George Elliott Clarke ‘frustrated’ by lack of requests from parliamentarians

He’s one of Canada’s most prolific writers, but in his new role as parliamentary poet laureate, George Elliott Clarke hasn’t written a word. That’s because no one’s asked him.

The acclaimed poet, novelist and playwright from Windsor, N.S., told CBC Radio’s Mainstreet that although writing poems should be his primary duty, no federal politician has requested his “poetic services” in the nine months since he was appointed.

“I don’t think anybody in Ottawa really has a clue about who’s supposed to ask me to do anything,” said Clarke, a professor of English at the University of Toronto.

“The result of that is nobody asked me to do anything official for public occasions.”

Duties of a poet laureate

According to the Parliament of Canada’s website, a poet laureate’s role is to “write poetry, especially for use in Parliament on important occasions.”

Their duties also involve sponsoring poetry readings, advising the parliamentary librarian and performing other related tasks at Parliament’s request.

However, Clarke says that many “important occasions” such as Canada Day have come and gone with no requests from government.

Two-year term

“I do feel a little bit frustrated that I’m waiting for those emails and for phone calls from parliamentarians to ask me to write stuff on behalf of Canadians, which is what this position is all about,” he said.

The position of parliamentary poet laureate was established in 2001 and alternates between English and French writers, who traditionally serve two-year terms.

Clarke is the seventh writer to be appointed, at the recommendation of George Furey and Geoff Regan, the Speakers of the Senate and House of Commons, respectively.

Clarke says he answers to both Speakers, as well as parliamentary librarian Sonia L’Heureux, but that perhaps other officials like the Governor General should become involved in making his writing duties better defined.

‘Establish some traditions’

Having served as Toronto’s poet laureate for three years, Clarke says he’s drawing on that experience to create more writing and speaking engagements, but is facing more pushback.

“I haven’t felt that I’ve had the same kind of ease in trying to move things in a more public direction in terms of my role,” he said. “One of the things I would like to do in the time I have left is try to establish some traditions, so that it’s understood that once a year, there’s an occasion where the poet laureate addresses parliamentarians.”

Clarke says Remembrance Day and Canada’s 150th birthday would be ideal opportunities to establish such traditions:

“I really do think it’s appropriate for the poet laureate, not just me, but those who follow after me in this position, to have a role specifically on those days” he said.

“I think not as much is being asked of me that I really want to give,” he said. “I want to make this position stellar, a standout.”

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