Anne Szumigalski Memorial Lecture – League of Canadian Poets AGM June 6, 2014, written by Lillian Allen
– originally published in Prairie Fire, Winter 2014, Volume 35, No.4
as Lillian Allen: Black Voice – Context and Subtext; and in Measures of Astonishment: Poets on Poetry by The League of Canadian Poets Published by: University of Regina Press (2016)
Let me engage in ritual by moving off the page, moving beyond language to create with you a moment of magic—of the poetic, in ssssound – an engagement in a collective sound poetry experience.
We as Stories @ Lillian Allen — Listen on Spotify
In her 2011 acceptance speech at the National Book Award for Poetry for Head Off & Split, Black American poet Nikky Finney began by referring to the 1739 slave codes of South Carolina: “A fine of $100 and six months in prison will be imposed for anyone found teaching a slave to read or write. And death is the penalty for circulating any incendiary literature…” Finney goes on, “The ones who longed to read and write but were forbidden, who lost hands and feet, were killed by laws written by men who believed they owned other men… words devoted to quelling freedom, insurgency, imagination, all hope—what about the possibility of one day making a poem?”1
Let’s begin by understanding that dub poetry was never intended to compete with traditional European-derived poetry, just as reggae music was never intended to compete with European classical music. The truth is that dub poets love all poetry, and especially the best of the poets we were raised on—Yeats, Chaucer, Wordsworth, Tennyson, etc. We responded to the alienation that this poetry engendered when it was taught and generally accepted that these creations came from a “universal” author. This work was propagated in a way not to emphasize that these were creations of individuals who worked out of a specific cultural context in the throes of particular historical times and rooted in particular landscapes.
Dub poetry did what good poetry should do, and that is reach for and reflect its own space and vernacular, the concerns of the personal, social, spiritual and political, in its own time.
Dub poetry emerged, or rather crystallized, in the early to mid-seventies, when cultural contestations were being waged by disenfranchised and racialized peoples, in places like Kingston (Jamaica), London, Soweto, New York City, Seattle, Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal, Peterborough and Toronto. It has since spread mostly on the wings of popular culture around the world to godmother rap and hip hop, and has given birth to and helped the spoken word form take root. Some will argue about the influence of the Beat poets on the birth of dub poetry, and indeed some spoken word poets can point to the Beat poets as their specific connection, but I can assure you that the first wave of spoken word artists were not looking to Beat culture for guidance or inspiration. And, as funky as Walt Whitman was, the dub poets’ reach went way beyond him. It is well documented that Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman had a very fruitful poetic relationship, a relationship initiated by Langston. They were connected by poetics and by their marginalization: Langston Hughes by his race and his same-love sexuality, and Whitman for his same-sex love. And who could forget Langston’s memorable poem, “I, Too, Sing America,” in its delicious response to and conscious entanglement with Whitman’s anthem, “I Hear America Singing”?
The African oral tradition has been one of the oldest and strongest artistic threads in human history, and in fact has served to influence music and literary movements in the West. Indeed, most contemporary Black American writers, especially the poets, will point to the Harlem Renaissance and its influence.
The Harlem Renaissance was an African-American arts movement developed around 1918 in Harlem in response to the pervasive notion in America that Black people had no culture and could not make or appreciate art. The people who followed the slave codes by banning reading and writing for their slaves didn’t seem to notice the culture growing right under their noses. Organized by a “remarkable concentration of intellectual and creative minds,” the movement was fuelled by creative artists from the literary, theatrical, musical and visual arts, and by academics, curators, critics, publishers, patrons and venue owners. The aim was to present alternative conceptions to the white stereotypes of “the Negro” and to present a view to American society countering the dehumanizing and racist conceptions entrenched in American beliefs about Black people. It also set out to articulate that Black people had a long history and rich culture that should serve to redefine Black presence in America, beyond enslavement.
It was through a tied and twisted history and interconnections with the Caribbean peoples, who had similar concerns, that writers and poets in the Caribbean too embraced this artistic blossoming of the Harlem Renaissance as a cultural, intellectual and psychic homecoming. The effects of this movement triumphly resonated throughout the grassroots in the everyday lives of black people in America and in the Caribbean.
Poets like, Claude McKay who came from the Caribbean, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen; later, poets of the Black Power movement like Maya Angelou, Ntozake Shange and Nikki Giovanni; Jamaica’s Louise Bennett and the fierce young Bob Marley were the kinds of writers dub poets wanted to emulate.
