Ep. 6 The Poetry Map with George Elliott Clarke
May 27, 2015
Poet laureate George Elliott Clarke discusses The Poetry Map from Toronto Public Libraries, diversity and police culture, and more. Also, Roman Mars from 99% Invisible shares his opinions on the greatest libraries in North America.
Original music by Jay Ferguson and Kris Magnuson.
More about The Cities Podcast: http://news.utoronto.ca/podcasts
Explore The Poetry Map from Toronto Public Libraries: http://www.torontopoetry.ca/
The Cities Podcast
Ep 6 The Poetry Map with George Elliott Clarke
This is The Cities Podcast. I’m Brianna Goldberg.
I’m getting ready to head off on a road trip. With temperatures rising and the sun shining ‘til late, it feels like the perfect time to get behind the wheel and watch the country bloom.
A few people have asked if I want to borrow their maps for the trip. And, while I so appreciate that kind offer, part of me had to hold back a bit of a giggle. A paper map! At this point it seems quaint.
When I can pull out my phone and swipe through dozens of traffic-aware apps with optimized directions and construction alerts, I’m able to leave the thought of a paper map… and the horror of having to unfold and refold it… in the past. Instead I’ll touchscreen my way to the fastest route.
On one hand, it’s a shame that an app can make it so easy to mentally check out.
But then there are maps that do just the opposite, that show added history and context… maps that chart the city’s story of change.
There’s one I like called WhatWasThere. It mashes up Google street view with archival photographs from all over the world –and there are a few similar apps that help show Toronto then and now.
But recently I’ve found some new layers of meaning to my routes in the city with a project called The Poetry Map. It’s an interactive site that came from a collaboration between Toronto Public Libraries and the city’s poet laureate, who also happens to be an English Professor at U of T – George Elliott Clarke.
I wanted to learn more about how it all came together and so we took stroll in one of the neighbourhoods featured in his own poetry and included on The Poetry Map… The Beach, or The Beaches, depending who you ask… He explained the project’s implications for Toronto’s cultural scene and its public policy.
From a shaded rock on the shore of Lake Ontario, here is Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke.
Clarke: The poetry map is a great concept of the Toronto Public Library actually. Someone had already started working on this idea before I came in as Poet Laureate, I’m not sure who it was, but I was given a sheet of paper which had a list of some neighbourhoods and some novels and poems that featured these neighbourhoods. And I thought it was a great idea and that my job should be to expand it, but really focus on the poetry. So that’s how it came about. And I spent the spring and summer of 2013 tracking down poems, mainly by looking through anthologies and also of course asking members of the League of Canadian Poets to submit poems dealing with specific Toronto neighbourhoods, locales, etc; etc;
And then, I sent all of that paperwork to the library in August 2013 and I didn’t really hear that much more about it. And then they invited me to, basically this preview of the map, and I was blown away by it when I saw what they had done with the information and these blue-toned circles to represent the density of the poems about a particular neighbourhood or area. You can look at the map and take it all in at a glance or you can navigate the particular sites and look up the poems, and sometimes even the photographs that go along with the area. Oh, what they’ve done with the basic idea is incredibly a rich significance, sophisticated, beautiful…I don’t have enough superlatives to really give it the full justice.
Brianna: Were you surprised by any of the areas of the city that had more representation than you expected?
Clarke: Well, a number of Italian Canadian poets in Toronto submitted a number of poems basically dealing with Little Italy and other parts of Toronto, but specifically that neighbourhood – that area. And what I thought interesting about these poems is that really what was happening in them was a kind of domestication of Toronto along an Italian cultural axis so-to-speak. And that was fascinating. And I think if we look at poets or new Canadians or second generation Canadians, you’re probably going to see a lot of that, in particular neighbourhoods in which they may find themselves living or their families and neighbours living are going to be turned into poetry that is going to have some kind of connection to an originating homeland. That was fascinating.
Also of course the poems about the Pearson Airport area I liked very much. I unfortunately spend too much time going in and out of that airport. Also, the Toronto Islands, I’ve only visited one island only once, and that was only just last fall. That was Ward Island. I was there for only a couple of hours on a very cold day, so I didn’t feel like staying much longer than that anyway. But I’ve always found them to be mysterious and appealing in some way. Although I should probably get on the ferry and go over more often and take a look at them.
So I was happy with Karen Mulholland’s poems which are set on one of the islands which talk about a breakdown of a relationship. But in the context also of nature observation, the passing of the seasons, etc; etc; So a very capital R, Romantic suite of poems that take in the Toronto skyline as well as the islands. And I think that if you bother to go, or anyone bothers to go, and check for their neighbourhood, they’ll probably find it represented by somebody. And if not then they may decide to take up the art of poetry themselves, published a book and have that book submitted to the library, so they can then take a poem or two from it and put it on the map.
Brianna: Just that simple.
Clarke: It is exactly that simple. I’m really happy with the fact too that the project is expandable. And folks write more poems or people discover more poems about particular neighbourhoods, and it should be specific. The Danforth is kind of well represented, the Annex is very well represented, Cabbagetown is represented very well. So there’s room for more expansion – of the Junction for instance, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of poems yet set in that area. So we can do more, we can do more. So I’m really hopeful that poets will get excited about this project and publish more poems about Toronto.
