Textualizing Dub Poetry:
A Literature Review of Jamaican English from Jamaica to Toronto
Introduction: Theoretical Framework
I. Textualizing Jamaican English
i. Language Ecology and Standardization
ii. Codification of the Vernacular
iii. Writing Jamaican Literature and Performance
II. Dub Poetry
i. Definitions of Dub
ii. Writing Dub
III. Diasporic Dub: From Jamaica to Toronto
i. Lillian Allen
ii. Code-switching: “Rub a Dub Style Inna Regent Park” and “I Fight Back”
iii. Textualizing Performance — Recordings
Conclusion: Future Oralities in Toronto
Introduction: Theoretical Framework
In the poem, “Tribute To Miss Lou,” Toronto poet Lillian Allen honours Jamaican poet Louise Bennett, the woman who fought for the acceptance of Jamaican English as a legitimate language for writing and performing literature. When Allen writes the first words of this poem — “Pred out yuself Miss Lou / Lawd, yu mek we heart pound soh” (22) — she writes of a woman whose poetry represents Jamaican cultural identity and, in doing so, Allen employs the very language in which Bennett wrote and performed. In fact, Allen’s poem cites the line that is thought to have begun Bennett’s first poem, as retold by Mervyn Morris: “As Louise was boarding the tram she heard a country woman say: ‘Pread yuhself, one dress-oman come’” (qtd in Narain, 52). As we can see from the spelling in Morris’s documentation of speech, the varied approaches to codifying Jamaican English raise the theoretical question that I would like to address: namely, the question of how to write orality. In order to answer this question, I focus this paper on Allen as a Jamaican dub poet writing in Toronto, Canada; interestingly, Bennett herself relocated to Toronto for the last years of her life, which further calls for the city to be studied as a site of textual orality. Thus, Allen’s prominence in Toronto’s dub community encapsulates the aim of this paper: to understand how Jamaican English has been codified in Jamaica itself and how this codification has impacted and continues to impact the diasporic experience of dub poetry in Toronto.
In continuing the work of Bennett in promoting Jamaican English dialect as a literary language, Allen powerfully experiments with the boundaries of language through the technique of code-switching. Both Standard English and Jamaican English compose the language of Allen’s poetry, as shown by the above quotation from “Tribute to Miss Lou” in which Allen shifts into Standard English for the third stanza — “She writes the heartbeat of our lives” (22). Allen concludes this stanza by switching back into Jamaican English dialect: “dis dressup oman wi shinning star” (22). This act of code-switching becomes emphasized in Allen’s audio and live performances, thereby raising the issue of Jamaican English as a language that places the tension between textuality and orality at the forefront. In discussing this issue, I argue that the standardization of Jamaican English needs to be understood in terms of what critics call textualized orality — a critical term proposed by Susan Gingell and Maria Casas, among others, in their essays on oral traditions in a recent issue of Essays in Canadian Writing. My focus consists of two objectives: firstly, to identify the features of Jamaican English that appear in the work of Allen’s book of poems, Women Do This Every Day (1993) and her audio recording, Revolutionary Tea Party (1986); secondly, to understand how the code-switching within these poems functions on semantic and cultural levels in order to signify the place of Jamaican English within the city of Toronto. In the past fifteen years, Toronto has become known as a thriving site of dub poetry performances both on and off the page; thus, it offers an urban example through which to question how these performances become inscribed in the city’s popular and literary cultures. Allen’s poetry operates within this linguistic community of dub poets and I would argue that her writing speaks directly to the state of Jamaican English as displaced and yet empowered — the question of how written words articulate this displacement underlines the reading of code-switching in this project.
