1. Many consider “Whylah Falls” as the seminal work in your complete oeuvre and since it came very early in your career, could you talk a bit more about how you charted your course from that point forward? Were you conscious of the importance of the work when it was first published? What were your main considerations – was there a time you found yourself writing in response to the work either attempting to replicate it or perhaps bettering it?

When my first book of poems, Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues appeared, in June 1983, I had no concept, as a 23-year-old, that it could be other than a collection of miscellaneous lyrics.  (My debut publication came about because I won a Nova Scotia-wide competition for “Adult Poetry” in 1981.)  When I came to assemble Whylah Falls, I’d been a newspaper editor (twice), a social worker, and a grad student whose poetry expertise was expanded exponentially by the John Fraser (of Dalhousie U):  I knew I’d apply what I’d learned of book design, including use of fonts and photos; incorporate many poetic forms (vers libre, vers blanc, vers libéré); and “Blackened English” speech, plus blues and spirituals.  When Whylah Falls appeared, I knew I’d authored a compleat book.  I understood my subsequent books to be other “projects”:  Verse-plays, opera libretti, verse-novels, epic, narrative-lyric suites—and even lyric collections!  Not “better than” Whylah Falls, just different!

2. A couple of years back you delivered a talk at John Cabot University in Rome, entitled: “Must Poets Always “Hang” with Murderers? A Meditation on Poetics and “Justice”, in which one of the ideas you discussed was how poets should be judged, by their work, or by their lives? Do you think the same set of rules apply to all artists in all situations?

The first responsibility of a creator is to the creation.  (“The production IS the beloved,” sayeth Pound, in Canto CIV.)  That an artist should be law-abiding, civil, gentle, cultivated, polite, charitable, good-hearted, generous, and a hale-person-well-met is a possibility always to be celebrated when it is found to be true.  But an artist can also be a scoundrel, a crook, obscene, hateful, outrageous, cruel, crude, despicable, murderous, seditious, treacherous, uncivil, and—not to omit any possibility—racist, sexist, homophobic, disgusting, perverted, fascist, anti-Semitic, disgraceful, scurrilous, and “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” (as was said of Lord Byron).  Of course, art histories are full of nice people who were lousy artists—and vicious people who were vital artists.  I do think it’s better to be humane than not.  But I don’t think that an artist’s character determines the calibre of the craft.

3. By re-engineering and re-negotiating accepted forms and tropes and genres as you did in the Whylah Falls, would you say it provides a kind of a template for writers of colour to address issues of bipolarity in belonging and identity? Was that how it was conceived? Could you share the origin story and the process behind the form this work ultimately took?

That Whylah Falls was translated into Chinese (2006) and the play version into Italian (2012) suggests there’s universality in the “template”:  I wanted the imagined, “Africadian” space of “Whylah Falls” to not just canvass a community, but to be a place where “the death of Poetry has not yet occurred.”  I wanted to introduce a Black/Canadian location, where fishers are guitarists, where women are prophetesses, and where a dude can come from Paris, France, spoutin blank-verse poetry bout a murdered man whose body has turned to butterflies….  In 1985-86, I was a B.A.-in-Honours-English social worker in rural, Africadian communities in the Annapolis Valley (of NS).  Given my knowledge of Shakespeare, Milton, and Dylan, I heard suddenly the voices of my people as deathless Poetry.  That’s what I pay homage to in Whylah Falls—along with the presence of Beauty honeying constantly otherwise bitter Pain.

What was the intended audience for “Merchant of Venice (Retired)”? What were you looking to bring to this work?

Like many of my “projects” (see answer 1), The Merchant of Venice (Retried) (2017) began as an accident.  I picked up a 1950s Stratford Festival edition of Shakespeare’s hateful comedy in January 2012, read it, and was struck by the commentary by Tyrone Guthrie and the editorial notes of G.B. Harrison:  Two classically literate Canucks.  I decided to draft my own Afro-Canuck ‘edition’ as it were:  I rewrote the play in 1 day in February 2012.  My version is shorter, has fewer characters, and employs mainly octosyllabic couplets, rather than the original’s blank verse.  But it also differs strenuously in shifting villainy from Shylock to the Venetian—slaveholding—State.  My “intended audience”?  Anyone who thinks that the play should emphasize Fascism rather than stage dismal, anti-Semitic “comedy.” 