That’s another ancillary effect or spinoff I suppose of the map, is that it will encourage more poets to write more poems about Toronto in the hope, maybe, that they’ll end up being represented on the map.
Brianna: You’re the Poet Laureate for Toronto and you’re not from here, as are many/most, I think, at this point people who live in Toronto. So we’re here at the beach, you’ve been travelling, how do you feel about Toronto? Do you feel it’s your home at this point or do you just feel like you’re trying to provoke people to connect with this place?
Clarke: My homeland is Nova Scotia, and I don’t get there very much these days, but I still find my center of gravity more or less in Nova Scotia. Toronto is where I live, it’s also where I work. And I live here because I work here. And I do have some – I had better say this – it’s true anyway – I do have some feeling for the city, obviously as Poet Laureate I should. But it’s not really the city so much that I truly connect with but better the neighbourhood in which I live and the people I know there, and the areas in which I circulate.
And at the same time that’s true I also think Torontonians in general do not appreciate the city enough, in my opinion. I don’t think we appreciate the city enough, as being this truly great world-class city. And I hate using that phrase because it doesn’t really matter, why do we have to compare ourselves to anything. But I really do think that it’s one of the great capitals of the world, specifically because of the fact that we have this tremendous multicultural reality that we don’t seem to know what to do with except to say “we are the world, everybody is welcome here.”
And I think that there’s more to it than that. This is a place where a great human experiment is unfolding, better than anywhere else on the planet. And that is something to celebrate and it’s something to glorify, especially these days when you have so many sectarian divisions of one sort or another. And this is a place where they seem to be under some kind of – how can I put it – under control is not the right expression – but where there’s a greater tendency to seek harmony as opposed to simply stopping at the point of division.
And I don’t think we do enough of that, that sensibility to really celebrate it and make it a workaday reality. One could say that we don’t really talk about it very much because we don’t have to, because it’s unfolded pretty well as it is, so why disturb it, so why talk about it. Okay, that might be a good Canadian kind of solution.
And on the other hand I want more. I want more diversity represented in the city. I want more multiculturalism, and I want more multilingualism, I want more diversity. I think diversity should be in everybody’s face everywhere you go in the city. I think that should be job number one, is to say “we are diverse and we really mean it, we’re serious about this.” And promote that in the arts and in everything as much as possible. And I really think the more we can do that, the more powerfully representative Toronto will be of Canada as a home and also as a great cosmopolitan magnet for everybody who wants to come to a place where they can pursue an occupation or an art and feel that they can have influence from all of the world’s cultures and languages and so on. I think, better than New York even – better than new York – because there’s not as much polarization around areas, issues and so on.
Brianna: You mentioned wanting to have more of this diversity sort of explicitly, and this idea of a conversation unfolding, I think it’s a sort of interesting moment to talk to you because I know you’ve written a lot about race and the deep history of race in Canada. And in recent weeks it’s been very much on the agenda, both the television show and the cultural conversation, Desmond Cole’s article “The Skin I’m In,” from Toronto Life. What does this say to you? Do you find this a hopeful moment that we’re starting to discuss these things?
Clarke: That’s another great question. For crying out loud, how can I answer it carefully? I’m going to say that…how can I answer it carefully? We’ve had these moments before. I’m old enough to remember 1992, the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles, the story of the fellow who was videotaped being beaten while handcuffed and on the ground by L.A. police. And the officers responsible for this beating that was caught on videotape were exonerated, acquitted. African Americans in Los Angeles especially, erupted in a riot and violence to protest that verdict. And it was a ripple series of riots across the united States and right here in Toronto.
What made the Toronto riot interesting, basically it was confined to Yonge Street in early May of 1992, what made that riot interesting was the fact it was multiracial. It was very Toronto in a sense. It wasn’t only black youth protesting police persecution, but all kinds of youth protesting what they considered to be police harassment and persecution. Rightly or wrongly. But certainly it was a perception on their part that real justice was hard to come by if you’re from the wrong kind of minority or if you happened to be a young person who was attracted to certain styles of dress and certain styles of music you might not get a fair shake from the authorities.
This is a long way of saying too often when these moments of potential change arise, they turn into therapy sessions but no real long-term change happens. So that we revisit the same moment again a generation later, 5 years later, a couple of generations later, a decade later, but we will come back to that situation again because we didn’t really change the root causes. Which for me are not only about illiteracy and unemployment, social alienation, lack of integration, it’s not only about that, it’s also about cultures within, unfortunately authority circles, who tend to think that their job is to protect what they consider to be the majority as opposed to minorities.
And so minorities can automatically then become suspects, be treated to undue surveillance, undue questioning, unfair questioning, unfair surveillance, unfair charges, and then end up perhaps incarcerated on trumped-up charges and so on. And we’ve had too many cases of that sort of thing happen. In particular to specific minority communities.
