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,

Soundin’ Canaan (poem, draft)

“In the whole world no poor devil is lynched, no wretched is tortured, in whom I too am not degraded and murdered.”
-Aimé Cesairé

“So what If I write a poem like a song.”
-Lillian Allen

Columbus was no intrepid hero,
He was more an insipid & syphilic-vaquero hearding the “indios” like cargo
& John Hawkins was no Stephen Hawkins or Richard Dawkins,
He was the English-dastard & coward who brought the fist slave ship to the “New World.”
They merely discovered the already discovered.
Hypocrites like John Hammond claiming he discovered Bessie Smith,
Counterfeit prophets racketeering off the backs of blacks, Chinese, Natives, navies, human life for profit.

A collective amnesia still persists: some 20 million Africans loaded on ships, mothers torn from babies,
whipped & sold into slavery. Some Canadians are still unaware that slavery existed in this country.
Slavery, à la Canadian style.
Listen: hear a history of violence, textured & composite.
Listen: hear a literature of Black Canadians— oral, written, & infinitely rich.
Listen: hear whistle blow, porter train riff.
Listen: hear makeshift improvisers providing a needed spiritual lift.

Mattieu da Costa, circa 1605, first African guide & translator to set foot in Canada,
Olivier Le Jeune, taken from Madagascar, first recorded slave purchased at age 8 in Quebec, New France, before it was Canada.
A hundred years later, after she learnt her slave mistress was gonna sell her, Marie-Josèphe Angélique burned down Montreal: they tortured her, hung her, tossed her to the fire, her scattered ashes to the wind, a feminist rebel before radical feminism was drawn.
We must not forget Josiah Henson who helped form the Canaan of Dawn, he inspired Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
We must not forget Harriet Tubman, dubbed “Black Moses,” she led escaped slaves on the underground railroad to its terminus in Chatham.
We must remember John Brown & Osborne Anderson, who accompanied Brown on his raid on Harper’s Ferry; Anderson fled & wrote a pamphlet, history demanded it.
Had help from Mary Ann Shadd, full time editor & first woman publisher of a newspaper in Canada, her history we inherit.
Along with Thomas Peters who helped lead some 1200 blacks from Canada back to Sierra Leone Africa in 1792, a black loyalist & a Yoruba too, he wore a poly-identity become it was cool.
We must remember the great Rufus Rockhead, bootlegger, former porter, who opened the jazz club Rockhead’s Paradise in 1928 in St. Antoine, Montreal.
We must remember John Arthur Robinson who helped form the Order of Sleeping Car Porters &
George V. Garraway who became the first conductor on the Canadian Railway.
We must remember Joe Fortes who taught children to swim while patrolling the beach at English Bay,
there’s a restaurant & a library named after him today.
& Leonard A. Braithwaite, first elected Black Canadian to the Ontario Legislature.
& Stanley Grizzle too, former porter & Canada’s first Black Citizen Judge, civis litigator!
—these are to name, mostly by name, but at least to start to name, some of the historic figures that are part of Canadian history.

Is it true, we be a people without a literature?
Were all of Canada’s early “white” writers performing in blackface?
Murphy’s Black Candle clearly states that racial mixing is a fear in losing the docility of the social body,
the female body, the cult of true womanhood replaced by the cult of the drug.
The fear of the white passive female body becoming possessed.
The body as text, the black pen as sex.
& Haliburton’s Sam Slick was sure some son-of-a-racist-prick.
But this history ain’t just bullshit, we inherit it.

The Canada of many Canaanadas for many Canadians.
In 1834 the mere touching of Canadian soil made the runaway slave free.
The continued exodus & disappearing of borders.
Canada: the North Star, “heaven,” the Underground Railroad starting in the south & heading North to Canaan land, simply follow the Drinking Gourd.
Survivors of the crossing who found Philistines replacing the Egyptians.
The volatility of human borders, escaping fugitive slave law
& hoping to find freedom under the lion’s paw,
forming the Canadian Canaans:
Wilberforce, Dawn, The Refugee Home Society, & Elgin
Escapin’ plantation cottin’ pickin only to find a more subtle racism,
which kept people on the go, poly-identities in motion before postmodernism called it so.
Like Boston King moving from America to Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone then England & back to Sierra Leone; did he ever really feel at home?
Hear Nina Simone singing, “Ain’t got No…”
To be in another place, not here.
Fiction “here” is the transcription of history, reworking tradition,
As Mandela said, “History isn’t born it’s made.”
History: a kind of philosophical lab.
A tidalectical wave crashing back & forth,
into the torn & new of this host country.

