Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Lillian Allen

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Lillian Allen

This spring, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer's Craft class conducted interviews with Canadian poets as part of a class project. The interviews will posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book throughout June and July. In this interview, poet Lillian Allen speaks with students Chris Goodfellow and Rebecca Richards.

Hello Miss Allen. Before introducing myself I would first like to thank you for taking your time to not only read my questions but respond to them. My name is Rebecca Richards and interviewing you is a rare privilege that I was able to have from my writers craft course taught by my teacher Mr. Ouzas. Enjoy.

Hi Rebecca, very nice to meet you….

My name is Chris Goodfellow. I currently go to Malvern Collegiate Institute and am attending grade 12. I was born in Toronto, and moved to Barbados in September 2000 where I spent twelve years before moving back to Toronto in 2012.

Hi Chris, very nice to meet you too….

It is clear through your writing of both poetry and songs that dub music has had a major influence on your work. Are there any other kinds of music that have ever influenced your poems or songs that come from outside of the Caribbean?

Yes, you got it right when you say my poetry is influenced by dub music. You should do a bit of research (you can do this online quite easily; just “Google” my name and poetry and dub poetry) and learn about the kind of poetry that I do. In fact after you have done a little bit of research you might want to ask me some other question that you can’t easily find the answer to. But back to your question, Jazz is a big influence and not just the music but the "aesthetic" — that is the way jazz is free flow and breaks away and drifts off, and then comes back to the main figure, and it looks like the musicians are having more fun than the listener. I like those ideas to bring to my art which is the writing and performing of my poetry. I am also influenced by all of Black music and the sounds and music around me in Canada. But what I love most is the music in the Jamaican language, the way ordinary Jamaican people talk. And whoa, do they love to talk!

In the poem “Dem Days” from your collection entitled Psychic Unrest, you talk about Jamaican (by extension, Caribbean) culture in such a way that you say without it, you would be lost. Do you feel that the culture in Jamaica is rich or poor compared to that of Toronto?

I would say that the culture in Jamaica is very very (not one or two but three) very rich indeed. Everyone is connected to music, storytelling and art in a natural way, colours, images, people are always using their creativity and imagination to make, say or do things. I think culture in Toronto is pretty rich too, with all the different ethnicities, people from different places around the world, and how we get a chance to see and experience things we wouldn’t if we just stayed in our own specific culture. One of the things I love about Canada is that all cultures that are here are what make up Canadian culture. So because I am Canadian, everybody’s culture; the diversity of cultures is also my culture; my Canadian culture. But back to your question in the poem “Dem Days” my main idea here is that you need your roots — your memories and connections are some aspects — and even more than that you need the best of your roots to keep you strong, and if you don’t have roots you can be blown about in the wind, but if you have your roots you can take in all the oxygen and sunshine and nourishment and grow beautiful and strong, then you can sway in the wind safely, not blown away.

In the future, would you consider using another art form such as painting in order to further your career and catalogue of works? Or would you continue operating in your pre-established forms, and which of the two are you more interested in furthering your career in?

I have often times think I would love to paint, but only thoughts, I like making things with my hands also. I do work with collaborators from the visual arts (look up Aaron Mitchell and Lillian “Analogue”) and I have done some visual art before, installation type. I’m not thinking to further my career at this point, I think of how much fun I can have doing my work and how it can become important to people like you. Many of my poems are studied in schools. I have books and recordings for young people, and I love that very much and hope that my words and art of poetry will give students ideas and make them think, hard, while at the same time they are enjoying reading or hearing the work.

To my understanding you’re well equipped with the techniques of writing through your experience of working with fiction, plays and experimenting with writing forms. From reading your first or earlier written pieces, Rhythm An’ Hardtimes I feel as though you have a writing style that’s very unique especially along with your DUB poetry, which is something you’re well known for because it’s so imaginative and original. Do you feel you have a signature writing style when it comes to your poetry?

That is such a good question, but let me ask you: “What do you think?” Because if you think I have a signature writing style that will just make me do my happy dance.

Your book Rhythm An’ Hardtimes tells a story from one poem to the next making connections through emotion and heart-felt words. Though not rhyming there is still rhythm. The names of the poems alone tell something on their own; Again, Liberation, Black Woman True, Immigrant, I noticed connections to your life as you are a black woman and an immigrant from Jamaica. Is this specific book your life story?

No, it is specific to what I see around me. For example, if you wrote a poem about taking the puck on the ice at a Stanley Cup playoff game and winding your way to the goal, it should sound like in fact you were a member of the champion team. That is the magic of the imagination, you can put yourself in other people’s shoes in words and language of course.

Is there anything in particular that you consider to be the backbone of your poetry?

You make me think hard — yes; ideas that are important to me, image, rhythm (in Jamaican we say "riddim") and generally just niceness and enjoyment in the experience of the finish pieces. I can see that you Rebecca and you Chris are good thinkers. Good thinkers make good poets.

Lillian Allen is a leading influential figure on the global cultural landscape — ­ an award winning and internationally renowned poet and writer of short stories and plays. In 2013 she was a featured speaker at Harvard University and her latest CD Anxiety was released to critical acclaim in 2012, with a successful European tour for appreciative audiences in France, England, Wales and Ireland. A key originator of dub poetry, a highly politicized form of poetry, which is sometimes set to music, she opened up the form to engrave feminist content and sensibilities. A Professor of Creative Writing at OCAD University in Toronto, Lillian’s recordings Revolutionary Tea Party (acclaimed by Ms Magazine as a landmark album) and Conditions Critical won Juno awards in 1986 and 1988 respectively. Featured in films Revolution from de Beat, 1995; Unnatural Causes, 1989; Rhythm and Hardtimes 1987, Lillian is co­producer/co­director of Blak.. Wi Blakk… (1994), a film on Jamaican dub Poet Mutabaruka.

Chris Goodfellow is the son of rage and love. He found solace at a young age in video games, blocking out the world around him in favour of the virtual ones of the kingdom of Hyrule, the Lylat system and the Kanto and Hoenn regions. His quiet demeanor went loud at the start of his adolescence with a sudden flight for the stage with naught but a rusty stringed guitar and a microphone to make his voice not only heard, but remembered. It was after this first excursion to the world of musical performance that this would not be the last time his voice was heard, sacrificing anything to make himself heard again, even his academic career. He was exiled at a young age from his homeland of the maple leaf to the land of the broken trident, and after twelve years of exile, was allowed to return. Upon his relocation, he was kicked from the class of ’13, only to be drafted into the class of ’14 at Malvern Collegiate. He is currently finishing his final year of high school, eagerly awaiting the start of real life.

Rebecca Richards is a precious gem that emerged from a candy crystal explosion. She takes the form of a human girl as she searches for what she can call home. During her intense search she paints her nails, daydreams and doodles. Judging by her chocolate eyes, tulip petaled hair and sweet scent of raspberry-lavender, it has been predicted she is around seventeen years of age. Toronto accepted Rebecca and welcomed her in with open arms. For the time being she considers this place to be her home. She stops by daily to a family of two birds who never cease to tweet and a man and woman who she discovered to have the same features as her. For this reason she likes to stay for hours but there are predictions that she will continue to wonder until she finds where she should go.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page