A poet, a slave. An ode to freedom. In Alison Clarke’s first poetry collection, Phillis, the award-winning YA author of The Sisterhood series draws from her work as a spoken word artist and member of Alberta’s Stroll of Poets to craft an homage to Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry, who, remarkably, did so while enslaved.
“I found her to be an interesting person to write about,” says Clarke. “Many people could learn from Phillis – what she went through, what she had to do to not only publish her book of poetry, but to get her freedom.”
Reaching through time to embody Wheatley’s first-person voice, Clarke crafts pieces that explore a more intimate view of a writing career alongside the brutal injustices of slavery than Wheatley herself expressed in the 1773 publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
Wheatley was once critiqued for leaving out those personal details – her voice is illuminated in pieces such as “Voyage” where Clarke writes the response, “It’s too painful. Why write about a life that was ripped from you? I can’t. I won’t. I deal, I sleep with enough ghosts hanging about me.”
In the first section of Phillis, Clarke explores how her character’s poetic voice was shaped by the teachings of Western languages and literary figures, while still retaining the stories and memories of her homeland. What seems most significant about the character is that rather than losing a sense of self, Wheatley was able to adapt, be empowered, and succeed against her own oppression.
Clarke says, “I think it was her belief in her Ancestors, and connection to her parents, even though they were far away and she would never see them again. In Black culture, in North America, the West Indies, as well as in countries in Africa, there is a strong belief about the importance of the Ancestors.”
This belief in the importance of historical role models carries into the second section, in which the poems leave Wheatley’s point of view to dip into other figures in African American history, whose voices are heard carrying her legacy in their own thoughts and actions.
In “Blessings: 1911,” Clarke speaks through Harriet Tubman to honour Wheatley: “I might not be able to read or write, but I know Phillis that you were the first, to lead our people out of the wilderness to the Promised Land. It starts with one.”
For Clarke, Wheatley’s legacy lives in a voice that speaks through generations of empowerment and resistance, and is heard by those who speak back as they march in support of Black lives today.
“I think Phillis shows people protesting today that things are possible, but we still have a long way to go,” says Clarke. “The fact that she died alone, with a child at her breast, even though she was very accomplished, illustrates the fact that then, and even now, opportunities for people of colour are lacking, and very much a challenge to grasp.”