Reloading the canon

On Lillian Allen and the history of dub

Note: above, a video of Lillian Allen giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Sarah Dowling responds to Allen’s talk in the essay that follows.


“Let me ask you to consider the ideological agenda in claiming poetry for one section of society.” Lillian Allen’s provocative performance-talk pierces the business-as-usual of literary communities, literary criticism, and of literariness itself. She reviews the occluded history of dub poetry — a form of performance poetry known for its musicality and its overt politics — and examines its incredible but too-often-unattributed legacies. Allen asks a number of crucial questions: If more people than ever are creating poetry, why have critics excluded the most widely practiced forms — particularly spoken word — from the category of poetry itself? Why has dub poetry, which laid the groundwork for spoken word, been excluded from literary history? The answer, of course, is that racism, and its unvoiced, scribal, and whitewashed picture of the literary, has consequences. If this is all marginalized people see, Allen asks, “where will they find their possibility of making a poem?”

Allen’s talk begins and ends with vivid and energetic recitations of her poems — for anyone unfamiliar with her work, her prodigious use of repetition and vocalized breaths show just how much poets and critics are missing when we ignore dub. One of the opening poems prominently features the line “Black voice kyan hide,” and throughout her talk Allen emphasizes the ways in which dub poetry has provided a process for coming out of hiding and into voice. Dub asserts the right to exist, and calls for a change to “the claustrophobic narrative” of being poor, marginalized, and oppressed. This change is enacted through dub’s disruption of established discourse and its elevation of vernacular language into art. In its calls for unity, for aesthetic satisfaction, for more accountability, more individuality, and more democracy, dub poetry provides recognition, validation, and perhaps most crucially the potential for participation. “Don’t we, too, deserve poetry?” Allen asks, aligning herself with the communities addressed in and activated through her work.    

A key theme of Allen’s talk is the impact that dub has had on North American poetry and poetics. “To be able to create forms and new types of languages is, in itself, amazing,” she explains. Allen traces the roots of dub through the collaborative exchanges between marginalized poets Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, but places greatest emphasis on the influences of Jamaican performance poet Louise Bennett and world-renowned reggae innovator Bob Marley. While dub is often misunderstood as reggae sans music, Allen explains that dub captures the spirit of reggae, but exists separately from it as poetry. Another common misconception is that dub poets are “just” rapping, but Allen states that dub, which crystalized in the early 1970s, was actually a source for certain Brooklyn rappers. With these entwined musical and literary roots and legacies, Allen shows that dub cannot be adequately explained by literary theory. Instead, dub is an expansion and invigoration of the idea of poetry — one that resonates with what many people want to hear and want to say. The flourishing of voice-based poetries in Canada, the US, and the Anglophone Caribbean is its powerful legacy.   

Dub, like all significant art forms, provides a platform, a place where “word chatterers” can use their voices to think in public, with a community, about the conditions in which we all live. When Allen asks, “what does a voice become when it stands / when it stands / for something?” she reveals what is critical about dub: in it, the voice opens into a full range of sounds, and expands beyond the signifying power of language into bodily rhythms (riddims). Dub is a poetry of possibility; it invites listeners to become cocreators of meaning, and of new poems. As the great dub poet Mutabaruka puts it in one of his best-known works, “dis poem is to be continued in your mind.”

Allen recounts the early days of dub and explains that the poets “were never gonna stop until this type of poetry became part of Canadian culture.” Dub poets haven’t stopped, so now we must own up to the way that poetry is continuously claimed “for one section of society.” When dub is cropped out of the frame, our sense of poetry narrows — and it becomes dangerously pale. Forgetting dub makes poetry worse, but forget poetry: an ideological agenda that favors the pale wrecks and ends lives. Part of dismantling white supremacy might involve listening to what dub poets have been saying all along. We need to heed dub’s message and craft a new ideological agenda for our aesthetics.