Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Q&A with George Elliott Clarke

Toronto’s sitting poet laureate, George Elliott Clarke, will release his first book of verse for children in October: Lasso the Wind: Aurélia’s Verses and Other Poems , which contains collage illustrations by Halifax artist Susan Tooke.


They will be inspiring kids in area schools this Fall as part of the Writers Festival's free Step Into Stories Children's Literacy program.



When did you first decide to become a writer, and what made you choose

writing over all your other options?


I wanted to be a rock-n-roll star. But I couldn't sing, couldn't read music, and didn't know any instruments (except  trombone, which I found boring). I decided, at age 15,  to write "songs"—rhyming poems of all types, some with  tunes in mind, but most tuneless. At 16, I started to  write poems—essentially, "free verse."


What is your earliest memory of literature (reading or writing or hearing it)?


My parents read to my brothers and I—a story before going to bed/falling asleep. We must have been age 4,3,2. I don't  remember those stories, but I do remember the little picture  books that we received of Mother Goose and Grimms' Fairy Tales,  and the Classics Illustrated comic book versions of Wells's  The Invisible Man and many, many others. In those days, reading  was second only to the pleasure of dreaming.


How does teaching fit into your idea of what it means to be a poet?


Teaching gives me access to what newer generations think is important; I hope we all teach (or learn from) each other. It  is also a pleasure to get to explore deeply a text or writer  that one likes—and to share the enthusiasm.


What are the top three tips would you want to give a young writer or poet?


a) Write all the time;

b) Read everything;

c) Challenge yourself—and trust your instincts.


How do you think you’ve changed as a writer over the course of your career?


I've become more and more willing to write what I want to write and to say what I want to say. Those who don't like it,  may very well lump it.


Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to you becoming a poet?


After I published my first book (in 1983—30 years ago!), I took a creative writing course at Banff, Alberta, and began to  write about my own life, including my feelings of trauma over  my parents's divorce. When I came back from Banff, I read one  of the poems to my mother, who sighed, "Oh, George, how could you  have written that?" When I saw that my poem, about a family  incident, had been controversial for my mom, I realized that  poetry is a powerful art, and it is ever more powerful the  closer that one can get to revealing the "truth" about humanity....


What do you think the the future of literature will look like?


Screens, keyboards; tiny screens and pinhead-tiny keyboards. But some of us will still want the smell of ink, the feel of paper,  the heft and majesty of an old-fashioned book. (Indeed, governments  can spy on what you take off the Internet; but a book—especially  used—is still potentially, secretly subversive.)


How can young readers discover more about you and you work?


There are websites—and blogs—and reviews—all on-line. But I prefer that they—I beg them to—look up a volume, buy it (!),  and read.