Poet Laureate visits Carleton

Parliamentary Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke gave a talk at Carleton University to students on March 9. Organized by the Centre for Transnational Cultural Awareness (CTCA), Clarke also performed a poetry reading the night before at the CTCA studio theatre.

Clarke has received the Governor General’s award for poetry, an Order of Canada, and his book Whylah Falls was a selection in the 2002 edition of Canada Reads. He currently teaches at the University of Toronto, and has taught at schools like Harvard University, Duke University, McGill University, and the University of British Columbia.

Central themes during Clarke’s talk included ideas of identity and heritage. He discussed his youth growing up in Nova Scotia, his experience as an African-Canadian, and also read his poetry to the crowd.

Clarke started by telling stories of his childhood, and how he slowly came to understand his African-Canadian identity. He said he thought Malcolm X was pronounced “Malcolm the Tenth” when he was a young boy, and he didn’t truly begin to explore his Black heritage until late in high school.

He also told stories about his father’s victorious court battle against the Halifax police for racial profiling, and how he “joined” the KKK when he was younger by writing a fake letter of interest to their Louisiana address. He received a response saying they wanted to meet him in person.

“If I wasn’t Black before, I was then,” Clarke told the crowd.

Clarke told The Charlatan he hoped students would walk away from the talk with a better appreciation of their own history.

“The older I get, the more I realize it’s true that you have your education and your knowledge, but what becomes just as vital is the history you’ve lived, and what you’ve learned from it,” he said. “Whether one wants to call it wisdom or experience, I don’t know. But I do know it’s a dimension.”

CTCA co-founder Sarah Casteel said the centre was “very honoured” to have Clarke speak.

“Clarke’s explorations of the interconnections between race, colonialism, and nationhood as well as the ways in which culture crosses national borders align closely with the work of our centre,” she said via email.

Casteel added she hoped students “gained a deeper understanding” about the history of anti-Black racism in Canada after hearing some of Clarke’s thoughts.

“I hope they heard Clarke’s message that the problems of today are very much linked to this history and for this reason, it’s really important that we study both local and global histories of marginalisation, racism, slavery and imperialism,” she said. “I also hope that they will have enjoyed Clarke’s wonderful readings of his poetry and perhaps gained a fuller appreciation for poetry as a mode of performance, communication, humour and critique.”

Susan Birkwood, an English professor at Carleton, said having Clarke speak is “a great inspiration.”

“I think it’s fabulous,” Birkwood said. “If students can actually hear the poet and hear the scholar, it just gives them that living connection to the work.

“It gives them a sense of the diversity of Canadian literatures,” she said.

– Graphic is provided.