland for National Poetry Day (Oct 6) 2016, and the first thing I'd do is institute such a day in Canada, likely mobilizing April 23rd (Shakespeare's Birthday) OR a day celebrating Indigenous histories of poetry, such as the April date (I think) of the first drama/poetry presentation in colonial Canada, which involved the Mi'kmaw people of Nova Scotia attending the Order of Good Cheer in 1605 or so.... Similarly, Finland has a Day of Wine and Poetry, in May, which is a holiday, I believe. If we had a similar day, I'd make it a holiday. In fact, maybe the best date to use would be Victoria Day, thereby replacing a dead Empress/Oppressor (of India), with the living voices of poets.
 
I'd also decree poetry be read at the start of every legislative session--every single day. I'd also dispatch anthologies of Canadian poetry to every member of the Armed Forces. Lines of poetry would also be inscribed in every public
building, from schools to hospitals.
 
And these would only be the first, baby steps..... Eh?
 

NH:  As a child of immigrant parents, parts of “Gold” feel like a love song to previously unremarked energies. My mother worked for Health Canada, when the SARS crisis broke, during the time Dr. Sheela Basrur was medical officer of health in Toronto. I also worked there during that time, before becoming a lawyer. You lionize human rights activist lawyers Charles Roach and (the larger than life) Rocky BA Jones in “Gold” as well. You write their poetic biographies with a rich music of life that flavours the subjects’ achievements with great dignity. Do you write with the intent to bring us unseen heroes? With the intent to help us see our own potential?
 
GEC: "Principles of Good Governance," dedicated to Dr. Sheela Basrur and Mr. Charles Roach, was my subtle response to the Trump-style anarchy of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's last years in office. It seemed to me that the antics of Good-Ol-Boy Ford suggested that government itself had forgotten what "Good Government" looks like, sounds like, acts like, does....
 
I ransacked Confucius and Machiavelli and Plato to provide those "principles"--and I pointed to two excellent citizens (yes, of colour), Dr. Basrur who led Toronto and Canada in a thoughtful, compassionate, and scientific response to the SARS outbreak. Likewise, lawyer Roach was constantly defending the poor and the powerless and the marginalized,
and died without receiving actual, Canadian citizenship because he refused to take an oath to the Queen of Canada and her heirs. (Anyone who thinks the Monarchy is only a paper-entity without any real status or force, should ponder the political import of that oath.) Of course, as an African-Nova Scotian (or Africadian), I had to admire Rocky Jones, for all that he did to uplift our oppressed community. Anyway, yes, I do see these three Canadians du couleur as being exemplary citizens, as trailblazers, who opposed the unthinking application of State power....
 
 

NH:  The textural life of much of the poetry in this collection distinguishes it. They are themed poems you might otherwise be able to eat at table with a fork and knife, so sumptuously described are their courses. Others, like those for George and Rue in “Execution Poems” sit like ash in the mouth for what’s to come.  Would you discuss your process for constructing and layering texture in long poetic narratives?
 
 
GEC: Thank you for your great account of texturing in poetry. For me, the essence is diction, and I enjoy mashing up different registers of speech, to pair the polysyllabic Greco-Latin word or phrase with a monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon/Germanic/Norse OR Afro-Vernacular word or phrase--like mixing colours or concocting jazz.
 
I do want the language to sound in the ear and tease the tongue and lips as it emerges from the lungs. I also want to explore the merging of sounds, all the rhymes and inner rhymes that playfully unite ideas and events. So, writing a poem is, for me, a matter of initial composition and then layering in a 'wash' of specific, colourful, and/or orally attractive words and phrases. My homage to Austin Clarke, in Gold, is one of those pastiche-kaleidoscope-stews of words....
 
 

NH: About twenty years ago, I was given a copy of Nathalie Sarraute’s The Use of Speech. I was taken by the idea that language is an ordered dialogue based on a perceived common dictionary of interpreted symbols and signifiers that we use to validate or criticize. Though we may not want to work towards an easy poetic lingua franca, what are some of your most cherished signifiers?
 
GEC: Any immediate, spontaneous catalogue of terms: shoe, Bible, surf, rum, chair, breast, palm, vanilla, turquoise, watch, glass, tequila, eyeglasses, ink, etc.
 


NH:  Can we talk about the popular preoccupation with the sexualized Black female body ? I have a powerful memory of (then) Halifax Poet Laureate El Jones telling a rapt audience “Run your own pussy - let me run mine!” I once had the chance to discuss with Lillian Allen her two line poem “Feminism 101,” exhorting women to be the door and not the doormat. In your novel, “The Motorcyclist” a host of women with their own ambitions resist and / or succumb to the main character Carl’s rapacious sexual appetite, with varying (sometimes disastrous) results. His mother is cast as a woman of refinement fallen within her own family, now raising five fatherless children, banished to a barn by her father. Carl wants to “police her genitals” and doesn’t care for the way she’s lifted up by a relationship with a convenient, but detestable man, in his esteem.
 
Carl wants to be whole by a definition he can’t quite find, to be magnetic, subversive, powerful, elegant, safe and to move, move, move. The unreported beating of Ms. Downey by her husband shows a loyalty to kith and kin, but a betrayal of women, with which Carl has grown up. There’s a lot of valuation of White versus Black women’s worth. At the end of the novel, he is still uncertain what kind of a life he wants and how women should fit in for best advantage. He has some shame and sympathy for others, but in the sense that Carl uses his sexuality unapologetically, selfishly, partly to defy racial stricture, and ranks the desirability and social status of the women he courts, what can his narrative offer Black women?
 