Mr. D, in Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in The Bush notoriously states “there are no ghosts in Canada” because “the country is too new for ghosts.”
But if you put your ear to a tree, or stand still in one place, you’ll realize this land is “hauntological.”
The silences echo with the whispers of ghosts in the corridors of history.
Fighting for survival since arrival is enough to make anyone suicidal.
& where is here really? Here is simply here for those who ended up here, or for those who’ve always been here. To first Nations people the question is absurd.
It’s apparent we exclude all others when we construct a garrison.
Especially when that construction is at the expense of a community.
“We” tore down Africville & bulldozed Hogan’s Alley to make room for a highway.
& they call it urban renewal, more like “Negro” removal.

My education was one of white-faced white-studies effacing my white face with white paint.
If I encountered a black text it was usually as subtext, prefix, or preface to the rest.
As critics we need to flip the script proper with a provisional manuscript
& avoid creating bordered realities like the Gaza strip,
or the whole world really, when you get down to it.

Rather, DJ take us into an “indexical present.”
The DJ as cultural archivist & resistive resident,
Moving the fader, back & forth between diverse cultural realities,
Using beats, rhymes, & counter rhythms like swords.
Poetry working & un/working on the edge,
Like Rakim said: “Standing on shaky grounds too close to the edge,
Let’s see if I know the ledge.”

An edging towards the Just Society.
A tapestry entwined within Trudeau’s notions of a pluralistic & polyethnic society.
For multiculturalism is an exercise in blackness: an acculturation of forms, a creative destruction of old selves into new states.

Canada is an archipelago of blackness:
For whiteness is death & only when we let go of our possessive investment in it, can we truly unravel the shells holding in the outer limits of our outer selves.
Discover: the heteroglot, the polyglot, the polyphonic improvised being who is always a listening being.
Are you listening Canada? Where is H/ear? Or, Where are you from?

Canada can never claim to be a homogenous culture.
So paint phonemes on canvas, over this Canaan land, soundin’ Canada,
Chant, grunt, shout, & sing a callaloo of aquarelles, a gumbo-concoction with rhythms
that be boppin’ & hip-hopin’ on the Canadian kazoo, & find:
George Elliott Clarke sounding Miles Davis with a blues-beaucoup in Blue.
Wayde Compton entwininging Grandmaster Flash in his legba-trickster brew.
Dionne Brand phrasing Coltrane with a jazz text sonically riffing through.
M. NourbeSe Philip turning the echoes of Zong into song with poetry guiding her through.
K’naan taking us through Babylon wavin’ a flag with the force of a million literary reviews.
& these are to name but a few of the artists
improvising consciousnesses in the liminality of contact zones.

Hear: the spirituals & blues augmenting a salacious truth that speaks Canada with a cool icy-blue.
Hear: jazz, the flattened 5th of devil’s music, blowing freely in Canada too.
Hear: funk, r&b, & rock syncopating the electric past into the reclamation of bodies.
Everybody, hear the dub of the duppy, mystics using a West Indian aesthetic to heal the present.
Hear: Hip Hop urban youths speakin’ beats & rhymes—& more than just music—the movement.
Hear: DJs recontextualizing all material, for sonic frequencies are not a fixed phenomenon.

Legein: the layering out, gathering, collecting, reading, the “mix” of the mixedness of all things.
Improvisation: the open-ended possibility for polyglossic polyventiality, for survival.
Speak as a prophet or profess like a professor: it does mean after all, “To declare openly.”
Laurier, MacKenzie King, & Harper aren’t my prime ministers.
Administer a protesting crescendo with a glissando like Oscar Peterson on the piano,
pushing the keys with love.

Sing Canaan, chant it, shout it, play it, pluck it, howl it, honk it, scream it, into pure utterance & possibility—
freely imagine what a truly Just Society could sound like & be.

This poem is in draft stage and covers some of the theory and history surrounding my thesis project, Soundin' Canaan: Music, Resistance, and Citizenship in African Canadian Poetry. The featured image is of Harriet Tubman (far left) with family and friends. I'll be reading part of this poem and discussing my work more generally on Monday, March 10th from 12:30pm - 1:00pm on From The Second Story, a radio program on the University of Guelph's CFRU (93.3 FM).

