The Fire This Time

Interview with George Elliott Clarke

Amatoritsero Ede (AE): George, it is, indeed, a pleasure to be having this chat with you. You are what one might call a poet’s poet. First, tell us; where does your poetry catch its fire from?

 

George Elliott Clarke (GEC): My poetry comes from anger- or nothing. I also mean love. What drives me is rage over racism, sexism, the capitalist imperium, and just the sheer stupidity of inhumanity. But I also yearn for, mourn, the lost beauty of the world of my childhood -all that sprightly optimism and sparkling wit of 1960-68, from King & Kennedy to Trudeau & Malcolm X. (Yep, even Malcolm X!)  Oh gawd- there was such ‘up’-ness bout the '60s. I miss it- though I was only a kid/child when all the big news was happening....So, my poetry is torn between attack and elegy, calumny and commemoration... I need to celebrate how my mother danced, how my father painted... I think of my mother, Geraldine, and I remember, ‘My Fair Lady’ – and Wilson Pickett. I think of my father, Bill, and I remember Cat Stevens and Johnny Mathis.

A.E.: From book to book – Execution Poems, Whyllah Falls, Blue and Lush Dreams, Blue Exile – the fiery images are unrelenting, the mastery reminds one of Christopher Okigbo, or Walcott in his prime or   even of the falcon, in full mastery of its medium – air –  as described by Gerald Manley Hopkins  in “The Windhover”. Could you tell us what influences shaped your art, especially in your formative years. In what smithy did you learn to hammer words into such brilliant shape?

 

G.E.C.: My influences come most directly from Pop song: If only I could WAIL like James Brown! If only could WRITE the pathos of  a Supremes r+b hit (“Kiss of Fire” or “Ask Any Girl”, or “Any Girl in Love”)! If only I could sing as powerfully/badly as Bob Dylan! If only I could write as searingly as Leonard Cohen! Oh gawd! If only I had gone to school with Holland-Dozier-Holland (and if you have to ask who they are, you've also been to the wrong schools, Jack an' Jill)! However, in addition to the admittedly ‘oral’ and ‘aural’ sources that first fed my imagination, I also am a child of the King James Version of ye olde Holy Bible, having read it thrice- thoroughly. I still think the best poetry in English is in The Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes. Period. I'll add that I started writing poetry when I was 15- and under the influence (disreputable) of Bernie Taupin (Elton John's collaborator) and The Ohio Players....). The “smithy” that produced my words was a demanding and judgmental BLACK community. If your stuff don’t ‘cut the mustard’ with the folks, they TELL ya - and ya feel bad. But you also improve... It’s true that the popular Top 40 song was one inspiration, but I also need to name a whole bunch of African-American poets: their influences make me, in the ears of the majority of Canadians, ‘uncanadian’- and I couldn't be happier! In any event, the African-American poets I read as religiously as I read the Bible, as a teen, were Robert Hayden, Conrad Kent Rivers, Jean Toomer, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, Henry Dumas, and many others. I also read the disreputable Pound- closely, but mainly the exquisite verse of Cathay (1915). I also read and enjoyed a passel of international poets- in translation, everything from T'ang Dynasty Chinese to the Jewish poets of Spain, from Pushkin to Cheney-Coker, and from Dante to Mao 'Bad Willy’ Shakespeare, 'Blind Jack' Milton, 'Ramblin' Manley Hopkins [your Windhover quotation was right on], 'Dilletante' Dylan Thomas AND  Basil 'Boss' Bunting!....That's probably enough!

 

A.E.:  You are black and Canadian. How has this affected your aesthetics? Think of the black speech in the collection, ‘Blue’ for example.

 

G.E.C.: My “aesthetics” is definitely an amalgam of book-learning and pop song – plus preachin! The African-Canadian (Africadian) world of Halifax, in my youth, between the 1960s and the 1980s, was a place of lamentation, partyin, sermonizin, protestin, spontaneous poetry spoutin, courtin rituals, and gossip (along with laughter): As much as I studied Eliot and ‘Lb’ (Pound), and attempted to assimilate their modernism, I was also inhabiting a world where words were used to seduce the amenable and to assault the insipid. I had no choice, growing up in North End, proletarian Halifax, but to understand poetry as a ‘performance’ art- but also as guerilla warfare. As for being ‘Canadian’, this identity inspires only combat: Most Canadians don't associate my brown skin and black eyes with being Canadian. My declarations of citizenship are, then, acts of war... To be ‘black’ and Canadian is, for me, to be at war- with the majority of Canadians.

 

 

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Sentinel Poetry (Online) #45.     August 2006   ISSN 1479-425X

THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF POETRY & GRAPHICS...since December 2002

Editor: Amatoritsero Ede

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