by MacAndrew Clarke
Congratulations on your recent album “The Long Walk Home”! For me, listening to it felt like I was being invited on your life’s journey as you explored profound and genuine aspects about yourself and your history. Continuing along that theme, what was your journey in the making of this album?
This album, in its mental conception, was many years in the making. The title, for instance, comes from a time in my life (around 2010) when I felt, in a rather acute way, the sort of consistent struggle that is, I would say, inherent to human life. I mean that, in our lives, most of us have a sense of what harmony, contentedness, self-esteem and emotional health look and feel like, but to achieve the balance that makes these things possible is an ongoing, and quite subtle journey. This is where the album’s title and feeling come from. The album, therefore, attempts to approach all of its subject matter with the sort of subtlety, nuance, and bitter-sweetness that is typical, I think, of the human condition.
I had originally set out to make this album about six years ago, and while at that time I was already a competent enough poet, I had very little experience with the process of actually making an album. In the intervening years between 2010 and April of 2016, when the album finally came out, I believe I grew a lot in my understanding of myself as a person and as an artist. Also, the completion of Devotion (the EP that precedes The Long Walk Home) gave me a sense of what sort of personal resolve I would need in order to make an album that succeeds on the level that The Long Walk Home does. I grew in my understanding of how to hold and articulate my vision for a project of this sort. I learned that I needed to be direct and uncompromising (within my means) in my articulation of what I needed and wanted from this project.Therefore, you could say that the journey toward making this album was long. Whatever genuine sophistication and expressive depth the album holds is owing, in part, to the personal and spiritual growth I experienced in the years and months preceding the winter of 2015-16, when I really started working on the album.
One of the things I enjoyed the most from my listening experience is how the lyrics and the music were blended in a way where they seamlessly moved together, complimented each other, and transitioned into different themes. How challenging was it for you and your musical team to achieve that balance and harmony between the lyrics and the music? What was done in particular to successfully attain that kind of fluidity?
Really, that relationship is one that myself, and the album’s musical director, Alex Millaire, were really conscious of throughout our creation of the project. I wanted the album to be emotionally direct. I wanted the poems and the musical compositions around them to be accessible. I managed to study a fair amount of spoken word albums from different parts of the world during the process of making The Long Walk Home. In studying them, I felt that one of the most difficult things about making a spoken word album was achieving a balance between the words and the lyrics.
Spoken word, like all poetry, is driven by meaning. Poets wish to distill poignant and potent meaning into every verse. While this is generally a strength of the art form, it means that on recordings, spoken word albums can be difficult to listen to, because they demand more attention and more intellectual rigour from the listener than most forms of music do. Because of this, I wanted to make sure that The Long Walk Home was easy to listen to, even while the words are meaningful and (hopefully) poignant at all times. With Alex, I wanted to develop an approach that allowed the music to be a sturdy support to the content of the poetry. I also wanted the poetry and the instrument of my voice to sit inside the music, rather than above or below it. I tried to approach each track on the album like a song, rather than a piece of poetry with musical backing. Therefore, I perceived my voice to be a lead instrument among the others. I must also give Alex Millaire much, much credit for understanding the musical relationship that I thought was best for the album.
As you were exploring and writing about your own personal life, while touching on intimate subjects such as deep love, isolation, desire, and others (as described in the “liner notes,”) what was your creative process in allowing yourself to be so open and honest on themes that others would find difficult to share?
I think openness is my general approach to poetry, and I hope I am able to let openness be a catalyst for the way I live my life. In my personal relationships, as in my poetry, I value authenticity. I try my best, therefore, to foster a sincere relationship with each of the subjects about which I write. I think the greatest thing poetry can do, both for its writers and its readers/listeners, is create deeper understanding of the human condition. I use my own poetic inclinations as a way of exploring myself, opening myself, announcing myself, but also calling out for and cultivating love. For this reason, intimacy and sincerity are the guiding imperatives of my writing practice. Without them, I cannot use poetry in order to better know myself, nor can I use it as a way of showing the world my heart and providing access to those who wish to love it. So, the truth-telling, I hope, is where my poetry is born and where my poetry lives
Prior to your album’s release, one the tracks that were available for a pre-listen was “Home”. What was your goal in creating this poem and what message were you trying to leave with your listeners?
The first verses of that poem were actually written for another Ottawa-based artist who wished to have me write and speak an interlude on a project of his which had to do with Ottawa and his own sense of home. In exploring my relationship to Ottawa, the poem deepened to include the details by which I have come to know a sense of home in Ontario, the province of my birth. For me, the experience of an Ontario winter is a distinct and visceral enough experience that it has become a symbol of home for me. I wanted to express my reverence for the natural beauty and power of the places that raised me (the Toronto area as well as Ottawa). My effort to hone in on the parts of nature that I associate most with home made me think of what those things might be for other people in other places, so, this is where you get the image of cinnamon in India, and fruits in Guatemala, or hibiscus flowers in my mother’s birth country of Barbados. I wanted to bring Canadian winter into sharp and intimate focus by contrasting it with other places. In this way, I think the poem expresses the distinct power that lives within the country that raised me.
