La réplique: Clarke fires back

J’Accuse . . . !: (Poem versus Silence) By George Elliott Clarke, Exile Editions, 2021 208 pages (softcover)
J’Accuse . . . !: (Poem versus Silence)
By George Elliott Clarke, Exile Editions, 2021
208 pages (softcover)

George Elliott Clarke’s latest essay in verse, J’Accuse…! (Poem versus Silence) has a lengthy and tortuous backstory.  In 1995 Stephen Kummerfield was one of two white, middle-class young men who lured Pamela George, 28, an Indigenous mother who occasionally sold sex to support her children, outside the city of Regina, raped her and beat her to death. For that crime he and his friend were let off extremely lightly: six and a half years for manslaughter, paroled in three and a half. The Indigenous community in Saskatchewan was, of course, outraged by this miscarriage of justice, which to this day remains an open wound. Some ten years later, that same Stephen Kummerfield, then an aspiring poet, contacted George Elliott Clarke for feedback on his poems. Clarke, who had been out of the country teaching at Duke University at the time of the murder and sentencing, had no idea of Kummerfield’s criminal past.  Clarke found Kummerfield’s poetry nothing short of brilliant. From J’Accuse…!,

His poetry was edgy, gritty, but Ausgezeichnet.
I told him so, and we began to exchange verses
(a charity I’ve granted to uncounted poet-comrades,
whose reciprocal edits have often “upped my game”).
Soon, he requested I intro his chapbook,
and I agreed — 
so sassy and vivid was his Ginsberg vibe. 
The skinny squib, Man Bereft, birthed in 2006,
and, as is standard for a novice,
garnered zero notice.

Over the years Clarke “exchanged sporadic emails and poems” with him, and in 2015 they met briefly in Mexico, where Kummerfield had gone to live after changing his name to Brown (explaining to Clarke that his former name was “too ethnic”), and had produced “another paper-thin chapbook” including poems by Brown, Clarke, and Clarke’s partner, Giovanna Riccio. Later, serving as Canada’s poet laureate, Clarke featured a couple of Brown’s poems on the laureate’s website.

Fast forward to October 2019. Clarke was to deliver two prestigious lectures, one at John Cabot University in Venice, Italy, in December, and the second in January 2020, the annual Woodrow Lloyd Lecture in the University of Regina on “‘Truth and Reconciliation’ versus ‘the Murdered and Missing”: Examining Indigenous Experiences of (In)justice in Four Saskatchewan Poets.” Clarke is strongly positioned to speak about this topic: a Black man of Mi’kmaq and Cherokee ancestry, he has an exemplary history of progressive and anti-racist literary research and activism; his extensive writings, including his Governor General’s award-winning collection Execution Poems, concern, among other things, murder, punishment, and hanging in his own family history. (cf. Stephen Kimber)

It was at that time – four months before the Regina lecture – that to Clarke’s horror, Stephen Kummerfield/Brown’s crime was revealed to him and corroborated by the man himself in an email. Clarke suspended communication, and soon severed ties with his friend altogether. At the talk at John Cabot University in Venice, in early December 2019, he still seemed to be coming to grips both personally and intellectually with his friendship with Kummerfield/Brown. 

The whole lecture – summarized here on John Cabot University’s website – was on our fraught relationship with artists and their art, especially artists who have committed heinous acts or promulgated hateful beliefs, such as Caravaggio, Villon, Pound, and others. Clarke ended his talk by referencing Kummerfield/Brown, although not by name. “My friend ended up serving only 3.5 years because of a sexist and racist judge who decided that the victim, an Indigenous woman, a sex worker, partly deserved the rape and death at the hands of two young white men.” The victim was “a person of colour just as I am, widely subjected to the variety of racism that I as well suffer.” Clarke argued that the crime committed by his friend was vicious and unpardonable — but stressed the importance of seeing him both as a great poet and as a murderer. 

Soon concerns were voiced in the University of Regina, that as he had referred to Kummerfield/Brown as a friend at John Cabot University, he might at the Woodrow read his poetry and even cast him in a favourable light.  

