The Fire This Time—interview with George Elliott Clarke continued from previous page
A.E.: At the Ottawa International Authors’ festival I asked you and Muldoon and one other writer on the podium this question: “why does the language of poetry mimic that of prose so closely today”?
G.E.C.: ‘Poetry’ mimics prose when it is defeated, when compradors, traitors, and sell-outs are doing the ‘writing’ and claiming it as poetry. Canadian poets who write prosaically – or just write prose – are afraid to be poets; and to be Canadian. (French Canadians and Aboriginal people have a different relationship to the culture: OPPOSITION!)
A.E.: One notes that unlike most Canadian poetry, your work is political in a subtle but direct way. One example is the book, George and Rue. Does Canadian literature eschew politics?
G.C.E.: Canadian literature eschews politics when liars and sell-outs are doing the writing.
A.E.: I met Syl-Cheney Coker in Iserlohn, Germany in 1996. He was very black and passionate, tobacco pipe and all. He left an indelible impression. I note your ode to him in Lush dreams, Blue Exile, you refer to him as “O, Nova Scotian-Sierra Leonean” and in other poems in the same book you suggest a connection between Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone; could you tell us more about this connection. Does Cheney-Coker have a connection to ‘Nofaskosia’?
G.E.C.: Cheney-Coker is one of my poetic heroes. Yes, he does have a Nova Scotian connection: in 1792, 1200 African Americans who had been, for nearly a decade, in Nova Scotia (and were called Nova Scotians), accepted a British offer of resettlement in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and were shipped to that colony. Cheney-Coker descends from this group, who he views, properly, with ambivalence (see his 1995 novel, The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar).
A.E.: The underground rail-road, Nova-Scotia…America of the deep, troubled south. How do these historically black events resonate with you or inform your poetics; in short, what does being black and Canadian mean for you anchored unto history?
G.E.C.: History is a source for me, as an African-Canadian (Africadian), because I am called, constantly, to justify my existence to all my compatriot Canadians, both black and white. I have to explain to them why I am not directly from Jamaica or the United States. My history forces me to be a historian- to justify my presence- in my native land!
A.E.: I note you use the N-word a lot in your poetry, unabashedly; is this a legitimising or a cleansing gambit? Are you reclaiming a damned word, condemned and hanged like George and Rue?
G.E.C.: I use the word 'nigger' in my work because it is how me and mine were viewed historically- in these Americas. It is also a powerful word- as powerful as 'black' itself. What if we said, “Nigger is beautiful”?
A.E.: Now George and Rue are cousins, were cousins of yours…Could you tell the reader what the connection is and how far back it goes; and please give us a brief story of how they came to be hanged?
G.E.C.: About George & Rue: George and Rufus Hamilton were first-cousins of my mother, the former Geraldine Johnson. In other words, their parents were direct uncle and aunt to my mother. Thus, they were my second-cousins; their parents were my Great Aunt and Great Uncle. My novel, George & Rue, deals with the true story of their committal of a murder-robbery, of a white taxi driver, in Fredericton, NB, in January 1949, and their subsequent hangings for this crime in July 1949- 11 years before I was born. I first heard about them when I was 34- in 1994. Immediately, I was attracted to them: young black men who reacted violently to their marginalization by white Canadian society. Of course, they were doomed to be hanged once their crime was discovered. Bad enough that their victim was a white man; they were black and Mi'kmaq.... They had to hang.
A.E.: What is the resonance of you being name-sake of your second cousin George - as in George & Rue; was it deliberate or an accident?
G.E.C.: I'm named George because George Hamilton was executed. His grandfather, George Johnson, was my great-grandfather. After George & Rufus Hamilton died, I was the next male to come along in the family. My mother, 10 when her cousin was executed, was 21 when she bore me. Her grandfather (my great-grandfather) asked her to give me his name (since it had been forfeited by George Hamilton, so to speak). Thus, I got a dead man's name (not uncommon), but didn't know the circumstances until I was 34 (in 1994). My great-grandfather died when I was 2- in 1962. I am proud to carryon this name- part royal and part agrarian....
Sentinel Poetry (Online) #45. August 2006 ISSN 1479-425X
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF POETRY & GRAPHICS...since December 2002
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