It’s always a pleasure to hear George Elliott Clarke read; he is a frequent reader at the Ottawa International Writers Festival
He read from two works last night:
Black (Raincoast Books, 2006) and Trudeau, Long March / Shining Path (Gaspereau Press, 2007), which is also a jazz opera / libretto.
In “A Discourse On My Name,” we learn that "Elliott," a middle name Clarke shares with Trudeau, turns out to be from Elliot Ness of the Untouchables which his mother liked in the late 50s.
Clarke coined the term “Africadian” "a Black Nova Scotian of African American and Mi’kmaq roots." His rhythms are fun and style as playful as always.
“I enjoy my uncultivated acreage in Three Mile Plains
And my feral garden, part weeds, part roses,
Part onions, garlic, raspberries, lilac,
In Toronto, “the meeting place.”
“My mother selected my first two names.
But her choice of George
Had nothing to do with George VI, George Washington,
George Washington Carver, Gorgeous George,
George of the Jungle, Curious George,
Or even “Georgie Porgie,
Puddin an pie,
Who kissed the girls
And made em sigh.”
He read next from 9/11 written in the roman numerals IX / XI
His voice thundered as he read like a preacher in a pulpit and repeated the word violence over and over to make a strong and memorable poem:
“It was violence as judgement, violence as Kitsch,
Violence as aviation and concrete, violence
As pornography, violence as X-acto blades,
Violence as the President hunkered down in
Bunkers, violence as the Pentagon burned.
Unlike many contemporary poets, Clarke has never strayed from the political in his poetry; he makes scathing remarks about suffering, prejudice and the ugliness of politics, including talking about our politicians.
Clarke read La Vérité à Ottawa invoking Ottawa’s April winter and referring to Parliament Hill workers as “eunuchs droning” in the bowels of the Peace Tower. “Mulroney’s / Tories trashing the treasury” He made reference to “Afro-Arab-Asian-Italian Lowertown--/The Coloured arrondissement of Ottawa—“
On Jean Chretien, he said “I think he could have been a great prime minister.” He uses the technique of accumulation in his poem about Chretien Revised Standard Version:
“He was depressive, swinish, foolish, garrulous,
Wrathful, calculating, tricky, ornery, arrogant,
Execrable, difficult, vengeful, professional, sly,
Narrow, bull-headed, deft, lawyerly, egotistical,
Despicable, vital, and he was all of these things
Every single day of every single election year.
Then, he got worse.”
His final poem from "Black" was Will, from which he read Part II: “For my funeral, here’s what I’d like:”...
Clarke then read a bit from his new dramatic poem Trudeau, Long March / Shining Path, based on biography but with liberties taken. He wrote in eight syllable rhyming couplets for several reasons: the poem was being used as a libretto, and he thought the composer, D. D. Jackson, would prefer the rhyme (this turned out not to be the case); also given Trudeau’s childhood study to classical French poetry, Clarke was impressed that Trudeau had a knowledge of poetry and could recite it, and his use of rhyme was a way of paying homage to Trudeau’s knowledge and interest in poetry. The rhyme felt fun and I think it was used with more than just a hint of tongue in cheek. There’s something silly about the dialogue between a young Trudeau and Mao Tse Tong, leader of the Chinese Communist Movement, being in rhyme, a bit of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead or absurdist theatre to the whole thing.
One example of Clarke’s imagination in this piece is his envisioning the meeting between Fidel Castro and Trudeau if Trudeau really had canoed to Cuba from Florida.
The long poem is impressively lyrical; I don’t have a copy of it, (didn’t get a chance to visit the bookstore, in the flurry; otherwise I’d excerpt sections from what he read.
After reading a few excerpts from the poem, Clarke asked for questions from the audience; these questions were about politics. Steven Artelle asked whether there is a place for poetry in politics; Clarke felt there wasn’t a place per se for poets. He invoked Plato who didn’t like the idea of poets being involved in the Republic, because poets believe in mythologies and lies. Clarke went on to say that “writers and artists need to be free to imagine things that we want to; if we’re involved too rigidly in politics, it’s bound to have an effect on our imaginations. Our role is to try to dream of a better society and letting readers and viewers decide for themselves how legitimate our fantasies may be.”
Clarke does have a poem in the works on Stephen Harper. Won’t it be interesting to read that one.