An Interview With Lillian Allen

By Guest Contributor Jorge Antonio Vallejos, cross-posted from Black Coffee Poet

Dub poet Lillian Allen continues to define the form and explore its leading innovative edge. She has performed her work in many major venues in North America taking poetry to larger and larger audiences. She has produced Juno award winning recordings, critical acclaimed publications, and she has performed her work for television, film, radio, and print media across the world. Lillian is also a professor of creative writing at the Ontario College of Art and Design, inspiring students to claim space for their dreams in the world and to use their creativity to make revolution.

BCP: Why poetry?

LA: You ask why poetry? To that I would say, why not poetry? Poetry is the deprogramming faculty we have as humans that they would like us to believe is, or should be the purview of only a few. With poetry we can create our own textures and our own picture of life, we can create community, name the nameless and put out a point of view, a way of seeing that says we are unique and we can think for ourselves. Poetry is the answer to the roll call those in control have forgotten to do. Poetry is the “present” to this imaginary roll call.

BCP: How did you come up with Dub Poetry?  Can you please define Dub Poetry for readers?

LA: I was doing what I was doing from I was a little child, later when I did formal English Literature and learned about poetry in the Euro tradition, I love it! It seemed to me that poetry was already everywhere in my community.

In church, the preacher, my Grandma, my friends, the guys on the corner, even the sports commentators. I remember how joyed and elated my parents and their friends were when a certain radio commentator made a particular vivid commentary, filled with metaphors and simile. They would talk about the beauty of his verbal chops for days on end. I was inspired.

Later when I started to write my own poetry and listen to High School poetry, I yearned to make it my own, to put some of my culture and everyday language into it. The late great Jamaican Louise Bennett paved the way with her witty, intellectually flawless down to earth poetry in the Jamaican language. Bob Marley building on Miss Lou work emphasized the musical elements and did his thing. But it was the fabulous Oku Onoura who burst out on the scene and gave what himself and a number of compatriots were doing at the time, the name ‘dub poetry’. So when I met up with Oku, I saw that we were doing very similar things, so I figured that I was part of a movement, so I called myself a dub poet. From then on I set out to consciously develop both the form and the movement.

BCP: What is your creative process?

LA: My creative process has a lot of incubation; I like to think about things for a long time. I love warm round sound, and the sound of meaning. I like to write the kind of poetry I would love to hear. The musicality, the rhythms, pre language nuances and post language impulses. I go for creating a full experience.

BCP: Was it hard finding a publisher for your controversial book Psychic Unrest?

LA: Jill Battson invited me to publish with Insomniac Press, in Toronto. I gathered up a few pages, then spent a few weeks working to refine and finalize on the page.

BCP: In your video performance piece for (to be posted Friday February 25, 2011) you sang a lot of African based notes and rhythms. How much does your spirituality and ancestry play a part in your writing and performances?

LA: My spirituality and ancestry is core to my writing. It is a site where all these things get connected, my special ‘cathedral’, so to speak.

BCP: Do you see poetry as a form of prayer?

LA: My poetry is definitely a form of prayer and ritual and communion.

BCP: As a woman of colour was it a difficult road for you in the poetry scene?

LA: I identify as a feminist woman.

BCP: The poetry you have shared with me is history based and focuses on dismantling colonialism.  Is a lot of your poetry like that?

LA: A lot of my poetry focuses on opening up possibilities, to counter the veneer of the ‘God given norm’ and empowering ideas and people to assert and fight for what is just.

BCP: What does Black History Month mean to you?  What changes would you like to see happen for future Black History Months?

LA: Decolonizing our minds, and fighting those structures and systemic social relationships that justify and keep oppression in place. We have to fight oppression in all its forms, not just colonialism.

BCP: What are you working on now?

LA: I’m just getting ready to make the old recordings available to the public. I am planning on doing some recording this year and am writing all the time.

BCP: What advice do you have for other writers out there who are having difficulties with their writing, or who have yet to see their work in print, or who are afraid to perform their poetry?

LA: For young writers who want to, and are afraid to, perform, I say practice and attend readings, network, do open mics, join up with a group of writers, take a course, whatever you can do to get going; and many writers today self publish their own work.


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  • Anonymous

    I’ve loved Lillian Allen since my undergrad days some 21 years ago. Revolutionary Tea Party and Conditions Critical were my thangs, and I wondered what happened to her over the years. I’m glad she’s still around fighting the power with poetry.

    Thanks, Jorge, for this great interview!