Soundin’ Canaan in 3 Minutes

Next week I am competing in an event where you have to deliver your thesis in 3 minutes with no more than one basic slide. This is quite a daunting task, and given that my 300+ page thesis (in a draft version currently) covers so much, and given that I don’t really have time to discuss any of the specific poetry in detail, I thought I’d primarily touch on some of the larger themes around music and citizenship. I often get asked, so what’s the gist of your thesis? In 3 minutes it sounds  roughly like this:

I will briefly outline how music and citizenship relate to my thesis project, Soundin’ Canaan: Music, Resistance, and Citizenship in African Canadian Poetry, which is about historical recovery and imagining Canada’s future. Like the image of a needle touching down on the historical record, the past tells us much about where we can go, for as Amiri Baraka states, “The future is always here in the past.” Most Canadians don’t even know slavery existed in Canada, and few are aware of the historical black communities in Canada such as Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver and Africville in Nova Soctia, which thanks to the work of the poets in this thesis hasn’t gone unnoticed: Canada Post, as part of Black history month (2014) commemorated Hogan’s Alley and Africville on a stamp. Soundin’ Canaan (Canada was often referred to as Canaan in spirituals during the black migration to Canada), draws from a cross-fertilization of communicative techniques to examine how citizenship is reexamined by African Canadian poets’ resistive soundings.

Centered on the poetry of M. NourbeSe Philip, George Elliott Clarke, Wayde Compton, Dionne Brand, and rapper K’naan, my dissertation builds on the work of scholars who have admirably mapped and written about African Canadian literature. Uniquely it examines how many African Canadian poets draw from African American and pan-African musical forms (including blues, jazz, hip-hop, reggae, dub, and so on) in order to remap the concept of identity and citizenship. Soundin’ Canaan, addresses the politics and ethics of Canadian multicultural policy and citizenship—focusing on intersections between music and text as a border-crossing praxis. I ask: what does Canadian citizenship sound like, particularly as voiced by African Canadian poets interested in a fluid citizenship that moves, like music, between local and global spaces?

Idealistically, citizenship—like music—is not confined to any single space. While in prison, Nelson Mandela listened to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” an act Paul Gilroy describes as “The global dimension of diaspora dialogue [made] momentarily visible.” Essentially, music travels across borders, and through such sonic imagining, the value of a global (yet still often regional) citizenship is avowed. My methodology itself is closest to the practice of DJing, which provides a malleable guide to my murky topology: DJs mix multiple records by using various constituent elements of rhythm, timbre, texture, and overall sonic experience. In essence, I ask what happens when you put a mixer and crossfader between several diverse cultural realities?

By looking at citizenship through the lens of music as an often dissonant site (or text) of struggle and identity formation, Soundin’ Canaan demonstrates how music in African Canadian poetry is not solely aesthetic, but a form of social, ethical, and political expression. What happens when those not normally seen as citizens with full rights—the disposable—are brought more into the picture and seen as co-performers of the Canadian remix project? No longer for the elite alone, citizenship is to be universally confirmed for all Canadians.

Canada signified as Canaan represents faith and contradiction for the poets explored in this thesis. Isolation can only create more of the same, and so multiculturalism, reimagings of citizenship and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s notions of The Just Society present an opportunity to moderate disorder and fragmentation by embracing difference through fraternity. Much of this thesis is an idealization of what Canadian multiculturalism can aspire to be: a gesturing towards a more equal and free society for all its members.

Mandela, Rest in Power

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
-Nelson Mandela

On December 5th, 2013, the world lost one of its most principled heroes in the struggle against oppression. Nelson Mandela (18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013) was a South African politician, anti-apartheid revolutionary, and among many other things, a philanthropist who served as South Africa’s first fully representational and democratically elected President from 1994 to 1999. Mandela’s government focused on dealing with institutionalized racism, inequality of all strands, and fostered an environment where racial reconciliation was possible. Truly, this was affirmative and improvisational territory born out of Mandela’s love for justice. Politically an African Nationalist and a democratic socialist, Mandela spent 27 years in prison for his unrelenting and activist position towards the abolition of apartheid. In 1993 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He is held in profound esteem around the world, and in South Africa he is often referred to as Tata (“Father”): “the father of the nation.”

Predictably, Canadian media coverage of Mandela’s death has been rather untrusthworthy, as it is important to remember that Mandela, while a man of peace,  also commenced a three-decade-long armed struggle after non-violent avenues had been shut down. Further, while many people living in Canada did resist apartheid,  the Canadian government only opposed the racist system rather late in the game.  The fact remains, as Cecil Foster argues, that the apartheid model in South Africa was largely based on Canada’s successful colonization of First Nations people with the Canadian constitution providing a model to control the undesirables (Race 41; 95).

Mandela importantly remains a force who taught the world about the power of resistance, redress, and reconciliation.

Have a listen to South African jazz artist, Abdullah Ibrahim’s moving composition, Mandela (1985)

Also, check out this very touching Mandela tribute, which came from a rather unexpected place:

 

Works Cited

Foster, Cecil. Where Race Does Not Matter: The New Spirit of Modernity. Toronto: Penguin, 2005. Print.

