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George Elliott Clarke: ‘I had to delight in crayons and Nancy Drew’ Add to ...

After completing his term as Toronto’s poet laureate, George Elliott Clarke was named Canada’s newest parliamentary poet laureate last month. A critic, essayist and novelist, in addition to being a Governor-General’s Literary Award-winning poet, he currently teaches at the University of Toronto. His second novel, The Motorcyclist, appears in bookstores this month.

Why did you write your new book?

When my father, Bill Clarke, passed away, aged 70, in 2005, he left me one item only: his diary. On Christmas Day, 1958, he received the diary as a present, and he kept it dutifully through most of the year, only tapering off during November and December of 1959. The reason? Having lost his railway employment on Halloween that year, he’d begun instantly a self-employed career as a commercial artist, a painter, and was successful at it, and therefore too busy to keep up the diary. Anyway, I believe he wanted me to have the diary for two reasons: one, so I would understand him better and two, so I would write about him. My first novel, George & Rue, had dealt with two matrilineal cousins who were hanged for murder in New Brunswick in 1949. I’m sure my father felt that his writer-son should be more interested in his sire’s unconventional, though law-abiding, life.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

In January, 1978, I took a night-school course in creative writing taught by Sylvia Gunnery, herself a student at Dalhousie University. In short order, she set up a meeting with one of her professors, Dr. Richard Raymond. I brought Prof. Raymond some of my teenage verse, and he read it with interest as I sat beside his desk, dreading his opinion. When he finished his reading, he looked at me and said, “Good news: You are a poet!” Then he reached in his desk, pulled out a sample rejection letter and said, “Get used to these.”

Which historical period do you wish you’d lived through?

I have to cheat a bit in my response, for I lived through the 1960s, which is my preferred historical period. However, I do wish I’d been a decade older, so I could have been 14 when the Beatles ‘hit’ or 18 when Trudeaumania rolled over Canada. I remember the 1960s very well, beginning with JFK’s assassination, although I was only three years old when that event occurred. In any event, my reason for wanting to have experienced the 1960s as a young adult would have been so I could have enjoyed fully the liberationist ethos, the liberal mood, the libertine morality: To have been in Paris in May, ’68, or in Haight-Ashbury in ’67, or to have watched 2001: A Space Odyssey with the added dimension of a narcotic: seventh heaven. Instead, I had to delight in crayons and Nancy Drew…

Which book got you through the darkest period of your life?

I have to name ‘books’ within a book: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes – the classics of Hebrew literature – within the King James Version. And for delight? Always the Canticles, a.k.a. The Song of Songs. Always.

Which books have you reread most in your life?

John Fraser, Violence in the Arts; Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Ezra Pound, The Cantos; Austin C. Clarke, When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks; Derek Walcott, Omeros; Michael Ondaatje, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid; Violette Leduc, The Bastard; Pain Not Bread, Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei; George Grant, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism; Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Approaches to Politics; Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks; Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation; Jean Toomer, Cane; Pauline Réage, Story of O; Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline; Dante, Inferno; Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Cenci; et cetera …

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