Blues singer, preacher, cultural critic, exile, Africadian, high modernist, spoken word artist, Canadian poet—these are but some of the voices of George Elliott Clarke. In a selection of Clarke’s best work from his early poetry to his most recent, Blues and Bliss: The Poetry of George Elliott Clarke offers readers an impressive cross-section of those voices. Jon Paul Fiorentino’s introduction focuses on this polyphony, his influences—Derek Walcott, Amiri Baraka, and the canon of literary English from Shakespeare to Yeats—and his “voice throwing,” and shows how the intersections here produce a “troubling” of language. He sketches Clarke’s primary interest in the negotiation of cultural space through adherence to and revision of tradition and on the finding of a vernacular that begins in exile, especially exile in relation to African-Canadian communities.
In the afterword, Clarke, in an interesting re-spin of Fiorentino’s introduction, writes with patented gusto about how his experiences have contributed to multiple sounds and forms in his work. Decrying any grandiose notions of theory, he presents himself as primarily a songwriter.
About the authors
George Elliott Clarke is a Canadian poet and playwright. Born in Windsor Plains, Nova Scotia, he has spent much of his career writing about the Black communities of Nova Scotia and served for a time in the African-American Studies department at Duke University. He earned a BA Honours degree in English from the University of Waterloo (1984), an MA in English from Dalhousie University (1989), and a PhD in English from Queenâ??s University (1993). In addition, he has received honorary degrees from Dalhousie University (LLD), the University of New Brunswick (LittD), the University of Alberta (LittD), and the University of Waterloo (LittD). He is currently professor of English at the University of Toronto.
In 2001 he won the Governor Generalâ??s Literary Award for poetry for his book Execution Poems. Clarkeâ??s work largely explores and chronicles the experience and history of the black Canadian community of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, creating a cultural geography that Clarke often refers to as Africadia. Clarkeâ??s Whylah Falls was one of the selected books in the 2002 edition of Canada Reads, where it was championed by Nalo Hopkinson.
Jon Paul Fiorentino
Jon Paul Fiorentino’s first novel is Stripmalling (ECW, 2009). His most recent book of poetry is The Theory of the Loser Class (Coach House Books, 2006). He is the author of the poetry book Hello Serotonin (Coach House Books, 2004) and the humour book Asthmatica (Insomniac Press, 2005). His most recent editorial projects are the anthologies Career Suicide! Contemporary Literary Humour (DC Books, 2003) and Post-Prairie — a collaborative effort with Robert Kroetsch, (Talonbooks, 2005).
Robert Kroetsch is a Canadian novelist, poet, and non-fiction writer. In his novel, The Words of My Roaring (1966), he began to use the tall tale rhetoric of prairie taverns. Both The Studhorse Man (1969), which won the Governor General’s Award, and Gone Indian (1973) call the conventions of realistic fiction hilariously into question.
In 2004, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Excerpt: Blues and Bliss: The Poetry of George Elliott Clarke (by (author) George Elliott Clarke; edited by Jon Paul Fiorentino)
Africadian Experience by George Elliott Clarke
(For Frederick Ward)
To howl in the night because of smoked rum wounding the heart;
To be so stubbornly crooked, your alphabet develops rickets;
To check into the Sally Ann—and come out brain-dead, but spiffy;
To smell the sewer anger of politicians washed up by dirty votes;
To feel your skin burning under vampire kisses meant for someone else;
To trash the ballyhooed verses of the original, A-1, Africville poets;
To carry the Atlantic into Montreal in epic suitcases with Harlem accents;
To segregate black and white bones at the behest of discriminating worms;
To mix voodoo alcohol and explosive loneliness in unsafe bars;
To case the Louvre with raw, North Preston gluttony in your eyes;
To let vitamin deficiencies cripple beauty queens in their beds;
To dream of Halifax and its collapsing houses of 1917
(Blizzard and fire in ten thousand living rooms in one day);
To stagger a dirt road that leads to an exploded piano and bad sermons;
To plumb a well that taps rice wine springing up from China;
To okay the miracle of a split length of wood supporting a clothesline;
To cakewalk into prison as if you were parading into Heaven;
To recognize Beauty when you see it and to not be afraid.
''In being removed from their original contexts, these poems shine anew. Viewed apart from the rest of the poems in Black, Letter to a Young Poet seems even stranger, a successful and disturbing piece of standalone verse that fusses the high modernism of Ezra Pound with frightening, dare I say, Stephen King-like imagery.... A welcome feature to the books in the Laurier Poetry Series are the autobiographical postscripts provided by the poets, a nice touch that will appeal to readers unfamiliar with the names behind the poetry.''
Chronicle Herald (Halifax), April 5, 2009
''What is included here is fabulous.''
Atlantis, 34.2, 2009
''The quest for a wider audience for poetry may be quixotic, but this series makes a serious attempt to present attractive, affordable selections that speak to contemporary interests and topics that might engage a younger generation of readers. Yet it does not condescend, preferring to provide substantial and sophisticated poets to these new readers. At the very least, these slim volumes will make very useful introductory teaching texts in post-secondary classrooms because they whet the appetite without overwhelming.''
Canadian Literature, 193, Summer 2007
''Blues and Bliss...[is] put out...through the wonderful Laurier Poetry Series. The series aims to make the work of Canadian poets more accessible through a format in which a critic introduces 35 poems from across the career of a major poet. In this helpful volume, Jon Paul Fiorentino calls Clarke's voice 'polyphonic,' that is, a unique blend of identities that includes blues singer, preacher, cultural critic, exile, Africadian, high modernist, spoken-word artist and Canadian poet.... The selection of poems which includes pieces from seven books, including the now Canadian-canonized Whylah Falls, is testament to the range of cadence and rhythm that makes up Clarke's multivocal range.''
Globe and Mail, Feb. 14, 2009
Other titles by George Elliott Clarke
Blacks in Canada
The Quest for a 'National' Nationalism
E.J. Pratt’s Epic Ambition, ‘Race’ Consciousness, and the Contradictions of Canadian Identity
I Am Still Your Negro
An Homage to James Baldwin
A Portrait in Words
Writers on Writing in Canada
J. J. Steinfeld
Essays on His Works
The Merchant of Venice (Retried)