It was then that CBC reporter Bonnie Allen called up George Elliott Clarke at his unlisted number for an interview.

I quote this passage because it demonstrates Clarke’s poetic verve in J’Accuse…! and encapsulates the crux of his argument.  

… fearing that I’d seek to laud S.K.
misinterpreters rejected all my assurances –
that I’d dedicate the lecture to Pamela George,
that I would meet with elders,
that I would recite “For the Murdered and Missing.”
Only one worry was bruited
Will you quote S.K.?
Soon, the parochial but ambitious Bonnie Allen—
a Sask-beat show-and-teller—
dialled my insular numerals,
demanding answers.
I explained, «I have to read and research.
Then I can decide.»
What she reported? «Maybe he will and maybe he won’t.»
That flippant sound-bite—
clipped from a two-hour-long interview—
dog-whistled the bloggers
and pissed off bullshitters chomping at the bit. 
And what was the basis for this sanctified Gutlessness?
I had befriended a Caucasian poet
who had slain an Indigenous woman,
Something I knew nothing about—
a Horror inflicted years before he’d ever mailed me his poems;
yet the fact got odiously exaggerated 
into a colossal Immorality:
Were I to quote S.K.’s poetry
I’d thus condone his vile Infamy. 
(Ironically, however, it was not I,
but Allen’s ballyhooed post,
that volleyed S.K.’s verse to potential thousands
of grousing browsers.)
A tabloid-sleazy gambit—Guilt by Supposition—crafted
a hullabaloo of scrofulous Vilification,
drafted an echo chamber looping Vituperation.
Though prima facie farcical,
the vacuous deduction proved conducive
to coaxing the hoaxed—
robust ignoramuses—
naïve crusaders—
witless illiterates—
(brains not too gracefully atrophied)—
to throaty, snarling Hatred.
So I vacated my Social Justice preachment,
I apologized thrice, nationally,
for any inadvertent Pain
triggered by my inability
to rehearse publicly
a non-existent essay.
Nonetheless the Carpal-Tunnel-Vision Vicious
began, lickety-split, to clack, to click, to cluck…
To compose a tweeting, twittering star chamber—
to update Orwell, to hawk venom.
To say we must silence potential Truth-telling—
lest it seem «traumatic.»
Well, so are Holocaust testimony, Hiroshima autopsies, traumatic, eh?
To force Change.
(Thus, we value Poetry that don’t compromise—
neither for critics nor for admirers.)
But I could not diagnose Justice or Injustice.
I got expunged.
Poetry got nixed.

It could be argued that Bonnie Allen, as a journalist needing to boil a story down to readable essentials, could all too easily have come away with “maybe he will, maybe he won’t.” Nevertheless, Allen’s coverage of the story here and in follow-up articles has a strong shade of yellow.

As Clarke puts it in J’Accuse…!:  

Allen’s website voyeured me—
la bête noire de la Tour d’ivoire—
in WANTED-poster style
(nature-morte in living couleur)
shoulder-to-shoulder with killer S.K.B.

Allen’s description of theirs as a “working relationship” since 2005 is a bit of a stretch; along with the strategic placement of photos, it breathes whiffs of bosom buddies, partners in crime. George Elliott Clarke perhaps did himself no favours by highlighting in one lecture his friendship with Stephen Kummerfield/Brown and his appreciation of his poetry, or in leaving open the possibility that he might read from his work in Regina. But he couldn’t have anticipated the Inquisitorial onslaught it would set in motion, headed by the likes of Allen, Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick, and a group of over-zealous academics. 

