George Elliott Clarke expects that it will take about an hour Monday at Halifax's city hall to perform his epic commissioned poem condensing 200 years of the history of Dalhousie University into 34 pages. He plans to perform rather than recite the poem because Canada's former parliamentary poet laureate believes that emotion is essential to poetry, especially when the verses are about a place that transformed him.
"All good poetry is spoken word, or it's sitting on a screen," said Dr. Clarke, a 1989 master's graduate from Dalhousie who received an honorary PhD from the school 10 years later. "You have to have it emoted, it has to be dramatized, it has to be lived, in my mind."
It was at Dalhousie that Dr. Clarke began the journey to who he is today: one of the country's foremost literary critics, particularly of the work of African-Canadian writers, and a poet as well known for the cadence and power of his voice as for his ability to weave political and personal narratives into new social histories.
As a boy growing up in Halifax, he had visited the university for dental work and then, as a teenager, would ride his bike to the library and photocopy the books he could not sign out.
But the encounters that changed his life took place during a modern poetry class held in the living room of London-born professor John Fraser. Meeting between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., the class was a "chivalric ring of knightly, smart-aleck, gladiatorial combat," he writes in the poem, with graduate students "tussling over Gothicism in Baudelaire, surrealism in Hopkins … ."
At first, Dr. Clarke would sit at the back stroking the cat and sipping coffee, he remembered.
"When I first went into that class, I was really shy; a black kid with working-class roots from North End Halifax," he said. "Part of me does not think I belong in that class, I am up against PhD candidates and I am a lowly M.A. candidate," he said.
And then, after he handed in a middling assignment, the professor told the young Dr. Clarke that his mark in the class depended on improving his participation.
In the second term, Dr. Clarke was "on fire."
"I knew I'd earned the sobriquet, the designation, the lordship, if one likes – by fighting off the naysayers," he writes in the poem's 26th section.
It's a late authorial entrance into a timeline that until that point has been marked by drop-ins from historical figures such as founder George Ramsay, 9th Earl of Dalhousie, and benefactor and publisher George Munro.
For many of the historical details, Dr. Clarke relied on a two-volume history focused on the institution's presidents, written by P.B. Waite. For Waite, Dalhousie is an ocean liner through time, navigating with and against the currents of history.
Mr. Waite, however, glides over the role played by those who battled to make Dalhousie accessible to wartime Jews fleeing Europe, black Nova Scotians (or to use Dr. Clarke's term, Africadians) and Mi'kmaq communities.
Dr. Clarke puts them at the centre of his history. The poem is subtitled "The University as Insurgency."
"Waite never puts forward that reading, that is my reading – that Dalhousie's real role in Nova Scotia and Canada is to introduce various forms of insurgency, an intellectual insurgency which made a social impact most directly on Nova Scotia and Halifax," Dr. Clarke said.
Key among those figures is Burnley (Rocky) Jones, a human-rights advocate and black civil-rights leader. In 1970, Mr. Jones co-founded the Transitional Year Program (TYP), giving those who had not finished high school a year to prepare for university.
"Dozens, generations of students black and Mi'kmaq have gone through TYP and have emerged into Nova Scotian society as very gifted barristers, as gifted social change agents," Dr. Clarke said. The TYP "program has been a great engine of social and intellectual uplift."
Mr. Jones – "Canada's most significant and most effective black radical," Dr. Clarke says – was one of those students, earning a law degree through a program modelled on the TYP. In 1997, he argued and won a landmark Supreme Court case which overturned a ruling against a black female judge who had said that racism affected the relationship between police in the city and its black population.
Dr. Clarke's poem is part of a larger bicentennial project at Dalhousie that looks at how the university can contribute to a stronger sense of belonging. Over the next 52 weeks, a series of videos is rolling out with each focusing on one historical figure. Titled Dalhousie Originals, the series got started with James Robinson Johnston, the first black lawyer to practise in Nova Scotia.
Roughly 500 people from various eras of the university's history were nominated for the 52 slots in the series. Those profiled "challenged us [and] furthered us," said Catherine Bagnell Styles, assistant vice-president of communications and marketing. Future profiles will include "activists, investors, anybody who made Dalhousie better and sometimes that was someone who pushed us to do better," she said.
As well as performing the full poem on Monday, Dr. Clarke will participate in webcast readings and discussion on Tuesday. The university will also publish the poem on its website that day and it will soon be printed in a pictorial history of Dalhousie published by Goose Lane Editions.
Now the E.J. Pratt professor of Canadian literature at the University of Toronto, Dr. Clarke is looking forward to spending time in Halifax, as always.
"Halifax is one of those places you can go into a waterfront bar and have a discussion about Russian literature with a dude or a woman sitting beside you, the person is a graduate student or a professor at Dal," he said. "The intelligentsia filters out and you are not separate from the community."