Interview with Room’s 2022 Poetry Contest Judge, Lillian Allen

Lue Palmer

This year’s Poetry Contest judge is the prolific Lillian Allen. A leading Canadian poet and an international exponent of dub poetry, Lillian Allen was acclaimed a foremother of Canadian poetry by the League of Canadian Poets. She is a two-time Canadian Juno award winner for her albums of dub poetry, Revolutionary Tea Party and Conditions Critical. She is an arts activist and a cultural strategist who initiated and developed several key equity impacting arts programs. A mentor to the mentors and Godmother of Everything’, Lillian is the recipient of many awards and citations including The Toronto Cultural Champions Award, The Margo Bindhardt Award for significantly impacting the arts in Toronto through both creative work and activism, the William P. Hubbard Award for Race Relations, and an Honourary Doctorate from Wilfred Laurier University for her contribution and impact on Canadian Letters.

In this interview, we chat with Lillian about making the world new, sound publishing, the role of the poet in today’s world, and what she is looking for in poetry contest submissions.


ROOM: I’d like to begin with a question a dear friend of mine often asks, which is ‘who are your people?’ 

LILLIAN ALLEN: I am the daughter of Thelma the granddaughter of Mammy Clarrissa , the mother of Anta. My people hail from Spanish town, Jamaica(in this iteration). My grandmother was a midwife. She provided support for women and young girls, she did abortions. She made wedding cakes, she prepared the dead for burial.Community and self were the same metaphor for me, they stood for the same thing. My people were feisty, loud, hardworking and loving and kind, and very independent. Soft, and deeply caring. And oh ye, religious too.

ROOM: There’s an underrepresentation of patwah in Canadian literary spaces. When you had pushback from the League of Canadian Poets, that was also about the form of of oral storytelling being seen as legitimate, but there is crossover with language. Have you seen any changes since that time? 

LA: There was a review of one of my books, Psychic Unrest [and] this reviewer was talking about ‘the broken English’ and ‘how people don’t even know proper English, so why am I adding more confusion?’ That’s the kind of white supremacy you sometimes get. 

The more unique voices that can come to the fore, the more specific and diverse we are shown to be, we are all better for it, more richness in the culture. There are many different registers of English. There should be encouragement to explore language in many forms. To not have Jamaican language supported, when it has influenced so many people—not just in terms of the actual words, cadence, tempo, the emphasis and de-emphasis—but also in terms of how the rhythm and musicality contributed so much to music.. 

I’m definitely in favour of [patwah] being included in the curriculum. Just imagine a kid in school—their mother speaks it, they can identify it, claim it and distinguish themselves,  they can hold it as fi dem culture. 

ROOM: Room Magazine has partnered with Hush Harbour Press on a project called Speech Sounds—which makes room in publishing for non-page storytelling. What are your hopes for alternate forms of publishing and why is it important to you?

LA: I think that’s brilliant. All language springs from the oral. When we get into publishing however, a big distinction is made between the page and the oral. In most cultures, everything is a spectrum. It’s not either, or. Oral language is part of the diversity of the way people express themselves. To me, it should be the overwhelming literary force of the world. 

I’m glad those young people are doing what they’re doing. And sorry they have to be spending their time fighting the battles we have already fought. It was our hope that they wouldn’t have to carry or feel the burden of exclusion and marginalization, and not having full and equal access to collective resources, but it seems like each generation has to refight the battles.

ROOM: I can only speak for myself, but there’s a joy to what we’re doing. We are loving the process of making and remaking. Even when there is pushback, it’s comforting and encouraging to reference your work. 

LA: I’m definitely happy to hear that. 

ROOM: Let’s talk about hip-hop. We had the honour  of interviewing your comrade, Michie Mee earlier this year on her new album Bhadgyal’s Revenge. Artists like Haviah Mighty are also taking the stage. What changes have you seen to either Canadian hip hop or oral traditions since Can’t Repress the Cause

LA: Well, it’s never enough for me, for the amount of time and labour that we’ve put in building coalitions and building organisations to change this country. A lot of the programs at Canada Council we fought for —a lot of things that are Black community initiatives, are not  attributed to us. A lot more attention needs to be paid to how culture is developed. You have to nurture the community, you have to support cultural expression. And then the arts will emerge from that. So there’s some change, but consider that we kicked the barricades down 40 years ago. We’ve seen the whole book movement opening up in the last four, five years. Now we’ve seen spoken word moving along. I would have loved much more. I’m proud of the people who have done it and are doing it. I am proud that we’ve set a context in Canada, and made a way for a whole generation of people to come up as a community and as creatives through the spoken word movement, I’m really proud.

I just wish there was more infrastructure. There are a lot of people who have done extremely well. I wish they would come back and help and seriously support people like Hush Harbour. Like, you’re doing what? Okay, how many people do you think you can publish in the next year? Do you need a studio? Do you need help with production? That kind of stuff. I wish we had a way of calling people together to provide real material support. 

ROOM: So what do you think the role of the poet is in this particular moment? 

LA: The role of the poet is first the role of the person—to take care of oneself. Then to live a life that one can be proud of. To be worthy of their presence on this amazing planet. To be a poet out of that, is then to to tell the story, write the poetry, go as deep as they can, connect and inter-connect as much as they can. Validate what people are feeling and thinking. Try to recognize the limits of ones  imagination. Beyond that, listening, and bringing into being that which hasn’t been said, or finding a way that it can be accessed and rotated. And to see themselves as part of the language ecology, the literary and cultural ecology that will transform the world.

