George Elliot Clarke recited some of his work as a class of student painters created their own.
Toronto’s fourth poet laureate was one of a group of poets who sat for an adult portraiture class on April 16, part of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s “Portraits of Poets” exhibit launch marking National Poetry Month.
“Poetry is everywhere and in everything,” said Clarke, show can count award-winning poet, university professor, playwright and author as entries on his resume spanning more than 30 years. “You just have to pay attention.”
Rap lyrics, political speeches, inspirational quotes that get shared on social media — all of these mainstream forms of expression have a foundation in poetry, he said.
“Poetry has left the ivory tower, essentially, and has entered into the streets with the modern versions of traditional poetry everywhere,” Clarke said.
Clarke’s love affair with poetry began at the age of 15, he said. As a self-described unpopular, alienated black teen growing up in Halifax, Clarke turned to songwriting, which led to penning rhymes and prose that often touched on the theme of African-Canadian identity.
To aspiring poet Duane Hall, Clarke and his work have been inspirational.
“I heard [Clarke] recite “Jealousy” at an event and I totally identified with his words, and the way he delivered the poem,” Hall said. “From that time on I started studying his work and found a connection to what he talked about in terms of his identity as a black Canadian man.”
Clarke’s work is universal, said Hall, a member of Spoke’n Heard, a collective of spoken word artists.
“No matter who you are, you can identify with something in Clarke’s poetry,” he said. “He is able to make some of the most historical themes within poetry contemporary and that’s a technique that I’d like to learn.
“His voice through his work is prominent.”
But that wasn’t always the case. To get to where he is today, Clarke wrote as much as he could. And that, he said, is his advice to young poets like Hall.
“Anyone can be a poet so long as you write a poem or publish a poem,” Clarke said. “You can be a poet who recites and performs or sings and you’re still a poet.”