Over the last two years George Elliott Clarke wrote 35 poems for 25 members of parliament, senators, ministers and the governor general.
As the Canada’s seventh poet laureate, Clarke, who hails from Windsor, N.S., said as a “de facto officer of parliament” offering his services to those representatives was his “raison d’être.”
“Just as the auditor general or other parliamentary officers or the clerks at the table [as] another example, I had a responsibility to serve the people of Canada by serving parliamentarians,” he said.
Clarke served in the role of national poet laureate from Jan. 1, 2016 to Dec. 31, 2017 and his work during that period reflects that time in Canada. Among his output were poems discussing Canada’s sesquicentennial, First World War anniversaries, recent events like the Lac-Megatic disaster and Quebec City mosque shooting, legislation legalizing recreational marijuana and changing the lyrics to O Canada and the ongoing efforts towards reconciliation. He also wrote poems honouring the deceased, including Leonard Cohen, Gord Downie and Stuart McLean.
When not at his desk he visited each province and territory and read poems, led workshops helped judge competitions. He also spearheaded an effort to create a “poet’s row” at the library of parliament, and a searchable database on the poet laureate website that allows users to input their federal riding and find poets who have written about them.
Clarke said the idea that legislatures should appoint a poet citizen to be a kind of spokesperson for the people back to the legislature “is, I think, a sign of an advanced civilization and a project and program and principle – to get all my alliteration together here – that should be a source of pride – one more ‘pr’ word here – for citizens.”
Although his tenure as poet laureate is now over – Clarke has been succeeded by Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.’s Georgette LeBlanc – he is continuing to make appearances across Canada. On April 5 Clarke will be at the Nanaimo Museum for A Gala Celebration. Also attending the event are poets laureate Tina Biello, Yvonne Blomer and Natalie Nickerson of Nanaimo, Victoria and Comox Valley, respectively, as well as youth poets laureate Kailey DeFehr of Nanaimo and Victoria’s Agartu Ali.
Clarke it is the duty of poets laureate to “speak truth to power” as a voice of the people, responding to issues through poetry.
“It is a particular asset to democracy that we have these individuals, these poets, around who may be elected, selected, appointed to represent some portion of the public back to elected officials and to remind them that they are there temporarily,” he said.
“To remind them that they are expected to govern well, to remind them that they are expected to govern for the good of the majority and not special interests … and to do it with aplomb, maybe even a sense of humour but also outrage when necessary.”
Clarke’s parliamentary poet laureate output can be found at https://lop.parl.ca/About/Parliament/Poet/former-Poet-laureate7-e.html.
WHAT’S ON … A Gala Celebration featuring former parliamentary poet laureate George Elliott Clarke at the Nanaimo Museum on Thursday, April 5 at 1 p.m.