Lillian Allen’s campus debut

Pioneer dub poet speaks to packed crowd

Poet Lillian Allen, the University’s first ever writer-in-residence, read from her work Tuesday.
Poet Lillian Allen, the University’s first ever writer-in-residence, read from her work Tuesday.

Lillian Allen, Queen’s University’s first ever writer-in-residence, performed to a packed room in Watson Hall on tuesday in the first event associated with her appointment to the position.

Writer-in-residence programs are operated through shared funding between the host university and the Canada Council. Writers are expected to spend 60 per cent of their time on their own work and 40 per cent working with the university and community.

Creative writing instructor Carolyn Smart credited english department head Patricia Rae for being central to creating the position, and said the university was slow to realize its potential. “I think it’s taken a long time for the university to come to the understanding that creative writing is as essential as it is here, and that it’s grown in importance in the last 20 years,” said Smart in her Watson Hall office, which she shares with Allen.

“There are now several student organized magazines run and edited on campus. There are numerous graduates of creative writing [at Queen’s] who have published major literary collections—and non-literary collections. For example, Chris Turner’s Planet Simpson—I could go on and on.”

“I have half a bookshelf just of the students I’ve worked with, let alone the people who were here before I was.” Allen was flattered to be offered the Queen’s residency.

“It’s an honour, it really is. Any writer out there would die for this,” Allen said. “This is what writers would like—the support to do their work, an environment where they can dialogue with people, with ideas, have the resources of the university at their fingertips. Kingston is a beautiful place.
“But I think most importantly, Carolyn’s work and Carolyn’s role in the writing community—which is quite broad, her view on writing is quite eclectic ... So I was very excited in working in that milieu with someone like her ... “I thought this was a nurturing place, a good place for me to land and be able to do my thing.” Allen is internationally recognized as a pioneer of dub poetry, a spoken-word form written in the Jamaican language (or “nation language”) and shaped by the melody and rhythms of reggae. Dub poetry and dub music originated in late 1960s and ’70s Jamaica when dancehall DJs began speaking over the B-sides of reggae records. Unlike the DJs’ usually improvised “Toasts,” dub poetry performances were prepared, focused more on social and political content, and did not require music, instead incorporating musical elements into the performance of the poem itself.

“It goes to the language of the heart and of the people ... and it creates meaning as it creates culture.
The writer in the context of dub poetry thinks about community, thinks about values,” said Allen. “It has that post-colonial impulse, that finding a voice, that asserting new possibilities ... “And it was meant to be pleasurable, meant to be something that carried a message which was most important, and that message was meant to be underscored by the beauty and the shape and the rhythm of the poetry itself. “Dub poetry preceded rap—it was the form that rap also looked to in terms of its own evolution. But dub poetry remains artist-driven, as rap is now wide out in the market and shaped by market forces. In dub poetry, the artist doesn’t care, doesn’t make a penny—whatever we have to say, we have to say, that’s it.” Seats quickly filled up in Watson Hall Tuesday afternoon for Allen’s performance, which was highlighted by energetic performances of “Dem Days” and “Rasta in Court” rom her 1999 book Psychic Unrest. Musical, irreverent, and highly political, Allen’s performances bear
little resemblance to stereotypes about poetry or spoken word. In performance as well as in conversation, Allen is funny, thoughtful and engaging.

Originally from Spanish Town, Jamaica in 1951, she emigrated to North America in 1969. “I grew up in a British system, so we studied British and American authors, and some of the stories were great. Who doesn’t love Jane Eyre in your sort of pre-feminist— well, she’s pretty, whatever, you know what I mean?” said Allen, laughing. “The storms are clapping, it’s pretty Hollywood, right? So you get a good eye at that kind of stuff, but whatever perspective was missing [in the stories], I would always occupy that. I couldn’t see myself as the main protagonist ... “So there were other things in my culture: music, reggae music emerged, and Louise Bennett, who died recently in Toronto ... what she did mostly was that she was writing in Jamaican language ... and it was making perfect sense to me.
“It was part of the language that surrounded me, even though we didn’t use it at school or at home.” Allen works in several mediums: as a recording artist (who has won two Junos for Best reggae/Calypso Album); a filmmaker; a playwright and as a fiction and children’s writer. Politically active for years on culture, diversity and arts issues in Toronto, the city honoured Allen with the Access, Equity and Human Rights William P. Hubbard Award in 2004. Allen has also taught creative writing at the Ontario College of Art and Design for 15 years. “The most common mistake students make is thinking that the first time they sit down to write something, it’s supposed to be good ...
“Students usually, when they get to a book ... pick up something that somebody’s written after they’ve studied and trialed and crafted for 20 years ... and it seems overwhelming. How can you see yourself in that, you know? “So the idea is to realize that it is a practice, it is a craft, and it’s something that develops incrementally ... Like if you were to become a surgeon, or an excellent musician, you have to
spend time.” Allen is frustrated by the “hokey” separation between performanceoriented poets and what she calls “page writers,” but says the spoken word community in Canada is extremely active.
“I think that it is the largest movement since rock and roll of people being part of culture, people getting their voices out there, people developing communities ... I can’t think of a place I’ve been where I haven’t seen spoken word or an open mic ... “So there’s this great big movement. Unfortunately, the way that academia works and so on, it takes a good 25 years before stuff like that will find a place. It always looks with suspicion at things that come from the bottom up as opposed to from the top down.” “I think it’s a big mistake, because I think what schools should be doing is getting in there and having some kind of influence, working with students to develop their capacity for research, deeper thought, more craft elements, more community development, et cetera.”

Allen’s office hours are Tuesdays and Thursdays in Watson Hall 529 from approximately 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and by appointment. She can be contacted through her mailbox in the English department office. Allen is assembling a committee to organize a dub poetry festival in November. Other events associated with her residency will be announced during the fall term.

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