For Lillian Allen, poetry is a collaborative process at every step. A collaboration with the audiences who show up to her readings, as well as a collaboration with the musicians who accompany her.
There are no shortage of audiences and musicians who would love to collaborate with her. Allen is widely regarded as one of Canada’s leading exporters of dub poetry, a style that incorporates Caribbean rythms, and is often itself set to music.
This weekend, Allen will bring the rhythms of the West Indies to the 2022 NorthWords festival. Although this is her first time in Yellowknife, she says she has a spiritual connection with the North, and vibes with the pace of Northern life and strong community bonds. “The sheer beauty of it, and the community,” she says, adding that Northerners “aren’t on their way to somewhere else. They love being there.”
Allen will be appearing five times at this year’s festival, participating in both readings and workshops. One of these will be a workshop on performance poetry, where Allen will coach attendees on giving compelling readings. Another event, a panel discussion entitled “Poetry as a Reflection of our Times and Our Society,” will focus on another subject close to Allen’s heart: The intersection of art and social issues. Allen says she hopes to touch on everything from the Covid-19 pandemic to social movements for equal rights and justice.
At least one of Allen’s performances at the festival will feature musical accompaniment. “It will basically take the root of what I’m doing, and then we’re just going to improvise and lay it with good energy, and see what occurs,” she says.
Perhaps no one is as excited to be hosting the “Godmother of dub” as NorthWords’s president, Robyn Scott. “I’m a performing poet myself, and I’m an English teacher,” she says. “And so I’m a fan of Lillian Allen’s work and I have been for a long time.”
“When we decided to do an in-person festival, when we decided to extend an invitation to her, I never dreamed in a million years that we would be lucky enough for her to say yes. And so I am overjoyed that we get to introduce her and her writing to our poetry community and Yellowknife.”
Although dub poetry has its roots in the Caribbean, Scott says she sees clear parallels in Northern poetry, storytelling, and music. “I think it’s really important that we bring a dub poet to our community, because dub poetry celebrates living in the same way that drum dancing does, the same way that Inuit throat singing does.”
She compares Allen to Northern Artists like Tanya Tagaq, Kelly Fraser, and Tanya Snow. “Their work captures the heartbeat of stories in the same way that dub poetry does,” she says.
For her part, Allen says she’s looking forward to collaborating with the audience and with the community. “When I get there, it will be inspiring, I know. That’s one of the reasons I do it,” she says. “People who will leave their TVs and their fishing, and whatever they do to come and listen to you and connect to you — it’s really something I look forward to. Because that connection and collaboration is what actually fuels my work and me to keep going.”
Tickets to this year’s festival and a complete list of guests and events is available on the NorthWords NWT website.