Kwame Dawes contends that dub poetry owes much of its spiritual sensuality to reggae music by “a stillness, a hint of undulation … a place where the rhythm is in complete control.” He describes it as “a sweet place, a spot in a groove that is perfectly comfortable, perfectly right … shaped by the music. … A poem, a poem. This is the taste of reggae. It emerges in the way people move to it.” I couldn’t agree more with Dawes’s inference that dub poetry cannot and “should not stand in place of the reggae song, but instead the poem must capture the spirit of reggae in its own terms as poetry, using all the resources of poetry” 2
Maria Casa, in her PhD-thesis, Orality & the Body in the Poetry of Lillian Allen and Dionne Brand: Towards an Embodied Social Semiotics,(2002) which she later expanded and developed into a book Mulitmodality in Canadian Black Feminist Writing: Orality and the Body in Harris, Phillip, Allen and Brand, applied literary and linguistic theory to dub poetry and concluded that dub is a new modality. Dub poetry, she reasons, cannot be fully explained from either or both of the tool kits of literary and linguistic theories, as most other kinds of poetry. 3
So, you may ask, what are some of the distinctive features of dub? How does it work as a piece of art or poetry? The poetics of dub will seem quite ordinary in these times, especially with the proliferation of rap, hip hop, the very vocal spoken word movement and writers from all walks who are reading their work to public audiences.
But if you would for a moment contemplate the fact that dub poetry broke out of the gates and rushed the barricades in the early to mid–seventies, before we even heard of Public Enemy, or the widespread emergence of rap, you perhaps will discern the effect of the trailblazing that dub poetry provided. It was with great pride that the late, great American poet June Jordon claimed dubpoet as one of her many titles.
Reggae music paved the way for the international, cross-cultural popularity of dub poetry. The international sensibility and message that we recognize as reggae were largely created on the wings of the musical and lyrical poet Bob Marley’s ascendency to worldwide stardom. For once, there was a deeper esthetic need awakening in the grassroots audience, who so far had been mostly served popular, commercial music. The poetics of reggae combined music and message, with lines like “my fear is my only courage …” and the poetic comfort of recurrence, repetition and insistence: “get up stand up. Stand up for your rights, get up stand up, don’t give up the fight,” “Cold ground was my bed last night and rock was my pillow,” and “No woman nuh cry … I remember when we use to …”. Who of the grassroots was not moved to recall and add at least one such tender moment of longing in a life of hardship? Bob Marley’s life-imitating metaphors spoke to dub poet Klyde Broox’s notion of the need for “reloading the can(n)on with homemade ammunition.”4
In addition to the regular and traditional attributes of “poetry”—recognizable image, evocative language, metaphor, simile, assonance, etc.—dub brings a host of others elements while prioritizing and playing with different aspects of “sounding” for effect, grounding emotional centers in language phrases and working with transmutation of energy all of which are culturally coded and so essential to creating, awakening and validating shared and visionary ideas and experience; necessary ingredients for creating community.
This community-acknowledging approach of dub poetry has expanded and invigorated the idea of poetry such that more people are reading and creating poetry than at any other time in human history. Today any scholar would be hard pressed to discuss poetry in the twenty-first century without thinking about the impact and importance of dubpoetry, hip hop and spoken word.
What the early enthusiastic critics of dub poetry did not readily get was that they and all poets, and dub poets shared a common ground: a passion to submit one’s life to the apprenticeship of words, a strange and complicated love affair with language. A line of a poem could evoke the same beautiful shivery feeling as a tender expression of love will, or an irking frustration when we as poets tackle words and phrases that will not do exactly what we have in our imagination or can feel in our body.
Dub poets enter language to explore the complexities of marginalization from literature and from dominant culture. We also enter it as a place of sheer pleasure and resistance and a place of insistencies. Poetry is ritual for us—the way we commune, as service to the world of texture, image, sound, rhythms and possibility we bring to our audience/community. In the communities that dub poets, hip hop poets and spoken words artists are closest to, poetry does not equate to ‘book’.
The first project of dub is to recreate ourselves in language, to assert our right to exist! Dub is a poetry of possibility, a possibility that Nikki Finney knows too well. The same question asked differently might be, “What about the possibility of changing the claustrophobic narrative of being poor, marginalized and oppressed?”