A “Truthful Statement of Facts”: A Review of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation—only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person. My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.
-Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave

So states Solomon Northup in the first page of his grueling autobiography 12 Years a Slave; 160 years later Northup’s words are visually echoed in perhaps the best portrayal of slavery on film. 12 Years a Slave is a fictionalized historical drama by British director Steve McQueen that adapts Northup’s 1853 autobiography of the same title. Given the palette of slavery, McQueen’s film is difficult to watch at times—as it should be—and I agree with critics who have called the film essential viewing. Having seen McQueen’s major theatrical releases, Hunger (2008, about the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike) and Shame (2011, about a struggling sex addict), I knew he wouldn’t shy away from starkly depicting the brutality of slavery, of which, believe it or not, the film could have shown even more.

African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who served as a historical consultant on 12 Years a Slave, says the film actually minimizes the depiction of violence: “Slavery was a brutal, violent, sadistic institution. And I think that Steve McQueen showed remarkable restraint. It just hints at how violent slavery was… You can’t depict it and not show violence. That would be Gone with the Wind. But if you’re depicting it, there is a lot more violence in Solomon Northup’s slave narrative than there is in Steve McQueen’s film” (click here to read more from this article). Very true, and while the violence in 12 Years a Slave is visceral and unrelenting, it is fully necessary, much in the way that Schindler’s List needed to show the atrocities Jewish people faced in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

The unfortunate reality is that many suffer from a “collective amnesia” and fail to take into account that the Middle Passage—the capture of Africans and the brutal crossing of the sea into the New World—was a holocaust that ruptured, damaged, or destroyed the lives of over 20 million African people. 12 Years a Slave can’t tell the total story of slavery—the epigraph from Northup states the impossibility of this—but it is admirable for its heightened focus on the experiences Northup faced when he was captured, taken from his family, and sold into bondage. Given how realistic McQueen’s antebellum Southern opera feels, the film will set the bar for which other films about slavery will be compared.

McQueen’s early ventures into the art world are apparent, as many scenes are so horrifically beautiful (with very long and wide shots) that you feel as if you are watching a painting slowly combust before your eyes. Such as in the scene where Northup hangs from a tree—almost like a Tableau vivant—with his feet barely touching the muddy ground, which feels like an eternity on the screen. The beautiful southern landscape, along with the pious hypocrisy of the slave owners shows just how dehumanizing slavery was for all parties involved. And yet, despite this brutality the slaves found ways to make their lives meaningful, emphasized, for example, through the spirituals in the film. Recounting the emotive and philosophical power of slave songs, Frederick Douglass attests, “I have sometimes thought the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do” (Narrative 57). Douglass declares that the slave song is the final province of resistance to slavery.

Of course, none of the music, storytelling, or spectacular cinematography would be very affecting if the acting weren’t so phenomenal. As the lead, Chiwetel Ejiofor gave such a heart wrenching and brilliant performance that it would be a shame if he weren’t given an Oscar nomination. The rest of the star-studded cast also shine, or tarnish, as evil men and women who personify the malevolent machinations of slavery. Paul Dano is particularly vicious, that is until we encounter Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, a cruel plantation owner who is married to an equally cruel woman played by Sarah Paulson. However, the surprise standout performance, for me, was Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a slave on the Epps plantation who suffers the cruel brunt of the Epps’ guilt, jealousy, and perverted rage. Her performance will haunt me for some time to come, as will the film, which is the most painful, and lucid depiction of American slavery I’ve seen in cinema.

Watching a movie in Canada about American slavery, made by a black British director, reminded me of how global and transnational slavery was. And while Canada no longer practiced slavery at the time Northup was captured—he is aided by a Canadian carpenter in the film played by Brad Pitt—it is important to remember that slavery is “Canada’s best kept secret, locked within the National closet” (Afua Cooper, Untold Story 68). In Canada, slavery was not denounced until 1793, and was not formally abolished until 1834. I mention this because the last thing we should do as Canadians is congratulate ourselves for not participating in slavery—because we did—and our continued poor treatment of First Nations people (who were also once kept as slaves) is a reminder of the legacy of injustice that still effects this country.

On a less somber note, 12 Years a Slave is additionally a film about the will to overcome injustice, to find hope where only despair seems plausible, and to remain ardent in the search for greater freedom, fraternity, and equality for all people. Dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Northup’s book was published less than a year after his liberation. It became one of the best selling slave narratives of all time, and yet it remains unknown what happened to Solomon Northup. Regardless, Northup lives on in his book, and now his incredible story manifests in this gripping and powerful historical drama about the brutal inhumanities we as humans inflict upon one another. 12 Years a Slave offers no artificial Hollywood catharsis; rather, it presents an honest and harrowing parable of the evil of slavery as told through the real life experience of a man who was sent to hell and lived to tell about it.

Solomon Northup
Solomon Northup

Works Cited

Cooper, Afua. The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.