GEC:  Your question is so probing and so pertinent that my answer may seem, in contrast, frivolous. I'd like to think that Carl's story is a human story, a black male story, a story of sexuality 'perverted'/diverted by a racist oppression that definitely has a sexual component. Carl is a young man, an individualist, who is trying desperately to find grace in his (racialized) employment and love in a politely segregated environment.
 
His story is set in 1959, the year that English-speaking justice saw fit to decriminalize literary eroticism and began to make female birth-control available. So, Carl is a young black man in a transitional period. He's racialized to work in a lower-working-class job, but in a society that is open to the possibility of black male and (once-frowned-upon) white female relationships.
 
At the same time, black women--also racialized to perform marginalized work--are also able to court, or be courted by, in Halifax, Af-Am NATO sailors (a ticket into the American middle-class) and/or West Indian sailors--or university students (also a ticket to the middle-class). So, at the same moment that Carl may feel that he can explore his interest in white women, so are black women able to forego his charms in favour of those who can actually improve their class standing. Moreover, one of Carl's black girlfriends discovers that she is Lesbian, thanks to her reading of a novel by Gale Wilhelm--which is, in fact, the first modern Lesbian novel in fiction.
 
The short answer to your question is, black women readers may find Carl's story about his confusion in dating and mating relevant to their own negotiations of class and education and sexual orientation issues today. Indeed, I doubt that it is possible to argue that such considerations no longer matter to black people, given our supposed "integration" into mainstream society. Too, we do have a 40% outside-of-group marriage rate, which I suspect has more to do with class/economics than it does with colour preference (so to speak). Indeed, the poorest couples (in Toronto) are black/black or brown/black. The richest couples (in Toronto) tend to be university-educated and white/Asian. (See the stats reported by Nicholas Hune-Brown in "Mixie Me," Toronto Life, March 2013.) Carl's story attempts to describe the impact of class/economics on family formation for the so-called visible minority communities....

 


NH:  Your most recent book Canticles I the is the first of a three-part epic poem.  Is it correct to say that "Canticles" references the Song of Solomon, which, even in its first few verses adores the darkness of the body and its labours? Especially today, in the climate of continued dehumanization of Black people (i.e., police violence, racial gerrymandering, education and wage gaps, etc...), how does this first book fit into anti-oppression literature? How do its poetic monologues clap-back at the the dissociative narrative about the cultivars of the African diaspora (i.e., the reliance on the enslavement of African people for nation building as divorced from the long term effects of the Transatlantic Slave Trade)?


GEC:  Thanks for noticing the long-distance glance at "The Canticle of Canticles," or Canticum Canticirum, which is, in the KJV, one of my favourite books of the 66 enshrined therein. Way back in Whylah Falls, at the conclusion, I reference "Cane, The Cantos, and The Canticles,"--or Jean Toomer, Ezra Pound, and The KJV--as works that X would like to share with Shelley ("Absolution").

But I've also always wanted to pen a riposte to Pound's epic, The Cantos, given its Fascist predilections, and it seemed to me that I could riff off his work's interest in celebrating Confucian China, revolutionary America, and Renaissance and Fascist Italy (and denouncing high finance and warmongers and arms
merchants), by choosing to highlight historical figures' views on slavery/abolition and imperialism/liberation in dramatic monologues that also take up Pound's reanimation of Robert Browning's form.

I'm also utilizing Pound's theses that 1) an
epic is "a poem containing history"; 2) that history is rich with "repeats"; 3) and that the poet does essential, pedagogical work by retrieving (writing up) salient, historical events either omitted or repressed from 'standard' histories. So, my "redirect" of Pound or of his poem is to take up the Browning monologue and use it to grant voice to oppressors (slavemasters/imperialists) and to their opposition (abolitions/anti-colonialists), so that we recognize that our unfinished (!) struggles for liberation of all humanity from peonage/slavery necessitate constant recollection of past success and arrogant/violent rejection of continued attempts at repression and subjection. But Testament I--Canticles I (MMXVI) and Canticles I (MMXVII)--will be followed by Canticles II (rewriting of pertinent scriptures) and then Canticles III (history of the founding of the African Baptist Association of Nova Scotia). I expect to complete this project--God willing--by 2021 (MMXXI).


For more information and to read poems produced by Clarke during his tenure as Canada's Parliamentary Poet Laureate, visit the Parliament of Canada web site, here.

Interview by Natalie Hanna.
Poetry Tweets of the Month:
Poetry News


The second annual Don't Talk to Me About Love poetry contest is accepting submissions until February 14, 2017. This online journal explores love in fiction, non-fiction, poetry and art. The prize is $1000.00.

Arc is now accepting entries to the annual Archibald Lampman Award for an outstanding book of English-language poetry by an author in the National Capital Region! Submissions are open until March 31, 2017.

Submissions are open until April 1, 2017 to Grain Magazine's 29th Annual Short Grain Writing Contest! Click for  contest guidelines.

George Eliott Clarke, Deborah Bowen, and Todd Swift will judge the poetry category of the new Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize for Faith and Writing. The deadline to submit is June 30, 2017.


 
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