4. What made you a poet?

At age 15, in 1975, I decided to be a songwriter.  Reading books about songsmithing, each one preached, the best songwriters are poets.  I began to read and write poetry to become a better songwriter.  I’m glad that my poetic odyssey began out of a yearning to imitate Elton John’s standard lyricist, i.e. Bernie Taupin.  That discipleship took me to Lennon/McCartney, Dylan, Cohen, Joni Mitchell; but also Holland-Dozier-Holland, Hendrix, Marley.  Turntabling singer/songwriters helped me to hear Blake, Pound, Ginsberg, Baraka, Hayden, Dove, Ondaatje, Toomer, Walcott, Césaire, Senghor, John Thompson, Dylan Thomas, Alden Nowlan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gwendolyn MacEwen, etc. I’ve striven to stay close to music, to song, and have penned three opera libretti—Beatrice Chancy, Québécité, Trudeau: Long March/Shining Path—all produced, plus many songs with many collaborators.  The latest?  Shad’s “Storm” (2021).

5. What does it mean/suggest for you to think about your craft with each published work? If you were to associate an image with the development timeline of your writing craft what would that look like?

The best image would be that of a never-ending LP.  I love the ‘concept album’:  Marvin Gaye, What’s Goin’ On; Bob Dylan, The Basement Tapes; Miles Davis, On the Corner; Beatles, Sergeant Pepper; Derek and the Dominoes, Layla; Joni Mitchell’s Blue….  My ‘Collected Works’ include my ‘colouring books’—Blue (2001), Black (2006), Red (2011), Gold (2016), White (2021):  They are my way of sorting the assorted, miscellaneous poems that crop up while I’m at work on some unified, completely separate, poetic “project.”  Ever since my first book—a lyric collection, I’ve found the genre suspect.  My way of accepting individual lyrics is to group them in a series of colour-themed books (published in five-year intervals), further subdivided by punning-titled sections such as “Blue Sky,” “Black Eye,” “Red Hand,” “Gold Heart,” or “White Lace.”  The point is, my output is really a discography. 

6. What specific incident incited/inspired your last piece of work (of any form or length)?

The catalyst has a history:  In 1995, Stephen Kummerfield helped to pummel to death an Indigenous woman, Ms. Pamela George; Kummerfield stood trial, pulled a manslaughter conviction, served a light sentence, was paroled, and started writing poetry; in 2005, he approached me to read and edit his work, and I liked what I saw.  His admission to my amity was his omission of his homicide—which I knew nothing about, for he changed his surname to Brown and moved to Mexico.  In 2020, invited to lecture on the topic of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and the complicity of Caucasian poets (intellectuals) in these crimes, I was slagged as a culprit myself:  Given my once-friendship with Brown, I was declared “Guilty by association”; and the Kancel Kultur lynchers came snarling.  I was defamed, censored, silenced.  This experience propels my latest project, an essay-in-poetry, J’Accuse…! (Poem Versus Silence) (2021).

7. What was the most satisfying aspect of your recently completed work?

The most satisfying aspect of crafting J’Accuse…! (Poem Versus Silence) was being able to answer my accusers—who shamelessly condemned me without any hearing.  In J’Accuse, I often allude to Shakespeare’s Cinna the Poet, who innocent of having stabbed Julius Caesar, still got torn to pieces by a Roman mob because his name was also the cognomen of one of the assassins.  That’s what the episode felt like; but only Poetry could narrate the horror, express my empathy with victims of (white) male violence, condemn Kancel Kultur (what the Chinese dub “a human-flesh hunt” – the rénròu sōusuo), and put scandalmongering, gutter-press “journalism” on trial via what poet Al Moritz deems “a wonderful combination of the sophisticated, the primal, and the available”—“Great poetry.”  To draft J’Accuse, I use Laforguian rhyme (pace Eliot’s “Prufrock”), vers libre, actual letters (‘disinvites’), and Hitchcock film titles that register my anguish and my anger.

8. Are there any books that you keep visiting for inspiration?

My go-to books are The Holy Bible (KJV)—Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Job, Revelation; Pound, The Cantos; Walcott, Omeros; Toomer, Cane; X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Dennis Lee, Civil Elegies; Sade, La Philosophie dans le boudoir; Pain Not Bread, An Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei; Ondaatje, Collected Works of Billy the Kid; Fleming, Goldfinger; Shakespeare, King Lear / Othello / Titus Andronicus / Hamlet; Leduc, La Batarde; Dante, The Inferno; Dove, Thomas & Beulah; Morrison, Song of Solomon; Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room; Henry Dumas, Play Ebony, Play Ivory; Hayden, Collected Poems; McKerrow, History of the Coloured Baptists of Nova Scotia; James, The Black Jacobins; Ginsberg, Howl; John Fraser, Violence in the Arts; Shelley, The Cenci; Pushkin, Eugene Onegin; Tolson, Harlem Gallery; Dylan, Writings; Nin, Delta of Venus; Miller, Tropic of Cancer; Trudeau, Two Innocents in Red China; Mao, Poems; Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks; Milton, Paradise Lost; and Césaire, Cahiers….

