'You've got to bring some kind of light to bear': Canada's poet laureate stops in Yellowknife

George Elliott Clarke delighted to be 'up there with Shakespeare'

George Elliott Clarke may be in the final weeks of his two-year term as Canada's parliamentary poet laureate, but his enthusiasm for the position hasn't waned.

"Poets are about dreams," said Clarke from Toronto, hours before heading to Yellowknife for a weekend trip organized by writing collective NorthWords. "We're about being dreamers. And we have to remember … every law begins in a dream."

Clarke is in Yellowknife for two days, holding workshops for local writers. On Sunday evening, he will participate in an open-mic evening of poetry and jazz at local bar The Cellar. The event will begin at 7 p.m., and admission is by donation.

Since beginning his tenure in early 2016, Clarke has been a frequent traveller — Yellowknife will be the 58th community he's travelled to. Along the way, he's written poems commissioned by members of Parliament and Senators, as well as members of the public. 

He's also become known for writing on political subjects, working to straddle a line in his non-partisan post. Poems posted on Clarke's website touch on subjects including missing and murdered Indigenous women and the so-called Paradise Papers.

"I'm a citizen," he said. "As soon as you have voting rights, you've got a right to be political. So yeah, I am [political]. And of course in this role, my term is coming to an end … but I also see my role as being a vox populi, a voice of the people."

Clarke's work as poet laureate has led him to the capitals of all of Canada's provinces and territories, save for Iqaluit — he's hoping to go there next. A trip to Whitehorse reinforced his vision of going to every province and territory during his tenure. In January, he wrote a poem about the Yukon, titled Yukon/Utopia.

At the end of the month, Clarke's term as poet laureate will come to an end — the position typically rotates between English writers and francophones.

As for advice for other poets?

"If you've got any kind of civic consciousness, or public mindedness, and you're an artist, I don't think you have a choice," he said.

"You've got to bring some kind of light to bear, ome kind of recognition to bear of whatever is insufferable, whatever is presumably inutterable, in order to try and help folks understand … about the necessity of understanding that we're all human and we all deserve humane treatment.

"It's the fundamental underpinnings of something called 'justice.'"