Born in Three Mile Plains, Nova Scotia, poet and playwright George Elliott Clarke has received the William P. Hubbard Award for Race Relations from the City of Toronto and is an Officer of the Order of Canada. His book Execution Poems won the Governor General’s Award and Whylah Falls was selected for Canada Reads. He teaches at University of Toronto.
Did you read poetry when you were in high school? Is there a particular poem that you loved when you were a teenager that you remember well?
I read LOTS of poetry in high school because I thought of poetry as being a branch of song. So, I was reading Dylan Thomas in tandem with listening to Bob Dylan and listening to Muddy Waters while studying Gwendolyn Brooks. The school readers furnished me with Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen, etc. But as a black kid growing up in Halifax, NS, it was the African-American poets — available in my local library and leftist bookstores — I took to quickest. But I also loved the Beats (Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones) and French symboliste poets (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine), not to mention the T'ang Dynasty Chinese....
When did you first start writing poetry? And then when did you start thinking of yourself as a poet?
I was 15 and wanting to be a songwriter. To be a better songwriter, I thought I should study poetry. I knew I was a poet when I wrote, "Watercolour for Negro Expatriates in France," when I was 18 and published it when I was 19.
What do you think a poet’s “job” is?
Tell the truth. As we feel it. With jazz accompaniment.
What inspired you to write “Blank Sonnet”?
The poem is part of my first novel-in-poetry, Whylah Falls, and I was really interested in “blackening” John Milton's blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). I should say that the speaker in the poem, X, is not addressing poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, but a young woman named Shelley, who is proving unwilling to be “seduced” by X’s romantic diction.
If you had to choose one poem to memorize from our anthology which one would it be? and why?
I'd choose Rita Wong's “flourine,” for it calls major attention to our persistent poisoning of our planet and the slow deaths and extinctions we are inflicting on our fellow/sister creatures and, ultimately, perhaps, upon ourselves.