The affair quickly blew up into a media-and social media- driven frenzy, triggering resignations, condemnation, a petition and calls for boycott. Clarke quickly cancelled his lecture, but other talks he had lined up were also cancelled by the organizations involved. His books were pulled off bookstore and library shelves. Publishers refused to print his blurbs or book introductions, and Clarke, formerly a central and celebrated figure in the nation’s literary scene, was suddenly “a pariah poet,/a carious poet,” “silenced,” “expunged,” “blacklisted,” shouted down and given almost no recourse to a fair hearing or defense – until the publication of this book. (cf. Keith Garebian)

At the risk of belabouring a point, Clarke tells me – I called him to get his side of the story, as others during the brouhaha contended that he actually planned at Regina to discuss Stephen Kummerfield/Brown —that when Bonnie Allen called him, the title of the Regina lecture was still a kind of placeholder, a usual practice to expedite funding: that despite the focus we are now giving to S.K.B., Clarke really wasn’t sure at that time which poets he would be discussing, although there were several likely candidates, including Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane (if he could be considered a Saskatchewan poet), Anne Szumigalski, Carole Rose Golden Eagle, Marie Annharte Baker and Louise Bernice Halfe/Sky Dancer, who in 2021 was named the Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate. He simply hadn’t started writing the lecture yet and wanted to keep an open mind. 

(In the interests of disclosure, I am one of Clarke’s “uncounted poet comrades”: over the last fifteen years or so we have exchanged sporadic emails and poems, he has suggested edits, and eloquently blurbed a book of mine and another poet’s chapbook published by my imprint. I can’t claim a close friendship or “working relationship” but we are on good terms. In my experience, Clarke is a generous and enthusiastic supporter of other poets well-known and obscure.) 

J’Accuse…! is Clarke’s attempt to set things straight (get a last word in too), to clear the air, and repair his still somewhat sullied reputation.  It’s feisty, written with lots of heart, humour, and his characteristic panache. The title, borrowed from Zola’s essay on the notorious Alfred Dreyfus case that shook the French Third Republic, forces us to confront despicable injustices – the George case being one of them – here and now in Canada. 

J’accuse…! opens with Clarke’s powerful poem “For the Murdered and Missing”; Clarke soon after in the book describes in graphic detail the murder of Pamela George – “she was so drastically disfigured, her mourners could view only her shuttered coffin” – and further examines the racist/sexist reasoning on the part of the judge who let off the two murderers with such a light sentence.

Clarke also describes the precise nature of his relationship with Stephen Kummerfield/Brown, some of the red flags indicated by his behaviour in the few in-person dealings Clarke had with him, the horror of the discovery of S.K.B’s crime. He quotes a drunken email he received from Kummerfield/Brown as the controversy brewed, which confirms public evidence that S.K.B. really felt no remorse for the killing. 

And he expresses his own anguish and indignation at the highly publicized “guilt by association” at the root of the whole ordeal.

Gripping stuff. All expressed in language that is freewheeling, conversational, slangy, satirical, recherché, rich in cultural allusions, intensely rhythmic and eminently readable. In the rhetorical extravagance of its sweep and flow, it resembles a virtuosic performance by an Oscar Peterson:  a contemporary Dunciad with Rabelaisian flourishes, delivered with a soaring Afro-Scotian lyricism all its own. And as if to underline the film noir unreality of the whole imbroglio, the long poem is organized into sections titled after Hitchcock films, among them Psycho, Vertigo, The Birds, I Confess, and Frenzy. From The Birds

Soon, griping Justice seekers joined the hunt-and-peck – 
at beck-and call
of cockamamie, Caucasoid dog whistles
hissing, promising blood to sweet the airwaves –
thus turning laptops into Lascaux cave walls –
folks whetting long knives round a comfy campfire
while chowing down on grey-brain-tissue and gristle. 
The Birds – the buzzards, the hawks —
Screeched, squawked, “He Should Have Known”!

At issue in J’Accuse…! is not only our problematic relation to artists and their art, particularly artists who lead less than exemplary lives, but also the protection of sensibilities versus the right to frank and nuanced discussion. Clarke maintains that if we prioritize safe spaces and “safe speech” over freedom to debate and question, freedom becomes “merely academic.” 

This leads to another major issue exposed in J’Accuse…!: our contemporary penchant to gang up on, condemn and silence in an overly mediatized world: what Clarke calls “the Kancel Kulture Klan.” Of course, that rush to judgement is as old as humanity, going back to and beyond “let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.” But it is greatly enhanced by today’s cyber-technology. People too hurried and harried to stop and consider, whose attention is scattered by a superabundance of mis/information, nevertheless join insular silos where biases are confirmed and amplified. The keyboard enables swift character assassination from a safe distance. Left behind can be an inclusive, compassionate approach to human beings.  

