Canada’s Poet Laureate: In conversation with Windsor’s George Elliott Clarke

Colin Chisholm
Published on January 12, 2016

OTTAWA – If the saying “home is where the heart is” remains true, Parliament’s newest Poet Laureate’s home is in Hants County.

George Elliott Clarke was born in Windsor and only lived there for three short months before moving to Halifax, but for him, it’s like he never left.

“I am an imaginary citizen of the Municipality of West Hants and Windsor,” Clarke said in a Jan. 7 interview from Toronto. “I was born in Windsor and I’m happy that the old memorial hospital still stands, even though it’s now (apartments). I’ve always put that on my biography, everyone knows that I was born in Windsor, Nova Scotia.”

 “I did visit back to my parent’s home in Three Mile Plains many times, with other relatives in Five Mile Plains, and that was very important to me as a boy, even though my home was in Halifax,” he said. “I loved it there and I still own land there and I’m very proud of it.”

“Coming from Windsor has always informed my imagination,” he said.

Clarke said he owns property in West Hants and plans to retire in the region.

 “My mom is interred in Windsor, and I expect I will be too,” Clarke said. “I’ve already bought my plot. I will continue to occupy Windsor territory.”


First African Poet Laureate

The Speaker of the Senate, George Furey, and the Speaker of the House of Commons, Geoff Regan, announced Elliott’s appointment Jan. 5. Clarke is the seventh poet to hold this office, succeeding Michel Pleau, whose two-year term ended Dec. 31, 2015.

Although the post of Parliamentary Poet Laureate dates to only 2001, Clarke said there’s significance to being the first African-Canadian to hold the title.

“Once again African Canadians, Black Canadians, people of African heritage, negroes, whatever the nomenclature might be, we are people of accomplishment, talent and smarts,” he said. “We always have been and always will be.”

Clarke said he looks forward to Canada’s first African-Canadian prime minister, premier of Nova Scotia, and other leadership roles.

“Our entire history, from the struggle against slavery to win equality and justice, which goes on, has always been spirited and represented by folks who were people of obvious accomplishment,” he said. “I’m extremely proud and honoured as a Windsorite, as a Nova Scotia, as a Africadian, as an African Nova Scotian, as a writer and poet to be appointed to this position.”

“I won’t mind being used as a symbol of progress, so folks can say, ‘hey, look what people of African heritage can achieve,’ but I also hope that this is something that poets of every complexion and heritage might aspire to,” he said.


Poetic evolution

Clarke has a storied career, having published dozens of books and volumes of poetry as well as being a professor and Poet Laureate for the City of Toronto.

He offers a sense of how the world of poetry is changing and has changed.

“In one hand it has become more democratic and on the other hand in some ways more elitist,” Clarke said. “There are notions of spoken word poetry, the idea that your poetry doesn’t have to be in a book but can be simply recited before an audience or recorded or posted online, these are all new forms.

“Poets are identifying themselves as being about the voice, the lungs, the drama, the performance,” he said. “This is all a part of poetry, it’s a kin to dance, to song.”

However, some scholars still hold that “real poets” have to be published in print, Clarke said.

“I like publishing my books and being published in magazines. I think that is a venerable, legitimate way to be a poet,” he said. “But some folks think that’s the only way to be a poet, and that’s being challenged now.”

Clarke said he plans to speak with both communities in Canadian poetry in an effort to bring them closer together.

“Maybe I can achieve that by asking the parliamentary library to invest even more in spoken word productions,” he said.

Clarke said he’s encouraged by the fact that there are more poets than ever – writing, creating and sharing their work online.

“Poetry will always be relevant because we are creatures of emotion,” he said. “Whenever we need to use words to describe how we’re feeling, we spontaneously look to poetry.”


Windsor connections – past and future

“A lot of my scholarly work has dealt with Windsor’s great native son, Thomas Chandler Haliburton,” he said. “A lot of people know I disagree vehemently with Haliburton’s caricature depictions of black Nova Scotians. Yes, he was a racist and he was wrong, but he was still a great writer.

“I’ve been privileged to engage with his work, the Clockmaker, Sam Slick and all the rest of it,” he said. “(Haliburton) was very much so a product of his time. We should still read him, but critically, and I think that does him an honour.”

One of Clarke’s upcoming novels focuses on Charles Spurgeon Fletcher, a janitor in Windsor who was the first professor of African descent to teach at Harvard University.

“He left Windsor as a youth and went to Boston, still working as a janitor, but this time at Harvard,” he said. “He was befriended by a professor of geology, who saw that this man from Three Mile Plains had the intelligence and wherewithal to become a student at Harvard.”

Fletcher went from being a janitor to a student at Harvard and then a geologist. “He ended up becoming the first black professor at Harvard University in the 1930’s; got his American citizenship in 1935.”

Fletcher discovered how to extract uranium out of rock and worked on the Manhattan Project, developing the atomic bomb

“It’s an amazing story and nobody knows about him, except for African-Americans who only know him as the first black professor at Harvard,” he said. “He’s from Three Mile Plains, just like me.”

Clarke, despite being away for so long, still cares deeply about the region.

What would he change about Windsor?

He says he’d like to see the causeway come down, restoring the Avon River to its original state.

“I can’t say I’m a fan of Lake Pisiquid, sorry.

“I like the Avon River un-interfered with,” he said, adding he misses the old rail bridge that used to cross the river as well.

That’s not his only suggestion for the region.

“I’d want them to restore rail service to Halifax and also I think Wolfville. It would be great for Acadia University students, for people in Windsor commuting to Halifax and for people in Halifax to come to the valley,” Elliott said. “I think it’d make money and I’d like to see somebody do it while the tracks are still there.”