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Lillian Allen fights back with words
published: Sunday | June 3, 2007

Krista Henry, Staff Reporter

Dub Poet Lillian Allen - Contributed Photo

"My children scream

My grandmother is dying

I came to Canada

And found the doors

Of opportunities well guarded"

'I Fight Back', Lillian Allen.

Lillian Allen fought back, speaking out on issues that she kept close to her bosom. A poet, playwright, teacher and activist, she has made her mark on the world. Allen moved from Spanish Town, Jamaica, to North America in 1969. She studied at the City University of New York and has a B.A. from York University in Toronto. With her words set to music, Allen carries her message to hundreds who need strength and guidance. She has spent over a decade writing, publishing, and performing her work in Canada, the United States and England. Lillian is known internationally as a pioneer of dub poetry and as a ground breaker for women in the field.

Her first album of poetry with music, Revolutionary Tea Party (1986), was proclaimed a 'Landmark Album of The Past 20 Years' by Ms. Magazine in 1991. She won a Juno award for that album and a second in 1988 for Conditions Critical. Allen has published two books of poetry, Rhythm An' Hardtimes and, more recently, Women Do This Everyday. Her creativity also extends to film, as co-producer and co-director of Blak Wi Blakk, a documentary on Jamaican dub poet Mutabaruka.

Beyond writing, Allen is a recognised authority and activist on issues of diversity in culture, cross-cultural learning and the arts in education. She has been consulted and prepared major reports on these issues for Canadian organisations ranging from the Ministry of Citizenship & Culture to the National Film Board. Her lectures and performances have taken her back to Jamaica and as far as Switzerland. Allen has also been Writer in Residence at Canada's University of Windsor, and she is currently an instructor at the Ontario College of Art.

SG: When were you first interested in dub poetry?

Lillian Allen: I've always been writing poetry since I was very young. I grew up in Spanish Town and left Jamaica and was still writing poetry. I went to university and studied English Literature. I wanted to be a writer but I wanted something that was more me, more my culture. I saw a lot of examples in the black community and reggae music captured my imagination. A lot of messages from Bob Marley and such were straightforward. I liked that. In the environment I was now I really needed to turn up the volume to be noticed. I was doing something like dub poetry and was loving the reaction.

How did you get involved in it?

The turning point came in 1978 when I went to Cuba and met Oku Onura. I figured this was what I was doing. I figured this is it. I was so happy he had named it. It came from my culture, I was proud of it. I came back to Canada to spread di word. That's the road I've been on since.

What did your parents think about your career choice?

My parents know me and know I love writing. They were happy to get the newspaper clippings on me. Once people heard me they loved me. A lot of people think you're not gonna make money as a poet. People didn't like what I talked about, incest, etc. such as in my poem 'Nelly Belly Swelly'; People would quarrel."

Was it difficult being a female dub poet, meaning did you find it harder to get respect from the wider community?

It was a different situation in Canada. People wanted new voices, I think I'm an artist. I'm serious about my work. I spend most of my time doing it. For me it wasn't difficult. When I was recorded I won two Junos, which is the equivalent of a Grammy.

Is there subject matter that you usually talk about?

I usually look at social, political concerns, whatever empowers in whatever sphere or form.

What are your inspirations?

What really inspires me is that so much of the world is so beautiful, so many people are so great, so why is there so much evil? I think of how beautiful Jamaica would be if I could walk down the street and leave my door open. Also to see people who are doing so well with so little and have contributed to society making the world a better place.

I was reading that most of your work is performed and not written. Why is that?

I have been published extensively. My books are studied in every university in Canada in some course. I have an English background; the techniques of traditional literature bear on my art.

What was your first published work and how did that make you feel?

It was Rhythms An Hard Times. It was great; mi hug di book and carry wid me to bed. It was a great ting. Growing up in Jamaica, I didn't know people wrote books. When I realisepeople can write books I said yes, mi mus write now. I did it wid every publication. I know how powerful books have been to my life. When I think that my books will be doing that for someone, is a dream come true.

How would you like to be remembered?

Mostly for my relationship with my id, the kind of person I am. It would be nice to get recognition. I want to remembered for my spark and kick.

SG: How has living in Canada affected what you write?

I think it has really given me a sense of clarity by distance, to understand fundamentally why countries like Canada are so wealthy. I'm very conscious of that, conscious of why people have to leave the Caribbean. I see it and know it.

Do you ever feel distanced from Jamaica?

I feel very much Canadian now. Jamaica is like my mother, Africa my grandmother, Canada my family. Its just livity.

You're an activist. What are some of your causes?

Any kind of anti-oppression caused. In Canada, there's problems with the school system; I want a more equitable society, better opportunities for people in society, anything advocating for yutes.

What would you consider your most memorable performance?

One was actually in a church in Santa Cruz, California. It was a small church and when we showed up, it had no sound system, so we got some acoustic instruments. We were feeling very spiritual. It was on the other side; we were communing with something.

When was the last time you performed in Jamaica? Why don't you perform here as often?

Long, long time, I don't even remember. I've been invited a couple of times, it just never work out for some reason, 'cause of my schedule, but one of these days.

How is the Canadian poetry scene?

Very political in terms of messages being put out there. It's very community oriented. Yutes from all different cultures bring what they can. Dub poetry is a cultural form; when you hear it you know it has its roots, like reggae music. We keep it that way because we want it to be a cultural form. We like diversity. We keep dub poetry cultural, with social responses.

Is it more viable than in Jamaica?

Oh yeah, no question about that. Part of the reason is that we're connected into a whole network. There's a lot of support in Canada - festivals, organisations, etc., and a fair bit of coverage in papers as well. We do it on every level, publishing, recording, making films, etc.

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