Friday, July 27, 2018

above/ground press 25th anniversary essay: George Elliott Clarke

This is the twenty-sixth in a series of short essays/reminiscences by a variety of authors and friends of the press to help mark the quarter century mark of above/ground. See links to the whole series here.

Goin underground with above/ground press

Clearly, given its name, above/ground press isn’t an underground publisher.  That said, there is something subterranean—subtly subversive—about launching one-page poem-leaflets into the world, followed by more substantial booklets/chapbooks, all on different-coloured paper. It’s a wonderful presence and outlet for Anglo-Canadian poetry, that we continue to have this avant-garde relic of the Beat (US) and Tish (CDN) era, the connection to bpNichol in aesthetics and Milton Acorn in dissidence/dissonance. I’ve always been attentive to the material production of poetry, anyway, because I was a newspaper guy, having helmed two small papers in my life, and having had to do much of the production work. But I got to like experimenting with the moods that fonts suggest, and I was a regular reader of Karl Dair’s Design with Type (1967), and I felt then—and still do—that the “underground” scene of the 1960s is the proper model for journalism. I’ve always been heartened by a phrase from revolutionary Paris in May 1968: “Make shame more shameful by making it public.”  Similarly, I think that leaflet poems, photocopied, pasted together, shot into the ether are essential to the health and well-being of the ART, which is, as we know, the ART
of making....

The long preamble is just to say that I was ready for above/ground press, definitely. For one thing, I’d lived in Ottawa, 1987-94 (with a waste-of-time stint in Kingston, at Queen’s University, but it may as well have been Kingston Pen, 1991-93), and met—had-to-meet—rob mclennan, with his Medieval-Jesus-long-hair and Beat/Hippy passions/aesthetics in garb and in the solidly unpretentious minuscule typography with a kind of ee-cummings-fetish for punctuation. (Come to think of it, joe blades has a similar style, both in poetry and in publishing...)  But I also gotta describe it a guerilla poetic—making the ART outta whatever moolah, paper, equipment, and space is at hand. Like the 60s radicals rollin out their manifestos on Gestetner machines....

Really, rob was (is) Mr. Ottawa Poetry, which I had to appreciate, because he’s always been everywhere, publishing everybody, hearing everyone, attending the readings and the launches. So, when he asked me for a poem for his poem series, in 1997, I provided a love poem, “palm breeze, white lace.” I’d been teaching at Duke University, but had come back to Ottawa to give a lecture at Carleton University. rob took the occasion of my presence to issue that poem AND a booklet of love poems, Provencal Poems, with a photo of my then-love (and 18 months later, the mother of our daughter) on the cover.  I thought it was fetching, and it sold out—if I recall correctly. Copies were $5 each (I think).

Two more single poems followed in 1999 and 2003, following my return to Canada to teach at the University of Toronto. But I was thrilled to see poems from my epic-in-progress, Canticles, published in an above/ground press booklet/chapbook, and given the title of Selected Canticles. rob found a photo of open shackles and used this image to grace the cover. It was an excellent choice.

I can’t say how overjoyed I was to have that 2012 booklet in hand. It made the project (which is ongoing) begin to seem real. I liked how the poems looked; I liked how they read. I still do.  above/ground press helped me put out “there” these poems that refer to the still (especially in Canada) buried histories of African slavery and Indigenous dispossession.

Good job, rob! I’d sure love to be around to see the press see a 100th anniversary! Keep on keepin on!

The 4th Poet Laureate of Toronto (2012-15) and the 7th Parliamentary/Canadian Poet Laureate (2016-17), George Elliott Clarke [photo credit: Harvard University] is a revered artist in song, drama, fiction, screenplay, essays, and poetry.  Born in Windsor, Nova Scotia, in 1960, Clarke was educated at the University of Waterloo, Dalhousie University, and Queen’s University.  Clarke is also a pioneering scholar of African-Canadian literature.  A professor of English at the University of Toronto, Clarke has taught at Duke, McGill, the University of British Columbia, and Harvard.  He holds eight honorary doctorates, plus appointments to the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada at the rank of Officer. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.  His recognitions include the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellows Prize, the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry, the National Magazine Gold Award for Poetry, the Premiul Poesis (Romania), the Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction, the Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry (US), and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award.  Clarke’s work is the subject of Africadian Atlantic: Essays on George Elliott Clarke (2012), edited by Joseph Pivato.  Finally, though Clarke is racialized “Black” and was socialized as an Africadian, he is a card-carrying member of the Eastland Woodland Métis Nation Nova Scotia, registered under Section 35 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  He is, at last, a proud Afro-Métis Africadian.

Clarke is the author of two above/ground press chapbooks—Provencal Songs [II] (1997) and Selected Canticles (2012)—as well as two above/ground press “poem” handouts (1997 and 1998).

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