Harmonious Dissonance: in Conversation with George Elliott Clarke

To provide Malahat readers with a context in which to read and more deeply appreciate George Elliott Clarke’s “Othello: By Donation Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade,” a bravura long poem appearing in the magazine’s Summer 2016 issue, I explore with the poet his ambitions and the intent he enacts in the writing of such a profoundly engaging and provocative work. Last year I also recorded George reading a few poems when he visited Vancouver Island University last year, and The Malahat Review has published one of these recordings, “The Testament of Ulysses X.” You may read the full text of this poem or listen to George’s performance of it, recorded while he was the 2015 Ralph Gustafson Distinguished Poet at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo.

George Elliott Clarke is currently  Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Towards the end of the interview I asked him, why does the world need poetry? To which he responded:

Hal David and Burt Bacharach: “What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love”? That song comes to mind in thinking about why the world should need poetry. But I will also reiterate my sentiments in the Shad/Q interview: poetry exists in the rhythm of pulse and breath; it is “mind-forged” (Blake) language given vocal (originally) expression in tune with the pace of breath and the beat of the heart. The cadences are related to the sounds conjured by the arrangements of tongue, teeth, lips, and lungs. Poetry is organic technology, a physical art—as much as is dance, save that its calisthenics are performed by abstract characters or organically by the movement of the mouth.  In any event, it is the cheapest art and thus the most portable, for it can be memorized and taught to others. It is the first civilizing art, for it is the basis of scripture, whether inscribed or chanted. It conjoins imagination and emotion; so, for so long as human beings dream, recall, and/or have feelings, they/we will always invent poems.

Read the full interview, here.

In addition,

PRESS RELEASE: Celebrated ‘Africadian’ Poet George Elliott Clarke Reads at VIU Oct. 22

Toronto Poet Laureate, playwright, and literary critic George Elliott Clarke, VIU’s 2015 Gustafson Distinguished Poet, will deliver a free public lecture, On Entering the Echo Chamber of Epic: My “Canticles” Vs Pound’s Cantos, Thursday Oct. 22nd at 7pm in building 355 on the Nanaimo campus.  Clarke introduces his epic poem, “Canticles,” in response to Ezra Pound’s contentious Cantos, a 20th-century post/modern epic both vilified for its integration of fascist propaganda and heralded for its haunting lyricism. Pound, a classicist, nodded to T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Stephen Vincent Benet’s “John Brown’s Body,” both of which skirted racist material yet refused to be contained, or restrained, by formalism.

Clarke will recite excerpts from his work-in-progress “Canticles,” which echoes slave and imperialist debates from Cleopatra to Celan. Clarke will also invoke contemporary poets Derek Walcott and NourbeSe Philip who invite harmonious, multiple, and multicultural voices in their revisions of Pound’s controversial masterpiece. Clarke champions writers of African descent and coined the term, “Africadian” to identify the Black culture of Atlantic Canada, a term he says is both “literal and liberal—I canonize songs and sonnets, histories and homilies.”

Clarke traces his own inspiration to “poet-politicos: jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, troubadour-bard Bob Dylan, libertine lyricist Irving Layton, guerrilla leader and poet Mao Zedong, reactionary modernist Ezra Pound, Black Power orator Malcolm X, and the Right Honourable Pierre Elliott Trudeau.” Clarke finds their “blunt talk, suave styles, acerbic independence, raunchy macho, feisty lyricism, singing heroic and a scarf-and-beret chivalry quite, well, liberating.”

Clarke’s colleague and VIU English professor Paul Watkins says, “For George, poetry is not only a printed form, but also an oral art. His boisterous readings present the listener with a gumbo-concoction of jazz rhythms, blues-infused gospel vernacular, and plenty of play upon the standards of the larger literary tradition. This is poetry presented with the ‘lightning of prophecy’.”

Clarke has published: a 13 works of poetry including Whylah Falls (2002 Canada Reads contender), Execution Poems, winner of the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and his latest Traverse; 4 plays, screenplays, or libretti One Heart Broken Into SongBeatrice ChancyQuébécité, Trudeau; the novel George and Rue; and 4 anthologies of African-Canadian writing including Directions Home: Approaches to African-Canadian Literature. He has been the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto for the last 12 years and holds 8 honorary doctorates from Royal Military College and Dalhousie, New Brunswick, Alberta, Waterloo, Windsor, Acadia, Saint Mary’s universities. He received the Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellows Prize, and Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada.

After Clarke’s lecture, a catered reception, cash bar, and book signing will follow in Bldg 300’s Royal Arbutus Room. Several of Clarke’s books will be sold at the VIU Bookstore. Courtesy parking is available in Lot N, in front of building 355. Clarke will also perform with musician James Darling at the Corner Lounge Wednesday October 21st 7:30-8:30. These events are sponsored by VIU’s Faculty of Arts & Humanities, Writers on Campus, and the Canada Council for the Arts.

The Gustafson Distinguished Poetry Lecture was established in 1998 from the estate of the late, pre-eminent Canadian poet Ralph Gustafson and his wife, Betty. The Chair has been held by celebrated poets Don Domanski, Dionne Brand, Tom Wayman, Daphne Marlatt, Robert Bringhurst, Don MacKay, Jan Zwicky, Dennis Lee, Michael Crummey, and Katherena Vermette among others, most of whom have had their lectures published as chapbooks. An interview will also appear in Portal2016, VIU’s full-colour literary magazine, on stands in April.

For more info contact Chair of the Gustafson Committee Toni Smith at Toni.Smith@viu.ca or to buy a chapbook contact the series’ publisher Joy Gugeler at joy.gugeler@viu.ca. For more information about the lecturers visit http://www.mediastudies.viu.ca/gustafson/

See more at: http://www.mediastudies.viu.ca/gustafson/#sthash.Y6hAy6n0.dpuf

RED REVISED Gustafson Poet Poster PRINT[3]

clarke Poster-final copy

From The Second Storey Interview: Railroad and Rhythm

I was on the radio earlier today. I spoke about my own work, music, and read part of my poem, Soundin’ Canaan. I was asked to choose two pieces of music to bookend my interview, and selected Oscar Peterson’s moving “Hymn to Freedom,” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”

Jerry Prager, a local historian spoke first about his new book, Laying the Bed: The Native Origins of the Underground Railroard. I come in around 35 minutes after the Oscar Peterson piece.

The interview can be viewed in the From The Second Story archive, “12:00 PM ON MONDAY MARCH 10, 2014.”

Cheers,
Paul