George Elliott Clarke on the many poetic meanings of Red

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Governor General Adrienne Clarkson presents the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry to George Elliott Clarke, of Toronto and originally of Windsor, Nova Scotia, during a ceremony at Rideau Hall, official residence of the Governor General in Ottawa, November 14, 2001. (CP PHOTO ARCHIVES/ Fred Chartrand)


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First aired on The Next Chapter (15/04/13)

George Elliott Clarke's poetry collection Red is the latest in his series of so-called colouring books that began with Blue and then Black. Red includes love poems that mix the sexuality of ancient Rome with 1960s Italian pop songs, poems about his African-Canadian heritage and the Nova Scotia he grew up in, political critiques, odes to other poets he admires, and more personal poems about family.

Clarke is Toronto's latest poet laureate. He's also a novelist, librettist and playwright, and a professor of English at the University of Toronto.

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Clarke first came up with the concept of colouring books in 2001, when Blue was published. "I liked the idea of blue and the various emotional ideas associated with the colour: ideas of censorship, of depression, ideas of dress. And that became an organizing principle for that book," he said. A few years later, he published Black, which was again a collection of random lyrics that played with different associations of the colour. As for the latest in the series, "Red spoke to me as a colour that once again has many different associations, political, emotional, love, of course, the erotic." He added that he hopes to put together a collection in the future called Gold.

"I have tended to write narrative poems, narrative collections, and plays and libretti for operas. Those projects have tended to dominate most of my output," Clarke explained. "But I also find myself writing the nature poems, the love poems, the political poems, the historical poems, and then the question is, what do I do with them? They don't belong in the projects, so these colouring books, as I'm now calling them, just seemed to be the right place to put them."

Clarke said that the colour red has personal associations. He's part aboriginal, and a major influence on his youth was Malcolm X, who was known in his 20s and in his teens as Detroit Red. He added that his politics are on the left. "But then when I think about it, colour speaks to everybody in some way," he said. "I'm not a painter, I'm not an artist, but colours speak to me in a literary and psychological way."

The colour red is also generally associated with love and passion, and the book includes some steamy poems. When asked about their inspiration, Clarke said it was the "shock" of reading classic poets like Marcial, Catullus and Ovid. "They were pre-Christian, and they tended to be honest and blunt and straightforward with their descriptions of sexuality." That was combined with Clarke's interest in Italian popular culture of the 1960s and '70s, which he described as "fun, bubbly, and full of joie de vivre, and innocent and sexy too."

Clarke's influences also include music. "I gravitate toward those voices like James Brown's, that are so expressive, so fundamental, deep down earthy, coming straight from the soul but with a great deal of art." He added that the culture of black Nova Scotia, where he grew up, is partly oral. "What I try to do as a poet is to get back to that. The roots of poetry are in song, anyway, song and storytelling, and I never want to get far away from that."

Clarke read a poem from Red called Taxi about his late father, and described his father's life as a young man in Halifax in the late 1950s. Though he was lower working class, he bought classical music, read widely and travelled to New York City to see foreign films. "In short, he was a working -class intellectual," Clarke said. His father was also a painter, and in fact the cover of Red is a reproduction of one of his portraits.

"His story is really tied in to the frustrations of his generation and to a certain extent the black experience," Clarke said. "He came out of a society that didn't believe it was valuable to educate black people, because we were supposed to be maids or servants anyway."

When his father passed away, he left Clarke a diary he'd kept in 1959, with a note attached that read, "For George, so he will understand." It was a year before Clarke could bring himself to read it, but he when he finally did, "I encountered someone I had never known in life, this gentleman who had lots of frustrations and lots of self doubt. In his life, my father never struck me as someone who had any doubts."






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