The Next Chapter

George Elliott Clarke explores race, class and Jane Austen

The prolific poet, playwright and fiction writer on his recent appointment as Canada's parliamentary poet laureate, and his latest novel, which is based on his father's life.
After a three-year term as the poet laureate of Toronto, poet and novelist George Elliott Clarke has been named Canada's Parliamentary Poet Laureate. (Fabiola Carletti/CBC)

George Elliot Clarke uses the term "Africadian" to describe himself — it reflects his own diverse heritage as a seventh-generation Canadian who can track his ancestors back to the African-Americans who escaped slavery during the War of 1812 and were relocated to Nova Scotia by the British. 2016 has been a busy year for Clarke so far — he was recently named Canada's parliamentary poet laureate, and his new novel The Motorcyclist was came out in February. The Motorcyclist is based on the life of Clarke's father, and follows a man who is a railway porter by day and a bohemian renaissance man by night.


It will be a great experience, I know. I'm thinking of different ways of trying to represent the country in poetry through parliament. I'm reaching out to various institutions at the federal level to try to encourage them to incorporate more poetry in their programming and more poets in their programs. It works because poetry is extremely flexible, it's the most organic art. All you need to practice it is a brain. It's in your blood, for crying out loud! All you have to do is just speak, and suddenly there is poetry.


Jane Austen is the great Platonist philosopher of class and love, and of how, even though we have all these romantic ideas that romance or love trumps class, that often is not the case. Folks tend to marry, or couple, within their class. [The Motorcycle's protagonist] Carl might be aware of that, but he also feels he has enough going for him that he can move up, that the university students he's interested in ought to be interested in him, because he's dashing, and he's suave, and he's so well-spoken, and he knows the Encyclopedia Britannica inside out, and he can paint their portraits and so on. So what if he's also toting suitcases at the train station?


1959, the year the book takes place, was a year that really was the harbinger of the 1960s and, for that matter, the whole contemporary era. It was the year that the birth control pill was licensed for use in the United States, although it wasn't widely available in Canada until the mid-1960s. This made it possible for women to realize that they didn't have to be beholden to the courtship of a single fellow, or anchor themselves in the idea of marriage early on in their lives as a way of sustaining themselves. It was a revolutionary intervention. At the same time, 1959 was the year that widespread censorship began to come to an end, in terms of literature and the arts in general. It was a year that was the advent of notions of greater liberty in personal lifestyle.

George Elliot Clarke's comments have been edited and condensed.