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George Elliott Clarke on marathon-writing poetry

George Elliott Clarke (photo: Camelia Linta)

Traverse is a happy accident. I wrote it without knowing that I was writing a book-length poem. Its genesis was whimsical: 30 years after writing my first poems “ really, songs “ on July 1, 1975 (at age 15), I found myself back in my home city of Halifax. I spent most of July 1, 2005, writing 854 lines reflecting on my adult life as a poet.

The writing was a one-day marathon.

I crafted 61 free-verse, sonnet stanzas, with absolute liberty granted to line lengths. Diction was also freely engaged, mixing black registers of speech and idiomatic expression with the standard, Oxford-Webster terms. The antecedent form of Traverse is, I hope, the folk-blues ballad, and I have come to think of these stanzas as Rap sonnets, for they should be read aloud. I titled the resulting poem Thirty Years: 1975“2005, and, in 2006, began to publish portions sequentially.

When Barry and Michael Callaghan of Exile Editions approached me last October to ask about creating a book out of the long poem, I realized that I should add nine stanzas as a coda, basically updating the story to 2013. The final pieces in the book were written on Dec. 1, 2013.

Traverse is autobiographical, more or less, and so it is accordingly frank. I never thought the poem would appear as a book, but once it became apparent that it would, it did behoove me to render some incidents in a dodgy, sketchy, euphemistic, or circumlocutory manner. Moreover, I had to withhold names and places, here and there, to protect truly innocent persons who cared for me and gave me love, never expecting that these gestures would be commented upon in a poem whose vision must be personal “ or eccentric “ and therefore open to  misinterpretation.

I do feel good about the writing. The poem just flowed, as the cliché would have it. It also felt good to wonder about the astonishing future that my early pursuit of letters created for me, a lad outta Africadia “ that archipelago of historical black communities in Nova Scotia, born some 250 years ago out of slavery and resistance to slavery, and victimized ever since by illiteracy, poverty, and injustice (i.e., racism).

Traverse covers 38 years of my life. Although the incidents in the book are quote-unquote true, I have forgotten many events, and I likely haven’t indicated sufficiently just how unusual it was that a 15-year-old, working-class coloured guy from the wrong end of Halifax should have decided to pick up coloured markers (not pens or pencils) and begin to compose tuneless songs, delighting in creating each one in a rainbow array of tints. But I started out thus.

I won my first poetry prize when I was 21, for a manuscript based on Africadian history. That led one of the judges, Lesley Choyce, to offer me a publishing contract with Pottersfield Press, and so my first book came out in 1983, when I was 23. I showed the book to my father, who was a railway worker (he later became a taxi driver). He stunned me by looking at it and setting it aside. I think he was feeling regret for not having pursued his own artistic talent. Later on, he became so proud of me that he was always talking me up to passengers in his taxi, including a certain Alistair MacLeod. The poem Taxi, from my 2011 collection Red, is about two of his customers who disbelieved his claim that he had a poet for a son.

When I got my doctorate in English from Queen’s University in 1993, I was only the fifth native-born Africadian in 200 years to obtain this degree. My mother attended the convocation, and stood there with tears in her eyes, for she had pioneered early childhood education in Halifax in the 1960s and ’70s. Before Alexa McDonough led the NDP in Nova Scotia and nationally, she worked for my mom, and was my kindergarten teacher.

There has been so much serendipity in my life as a poet. I can complain of nothing. (I’ve even met the Dalai Lama!) I feel blessed to have worked at Queen’s Park, on Parliament Hill, and as a social worker,  newspaper editor, and publisher, and I have a decades-old biweekly newspaper column in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. I am especially blessed to be a dad.

Best thing is: I’ve not stopped revelling in this art that I came to almost four decades ago. I pray I might be permitted to author a few more books “ including, maybe, Traverse, Too.

Poet, playwright, and novelist George Elliott Clarke is Toronto’s fourth poet laureate. He is the William Lyon Mackenzie King visiting associate professor of Canadian studies at Harvard University. His latest volume of poetry, Traverse, is published by Exile Editions.

From the April 2014 print edition of Q&Q.