His handshake when we meet in the cafeteria at the CBC (where he already has spent three hours being interviewed about the airing of his opera, Beatrice Chancy) is surprisingly gentle for a big guy, but there’s nothing retiring about his confident voice, warm, open face and easy laugh. It’s clear after just a few minutes that George Elliott Clarke loves language, the sound of words, the interplay of conversation.
A voracious reader, he grew up in Halifax, N.S., in a household where his self-educated father and teacher mother were attuned to books, TV, current affairs and music of all sorts, from Broadway musicals to James Brown blues. He devoured everything from comic books (he remembers being inspired by one called Great Negroes) to the Bible, which he read right through three times. He figures he’s about ready for a fourth reading, particularly the lushly erotic Song of Solomon, his favourite part, he exclaims with that expansive laugh.
On Clarke’s mother’s side, his Canadian roots go back seven generations to a group of Chesapeake Bay slaves freed by the British during the War of 1812 and brought to Nova Scotia. Formerly at Duke University in North Carolina and at McGill University where he taught English and Canadian Studies, he joined the University of Toronto’s English department in 1999.
In contrast to his undergrad years, when he studied only three poems and three novels by black writers, Clarke, aged 41, teaches modern Canadian poetry and literature from Africa, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean and India. Our view of what constitutes literature has also become much more expansive, he says: now it can include slave narratives, the transcribed writings of native people, letters, essays by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, liner notes from record albums, historical documents and even movies. In his view, “the really good classes are where students are asking each other questions and sharply disagreeing.” He also encourages students to approach literature in a multimedia fashion, so that, for example, they might explore the Coen brothers recent O Brother, Where Art Thou as a fresh take on The Odyssey.
Outside the classroom, one of Clarke’s most noteworthy publications is the Archibald Lampman Award-winning book of poetry, Whylah Falls (Polestar Book Publishers, 1990). The book also won the first Portia White Prize for Excellence in Arts – a fitting achievement, as the award is named for Clarke’s great-aunt. White, a well-known Canadian contralto, sang mainly classical music and performed in North and Latin America during the 1940s.
Clarke has also written a play called Beatrice Chancy (Polestar Book Publishers, 1999). His writing style is dense, lush, poetic, imaginative, violent and not always easy to understand. In writing Beatrice Chancy, Clarke was inspired by the true story of a young Roman woman, Beatrice Cenci, beheaded in 1599 for killing her father. Imagine a Shakespearean tragedy set in an 1801 Nova Scotia apple orchard about the daughter of a black slave woman who is raped by her white father/master, and you get an inkling of the play. In the end, as with any tragedy, almost everyone dies, with lines like: “I pray your death tastes like acid to you/Because it’s like honey to me.” Recently, the story was reborn in another form: Clarke wrote a libretto and composer James Rolfe (BMus 1983) wrote the music to create an opera version of Beatrice Chancy. Mingling old spirituals with modern atonal music, the opera was filmed by CBC-TV and aired in February during Black History Month. Opera singer Measha Bruggergosman (BMus 1999), who impressed audiences at the Millennium Opera Gala in Toronto and the East Coast Music Awards, played the role of Beatrice with great emotional and operatic strength.
What lies ahead for Clarke? A new collection of poems, called Blue (Raincoast Books), will be out in May. He’s just completed the first draft of his first novel, and he’s writing a screenplay about two cousins of his mother’s who were hanged in New Brunswick in 1949 for robbing and killing a cab driver, a sad chapter in his family’s history that he belatedly learned about only in 1994 from his mother.
After more than two and a half hours of talking, I’ve long since run out of audio tape, but it’s clear that Clarke still has plenty of breath, imagination and genres to plumb. George Elliott Clarke will never run out of inventive ways to use words.