Dub is concerned with emerging the individual voice rooted in the context of collective culture because dub calls simultaneously for justice, equality, redress, unity, aesthetic satisfaction and accountability.
Dub poetry’s loudest scream is that voices need to come from specificity, and that if there’s a cultural table or a cultural stage, all voices need to be there. (Instead of those with opportunities thinking they have to give up space, think of how we can collectively create more space, open our hearts and minds, and influence and connect with each other). Dub poetry philosophy will argue that connecting with an open heart to other human beings, especially the ‘other’ must be as worthy and as beautiful as a good poem.
We ask when did the project of poetry turn into an idolatry to ‘excellence’. Appreciating and striving for excellence is one thing; worshipping excellence is just misguided excuse for elitism and some other kinds of isms. What is indeed urgently needed in our culture is for us to be stewards of excellence, and not gatekeepers. We know all too well that ‘excellence’ takes time, opportunities, persistence, nurturing and good effort in whatever context it is situated. We must remind ourselves that any poetry that is ‘great’ today was not great when the poet started out.
The project of poetry is for us to enter the realm of new experience and ideas through language and, by feeling the magic and power of language, to be more fully human. We are different and diverse because our job on this earth is to discover and rediscover the other, and discover the other in us, and ourselves in the other. There is no other pursuit more fulfilling than to enter the realm of what we never thought possible or whose possibility we never knew existed.
The great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, in his 1978 seminal essay “On Leaving Buenos Aires – In Defence of the Word” tells us that the best way to colonize consciousness is to suppress it. Let us consider that we are hearing from youth, marginalized and a range of diverse cultures only because they/we have stormed the barricades, trampled the ‘no entry’ signs. Did these voices not exist before? I ask you to consider the ideological agenda in claiming poetry for one section of society. Shouldn’t all lovers of poetry be asking Finney’s question of all those voices they have not heard from in our society?
Thinking about Annie Dillard’s construct of fiction, poetry could then be seen as “an aesthetic or epistemological probe by means of which the artist [poet] analyses [explores] the universe”5 -the world of things [in] encounters with ideas, wresting language from its familiar contexts. Poems are always in relation to ideas and things, because that’s what we have in the world: ideas and things. It is no accident, then, that the meshing of ideas and things in our new and evocative use of language has the deepest resonance beneath the skin. Poetry is not only the pathway to your inner voice, it is also a pathway from the inner voice. William Wordsworth contends that “poetry gives access to the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge ”, concurring with Jamaican dub poet Mutabaruka’s idea that the poem…. “is to be continued…continued in your mind.”
Luckily for us, marginalized peoples have always resisted the silencing and have employed any means available in the articulation of their experiences, vision and creativity. The word has always been central to various groups of the oppressed, the dispossessed and the ignored. Sometimes the word was the only thing they possessed, their word their only fight against absurdity and injustice. This challenging of normative, everyday contradictions has contributed much to literature and literary expression, and has been as much on the level of ideas, content and consciousness as on the level of form … new forms; spoken word, dubpoetry, rap/hip hop … hybrid explorations. Form is perhaps the most revolutionary of those four categories.
New form creates space and beings and processes where none existed before. New forms are especially powerful as they remind and assert for us that there are new possibilities. If dub didn’t exist, there would not be this new brand/genre of English literature and this particular cross cultural wave of community interaction. If rap/hip hop didn’t exist we would not have heard from that slice of America and young people around the world rapping about what they think is important in the world. Yes, that section of the population exists. What they hold as worth rapping about is nothing less than a comment on the body politic of the human condition.
What are we up against as a culture? Is it the distinctive poetic expression—perfect or imperfect—of the “other” as a threat to the institution of poetry? If gatekeepers of ‘good poetry’ could step out of their niches, and see the real threat to excellence in a contemporary world is a lack of diversity and the commodification of our value to each other as community. A real threat is a global mass media machinery that is hyper-focused on training and manipulating our desires in an insidious move to greater conformity. A goal that is pursued with impunity by insatiable profit-driven capital, as the great Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano asserts, “to hamper and betray communication.” And what would you suggest is the answer? A Revolution of thought some would say. But for us who have taken up the pen; poets everywhere, it is so obvious—poetry! More poetry, more and more poetry—create it, multiply it, nurture it, support it, grow it, water it everywhere you see the seeds, and yes, plant seeds in the most unlikely ground, water buds from the most unlikely places.