9. Who is your work in conversation with? (i.e., other authors/artists, specific people, audience, peers.)

When I was 16, in November 1976, being driven to school by my mom, I was leafing through Louis Dudek’s incredible anthology, Poetry of Our Time, an assembly of modernist poets—American, British, Canuck (Anglo and Franco), when my eyes alighted upon Ezra Pound’s translation of Li Po’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.”  The millennium-old, Tang Dynasty poem sounded like Mississippi blues to my inner ear.  Thus began my decades-long “conversation” with Pound—the inventor of modernism, but also a despicable disciple of Fascism.  In 1977, I first read The Cantos, which I could not possibly understand, but which I wished impossibly to emulate.  Its finest passages are plangent, poignant, picturesque, cinematic.  I knew suddenly—pace Aristotle’s Poetics and Walcott’s exemplary oeuvre—that a poet must graduate from lyric to verse drama, then ascend from drama to epic.  Pound set me on that trajectory.

11. Can you name a source of inspiration from your pre-teen years that impacted your writing in some way?

At the same time that I discovered Pound, I heard Bob Dylan (again):  I’d liked “Like a Rolling Stone” as a five-year-old and kind of liked “Lay Lady Lay” as a tweenie.  But finding the 1960s Dylan as a 1970s teen got me reading Dylan Thomas, Hopkins, Verlaine, ‘Rimbaudelaire,’ Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso, Creeley, Plath, Baldwin, Samuel Charters (Poetry of the Blues), and listening intensively to Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Basement Tapes, Blood on the Tracks, Desire; and then to Hendrix, Cry of Love; Derek and the Dominoes, Layla; Coltrane, Giant Steps; Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool; and the recorded speeches of Malcolm X.  Being a young Afro-Métis, Africadian, Haligonian male, I had to read Fanon, X, and Eldridge Cleaver, and The Young Black Revolutionary Poets.  Then, I picked up P.E. Trudeau’s Approaches to Politics….  Pound, Dylan, X, Trudeau: My primary influencers.

12. Are you conscious of developing a distinctive voice or a narrative style through your work?

Every poet is really just an assembly of dictions—plural.  My development as a poet was to learn to accept and appreciate all of the vocabulary that I have inherited:  African-Nova Scotian Vernacular English, Queen’s English, Bluenose English, Maritime English, street talk, slang, argot, jive, country talk, and then the discourses of professional literary criticism and scholarship, the grammar of Parliament (I’ve worked for two legislatures), and the lingo of newspapers (I’ve edited three) and publishing.  When I teach Creative Writing, my first exercise is “The Catalogue”:  I ask students to compile a list of nouns.  Once they complete the exercise, I explain, “A poet is only his/her/their words; and the words you will use instinctively are those that construct your consciousness—as imbibed from parents, siblings, relatives, neighbours, friends, teachers, mass media, and your reading.  What distinguishes a poet from the non-poet is that you will use your array of words as if no one else ever has.  You will use the as if no one else has ever used it as purposefully, as passionately, as meaningfully.”  It took me a long time to understand this truth.  That the poetic voice is the words that one uses instinctively—distinctively—that articulate one’s solo soul.  And it is only this unapologetic individualism of timbre and rhythm and accent that can render a poet—the poet—the bard of a community, a people, a nation.

Author Bio

George Elliott Clarke is African-Nova Scotian—and the great-grandson of a Cherokee woman.  (Family lore names other ancestors as Mi’kmaq.)  An “Afro-Métis,” Clarke was the 4th Poet Laureate of Toronto (2012-15) and the 7th Parliamentary/Canadian Poet Laureate (2016-17).  A Can-Lit prof at the University of Toronto, Clarke has also taught at Duke and Harvard. He has lived two-decades-plus round Lake Ontario.  His acclaimed titles include Whylah Falls (1990, translated into Chinese), Beatrice Chancy (1999, translated into Italian), Execution Poems (2001), Blues and Bliss (selected poems, 2009), and Canticles II (2020).