“My issue with the Zombie ‘Woke,’” Clarke wrote to me in an email shortly after our conversation, “is that they pursue symbols rather than actual malefactors. It’s true: Stephen Kummerfield/Brown was a particularly heinous offender (one who has never expressed remorse for his homicide), but it was the settler justice system that gave him a “pass,” lightening the gravity of his crimes, paroling him early, and then letting him scoot to Mexico with a brand-new surname. Wow! Why weren’t picketers swarming Saskatchewan courts? I guess it was just easier to join an anonymous, broadcast-media-engendered mob, press a few buttons, vent outrage and disgust, etc. But then, after Bonnie Allen et al. went on to find new “circuses” to animate, what remained of the issue of settler violence against Indigenous women? What did all the fire and fury vented at me — who was truly at a great remove from the crime-and-injustice itself —accomplish?”

In J’Accuse…! Clarke continues to defend his right to quote or discuss poetry by one such as Stephen Kummerfield/Brown when appropriate.

I do hold that the project of “Truth and Reconciliation”
is undermined by the Failure of 
the squatter-class Intelligentsia—
predominantly Euro academics, jurists, journalists, and artists—
to acknowledge their murderous Racism and Sexism.
Would I have quoted Kummerfield/Brown’s poetry
in that context?
Maybe. If Research had shown it to be instructive.
I’d not have gone to Regina to praise (or bury) a killer
but to assess a body of poetry —
for what it could reveal about Saskatchewan intellectuals
and their perception of Indigenous women.

Asked if he would have worked with Kummerfield/Brown on his poetry knowing his criminal past, Clarke said, after a pause, probably yes – but provided that the man had owned up to his crime and expressed sincere remorse. Clarke told me of another poet, Stacey Eugene Slaw, whom he had worked with on his poetry and who admitted up front that in his youth he had been a hitman for a gang, and was still behind bars because he had killed people. Slaw recognized the appropriateness of his punishment and expressed a heartfelt wish to live a good life and become a published poet/author. Clarke saw his talent, and doubtless their lengthy correspondence was instrumental to that man’s rehabilitation. “Our system has this concept of rehabilitation, does it not?” he asked rhetorically. “The assumption that because I worked with S.K.B. on his poetry I’m somehow guilty suggests there’s no such thing.” 

J’Accuse…! is George Elliott Clarke’s brave defense of that sort of open-spirited freedom. His bold and skillful lyricism is a triumph over the hardened clichés of social media gossip mongers and “yellow, bellowing journalists.” His is a poetry that refuses to be silenced.

Notes and links

Throughout the book, Clarke uses guillemets (« ») to represent invented speech or paraphrase. (J’Accuse…!, footnote, p. 12)

Account of George Elliott Clarke’s lecture at John Cabot University:

Bonnie Allen’s first story:

Heather Mallick, Toronto Star:
A column where she describes Clarke as a “general honours magnet” and then asserts, “If that’s true [that Clarke didn’t know about S.K.B.’s crime until September 2019], he had fourteen years to ask.

Stephen Kimber, Halifax Examiner:

Two columns contending George Elliott Clarke was considering and or planning to talk about S.K.B.:

More reaction, including an accusation that Clarke was “capitalizing” on his association with Brown:

George Elliott Clarke responds to the controversy in the Toronto Star:

An excellently written review of J’Accuse…! by Keith Garebian in the Literary Review of Canada:

Brian Campbell is the author of several poetry collections including Shimmer Report (Ekstasis Editions, 2015) and Passenger Flight (Signature Editions, 2009). He co-hosts and co-organizes the lawn chair soirée, a reading series in Montréal. As a poet, photographer and singer-songwriter, Brian has a number of publications and recordings that combine these talents. His latest book of poetry and photography is Remnants of Autumn, and his latest full-length album of original songs, By the River’s Blue. For more on Brian’s work, visit his website.