Lillian Allen Interview

Interview #9 Ellen Hinsey

Lillian Allen, interviewed by Kandace Siobhan Walker

Kandace Siobhan Walker: Thank you for being our feature poet for Issue 9, and for talking with me. I wanted to start by asking about Make the World New: The Poetry of Lillian Allen, a selection of your work which was published last year. It was interesting to return your work this way, a mixture of poems that appear on your albums and in your collections.

Lillian Allen: Let me tell you a bit about that. The selected works is really a curation that shows a kind of genealogy and a span of the work because, as Ronald Cummings states, people are usually focused on the genre of dub poetry or the form. But to look at the span of the work, the transnational nature of it, the specificity of being in place, a whole historical lineage is what this book tries to encapsulate.

KSW: I always come back to these lines from ‘Rub a Dub Style Inna Regent Park’: ‘“forget yuh troubles an dance” / forget yu bills them / an irie up yuself / forget yu dreams of gathering dusts’. Could you talk a bit about intertextuality in your work?

LA: Those two lines are references: ‘“forget yuh troubles an dance”’ is from a Bob Marley song. And that line about dreams gathering dust on the shelves is from Langston Hughes, ‘a dream deferred’. If you go through my poems, there are lots of little hooks and allusions and references. It gives a broader scope. These lines have seeped into the culture, it describes something widespread, so it resonates with what people have experienced and what they’re feeling. 

KSW: There’s a kind of choral voice that appears in your poems. What do you feel that plural voice allows you to speak to, that the singular can’t or doesn’t come as close to?

LA: I think it moves the speaker, the voice, to a more communicative collective stance for the author to speak about “we.” It validates what we know to be truth. That’s our alternate knowledge. It’s gathering people around a new space to look and think and see from, as opposed to falling into the dominant cultural or historical narrative. It’s subversive, writing in patois immediately puts you on a side. And that’s what young people say when I meet them, who have encountered my performance or my work, they say that they know there’s somebody on their side. 

KSW: When you write in patois, is that another vehicle for plurality, for bringing the reader into the work?

LA: That’s one reason I wanted to write, because I needed that centrality. I needed the specificity of what I was experiencing as a child growing up, because you always have to position yourself in terms of the dominant culture. I needed to get out of that narrative. We’re documenting language. Jamaican language immediately tells you, this work is in your corner. It’s not even asking you to agree or whatever. It’s just saying, I’m talking to you. This is our thing, not just mine or yours. This is our thing.

KSW: Collective action, the real work of struggle, is emphasised in your poetry. Could you talk about the relationship between activism and dub poetry? Do you think dub is uniquely positioned to address the realities of collective organising and struggle? 

LA: Art comes from culture, and culture comes from communities. When cultural products get extracted, you don’t know the connection, right? The artist uses techniques to bring another element, something else in. But often we see the product without the culture. In the early days, they wanted to separate me from the dub poets. That was generic and I resisted that. I deliberately wanted to be part of a culture and a genealogy. I named myself a dub poet and focused on the dub poetry movement. The collectivity was very important to me, and very important in Black culture. I wanted to be part of this tradition of enriching and enlarging the vision, carrying it forward, bringing the beauty in it, of being there with people. 

KSW: When you translate a text from performance to print, what do you consider when you’re refiguring musical elements to work within a written text? Are there specific techniques or vehicles you use to try and get some of that embodied experience onto the page?

LA: I don’t know if I’m thinking about those things really hard or consciously because I am aware that there’s a spectrum of how things are received. There are different forms of how the poems get transmuted. The writing comes first, then the reflection and research. That almost always comes first. But if I have an idea for the work, I want it to live. I hear the work. I want to hear the sound of language. That’s one of the great things about poetry for me. In that it brings me into this language space. This other dimension, where the words and the cadence create a space that I can enjoy and occupy. To be able to work with sound and hearing is to give a fuller experience. 

KSW: Cadence is central to your work; even when it’s written, there’s a sense of the embodied experience of hearing and being within your own body. 

LA: Being with language is important to me because I grew up in language. I grew up in both a scribal and oral culture, and the oral was the most democratic. So, from very early on, I understood that the oral was the most democratic form of communication, of language. If I was working and making [oral] art, it was free like the air. 

KSW: I wanted to ask you about ‘a poem against things’. It responds to a unique historical moment, yet the lines seem to speak directly to now: ‘planning protest / slavery’s ghost rise up’. Why do you think so much of your poetry resonates across political contexts?

LA: When you write specifically about a situation, things might change in terms of the shade and the landscape, but you are dealing with the human spirit, with fear and struggling for justice and freedom and all the things that we instinctively strive for. We’re facing the same contradictions. Some of my poems carry a certain immediacy. They are intended to work. They’re not intended to lay still on the page, right? I want them to do work. And they’re not just to be analysed and looked at like a little kernel to figure out what’s in them. They are intended to be alive in the world and for people to think beyond the poem: where is this poem taking me and what is it asking of me?

I once was doing a tour in Canada and I went to a town, and the principal told me I couldn’t read my work because of my album, Revolutionary Tea Party. He called me into his office and said, are you gonna start a revolution? I’m like, oh, that would be the highest hope for my work.