Clarke poses for a picture with the writer of this piece, Nina Paris.
By: Nina Paris
George Elliot Clarke is not afraid to speak his mind. He made that clear at this year’s the Word on the Street book festival in Halifax.
Clarke was there to read from his new book Trudeau, Long March and Shining Path. He says that he has a right and a responsibility to speak on political issues as a writer, but after the audience asks nothing but political questions, he tells them with a smile “I am only a poet.”
This is not true. Clarke sees poetry and journalism as one and the same. He does both and incorporates tools from each world into the other. Clarke is also a playwright, a professor and a writer of libretti; opera script. His style of fictionalizing fact is his claim to fame.
Trudeau serves as a great example of his style. Clarke has taken times and events in Trudeau’s life and added dialogue and colour.
During the reading, Clarke doesn’t stop smiling. He is warm and says hello to people as they join the small crowd at the CBC stage at Pier 23 on the Halifax waterfront. For more than an hour Clarke reads excerpts from his book and takes questions from the audience.
People are captivated. Audience members are tapping their feet as Clarke reads:
“During Hitler’s war, I did what I liked- Loafed in Quebec and motorbiked, So proud, with a Prussian helmet on, A preppy lad, crying ‘Révolution!'”
Clarke’s casual style makes him seem more like a friend than a celebrated author. After he’s finished reading from Trudeau, he shares an unfinished poem about his feelings toward Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “A pasty-faced, milk-toast doughboy. As gooey as egg white and just as dull. This expert at snow jobs oozes and slides.”
The audience laughs — or leaves — at this point, which is near the end of Clarke’s reading. But Clarke doesn’t care if he upsets anyone. He welcomes different opinions, and never shies away from expressing his own.
Clarke is inspired by real events. This is part of his appeal. He takes everyday news or historical events and makes them interesting, entertaining and a bit more fun.
“Every now and then, even in the middle of a book review, I’ll slip in a line or two of poetry, just to remind the reader that the writer is a poet and that you can do other things with language besides write straightforward prose.”
Clarke won the Governor General’s Award for his book Whylah Falls. Several of the events in the book are based on a murder that happened in 1985 in Nova Scotia. While his work is poetic, real life lurks below the surface: “His breath went emergency in his lungs, His felled heart grasped impossibly at light; A thrown bouquet, he dropped softly to earth. Torn from sweet oxygen, O wilted fast.”
Clarke grew up in Halifax’s North End. He lived on predominantly-black Maynard street and calls himself “Africadien,” by which he means Nova Scotians who come from one of the original black settlements here.
Clarke still has a presence in the North End. Recently, a monument was erected in front of the North Memorial Library on Gottingen Street. It displays a quote from Clarke:
‘North is Freedom- Uptown, down-home, each book a drum, each life a poem.’
Clarke has been working as a journalist since 1982 when he joined Imprint, the University of Waterloo’s student newspaper.
His book reviews blossomed into a column about anything from politics to poetry. Eventually Clarke was elected editor-in-chief of the paper in what he calls “a very weird and surprising moment for everybody.”
Some people were opposed to having Clarke as the editor of the paper, both for his left-wing views and for his skin colour.
The student president told Clarke that the students wouldn’t accept him as the editor and attempted to recall his win. Clarke calls this shortsighted. The recall was unsuccessful.
Clarke’s term as editor-in-chief was anything but. A few years before, the paper had been turned into a communist outlet by the paid editors. He says that he managed to remove the paid positions from the paper and turn it back into a paper by students.
The job helped Clarke learn a lot about journalism and himself.
One of his many other gigs was running a North End newspaper called The Rap. He says it was born out of an attempt to deliver news that mattered to people in the neighborhood, whose stories were often left untold.
Clarke ran the eight-page monthly paper from an office at the Black United Front, an association meant to be a voice for Halifax’s black community. The Rap was originally a two-page newsletter about the work of the front.
Clarke used the office, a computer and the long-distance phone line, but kept the Black Front at arm’s-length to protect the journalistic independence of the paper. “It even had a poetry page, the only one in the paper free of advertisements. It was my paper.” Clarke says. He is proud to say soon after he started at the paper, people began submitting poetry from across the country.
