Respected Toronto-based poet, dramatist, novelist, and professor George Elliott Clarke has been appointed by City Council as Toronto’s fourth Poet Laureate. He takes the reins from outgoing poet Dionne Brand.
“It’s a great honour,” the gregarious Clarke told me over coffee on Monday. “I am humbled to follow in the brilliant wake of Dionne Brand, Pier Giorgio di Cicco, and Dennis Lee.”
“It’s a real test of inspiration and creativity to start to think in a comprehensive way about the terms of citizenship,” said Clarke. “I think of Dionne’s great book Thirsty in which she considers citizenship in terms of justice, immigrant experience, attempts to form community and the different kinds of community in the city. So I have my work cut out for me in thinking about those possibilities and my own perceptions of citizenship in a poetic sense.”
Born in Windsor, Nova Scotia in 1960, Clarke is a seventh-generation Canadian of African-American and Mi’kmaq Amerindian heritage. His many honours include the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry (2001), the Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction (2006), the Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry (2009), appointment to the Order of Nova Scotia (2006) and appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada (2008).
Clarke has been instrumental in promoting the work of writers of African descent; in 2002 he published, Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature and he has just published a second volume, Directions Home: Approaches to African-Canadian Literature.
As a writer he is closely associated with his home province but Clarke says that after 13 years in Toronto, the city is as much home to him as Nova Scotia. “When I’m back on the East Coast I frequently speak in defense of Toronto,” he says, “whenever people make disparaging remarks about ‘the big smoke’ or ‘Hogtown’.”
Clarke has been teaching at University of Toronto since 1999 where he is currently the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature.
“Until recently Toronto been a difficult city for me to get my mind around and comprehend it as a whole,” says the poet. “I’ve lived in different parts of the city – North York, the Beaches, the Annex when I was a student, East York. And now I’m back in the old City of Toronto, just inside the old city limits, south of Gerard just west of Victoria Park.”
Clarke is well-versed in the history of Poets Laureate and in poetry about the civic experience. He cites Carl Sandburg’s 1920s poem “Chicago” as one of the best and points to William Wordsworth’s poem, “London, 1802” as another fine, albeit critical, example. Closer to home, Clarke references A.M. Klein’s poem “Montreal” as “probably the greatest poem about that city” and he praises Dennis Lee’s “great suite of poems, ‘Civic Elegies’, which is really an attempt to connect Toronto to Canadian history and the meaning of citizenship.”
Ultimately, the Poet Laureate’s job is not necessarily to write about our city but to act as Toronto’s literary ambassador. As an advocate for poetry, language and the arts, the Poet Laureate attends events across the city to promote and attract people to the literary world.
“Many Torontonians have more than one identity,” notes Clarke. “We’re connected to a community, a neighbourhood, a cultural or ethnic identity, as well as to our national and provinicial identities. We all speak to these various identities with different emphasis at different times. That makes this an extremely rich city in which to live and to write about as I will do, more and more.
“I will try to speak on behalf of and to be inclusive of all the people of Toronto, for me that’s the job description and it’s a great honour to try and do that.”
Clarke was nominated by a selection committee that included: Joanna Poblocka (Executive Director, League of Canadian Poets), Lillian Necakov-Avalos (Branch Head, Toronto Public Library), Andrew McAlorum (General Editor, Canadian Poetry Online), Marc Glassman (Director, This Is Not A Reading Series) and Toronto’s most recent Poet Laureate, Dionne Brand. The selection committee relied on its expertise and consultation with the community to select a candidate.