Kwame Dawes argues that street poetry—that is, dub and spoken word—“is in fact one of the mainstays of poetic expression in our society today. And has reminded scribal/book poets of the value of voice and the S_O_U_N_D of a poem, introducing to, or rekindling for, Western society an ancient tradition of oral poesy”6
In the same essay Dawes discusses the dilemmas of aesthetic and social class in the world of poetry, noting that this dilemma of ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ supports an idea that creativity is not a universal phenomenon but unique to only some communities and cultures. I invite you to consider that dub and spoken word poetry is largely identified with African-derived cultures and radicalized and marginalized groups including First Nations, Indigenous peoples, working classes, the uneducated and youth. Much of the energy for the evolution of Eurocentric poetry came from the sound of folk language and oral culture—the great Irish epic, the early Greco-Roman bards—yet today, certain pejorative connotations are reserved only for the poetry of the racialized and the marginalized. If we agree with Gabriele Rico’s view that “the essence of intelligence lies in our mind’s flexibility”7—one way to judge how intelligent we are is by a willingness to exercise that most compassionate and generative aspect of human consciousness, a flexible mind, which is a creative mind.
Dub poets acted on a postmodern, decolonizing impulse to create a multimedia, multi-sensorial, and slightly mashed-up activist poetry, but dub poetry can also be quite modernist in its awareness of criticism, and is not at all unconcerned about all the claims it makes for itself. However, I’d like to list some of the more important claims of contributions of dub poetry to our society:
- Community mobilization—building audience and excitement
- Disrupting established discourse in order to insert its own agenda
- The expansion and democratization of categories of both poet and audience
- Highlighting the inherent link between poet and audience that was greatly diminished through surrendering the work to elitist arbiters of culture
- Engendering working class solidarity (gotta love George Elliott Clarke, who declares: “from the working class I have come, to the working class I shall return”)
- Through the feminine voice and concerns, dub infused what is largely a masculine field of reggae culture with feminist views, and strengthened feminist voices across cultures
- Opening up the space for ideas and discourse has been one of dub’s most successful and most powerful endeavors: ideas cannot be ignored once brought forward, especially when backed up by the lived experience of a group; dub speaks across generations and the wider consciousness
- Dub can be seen as a remedy for ongoing fragmentation in our daily lives; it is an integration of media and senses: music, musicality, sound, voice, words, images, self, ideas, message, audience, community, poet and responsibility
- Actualizing dialogue through artistic practice, infusing ideas and knowledge in the everyday realm to help ‘school’ the people, in a way that provides for recognition, participation and validation
- Stylizing everyday speech and elevating vernacular language to art
- Providing a weapon against being rendered invisible
- Asserting and opening up new possibilities for expression
- Offering a mechanism, vehicle and processes for coming to voice (where would all those spoken word artists be if we had not created this space of possibility—the possibility of one day making a poem?)
- Poetry is a timeless mode of knowing, an alternate epistemology; it is knowledge itself, and through poetry we have come to know so much about the world, and the other; dub poetry has allowed many to enter and explore their unknowns, opening their eyes and hearts to the othered
- Addressing the cellular search for breath and beauty, that deep aesthetic need we have for the rhythmic beauty of ideas—a breath to lift us out of the everyday. This cannot and should not be fulfilled by any one ideal; the enjoyment and engagement of art should never be the sole domain of any one group of people especially those in control
- Creating nodes of interconnections for the experience of marginalization
- One of dub poetry’s higher calling is creating psychic sites of human connectivity
- Dub Poetry is a call to action and as such dub poetry (and spoken word) are integral to connecting to the so-called “illiterates” and the great masses of the “unwashed”—don’t they, too, deserve poetry?
What of their possibility of one day making a poem?
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
(Still I Rise by Maya Angelou)
This movement of people, young and old, educated and not who are taking up the WORD is unstoppable. For dub poetry itself, we have now spawned at least three, possibly four generations of wordsmiths with wide reaching influence. From the first-generation activist poets (myself included), to the second generation of cultural workers. These are poets who are mostly drawn to the form by cultural, social, personal and artistic ideas and concerns, and by a desire to connect to community. Examples would be D’bi Young, Klyde Broox, Naila Keleta –Mae, Anthony Bansfield, Kai Kellogh, Dwyane Morgan, Motion and Andrea Thompson to name a few; these straddle the generations and move easily between spoken word and dub and experimental poetics. We see yet a third generation, who are attracted to the community of creative performance and writing, and they are mostly the spoken word artists working with the influences of their own generation. And yet there is a fourth identifiable generation—not by age but by influence—who are attracted to the style as voice and artistic expression with little concern for politics or social issues, and who have found a vehicle to chart their own voice in a way that builds and connects to community. Along a spectrum allowing and acknowledging each generation as they speak to different core audiences; audiences become interchangeable at the edges and together we are building a community of interactive listeners, readers, emerging critics and supporters of the arts.
