My Canada, 88/150: A poet laureate’s path

When I was a student at the University of Waterloo, there was a guy in my English literature program with the world’s biggest smile and he was already writing and presenting his poetry. His fellow students would gather at one of his readings and feel either inspired, or inadequate.

George Elliott Clarke, then as now, may be one of the world’s true joyful beings. He’s the opposite of a la-la-la peace-and-happiness float-y type. His joy comes not from ignoring the pain in this world, and withdrawing to a place of eternal peace and sunshine, but from exposing that pain, and somehow then being hopeful that things will get better, because we are now talking the truth.

His writings over the years have been energetic, sometimes angry, tackling difficult issues and the often-wrenching stories of African descendants in Canada and, particularly, Nova Scotia, where his family had roots.

But meet up with Clarke, even if you haven’t seen him in eons, and you are instantly charged with optimism. “Hell-oooooooo!!” he’ll exclaim. “How are you?!?” When you return the question his smile gets even broader. “I’m very well. Very well, indeed.” I got a chuckle in December 2016 when I read an article in the Globe and Mail about Clarke by writer Eric Andrew-Gee, who observed: Clarke “talks like a canister of seltzer with the trigger pulled.” I can confirm that enthusiasm has been with him since his youthful days.

His career has been primarily as a poet and academic, using both platforms to activate awareness and action. After completing graduate degrees at Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia) and Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario), he has published nine anthologies of poetry and served as the City of Toronto’s poet laureate from 2012 to 2015 In 2016, he was appointed Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate. As a scholar, primarily as an English professor at the University of Toronto, he also has garnered a strong reputation for his championship of other African-Canadian writers. And in 2008, he was one of three recipients of Toronto’s William P. Hubbard Awards for Race Relations, given to “persons whose outstanding achievement and commitment has made a significant contribution toward a positive race relations climate in Toronto.”

Clarke has also written a novel, George and Rue, which revisits in narrative form the 2001 poem series Execution Poems: The Black Acadian Tragedy of George and Rue (which won the Governor General’s Award for poetry) as well as four plays. One of those, the verse play Beatrice Chancy, became the libretto for the chamber opera by James Rolfe of the same name: It is among the best known of Clarke’s works.

To quote the full description from Rolfe’s online biography: “Beatrice Chancy is a historical drama based upon the true story of the Cenci family of Rome, circa 1600. The story is set on a plantation in Nova Scotia during the last days of slavery, circa 1800, with the heroine Beatrice as the half-caste daughter of her master, Francis Chancy. When her father responds to her romance with the slave Lead by beating him and then raping her, Beatrice takes justice into her own hands and murders him. For this, she is hanged, along with her lover Lead and her stepmother Lustra. It is a tale of love, but also of violence, slavery, incest, and revenge. Opera and classic tragedy are fused with the brutal reality of slavery in Nova Scotia, a little-known chapter of Canadian history.” Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman premiered the role of Beatrice and has performed it in several subsequent productions.

While I’ve bumped into Clarke at a couple literary events here in Toronto, our last longer conversation was in 2010 at the University of Waterloo, where he attended a reception and gave a public reading as part of 50th anniversary celebrations for the Faculty of the Arts; I attended as both the university’s Director, External Communications, and as an alumna. And once again, sitting on that campus and hearing Clarke’s poems, his lush torrent of words and rhythm and images sweeping over his audience, we could choose to feel inadequate — or choose to be inspired.

Main photo: Neil Trotter

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