Your album has been described on bandcamp as a: “…meaningful site of reflection on humanity, spirituality, personal narrative, and healing.” Why was it important for you to share those personal aspects of yourself with your audience?
The Long Walk Home is preoccupied with those themes because these are the themes that orient my life. In my own way, I have felt all of those things, and my poetry reflects that intimately. For many years, poetry has been useful to me insofar as it is a means of creating and expressing intimacy. That is to say: through poetry, I can express my relationship to the things that have affected me intimately. I can also use poetry to stir up emotions within myself which are intimate. Through poetry, I can hold myself in ways that most people are unable to hold me. I can also call out for love and healing through the poetry. The writing has therefore been an antidote to the forms of isolation and loneliness that I think are common in urban environments, particularly in a culture where expressions of individualism are prioritized above all others in the way we think, converse and consume. The poetry is therefore also a place where I can sound out my relationship to God and Divine energies (as reflected in nature, circumstance and other people). The writing of a poem is probably the most acute distillation of my spiritual disposition to the world as I can muster at any time.
You have said that your entire album was recorded and produced in Ottawa. Keeping that in mind, how much of a role would you say your experience in Ottawa contributed to the creation of “The Long Walk Home,” and how did those experiences help shape you into the artist you are today?
In a very subjective way, The Long Walk Home is an Ottawa album. I suppose, better put, it is my Ottawa album. Each of the poems, with the possible exception of “Before You Ask” as well as “Recalled” are poems that were created in reaction to my particular experience of Ottawa as a person and artist. My time in Ottawa was beautiful. Ottawa is the place where I learned how to love deeply. Having said that, learning how to love will also mean, at different times, learning how to weep, learning how to grieve, learning the virtue of patience, among others. So, I must give my friends, teachers, lovers and fellow artists credit for teaching me so much of what I think I know about what it is to be human. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about how physical spaces, particularly cities, influence the way our spirits interact with life. In abstract terms, I do not think the album could have been written in the way it was had I lived in any other city. So, to the extent that my artistry is a representation of the way I relate to life, the album couldn’t help but be an expression of how I related to my life in Ottawa, particularly. Ottawa is a beautiful and quaint place, in my experience. I think its modesty gives artists room to be themselves and create honesty, if they choose. I do not find Ottawa to be a particularly ego-driven place, so it means that I could get in touch with my inner-most emotional self without having to adopt unnecessary layers of pretence. I am grateful to Ottawa for this.
While you were in Ottawa, you conducted a variety of workshops for aspiring poets and writers in order to help them find their voice and share their art. Why was it important for you to educate and elevate other artists?
The value I get from teaching poetry is quite immense. In the small sense, it’s valuable to me as a performing artist because it shows me what the pulse of the city is: what people are thinking about, how they are relating to their lives, what they need from their communities. Teaching poetry gives me the opportunity to listen to others. It helps me be receptive to the range and power of poetry. Also, it helps keep me humble and grounded. Facilitating poetry workshops over the last 7+ years has taught me that often, the only difference between the artist receiving the applause and the person giving the applause is desire. By that I mean: I have encountered so many writers who are as talented as I am. Some writers I have been in class with are more naturally talented than I am. To me, this demonstrates that the factors that allow me to occupy the space of teacher/performer/professional are owed to privileges beyond my direct making (male privilege), or, they are owed not to ability, but to choice. There are many writers who could do what I do, but are not called to express in that way. That is humbling in its own way.
I also teach because I truly love humanity. Facilitating workshops brings me into contact with other people’s ways of perceiving the world. I really, really, really enjoy the process of coming to understand another person’s distinct giftedness and humanity through the sharing of poetry.
I’ve observed on your FaceBook page that you consistently seek to connect and share with people outside of your poems. Whether it’s asking people general questions about their likes or dislikes, or letting people know about how you’re feeling at the time, why do you seek to establish and maintain that kind of connection/relationship with your audience?
As I said, I find a lot of a value and pleasure in understanding the distinct humanity of other people. I think, perhaps all artists are driven by an inherent curiosity they have about the world. I would say that most of my enduring curiosities concern the nuances of the human condition. Therefore, from a purely curious standpoint, I am interested to know how others are feeling and thinking. I am a person who lives for personal connection and meaningfulness in all of my interactions. To connect sincerely is to bring joy and meaning to my life. My nature is curious, and I am often gratified by the experience of connecting authentically with others. I appreciate learning from other people’s ways of seeing and doing.
Before my last question, is there anything you would like to leave with the readers of Black Ottawa Scene?
I am just glad that a platform like this one exists, that is really all.
Lastly, what can we look forward to from you in the future?
Presently, I am trying to leverage my poetic abilities and see how I can use them to create things that are not strictly poems. This means I am working on a lot of music, trying to write songs that include choruses and bridges and things beyond just the poetic verse. I am interested also in long-form theatre, which means I might like to write a play in the next few years. I am trying to take my gift for writing to as many places as I can. I just want to test the limits of my expressive potential and see how far my gifts stretch.