A NONPARTISAN CONVERSATION WITH GEORGE ELLIOTT CLARKE Interview by Henry Kronk
Henry Kronk: You were just elected [or, as I should have said, appointed] to be the parliamentary poet laureate. Congratulations, by the way.
George Elliott Clarke: Thank you, Henry. Merci beaucoup.
HK: Would you have thought twice about [accepting] that appointment had Stephen Harper’s government won the last election?
GEC: [laughing] I am pleased to say that, in my official capacity, I am nonpartisan, and, as much as possible, apolitical.
HK: How is that possible?
GEC: I know, how is it possible? It’s easy. Because when we think about what’s really important—well, let me put it this way: everything’s political. I don’t deny that everything is. What you decide to eat, what you decide to wear, where you decide to live, these are all political questions in the end, or there are political aspects to them. You never can avoid politics completely.
On the other hand, you don’t always have to take a partisan position. You don’t have to take a policy position that’s identified with a particular political party. That’s how I prefer to interpret my role.
I have to follow the example of the people who appointed me. I’m appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Speaker of the Senate. The speakers cannot be partisan or they would lose the support of the House of Commons and the Senate. So, as the speakers can’t be partisan, I can’t be partisan. I’m following them; they are my guides.
HK: Have you found yourself biting your tongue?
GEC: I don’t represent me, just me, in this position. I represent parliament, and through parliament, the people of Canada. If I take that role seriously, then I cannot be partisan. I have to check that. I can be partisan in the voting booth, but I can’t be partisan in public.
HK: I admire your integrity.
GEC: I’ve got a little bit [laughter]. About that much [holding up closely pinched fingers].
HK: Anyone else doing research about your political views, or your history of writing about politics, knows you have a great interest in Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
HK: Not to mention sharing a middle name.
GEC: Yes …
HK: Is it uncanny that his son now leads the government that you represent poetically?
GEC: For those who cannot see this interview, let it be said that I am smiling right now. I think it’s kind of neat that the stars have aligned themselves in this way. I don’t mind, personally, I really don’t mind, that I have been appointed at this particular time in our history. And I’m not making any comments pro or con about our government. I’m being nonpartisan again. I’ll just say, personally, that it’s a joy for me. I do think—and I’m being nonpartisan still—I think I can say in a nonpartisan way, there seems to have been a mood shift in the nation in the last few months. At least, as a poet, speaking simply as a poet, I feel there has been a shift. I think people are feeling … better … and wanting to move things forward a little bit more than maybe was the case in the past.
This is a wonderful moment for me personally if I can register some of those feelings of movement … of progress … of spring! It’s spring again, you know? It’s that sense. Maybe I’m deluded, but talking to the taxi driver, talking to regular folks like ourselves on the street, on the bus, on the Toronto subway, people seem to be in a better mood right now. For whatever reason. [laughter]
HK: Let’s talk about Canticles (forthcoming, Guernica, 2016), [a text Clarke describes as an epic].
GEC: Oh, wow, thank you.
HK: I want to preface this by reading something from [the introduction to] Whylah Falls (Gaspereau) which came out in 1990. To summarize, you talk about how the epic has passed as a form of literature.
[reading] Perhaps the apparent impossibility of the epic in our times is akin to the impossibility of the continued existence of Canada as a sovereign state. Perhaps the Canadian is a metaphor for the epic poet.
GEC: So you’d like me to respond to that comment?
HK: I’d like you to respond to the fact that you wrote that in 1990 and, as of this fall, the first installation of your own epic is coming out.
GEC: Henry, right on. I think when I wrote that introduction to Whylah Falls, I was really nervous about the whole idea of a long narrative poem, or a narrative lyric suite. Because that’s what that collection really is, it’s a novel in poetry. But it’s a collection of poetry that tells a narrative throughout. It’s a kind of mini epic, or a stab in the direction of the epic, and I’m happy to say it was reviewed as an epic by one major American journal, which is very nice.
I had accepted the idea at the time from a lot of the critics I was reading in the late 80s and the mid 80s that the epic was pass , and you couldn’t write them anymore. But 1990 is the same year that Derek Walcott published Omeros, which is definitely an epic. So there I am with Whylah Falls coming out and there was Omeros. But then Vikram Seth published The Golden Gate and then Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, which is a verse novel, comes out in 1998, so there have been a lot of these things.
HK: What has been the gestation period for Canticles?
GEC: I started the first ones consciously in 2008, eight years ago in February. In Zanzibar. I deliberately went to Africa to start Canticles, deliberately! Because, yeah, I had to, I had to be on African soil in a magical place like “Zanzibar, a spice island,” to start thinking about slavery, imperialism, colonialism, the image of the black or the African in Western cultures and literatures. These are the three concerns of the texts, especially book one, which is coming out this November from Guernica.
Right now, it’s between 400 and 500 pages. I think book two and book three will be a lot shorter. I don’t have the energy anymore to sink eight years into one book. But I’m personally … happy [laughter] … with the way it has been developing.
HK: I want to return to the idea of the Canadian as a metaphor for the epic poet. Is this something you still believe?
GEC: I went through the Free Trade election in 1988. I fought that election with my MP, Howard Douglas McCurdy, in the trenches of Windsor, Ontario, in October and November. Passions were running high. I really believed that we were going to lose something that was specifically Canadian, something very special, if we went into the Free Trade agreement with the United States. We did that, then we went into NAFTA, and we’ve gone into 20,000 trade agreements since.
I’m no longer the fire-breathing nationalist I was almost 30 years ago, but I still would caution everyone to think twice before we rush into some agreement. A quick example: back in the mid-1990s, there was a lot of pressure from the national banks in Canada to merge. They wanted to merge. They wanted to bulk up and, as they were saying, take on the opposition, [they] wanted to compete with the other major banks, which basically meant American banks. So it was their plan, if they could join up with each other, to go buy American banks and be a part of the international competition.
Well, we all know what happened with those banks that did tend to load up on American assets. They ended up suffering badly during the global liquidity crisis of ‘07 to—when did it end? I’m not sure it has, it’s still rippling through, rippling through the global economy.
But the Canadian banks did very well during the major part of the downturn because they weren’t allowed to merge. The Chrétien government saw, in its wisdom, that it was important to maintain a regulated banking environment. When American banks were collapsing left, right, and centre, in ‘07, ‘08, ‘09, 2010, everyone was looking jealously north of the border.
They didn’t have the same kind of regulatory environment that we had. And we kept [that environment] because we had that much nationalism, a little teensy-weensy bit of nationalism to understand that we had to have control over or own finances in order to maintain some degree of say over our dollar, over interest rates, investment, etc. It doesn’t mean that we don’t still work in lock step with everyone else, but it’s important to have just a modicum of nationalism when it comes to economics—
HK: So Canadian poets have ensured the nation’s banks against their own ruin?
GEC: [laughter] I shouldn’t be straying into political economy at all. I’m leaving it up to everybody to make their own decisions. Let me say that I suspect that all the parties have good fiscal policies [laughter].
Interview — Part I
Interview — Part II
Interview — Part III
The 4th Poet Laureate of Toronto (2012-15) and the 7th Parliamentary [National] Poet Laureate (2016-17), George Elliott Clarke is an Africadian (African-Nova Scotian). A prized poet, his 14th work is Extra Illicit Sonnets (Exile, 2015), an erotic verse narrative. Now teaching African-Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto, Clarke has also taught at Duke, McGill, the University of British Columbia, and Harvard. He holds eight honorary doctorates, plus appointments to the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada at the rank of Officer.