And so the real question then is, how do we change this? And I think, and I proposed this in a couple of my articles, that there has to be budgetary consequences for police departments that are proven to have a history of harassment against particular minorities. They need to suffer budgetary consequences. It’s not enough to say we’re going to investigate and maybe lay charges, maybe convict someone if they’re found guilty, and incarcerate them, maybe. Certainly folks who are guilty of particularly violent offenses ought to be incarcerated if they’re convicted. On the other hand it’s proven to be pretty difficult to do that with officers who are considered to be offenders, potentially offenders. It’s been pretty hard to make those charges stick in many cases. And maybe that’s all for the better.
On the other hand it doesn’t fill minority communities with any sense of confidence in their local police forces. And I think that, again, if City Councils across North America were to take the attitude that they were going to ask for race-based statistics to be kept, order them to be kept, legislate that these statistics be kept, that there be reviews annually of how police are conducting themselves vis-à-vis particularly minorities, and if patterns of harassment can be established, that police forces lose some of their budget.
And I think that would force those police forces then to be far more concerned about the folks that they term “bad apples.” I’ve heard that excuse and explanation so many times. It’s not the police force it’s just a few “bad apples.” Okay, great. Well then maybe we should change the culture so that you become responsible for your “bad apples,” and either fire them, retire them or convict and incarcerate them if they’re guilty of violent offenses in particular. As opposed to saying well it’s just an isolated incident, it’s one “bad apple” over here, another one over there. That’s not good enough for those families who end up grieving unfortunately the death of a loved one who should never have been shot or tasered to death, for crying out loud.
I hope I haven’t said anything that anyone would find completely objectionable. On the other hand, I do think that if we’re going to truly move forward as a society in terms of policing matters, then we need to demand, not ask, demand that police forces be more accountable to in fact, the people they’re supposed to serve and protect. And I think for anyone who thinks that this is only about race, look at the G20 Summit in Toronto in 2010. And the proven public videotaped, cellphone camera instances of notorious police misbehaviour to the point where some officers actually removed their nametags so they would not have to potentially face consequences for their unlawful behaviour against peaceful law abiding protestors, exercising democratic rights. That should never be allowed in a democratic society, in a truly democratic society. And that cannot be tolerated, cannot be tolerated. It’s still not too late. Charges can still be brought.
Brianna: That was George Elliott Clarke talking about The Poetry Map and much more. He teaches poetry, postcolonial literature and other topics through the English Department at U of T.
The Poetry Map is a project of Toronto Public Libraries. You can find it at torontopoetry.ca or just search for The Poetry Map and Toronto Public Libraries.
Speaking of, I recently had a chance to hear some library musings from a fellow podcaster named Roman Mars. The success of his mega-popular show about architecture and design, called 99 % Invisible, helped launch an entire network of fascinating and highly produced podcasts, called Radiotopia. The result is that Roman Mars is somewhat of a podcasting superstar these days.
So when he was in Toronto a few weeks ago to speak at an event hosted by Format – they make online portfolio design software for photographers and visual media types – I snagged one minute with Roman before he performed a live show for a packed crowd at The Design Exchange in the downtown core.
Since 99 % Invisible is all about the interaction of history, architecture and design, and this episode is all about celebrating a great work of Toronto Public Libraries, I asked if he had any favourite libraries around the world…
I have two favourites, one from the outside and one from the inside.
The Harold Washington Library in Chicago is like green and brick and has all these weird gargoyle type things and you pass it on the loop, the elevated train, and I just remember thinking it was the most crazy and absurd building and was completely fascinated by it the first time I passed it.
And then the New York Public Library in New York. I was in the reading room, I was like, I’d been away from my family for a long time and it has this beautiful painting on the ceiling and I nearly cried walking into that place, it was like a temple to reading and I think it’s one of the most amazing places on earth. I mean, it seems like one of the places where if a city was doing it right they would go all out on the library because it’s something that will be there for hundreds of years it can be admired and I guess these days you have to keep in mind all the things a library has to do and it doesn’t necessarily, in fact probably more and more has less to do with books, they have to be probably more flexible than they have been in the past… but it just seems like a place where you should spend a lot of effort to make it right.
That was Roman Mars, host of 99% Invisible on the Radiotopia network. If you like this podcast, you will love 99 % Invisible, I highly recommend you check it out.
And hey, if Roman Mars can do it, so can you. I want to know about your favourite libraries in Toronto –
Why do you like them? What makes them different and great? Tweet with the hasthtag #uoftcities or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send me some good stuff and it just might show up in a future podcast. I’d also very much appreciate it if you might consider sharing this on Facebook or Twitter.
Music you heard in this episode comes from Jay Ferguson —who composed and performed especially for us, so thanks to Jay. Music also from Kris Manguson. He’s a student in the composition program at U of T’s Faculty of Music. Thanks so much to Kris for sending that along.
To stay in the loop and receive episodes as soon as they’re available, just subscribe to this podcast for free on iTunes or follow us on Soundclound.
This series is produced by me, Brianna Goldberg, with help from U of T News editor, Jennifer Lanthier.
Thanks for listening.