Canada’s parliamentary poet laureate heads north
Henry Vega Ortiz/Submitted Photo
Even the most successful writers lean on the experience of others when researching an unfamiliar topic.
Canada’s parliamentary poet laureate is no exception.
George Elliott Clarke has never been to the North. But ahead of his first visit this week he wrote a poem about the territory.
Clarke, originally from Windsor, Nova Scotia, said he grew up with popular cultural images of the Gold Rush and the Klondike, along with many books by Pierre Burton. He’s thought about the territory’s resources and its colourful population.
For his latest poem, Yukon/Utopia, he says he was most influenced by the work of Robert Service.
“(It’s) the magic of poetry, or to be more precise, the magic of all those poets who have been to the Yukon and lived there and written about it.”
The Yukon’s resources, wildlife and weather all make an appearance in Clarke’s creation.
While it may be based on research rather than experience, the prose was not crafted by a layman’s pen.
Clarke is Parliament’s seventh poet laureate. His work has won a stream of national awards. He has been named to the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada and has been given eight honorary doctorates.
His recent writing as poet laureate includes poems following the deaths of Leonard Cohen and Fidel Castro. He’s also tackled the Canadian senate.
Clarke is in Whitehorse this week as part of the Northern Lights Writers’ Conference from Nov. 20 to 22.
“I love books, I love people who make books, so it makes me really happy to see things like this come to life,” said organizer Lily Quan.
Clarke will be reading his Yukon poem for the first time on Friday at 2:30 p.m. in the lobby of the Yukon Legislative Assembly. Local students will also read poems of their own.
He’s running an advanced poetry workshop on Saturday morning and performing at events Friday and Saturday evening.
Friday night’s event at Baked Cafe is a wine night where local writers and conference attendees, including Clarke, will perform.
Like a good meal, each writer has been paired with a wine recommendation for the audience.
Clarke is a spicy zinfandel, said Jeremie Matrishon, who runs Whitehorse’s Corked and picked the wines.
“Basically, for me, he’s just that red wine that’s spicy and full bodied. He’s spicy.”
Other events over the weekend include a beginner’s workshop on writing creative nonfiction run by awarding-winning author Andrew Westoll and a seminar offering tips for writers doing their taxes this season.
Writers looking for representation can attend a workshop by agent Martha Webb who will be discussing how to write effective pitches.
Webb, who represents authors such as Michael Crummey, Nino Ricci and Jessica Grant, will also be holding 15-minute pitch sessions at Yukon College on Sunday morning.
“What I’m happy about is that it contributes to the community,” Quan said. “People wanted to meet one-on-one with an agent, Martha’s taking new clients. It’s win-win.”
Writing, including poetry, is an indicator of the intellectual health of society, Clarke said.
“You’ve got to think with language, you can’t think without it,” he said. “There’s instinct, but if you’re going to do anything beyond instinct you need to be able to think and that means having clear, reliable, picturesque language.”
Society’s current intellectual health “can be improved,” he said.
Clarke points to marginalized youth turning to mediums like rap or spoken word poetry as a positive step.
“I’m thinking of Indigenous populations where hip hop and rap has been very influential in inspiring youth especially to compose their own rhymes and songs about their particular situations,” he said.
“To speak back to mainstream society that often has turned a deaf ear.”
At the same time there has been a disappearance of poetry from public spaces, he said.
“I’m thinking of newspapers especially, and newspaper reviews of poetry, which essentially evaporated with the disappearance I suppose of enough advertising from publishers to make it seem worthwhile.”
In that spirit, Clarke’s full poem is included with this article.
The full schedule of the conference, including details on any costs associated with the events, is available at firstdraftwhitehorse.wordpress.com.