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Dr Lillian Allen ‘the Foremother of Canadian Poetry’

It took nearly two hours for her audience to begin to plumb the professional depths of Jamaican Canadian artist and educator, Dr Lillian Allen. And even at the end of the session, we knew precious little about her personal life.

Gathered in the multi-purpose room of the main library of The University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona, we learnt early from her introducer, Dr Lisa Tomlinson, a UWI lecturer, that her substantive post in her adopted country is professor of creative writing at the Ontario College of Art and Design University. It’s one of the top institutions of higher learning in Canada.

But there was much more to come in the multi-purpose event – a combination poetry reading, interview of Dr Allen by sister poet Dr Opal Palmer Adisa and Dr Tomlinson, and a Q & A session with the audience. It was hosted by the UWI’s Department of Literatures in English, and the welcome was given by Senior Lecturer Dr Isis Semaj Hall.

In a brief, too-modest comment on the scope of her poetry, Professor Allen said, “I write about what’s happening in the Toronto community, particularly the black communities.” Then she launched into a reading of published and new work. Delivered mainly in dub poetry/hip hop style, the poems were both striking in form and strident in content.

The stylistic features were the ones common to dub poetry, including the repetition of words and phrases, the extension of the endings of words, the drawing out of sounds, sing-song speech, an immoderate use of puns and unexpected rhyming. It’s all very rhythmic, very musical.

Among other things, Allen’s poetry inveighs against the system that oppresses black as well as Canada’s indigenous people, domestic violence, chauvinism and police abuse. Her shortest poem, Feminism 101, reads: “Instead of being the door mat/Get up/Be the door.” Another, longer, poem with the same message of resistance was I Fight Back, which, she said, was her most anthologised poem. Her first dub poem, Rhythm and Hard Times, about police shooting a black man who was mentally challenged, while in his home, and the huge protest that ensued, opened the scope of her poetry greatly, she said.

She told The Jamaica Gleaner that among the poets who influenced her work were Jamaican performance poets Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze and Mutabaruka, as well as the more literary poets Mervyn Morris and Kamau Brathwaite.

Dr Tomlinson said that the Spanish Town-born Allen became in Canada “a beacon of creative expression and cultural activism” with work that was “characterised by a distinctive style and diverse themes, consistently reflects an unwavering commitment to social justice”.

Elaborating on this, Dr Tomlinson said that Allen’s creative work “intricately weaves together identity, race, and empowerment for disenfranchised communities. Though her poetry and music may provoke discomfort by highlighting contentious topics impacting Caribbean communities, they authentically speak to the heart of social reality and the lived experiences of Caribbean people in Canada, particularly in Toronto.”

For her work in dub poetry, Allen won the Juno Award for Best Reggae/Calypso Album for Revolutionary Tea Party in 1986 and Conditions Critical in 1988. Dr Allen told the audience that in 1992 she organised the First International Dub Poetry Festival in Toronto and was honoured by the League of Canadian Poets as “the foremother of Canadian poetry”.

Addressing Dr Allen’s influence on youth, Dr Tomlinson said: “Apart from her achievements in poetry and performance, Dr Allen paved the way for a new generation of artists by channeling her energy in the establishment of community-building youth programs, such as Fresh Arts. This initiative empowered and nurtured the talents of black youths, playing a crucial role in fostering some of Canada’s top hip hop acts, including Kardinal Offishall.”

She added that as a professor, Dr Allen encourages students to use their creativity as “a catalyst for revolution”.

In concluding her introduction, Dr Tomlinson gave us a glimpse at Dr Allen’s influence internationally: “Dr Lillian Allen’s performances span across television, film, radio, and print media on a global scale, adding to the resonating impact of her voice in literature and socio-cultural dialogue worldwide.”

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