Black History Month: Canticles III (MMXXII) by poet George Elliott Clarke pays tribute to the African Baptist Association of Nova Scotia

Beacher George Elliott Clarke has served as Toronto's Poet Laureate. He has recently released Canticles III (MMXXII) as part of his epic poem anthology. Photo: Harvard University.

By AHMED DIRIE

Beach resident George Elliott Clarke returns to his epic poem anthology with the recent release of Canticles III (MMXXII) delving into the African Baptist Association of Nova Scotia.

A Halifax native, Clarke felt right at home when he moved many years ago to the Beach community and its waterfront aesthetic.

“Being from Nova Scotia, I wanted to be as close to Nova Scotia as I could get, without having to leave Toronto,” said Clarke.

Clarke is an accomplished poet, author and writer drawing from influences including African-American, French, Chinese and British poetry including the works of Shakespeare, Dante, Aristotle as well as more contemporary poets and writers such as Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, Henry Dumas, T.S. Eliot and Malcolm X, the Canticles III is Clarke’s 25th work in poetry.

He began his work on the Canticles III in Zanzibar in 2008. Combining his love to travel with his need to complete his manuscript, Clarke took monthly trips overseas to various locales in Europe, South America, Central America, the Caribbean as well as Canadian landmarks such as Niagara Falls, until the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the previous entries in the Canticles series dealt with macro issues including the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism, Canticles III takes a more intimate approach as it examines the formation of the African (“Africadian”) Baptist Association of Nova Scotia and the importance of oral traditions in an age of illiteracy, particularly among escaped slaves.

In the face of seemingly insurmountable racism, and forsaking more stable work like agriculture, four individuals took it upon themselves to construct 25 churches across Nova Scotia in the 18th century.

“I wanted to pay homage to that construction of that church against formidable odds,” said Clarke as he spoke about his book with Beach Metro Community News earlier this February during Black History Month.

“I knew that that was going to be the subject of my epic poem, but I thought I should start first by talking about where does this faith come from? Where does this church come from? And of course, primarily, it comes out of escaping slavery, resisting slavery, attacking slavery, arguing for abolition and for anti-racism. This is where the church begins, and it begins this history then, most directly of the late 18th century,” he said.

Among Clarke’s favourite passages involve founding member of the church, notable equestrian and escaped slave, Richard Preston. Starting with The Records of Richard Preston (p.96), the poem reads:

 

 Halifax—this Venetian backwater—                White gulls screech grey ruin          

 Shrinks from the al fresco sea,                        over the foam-scourged beach,

 Openness.                                                       The Waste.

 

 An inferno of rum and opium,                          Provincial is Halifax,

 It yields only bones of light,                             and its Baptist mere backwash (hogwash)

 Broken in pebbles,                                          of London’s ocean-striding Believers.

Tangled in seaweed,                              

Mangled in breakers.                                      (Each colony is the Empire’s cradle and grave:

                                                                        Shakespeare fathers Shakespeare the slave.)

 

Clarke’s journey to becoming Toronto’s fourth Poet Laureate and Canada’s seventh Parliamentary Poet Laureate was born from his songwriting aspirations. Since most of the songs Clarke wrote were acapella, it was suggested he explore poetry.

“I started writing poetry in order to become a better songwriter and then become a better poet,” said Clarke.

To further hone his craft, Clarke earned a Bachelor of Arts honours degree in English from the University of Waterloo in 1984, followed by a Master of Arts degree in English from Dalhousie University in 1989 culminating in a PhD degree in English from Queen’s University in 1993.

George Elliott Clarke began work on the epic poem anthology Canticles in 2008.

It was when he began his academic career teaching at North Carolina’s Duke University in 1994 that Clarke began to examine African-American and African-Canadian influences on poetry before returning to Toronto in 1999.

“I began to really think about what it means to be a Black Canadian writer, and an African-Canadian writer,” said Clarke.

“I started to essentially start the whole field of studying Black Canadian literature, African-Canadian literature.”

Part of Clarke’s reflection focused on the nuanced differences between African-Canadian and African-American culture, much of it to do with the proximity between Black communities in each country as well as how they interact with one another.

The ubiquitous nature of African-American experiences in the U.S. allows Black poets in New York to describe their lives and experiences in a way that those in Chicago or Detroit, for example, can relate to and resonate with, he said.

The multicultural nature of Canada prevented such wide-spread acceptance of African-Canadian poetry across the country creating a “very gated series of enclaves,” said Clarke.

“In the United States, You can talk about a Black belt, especially across the south, where there’s often a majority of Black people in various towns and counties and cities that curls the central lower swatch of the United States,” said Clarke. “In Canada we don’t have a Black belt, we have Black pockets.”

Having last visited New York just ahead of the first wave of the pandemic and hard at work on the next entry in the Canticles series, Clarke said he is eagerly anticipating a return to travel in order to visit and enjoy his preferred locales to complete his manuscript.

The Canticles III (MMXXII) can be found on Guernica Editions as well as on Amazon. Conversely, for those looking for a more personal touch, you can contact Clarke at torontopoetlaureate@gmail.com for a signed copy.


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