You gotta work at it, and to keep engaging and interacting with life and what’s coming through you.. I don’t think poetry must mean a book or even a recording. That has been one of our downfalls—everybody says, ‘okay, I’m writing a book.’ You’re writing a book? Write poetry! Think about the book afterwards. We’ve been hemmed in by the product. I think we need to get more in the process. And to love it and to be with it. Of course there’s a product but first its connected to you, the person in progress. You’re not a manufacturer. You’re living your life. And then you’re shaping it, and at some point putting a frame around it. 

So that would be my number one advice—learn to love what you’re doing. There are ways of learning to love it and play with it. If you’re not at play, don’t squander your time. If you’re blocked, take a moment, and thank the universe for the gift. When you get through that block, there’s something on the other side that you didn’t see or know. Just keep going. And not just for an hour, two hours, but for your lifetime. It can be your companion. A very good companion in addition to everything else that you have. 

ROOM: It’s a beautiful gift. What feeds new work and creativity for you, and what comes first in the process?

LA: It’s hard to say what comes first. It could be a deep feeling. It could be an image. It could be an insight, a hypothesis. Then, I meditate and do some research on it. Then I write pretty quickly. Then play around a little.  My first kind of ideas, I call a pre-draft. Then I am with it for a while and the ideas come up in different ways. I usually like to work with a constellation of ideas. Sometimes it takes a couple hours or sometimes it takes weeks, even years. But I always make sure that I have some important things I want it to say. Even if I don’t say poetically at first, I write it down just so it’s on the paper. Then I figure out how I can put that in a different dimension in language.

I usually do quite a number of drafts. That’s the beautiful process of the polish. Sometimes it changes the  meaning altogether. But I just work on it until I feel like I’ve got it. Sometimes I don’t quite feel like I’ve got it, but it’s ok. You can just move onto the next ideas and get back later. But its very important to me that it sounds beautiful. I like to write the kind of poetry that I’d like to hear. 

ROOM: Sound is very important to you when you’re looking for new work?

LA: I’m attracted to the way sound underscores the images, the message, and provides another dimension to the story. Sound is such a connected language. It’s a way to bring people into space and surprise them. It’s a whole different territory. And it definitely can reorient, disorient and bring you into a different realms of healing and connection. That’s more visceral, to me. More to the heart. 

ROOM: As our 2022 Poetry Contest judge, what are you looking for as you read submissions?

LA: I’m looking for the person to present themselves in their unique way. If I see five people standing up, they’re all different. They’re all different shapes, sizes, dress differently. So I want them to stand out as their personality would. 

Part of this is how you use language. How can you bring me, the reader, the listener into the language? And I want to know the idea behind the poem. Being a teacher of poetry, that is often what’s missing in what people write. Sometimes they are just describing things. Okay, the tree is tall, and it’s green and its leaves are blowing in the wind, and the sky is above it. But what’s the idea?

ROOM: What is driving the poem?

LA: What should be driving the poem? I see a lot of poems that are basically showing me stuff. And I want to figure out, what’s your reflection on this? Do you have an insight to give? Can you open up the imagination? What am I thinking beyond the poem? Do I just read it, leave it and then can’t remember it ever? Just get me to stay with it a little bit afterwards. Relatability is also important to me. Maybe not to some, but its important to me. 

ROOM: I’m excited to see what you’ll select from this years submissions. Let’s talk about your latest release, Make the World New. What does the title mean to you?

LA: Well the title comes from a poem, about the Nicaraguan Revolution at the time that it happened, and how each of us can make our world new, wherever we are.  Whether it’s writing or something else. The world needs to be remade, it needs to be made new and I think that’s part of the function of art in general—to keep making the world new.

The collection includes two decades of work, and some that was not yet published. There’s almost everything in that collection. It’s almost like a little world in itself. It’s so many things in one place. .

I worked closely with the  editor for the collection, Ronald Cummings, and he did a really good job. He had a good sense of genealogy, not just in my own trajectory but in terms of a Jamaican perspective in transnational Canada. 

ROOM: That must have been beautiful to curate your work, to decide how the pieces speak to each other over time and to this present moment. I have one final question for you. What are your top five materials that you come back to—books, albums, images? 

LA: I’m pretty eclectic. I have favourite books but I don’t go back to anything because there’s just so much to look at. I listen to Cuban music, soul and funk music. A lot of reggae. Not so much the contemporary stuff. I gave away a couple thousand books a few years ago. There are books and authors that have influenced me. Eduardo Galeano. My favourite, favourite book that I’ve probably grown out of—Annie John [Jamaica Kincaid]. There’s a whole lot of people I love to read. Lee Maracle. Small Island by Andrea Levy. I love to see new voices. I love a lot of Indigenous writing that is coming out. 

ROOM: Is there anything else that you would like us to know?

LA: One thing—writing is so important when you take it up. But people should feel inspired. Whether you want to create poems, stories, recordings or to do stage productions  or podcasts. Just love writing and keep doing it no matter what. Keep learning. Make it your companion in life. 



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