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Toronto's New Poet Laureate on the Power of Words

04/22/2013 09:01 EDT | Updated 06/22/2013 05:12 EDT
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The position of poet laureate was created by the City of Toronto in 2001. Since then -- Toronto has had four outstanding poet laureates. Well known poet and playwright - George Elliott Clarke -- became the fourth late last year. The respected activist poet reflects with me what he intends to achieve with his new title, reflects on his new projects, the War of 1812, his families connection to it and gives a simple advise to those who may want to emulate such a public career.

Congratulations on your new appointment as Toronto's 4th Poet Laureate. What will you like to achieve with your new position?

I'd like to make the post of Poet Laureate as common an idea in Toronto as that of ambulance paramedic, fireman, police officer, or sanitation worker. The Poet Laureate is not as directly present in citizens' lives as perhaps are those whose sirens announce their presence. But I would like to think that the poet -- in general -- is about enhancing citizen's lives as thinking beings. Anyway, that's my abstract answer. The concrete hope is that the Poet Laureate will prod all citizens to consider the deep necessity of all the arts in our communities, our societies, not as frills, but as psychic and soulful infrastructure.

Tell us about some of your new projects including your literary work?

My current projects include the completion of a novel (gotta get it done); the publication -- on April 19th (yesterday) -- in London, England, of my newest book of poetry, Illicit Sonnets (Eyewear Publishing); the publication in the autumn of a children's book for "older" children, namely, Lasso the Wind: Aurelia's Verses and Other Poems (Nimbus), with rhymes by me and great art by Susan Tooke; I should also mention the publication of my latest academic book, Directions Home: Approaches to African-Canadian Literature (University of Toronto Press), issued last September, and Prof. Joseph Pivato edited a collection of essays about my work, Africadian Atlantic, published last fall by Guernica.

Your work and experience has often been inspired by your "Africadia experience." What is "Africadia"?

"Africadia" is my coinage for the historical African-heritage communities of the Maritime Provinces, especially Nova Scotia. It is related to "Acadia," but only because both terms descend from a Mi'kmaw suffix, "cadie," which means "abounding in."

So, "Africadia" means "abounding in Africans." I will admit that most Canadians don't think of any of the Maritime Provinces as "abounding in Africadians." Yet, many are surprised to land in Halifax or Saint John or Sydney or Charlottetown and encounter black people with centuries-long roots. And parts of Nova Scotia do in fact "abound in Africans"!

Your family has been described as the descended of African American refugees from the War of 1812. Explain.

Canadians rightly celebrate the War of 1812-15 and the roles of British and First Nations forces in preventing the forcible incorporation of the British North American colonies within the purview of a "Manifest Destiny" -- in plain terms, "expansionist" -- United States.

However, I am disappointed that so little has been said about the role of colonial African-Canadians in helping to defend Upper Canada, especially, or, for that matter, about the causes of the war. Very little has been said about that, but Great Britain -- a naval superpower (let us remember) -- began to suppress the transatlantic slave trade in 1807. The only way to ensure that other nations/empires were not still chaining Africans and shipping them to the Americas (or Arabia) to be slaves, was to board vessels at sea, seize their "cargo," liberate them, and send them to Sierra Leone.

Among the vessels stopped, boarded, searched, and sometimes seized by the Royal Navy were American ships. The American claim to the sovereignty of its vessels, including slave ships, was one reason for it to go to war with Great Britain. Eventually, the British agreed to cease stopping American ships and the Americans agreed to stop shipping slaves. In the meantime, the Yanks burned York (Toronto) and the Brits burned Washington, D.C. But, also, British forces invited African-American slaves to board their vessels in the Chesapeake Bay area, and, during land battles, simply seized slaves and summarily liberated them; but, in all cases, the ex-slaves were sailed off to Nova Scotia, the greatest North Atlantic outpost of Empire.

My mother's ancestors were amongst those shipped north, from cotton to snow. Liberated them; but, in all cases, the ex-slaves were sailed off to Nova Scotia, the greatest North Atlantic outpost of Empire. My mother's ancestors were amongst those shipped north, from cotton to snow.

When your term of as Poet Laureate expires in a few years - what few things would like to accomplish and be remembered for?

I don't want to say too much about the initiatives that I'd like to accomplish, for they depend upon the goodwill of the people's representatives, namely, City Council, and I should give the Councillors who appointed me the first audience for my ideas. Even so, I can say that I want to build upon the work of my predecessors.

Poet Laureate I, Dennis, Lee, had a statue of Al Purdy erected at Queen's Park. Poet Laureate II, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, published poems in The Toronto Star, and also a collection of essays and poetry about the municipality as metropolis; Poet Laureate III, Dionne Brand, had lines of verse inscribed in the walls and steps of various public libraries; As Poet Laureate IV, I am stimulated by the "concrete" examples of Lee and Brand as well as by the print legacy of Di Cicco. I have a few ideas in mind, and I hope that they will unfold, "concretely," and "in print," with "all deliberate speed" (to quote the U.S. Supreme Court on its 1954 desegregation decision)

To young poets or artists who may want to emulate such a public career as you have accomplished -- what advice would you like to share with them.

This question is both flattering and humbling. My advice can only be, write, write, and write; and struggle for what you feel is right.