Harmonious Dissonance:
Paul Watkins in Conversation
with George Elliott Clarke

George Elliott Clarke

To provide Malahat readers with a context in which to read and more deeply appreciate George Elliott Clarke's "Othello: By Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade," a bravura long poem appearing in the magazine's Summer 2016 issue, Paul Watkins explores with the poet his ambitions and intent he enacts in the writing of such a profoundly engaging and provocative work. Paul and Vancouver Island University recently hosted Clarke as the 2015 Ralph Gustafson Distinguished Poet at VIU's Nanaimo campus, where he also wrote a draft of his poem "The Testament of Ulysses X."

I really admire your unique ability to signify, to riff, to echo, to mimic, to use ironic compromise, to bolster, and engage with multiple canons and writers, often within a single poem. In "Othello: By Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade" (published in the Summer 2016 issue of The Malahat Review) we have Othello as if written by Marquis de Sade. Marquis de Sade and Othello (and Shakespeare) appear in other poems of yours, and so I'm curious how this poem fits in your larger body of work, particularly the upcoming collection Canticles.

I've always been intrigued by "extreme" works and/or writers, and the Marquis de Sade ranks as one of the most repugnant—and yet influential—of the Occidental canon. Not only that, his scatological and sacrilegious writings do unfurl a coherent philosophy—republican, libertine, libertarian. To me, Sade is the logical extension of Ayn Rand: their utopias are palimpsests of each other, only that Sade is truly radical, allowing for Crime—theft, robbery, rape, murder—as corrective tactics that the intelligent poor can and should wield against the debauched plutocracy. So, it's easy to imagine him—Sade—reading Othello as the tale of a rapacious and mercenary Desdemona, who can bed her gullible Moor—Othello and others, with happy impunity, because she is rich. She could be a version of Sade's Juliette. As for Shakespeare and Othello, they are also vital figures for me, given that one is the greatest poet in English and the other is a complex, "black" character, who is destroyed, not by Iago's racism, but by his own sexism or misogyny. I revisit all three figures, severally in my work, for Sade critiques society and its hypocrisy, Shakespeare is the "master" poet, and Othello is the chief black character of the Elizabethan Age: hence, they're all hard to avoid!

The role of poetry, as Shelley once put it, is to use it in such a way that it "awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought." For me, your recombination and/or rechanneling of Shakespeare into Sade or Sade into Shakespeare puts a number of critical conversations around race, class, gender, and violence into juxtaposed conversation to get at a transcendent meaning of how sexism or misogyny functions in a classed society, as well as how they manifest in a multiplex 'black' character like Othello. Like Shakespeare and Sade, I appreciate how you unapologetically discuss difficult topics that for some readers might function outside the typical sphere of a contemporary 'Canadian' poem. How do you negotiate your channeling of different voices in the poem (and your poetry more generally)? It seems that troubling language is a big part of the poem, as libertinism correlates to a kind of poetic libertarianism: a desire for the poet and the poem to speak freely and challenge convention. Is homage an avenue where people might untangle the violently pornographic scenes à la Sade from your own poetic voice?

Polyphony is akin to sexuality, for there is always a sublimated and sometimes an explicit violence in coitus, a metaphysical violence that is both marriage and transgression, but such is a source of pleasure too (if gendered in troubling ways at times). Penetration is both assault (especially if unwanted) and union; but I don't just refer to the phallus here: tongues, fingers, the clitoris, nipples can all figure in the union of bodies or the violation of a body by another (or others). Polyphony is no different: the merging of voices is also a brouhaha, a riot, a confrontation, whose pleasurable effects would result from a harmonious dissonance. However, if polyphony is viewed as violent, as having disrupted alleged harmony or the public peace (and quiet), that transgression reveals the repression that is uniformity or the oppression that is silence. I hope that what I'm trying to point to, in my Sadean Othello, is the tendency of canonical works to be read as upholding established orders as opposed to actually repressing the stresses of class and race and gender. Behind every comedy, there is Sade; within every tragedy, there is the Joker. In my epic, Canticles, I follow Browning and Pound in deploying various speakers—in dramatic monologues—who find themselves at cross-purposes or speaking "out of character," but yet with something like disturbing veracity. So my Caesar's assassins sound like Mafioso, while my T.S. Eliot is displaced by Paul Celan. I'm interested in Georgia O'Keeffe, not because of her marriage and artistic alliance with Alfred Stieglitz, but because of her romance with the African-American novelist, Jean Toomer. In another poem, Jean-Jacques Dessalines—the pitiless destroyer of Napoleon's troops in revolutionary Haiti—debates Jean-Jacques Rousseau. History is a constant (violent) argument over power—contending devils, and I think that such turmoil is always embedded in even sedate literary texts, if often unheard.  It is the function of authorial polyphony to strip away "ideas of order" (Stevens) to get at the hubbub, shouts, cusses, sounding under the surface of censure, censorship, "civility." Yes, to hear the "libertine" within the "libertarian," but also within the "prude" and the "slavemaster."

Iteration remains a big part of your work and while literary polyphony could descend into "hubbub" quickly, your poetry finds valuable resonance (what you've usefully termed "harmonious dissonance") by including noise, discord, and playful asides. In fact, some of my favourite moments in your poetry are those cacophonous parts you edit in, such as the square bracketed stanza on George Bridgetower in "Othello." Rather than being bogged down by the anxiety of influence that many other writers face, you seem to revel in the dialogic—finding ways to "Make it new" à la Ezra Pound. Why is it that Pound remains such a perennial figure in your writing? Are your Canticles a response to his Cantos?