Almost forty years ago, three upstarts called themselves de dub poets (Clifton Joseph, Devon Haughton and myself). We took the Canadian poetry establishment by storm with our fiery voices. Dozens of people, sometimes hundreds of people came out to see us read/perform our poetry, this at a time when the most well know Canadian poets could only attract a handful to their readings. We read/performed at folk festivals, in bars, on street corners, community centers, night clubs, schools, churches, universities… Young people in the black community learned our poetry by heart. The political, feminist and cultural communities enthusiastically embraced us. The poetry establishment was bitterly divided on what to make of us and our new kind of poetry. In an interview with Fuse magazine’s Clive Robertson, I vowed never to stop until our kind of poetry—dub poetry—became part of Canadian culture. (Now you know why Lillian Allen is smiling!)
We didn’t know Nikky Finney then, but, like her, we were confident in our history; and knowing that Black voice can’t hide, we wondered for the generations to come: Where will they find their possibility of one day making a poem?
I will end with my tribute to all the young folks who have taken up the word. – Lillian Allen
Black Voice Caan Hide @ Lillian Allen
What does a voice becomes, becomes when it stands for something
A voice signifies the real, relational
spirit thought quest
model dependent breath
A shadow’s feel, noh soh real
apparition imagination digital
Virtual & reality and virtual reality
Beyond conventions to reinventions
What does a voice becomes when it stands
when it stands for something
Questioning and voicing to feel
a sense of the real
Poets turning routine into rituals
resounding sound symbols of language
into language play
un-ravelling the embroidered geometry of the uni-lateral real
with its intricate layers of who, when, where and how to feel
The what shall speak for itself, the poet says
the poet says
The what shall be what the poet sees
Voice threading stance and eyes and light
pulled through the cracks in things that let the light in
yay -Mr Leonard Cohen)
An order against disorder and randomness expressed
in the poet’s sound voice sounding, sounding, re-sounding sounding in the poet’s sound
So to you the young poets, to you of great potential, who stand up
crafted vision, your sight-ups into lines,
set alight the energy in words, image, shapes, colour, vibes
You Say what you have to say so you don’t burst-up, Say what you have to say to self-define, so yu don’t walk blind
(I say) To you word chatterers, paint splatterers, line twisters, digi mischkers. I say to you goes the glory
a play forward link in our ancestor’s story
word sound powa connectivity stations
spiritual underground railroad vibrations
self determination navigation
Charting your own book of life, vital ital alive with pride
A voice becomes when it stands, when it stands for something……
One voice, then two in community
a trikkle, then a clump, dem a movement worldwide
Spoken word dub poetry vibe/ hip hop hip hop
Spoken word dub poetry vibe/hip hop hip hop
Black Voice caan hide
Black voice can’t hide
So there’s Black Voice
– Lillian Allen
2 Kwame Dawes, Wheel and Come Again – An Anthology of Reggae Poetry, (Goose Lane Editions, Frederiction, New Brunswick. 1998 ) 16
3 Maria Casas, Multimodality in Canadian Black Feminist Writing: Orality and the Body in the Work of Harris, Phillip, Allen and Brand (Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam – New York, NY 2009)
4 Klyde Broox, “Reloading the Can(n)on,” My Best Friend is White, (McGilligan Books, Toronto 2005) 17
5 Annie Dillard, Living by Fiction, (HarperPerennial, Harper & Rowe, New York 1982) 106-107
- Kwame Dawes, “Dichotomies of reading “street poetry’ and ‘book poetry’” CQ Critical Quarterly, Vol. 38 #43) 10
7 Gabriele Rico, Writing The Natural Way, (Jeremy Tarcher/Putman, New York 2000), 215
8 Lillian Allen, “Black Voice Can’t Hide,” in The Great Black North, Contemporary African Canadian Poetry edited by Valrie Mason-John & Kevan Anthony Cameron, 108-109, Calgary: Frontenac House Poetry, 2013