Media Releases

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:
Explore The Poet­ry Map from Toron­to Pub­lic Libraries:


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 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…


Roman Mars:


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 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.