“I’ve always thought that there was an artistic component to journalism, that it was related to poetry and that it was good to try and blend them as much as possible.”
Clarke’s book Execution Poems was written about his two cousins who were hanged in 1949 for the murder of a taxi driver. The book is Clarke’s interpretation of the event. He uses his poetry to look at issues of racism and ill-treatment.
“Rue: My colour is guttural. I was born in lachrymose air. My face makes a mess of light: It’s like a black splinter lancing snow. I’m negative, but positive with a knife. My instinct? Is to damage someone.”
This combination of fact and fiction is what drew Dr. John Baxter to use Clarke’s writing in his English classes at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Baxter has known Clarke since 1995 when he invited him to speak to a class on his book Whylah Falls. Baxter says Clarke’s prose is grounded in reality.
“I would say one of the successes” of (Whylah Falls), one of the things that makes it interesting, is its combination of prose and photographs and poems. The photographs especially lend a feeling of documentary realism.â€
Baxter can see the journalist in the poet.
“(Clarke’s work) may be somewhat gussied up for literary presentation but it’s certainly got its roots in a desire to report accurately on the basic day-to-day living of the people in this province.”
Between writing poetry and teaching English at the University of Toronto, Clarke writes a bi-weekly book review for the Sunday Herald in Halifax. He was offered the job 15 years ago. At the time he was already writing reviews for the now-defunct Daily News, but he left to continue his reviewing at the Herald. “I am pleased to have that little outlet for my journalistic ambitions.”
Clarke’s editor is also pleased. Christine Soucie works on the Herald copy desk and edits Clarke’s column. She says working with Clarke is a pleasure.
Soucie is interested in Clarke’s connecting of art and journalism. She agrees with Clarke that the best journalism tries to do this but says it is not easy to pull off.
“One has to be extremely skilled and (has to have) worked at it for probably 15 or 20 years. You don’t want to add inane or silly details; you have to know how to write literary journalism. It’s very tough.”
Soucie said Clarke doesn’t have any trouble doing so in his writing and that she and her co-workers have learned a lot from him.
“We used to have this little thing when his column came in, ‘Oh it’s word of the day time,’ because there would always be a word in there that we had never seen before and we’d have to look in the dictionary for its meaning.”
Clarke’s work at the Herald goes back much farther than his poetry reviews. When he was 12, Clarke got his first job delivering the paper.
His father delivered newspapers as a child and thought it would be a good job for his three boys too. He used a connection at the paper to get them routes.
Clarke remembers this first job fondly, saying that it was fun. He had 40 houses on his walk that went from North Street to Cogswell Street in downtown Halifax. At that time, Clarke says a paper cost 15 cents.
“I cleared about 12 or 13 dollars a week,” he laughs. “For a 12-year-old that was good money. Because you know, that was all the potato chips and pop in the world, plus a book if you wanted.”
Today, other people are spending their hard-earned money on books; Clarke’s books. After his reading at the Word on the Street, Clarke sets up at a small table to sign his newest book and to meet his fans. A line forms to meet him. He no longer speaks in his big reading voice and once again it is easy to feel like he is an old friend.
Angelina Chapin, a fourth year English major at Dalhousie University says that she is a huge George Elliot Clarke fan. Two years ago she read Whylah Falls for one of her English classes and that’s when she “kinda fell in love with him.”
“Anyone who’s seen him speak knows what an incredible lecturer he is. He just has so much passion and enthusiasm.”
Chapin says that after Whylah Falls she continued to pick up books by Clarke and that whenever he comes to town she is there to see him speak. It’s his charisma that Chapin loves.
Chapin hopes his journalistic poetry, or his poetic journalism will last, so does Clarke.
“What one is trying to do in writing poetry is write journalism that will last for, hopefully, a long time.”
Clarke quotes poet Ezra Pound saying “literature is news that stays news.”
“I’ve always liked that interpretive, that comment, that idea about literature . . . It’s news that doesn’t get stale, that doesn’t dry up.”