'The power of words is accidental magic'

MRU’s Writer-in-Residence George Elliott Clarke reveals how writing helped build his identity

A portrait of George Elliott Clarke by Melanie Janisse.

A portrait of George Elliott Clarke by Melanie Janisse.

Mount Royal University’s 2022 writer-in-residence is George Elliott Clarke, a noted scholar and award-winning novelist, poet, playwright, songwriter and anthologist. The fourth Poet Laureate of Toronto (2012 to 2015) and the seventh Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2016 to 2017), Clarke received the 2001 Governor General's Award for poetry for his book Execution Poems, which addresses the complex story of his two late cousins who were hanged for the murder of a taxi driver in Fredericton, N.B., in 1949.

Clarke has also won the National Magazine Gold Medal for Poetry (2001), the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award (2004), the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellowship Prize (2005 to 2008), the Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction (2006) and the Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry (2009).

As part of the writer-in-residence program, Clarke presented at a Feb. 3 online event titled, “Where Beauty Survived: On Writing Black Faces into Green Places and White Spaces,” where read from his latest book, Where Beauty Survived, a “vibrant, revealing memoir about the cultural and familial pressures that shaped his early life in the Black Canadian community he calls Africadia, centred in Halifax, N.S.” He will also meet with students from across all faculties who are looking for input into their creative works and exchange ideas and increase awareness of scholarly and artistic endeavors with faculty members. The goal of the program is to allow the greater community access to distinguished and unique voices in the Canadian literary landscape.

Dr. Natalie Meisner professor in the Department of English, Languages and Cultures at MRU and Poet Laureate of Calgary notes that “The writer-in-residence program gives our whole campus access to artists from different parts of the country who are doing diverse work." Meisner, who currently administers the writer-in-residence program and has been involved since its inception, notes that having the voices of BIPOC, queer, and other heretofore marginalized groups has been a key to its success. Past visiting writers have included Yvette Nolan, Ivan Coyote, Austin Clarke, JD Derbyshire and Billy Ray Belcourt.

'African-American, Indigenous, Nova Scotian/Africadian, Afro-Métis'

It is fitting that Clarke is arriving to MRU at the beginning Black History Month in Canada. Where Beauty Survived looks at his early life as a Black Canadian in Halifax, N.S. Clarke, who describes himself as, “African-American, Indigenous, Nova Scotian/Africadian, Afro-Métis,” has been groundbreaking in documenting and revealing the Black Nova Scotian culture, which he refers to as Africadian.

“When I began as a poet, as a teen in the mid-1970s, it was very important for me to imagine myself as centred in an African-American experience and consciousness, along with some Beat and Baudelairean inflections, because I didn't think that I came from a culture worth canvassing or a history worth chronicling,” Clarke says. “Being a Black Haligonian, an ‘Indigenous Black’ Nova Scotian, I grew up in a white-supremacist context wherein my history and roots culture were either dismissed or disparaged.”

Clarke turned to African/American culture as a way to try to explain the racism he and his fellow “’Scotians” were (are) subjected. “My ignorance about what Africadians (African-Nova Scotians de souche) had both endured and accomplished was what propelled me to seek inspiration elsewhere,” Clarke says, and he also found stimulation in the cultures and literatures of Li Po and Mao’s China, Garcia Lorca’s Spain, the ‘Rimbaudelaire’s’ France and the America of Ginsberg and Dylan.

“But in 1980, I was given a reprinted volume, The History of the Coloured Baptists of Nova Scotia and Their First Organization as Churches, A.D. 1832, by Peter E. McKerrow, published originally in 1895. Along with that volume, I also read James W. St.-Germain Walker's history, The Search for a Promised Land, the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1792, published in 1976. Those two books together revealed a Black Nova Scotia — an Africadia — of saints and heroes, rebels and roustabouts, preachers and singers. It was suddenly magical for me to write about Black communities like Weymouth Falls and Windsor Plains,” he says.

Those works melded Clarke's own history with the history of others, and, finally, his own surrounding geography, in “meaningful, imaginative and spiritual ways.”

Clarke says that writing "Black presence" into the general culture requires a deep awareness of the past plus the ability to intersect that with economics, geography, politics, psychology, sociology, and so on.

“To be a writer (or a scholar) is to become cognizant of the panoply of forces at work (or play) in any subject, whether an individual, or a set of characters, or a people (or a nation). So, in writing any narrative centred on Black Canadians (or African-Canadians or Africadians, et cetera), I ought to meditate on the matrix of factors out of which representatives emerge.” Clarke keeps John Berger's famous perception provided in his work About Looking top of mind: “To build a radial system of facts and info, facets and attributes, about the subject.”

Why writing matters

A transformational moment for Clarke as a young writer was attending the Banff Centre for the Arts in the summer of 1983. It was there he says he was “confronted” by his fear of his own voice, considering it to be “too rude, crude, lewd, to be any good for poetry.

“Suddenly, thanks to brethren and sistren writers — and our teachers ― I learned the value of my own … truly my own … voice.” Two years later he wrote a poem about Weymouth Falls, N.S., called "How Exile Melts to One Hundred Roses," in one night in a coffee shop in Kitchener, Ont.

“When I wrote, I knew that I'd found a voice and a technique that worked for me, that was me,” he says. Clarke then learned how to read his work in a way that resonated, by “picking up the spiritual blues vox of the people.” After that, in 1990 came Clarke’s celebrated novel-as-poetry, Whylah Falls.

Clarke went on to teach at Duke University, discovering a sense of liberty in the U.S. that he didn’t have in Canada and finding the ability to say anything he felt, a spirit he carries through in his "colouring books" (Blue, Black, Red, Gold and White), his verse-tragedy, Beatrice Chancy, his erotic collections, and his “epic-in-progress.” He has also recorded a CD, performing in Italy, and recently collaborated with the artist Shad on a song.

Writing is what allows people to recognize themselves in others and form linkages throughout society, says Micheline Maylor, PhD, who teaches creative writing at MRU. “Narratives in whatever form they show up, whether it’s poetry or fiction or non-fiction, as a general rule, what they do is they connect us as a society because we can read something that somebody else has written and say, ‘Oh, I feel like that too,’ or ‘That's relatable,’ or ‘Oh, there's hope for me.’ Writing creates a sense of a larger connection to the world and to our own lives as meaningful and as valuable.

“Because I've been gifted with a story, it means that I can have empathy and compassion. It actually allows us to have larger hearts for each other,” she says.

“The power of words is accidental magic,” Clarke says. “Writing is thought fleshed out in characters of ink or darkened light. Once it is set down, it is only as perishable as the language in which it is expressed. And, identity itself is only the diction that one wields. Who you are is your vocabulary. Period.”

Throughout the month of February, MRU will be presenting a collection of voices of Black writers in our community. Stay tuned for more words about the power of identity.

Feb. 3, 2022 — Michelle Bodnar

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