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Pioneering dub poet Lillian Allen makes vibrational connections with the community

Lillian Allen
Lillian Allen, a two-time Juno winner and bestselling poet, will speak at the Verses Festival of Words.

Canada’s largest alternative literary festival will feature a keynote address by a founder of dub poetry. Lillian Allen is a professor of creative writing at Ontario College of Art and Design, as well as the seventh Poet Laureate of Toronto. Next Saturday (April 27), she will speak from 3 to 4 p.m. at The Nest on Granville Island as part of the Verses Festival of Words.

In a phone interview with the Toronto Spark, the two-time Juno Award winner says that she began doing her brand of poetry when she was in school in Kingston, Jamaica. She carried on after moving to North America at the age of 17 to study in Toronto and New York.

“I was doing a kind of poetry that was meant for community,” Allen states. “It wasn’t meant for somebody to pick up in a book and sit in a room by themselves and pontificate. It was really meant for creating this vibrational connection.”

The spoken-word artist won Junos for Reggae/Calypso Album of the Year for Revolutionary Tea Party and Conditions Critical. In 2011, the City of Toronto gave Allen a Community Cultural Champion Award.

Speaking to the Toronto Spark, Allen emphasizes that no one elite group should claim providence over poetry. Even though she was originally writing in Jamaica, she points out that her verses emerged from the African tradition.

Quite early on, Allen realized that she was part of a movement. According to her, this reflected a cultural consciousness fighting to exist.

“Believe it or not, there are a bunch of folks who just didn’t want to hear it or thought it was some kind of corruption of their poetics,” Allen states.

Lillian Allen: “Pandemic – The Year 2020”.

Allen founded International Dub Poetry Festival

Oku Onuora, who also grew up in Kingston, was one of the world’s first dub poets. He began writing poetry in prison in the early 1970s after being jailed for engaging in guerilla actions. His poems were smuggled out of prison and read at public events.

Allen met Onuora after he was released. She later met another pioneer, Linton Kwesi Johnson, whose recordings brought global attention to dub poetry.

“We were all doing our stuff independently until we connected with each other,” Allen says.

In 1993, Allen founded the International Dub Poetry Festival in Toronto, which lasted for several years. She says that the inaugural event brought together 92 people. They were mostly practitioners, writers, and academics.

At the time, it made a big ripple, helping change North American public perceptions about poetry. Since then, the festival has been mentioned in several academic papers. Allen likens participants’ feelings to how early practitioners of jazz music must have felt knowing that they were changing the ecology of music.

“Poetry shouldn’t just be written for the person who can analyze it,” Allen declares.

Later, she co-produced and co-directed the documentary Blak Wii Blak about Jamaican dub poet Mutabaruka. Meanwhile, dub poetry is now a literary form recognized in the English literary canon. However, Allen points out that the term, “dub poetry” only emerged after the form was developed.

Her most recent collection is Make the World New: The Poetry of Lillian Allen, edited by Ronald Cummings. According to the publisher, Wilfred Laurier University Press, it brings together highlights of her work in a single volume while presenting new and uncollected poems.

Watch Lillian Allen perform “I Fight Back” in 1988.

Advice for young artists

Writing in Rungh, B.C. poet Phinder Dulai described Make the World New as “a wonderful collection of Allen’s best work and clearly illustrates why Allen is considered a pioneer in not just dub poetry, but in poetry that is imagist and thematically drawn out over different areas of life”.

“Her work is a calling to that old song of revolution and to bring social justice themes to the foreground—themes such as anti-Black racism, misogyny, class, and the importance of demonstrating against injustice,” Dulai stated in his review.

After all of her success, what advice would Lillian Allen offer her younger self as she was embarking on her poetry career?

“I would just say keep doing what you’re doing. Connect to community. Be around people who are supportive,” Allen tells Pancouver. “I had to do what I had to do for my own process in the world, to mediate my own existence.”

For her, she adds, it was never about writing poetry just so that it could be published.

Then, she offers more advice for young people. Allen acknowledges that many sacrifice for their art, but she stresses the importance of taking care of one’s physical health.

“Make the compromise and get a job,” she recommends. “Pay your rent. Have a nice life. Be able to take a trip, right? That’s me. I’m a middle-of-the-roader when it comes to that.

“I don’t believe you should sacrifice it all and just go for it; I think you need to live every day and take care of yourself,” Allen continues. “Gain your strength and feel good about yourself and be connected and integrated into the whole world.”

Event details

The Verses Festival of Words runs from April 18 to 27 at various locations. For more information, visit the website. Lillian Allen will speak at 3 p.m. on April 27 at The Nest on Granville Island. Tickets are available on the Vancouver Poetry House website. Learn more about the communities that make up Canada on the Toronto Spark website.


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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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