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Q&A with Toronto poet laureate George Elliott Clarke

Any introduction to George Elliott Clarke, Toronto’s fourth poet laureate, comes with a long list of achievements, including the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Achievement Award, a Governor General’s Literary Award, and his appointments to the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada.

Born in 1960 in Windsor, Nova Scotia, Clarke dubs himself an “Africadian,” drawn from his African-American and Mi’qmak heritage. Currently the inaugural E.J. Pratt professor of Canadian literature at the University of Toronto, the poet, playwright, and literary critic is known for his erudite poems laden with musicality.

Q&Q spoke with Clarke, who will serve as poet laureate through 2015, before he left for the Edmonton Poetry Festival, which this week is hosting poet laureates from across Canada.

Have you decided on your poet laureate legacy project? I’ve known what it was since the first weekend after my appointment. I’m not going to describe it in detail, because I need folks at City Hall to be very happy with me. I know they would like to have a chance to think about it first. But it involves urban infrastructure, and I have my heart set on a project that would bring poetry into the streets.

Do you have any backup ideas? If city council says no, I want to move on to my secondary projects. I would follow the example of Dennis Lee [Toronto’s inaugural poet laureate] in having a statue erected of Nathaniel Dett, the first black Canadian poet to publish a book. He was a fountainhead, whether he knew it or not, for all the African-Canadian poets that have come since. Or I would dust off [former poet laureate] Dionne Brand’s great idea, which was to have a line of poetry inscribed in any part of a library being renovated.

Will you be making any changes to the position of poet laureate? I feel the position needs to be institutionalized. That’s a terribly bureaucratic term but would help lend even more legitimacy to the office. I’ve set up a poet’s corner at City Hall, which was inaugurated April 3. It’s a simple concept of a portrait and poem of each of the poets laureate to date. They’re there to remind people that the position exists, and it’s a reminder to city hall, so the next time there’s a round of draconian budget cuts, the honorarium the poet laureate receives doesn’t get set to zero. I’m also trying to arrange for the poet laureate to address city council each April for five minutes for National Poetry Month.

What first drew you to poetry? I wanted to be a songwriter at 15. My parents sent me to join the local African Baptist Church choir in Halifax, but the choir director sent me back home the same night, and said, We’ve got no use for you, you can’t sing! My parents still wanted me to develop a talent, so they enrolled me in a city music program where I played the trombone. But I didn’t love the instrument, so I stopped. I couldn’t read music anymore, I couldn’t sing, so what was I going to do if I wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star? Write songs. I wrote four every day and read about how to be a songwriter, and what kept coming up was that, to be good, you had to be a poet. So I started reading lyrics. I went to school on Bob Dylan and Bernie Taupin. By 17, I started writing free-verse poetry and went to university to be a better poet.

How did that morph into a passion for black poetry? Because of Bob Dylan, I started reading African-American blues lyrics. Once I started to read poetry a lot, I gravitated towards African-American poets. The only poetry in English that I could read that spoke to my reality as a racialized minority was African-American, because they talked about police brutality, slavery, segregation, black radicalism, and black arts. It talked about my social realities, and Canadian poetry wasn’t about that.

As a Canadian, how do you incorporate these American traits into your work? Generically, what makes English-Canadian poetry some of the most intellectually challenging poetry in the world is that the first English-language poets in Canada felt they had to compete with the British canonical greats. The American tradition is much more populist, with room for slang and music. I’ve carried both ideals into my poetry as much as I can. I like being difficult, ornate, and elaborate in my language use, and asking people to look things up. On the other hand, I also delight in the ability to write a poem that everybody can understand, one that goes against the tradition of difficulty. I like to think that I can contribute to the possibility of there being an English-Canadian poetry that is not only intelligentsia-oriented, but also oriented toward the everyday person.

You often talk about a gap between print and performance poetry. Why do you think that exists? Canada in general is structured as an elitist society with a hierarchy down from the Queen. Success as a poet in Canada means being read quietly in a university. The performance poets challenge that, and rightly so. Success for them is 300 people paying $15 to see you. I’m not trying to commercialize things, but I do think when you have people willing to pay to hear poets recite poetry that will get them thinking differently, that is a success that print poets, if they don’t want to emulate it, have at least got to be envious of. A smart print poet is going to want to have one foot on the stage and one hand in the page if you want a diverse audience.

This interview has been edited and condensed.