Pound is inescapable because he created the modern syntax, the modern grammar, the modern diction, for expression in English-language poetry, and he did it by transplanting into English the "best practices" of the best authors from the half-a-dozen languages that he knew the innards of.  Despite—or to spite—his anti-Semitism and other vile prejudices, Pound was actually multicultural—an aesthete—who long-ranged through other langues to import into English their strengths of brevity or clarity or impiety, thus creating Imagism out of his scholarly "Orientalism" and Vorticism (the literary form of Cubism) out of his Esperanto poetics. One of the strengths of the Pound corpus is—as it is in Bob Dylan's different output (or that of Miles Davis or David Bowie)—variety. Pound can turn out a sestina of medieval cannonades, a lily-delicate haiku, a film noir-spirit, Laforguean quatrain, and/or a Latinate long poem of loosened blank verse (vers libéré), not to mention straightforward songs and prose-poems. He didn't only follow Confucius in saying, "Make it new," but was always "making anew" and trying new forms. Certainly, The Cantos—a 900-plus-page poem written over forty years—is that; an attempt at a new form of epic poetry, where the classical epic machinery (invocations of gods, catalogues, battle scenes, a single hero, etc.) is missing or is present in ironic form (such as the catalogue of alleged war criminals and financial crooks in Canto XIV). In coming to write "Canticles," I took heart from Pound's Cantos, when deciding that I also would dispense with the Miltonic and the Homeric approaches, by deciding instead to follow three themes (as Pound follows one, in essence—the tendency of arms manufacturers to concoct wars and the tendency of bankers to bankrupt peoples): 1) the image of the black or Negro in the Occident; 2) slavery and the struggle for abolition; 3) imperialism and colonial resistance. I see the three themes as interlocking. In any event, the stereophonic collage of "characters" (mainly historical, though a few are fictitious), as well as the deliberate insertions of translations, may serve to position my "Canticles" as a riposte to The Cantos.

We are lucky to also have you reading "The Testament of Ulysses X," which too is from Canticles. (Read the poem in text here; listen to George Elliott Clarke's reading here.) While we've largely discussed poetic polyphony in relation to "Othello: By Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade," I wonder if you could reflect a little on how oral voice works its way into your poems and your performance(s) of them. Do you see yourself as a spoken word poet as much as a written poet? Are these classifications problematic?

It was only this year—2016—in May, while on a lecture/reciting tour of Italy, that I realized at long last that practically any one of my poems can be read/recited as an "oral performance"; that even pieces scribed to support silent reading can be, instead, read aloud. I now understand that all of my work can be read aloud—performed—and not only the songs and dramatic pieces written expressly for performance. I see this fact as a strength of the work, not a weakness. Indeed, in my Italian readings, I began to take the printed text and play with it, repeating certain lines or ad libbing extensions or additions, or emphasizing particular words. So, for instance, in the new poem, "Abandonment," in Gold, which is itself based on repositioning of Finnish folklore vis-à-vis heterosexual relationships, I took the line, "She's a bad woman will make a bad wife, a bad mother," and repeated it several times, stressing and elongating "bad" to "baaaaaaaaad"—in a sense, thus, applying James Brown pronunciation to Kalevala diction, and the audience went craaaazzzy! There's also, in the same poem, a line about going to New Brunswick, "that province topped with stars" to look for a new lover, "a dirty, little pigeon," and I've had a lot of fun insisting that the new lady really and truly must be "a dirty, little pigeon," and that she'll turn up on "47 Moore Street" in Saint John, the home of every such creature.  (Smile.) Anyway, the point is, what I really mean (to quote Bernie Taupin/Elton John, "Your Song"), is, the categories of "Spoken Word" and print poetry are meaningless (except for crypto-sociobiologists) because, ultimately, all good poetry is compact and cadenced speech hinting at song.

Earlier this year on Q with Shad you spoke enthusiastically about poetry as the soul of the arts. Your statement that "if you have access to your own heart, your own mind, your own soul, and you feel the pressure of inspiration because of joy or unfortunately sorrow, you are very likely to end up speaking something like poetry" was an inspiring pronouncement of the organic and universal nature of poetry. Why does the world need poetry?

Hal David and Burt Bacharach: "What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love"? That song comes to mind in thinking about why the world should need poetry. But I will also reiterate my sentiments in the Shad/Q interview: poetry exists in the rhythm of pulse and breath; it is "mind-forged" (Blake) language given vocal (originally) expression in tune with the pace of breath and the beat of the heart. The cadences are related to the sounds conjured by the arrangements of tongue, teeth, lips, and lungs. Poetry is organic technology, a physical art—as much as is dance, save that its calisthenics are performed by abstract characters or organically by the movement of the mouth.  In any event, it is the cheapest art and thus the most portable, for it can be memorized and taught to others. It is the first civilizing art, for it is the basis of scripture, whether inscribed or chanted. It conjoins imagination and emotion; so, for so long as human beings dream, recall, and/or have feelings, they/we will always invent poems. 

What's one outcome you'd like to see come out of your role as Canada's Parliamentary Poet Laureate?

My main hope as Parliamentary Poet Laureate is that I/we can have a National Poetry Map instituted….  It means speaking poetry to bureaucracy, so it may take a miracle. But let's make it happen!


Paul Watkins

Paul Watkins

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Paul Watkins is Professor of English at Vancouver Island University. He's published a number of reviews and articles on multiculturalism, Canadian poetry, jazz and improvisation, and is currently working on a manuscript on African Canadian poetry, as well as a paper on music and sound in David Lynch's Twin Peaks.