II. Textualizing Jamaican English
i. Language Ecology and Standardization
The textualizing of Jamaican English in written forms calls for a discussion of the place of Jamaican English within the language ecology of Jamaica. A particularly resonant factor in determining this placement is the extent to which Jamaican English is perceived as a vernacular language. Terminology becomes complicated due to the many names for Jamaican English: Standard Jamaican English, Standard Jamaican Creole, Jamaican English Creole, Jamaican Creole English, Jamaican Creole, and Patois/Patwa. Further complications result from various critics employing different terms — for instance, in the introduction to Utterances and Incantations: Women, Poetry, and Dub, Afua Cooper suggests that “Jamaican Creole is the natural language of dub poetry” (3); however, in this paper, I employ the terminology of Jamaican English and, in doing so, I intend to include the invocation of orality that Cooper implies through referring to its creole status. Aside from issues of terminology, another feature of Jamaica’s language ecology relies upon its status as diglossic. Unlike other Caribbean nations such as Trinidad with its French language influence, Jamaica is often referred to with this term, diglossic — a status that is misleading because it implies only two major languages when Jamaica has a linguistic continuum that is highly complex due to multiple dialects of Jamaican English. Moreover, the worldwide popularity of reggae music (with its Rastafarian dialect) exemplifies how popular culture impacts on what is perceived as Standard Jamaican English by international audiences. After discussing the language ecology, along with issues of codification within this ecology, I return to this influence of popular culture in relation to the anthologizing of Jamaican English literature through dub poetry.
There are many issues that affect the variation of Jamaican dialects but some of the key issues are urban versus rural, combination of British English and American English, and the Rastafarian movement that has influenced the political strength of the basilect while influencing the popular perception of Jamaican English both in Jamaica and around the world. For instance, in her study, Linguistic Variation in Jamaica, Andrea Sand observes that the acrolect of Jamaican English has been moving away from British Standard English and that the new ‘standard’ consists of a variety of influences such as American Standard English, along mesolectal and basilectal creoles (71). In terms of geographical variation, the urban centre of Kingston produces a version of Jamaican Creole that differs from the rural dialects. As Peter Patrick points out in his study, Urban Jamaican Creole: A Variation in the Mesolect, the urbanization has been a recent phenomenon in the past fifty years and this has produced a cosmopolitan class of people that rely on language as a means through which to communicate with the international world that differs from the rural focus on the mesolect as conveyor of such cultural forms as folklore. As a move towards empowering the lower class speakers of Jamaican English with a language of protest, the Rastafarians developed what Pollard refers to as Dread Talk, or rather DT, in her comparison of Dread Talk with Jamaican Creole. For Pollard, Dread Talk represents the Rasta man’s “attempt to bend the lexicon of Jamaica Creole to reflect his social situation and his religious views” (4). Through lexical, phonological, and syntactical examples [such as the use of the word “trod” (rather than “tread”) (93)], Pollard argues that Dread Talk infuses everyday speech of Jamaica even when the speaker’s are speaking in what they would consider to be a standard version of Jamaican English.
Jamaican English continues to be the language of media, although this depends upon the audience. Although critical sources claim that news reports and newspaper articles are delivered in Standard English [a point that McArthur makes without clarifying whether this standard is British, American or a mix of both (234)], popular entertainment employs Jamaican English as the language of widespread appeal. As Andrea Sand notes in her study of Jamaican English, “Standard English is the official medium of communication in Jamaica. It is normally expected for written texts; it is the language of the classroom, the law courts, the administration and the government, the churches and the media” (70). However, the question of how Standard English functions within the classroom calls for further consideration because of how curriculum changes reflect not only national opinions of Jamaican English as a teachable language but also how the nation views Jamaican English literature itself as a subject of study.
Education systems have integrated Jamaican English into the curriculum, particularly since the change in examination processes that allowed for status planning to address the inclusion of vernacular. Since independence from Britain in 1962, the colonial education system remained in place with students preparing for the Cambridge Overseas Examinations; yet, in 1979, this was replaced by the Caribbean Examinations Council, which changed syllabuses in order to prepare students for examinations on subjects such as Caribbean history. As Sand notes in her study, this created tension between the required Standard British English as the written language and the regionally focused syllabus, a tension that has moved towards what Le Page calls the “vernacularisation of education” (qtd in Sand, 72), promoted through such institutions as the University of the West Indies. In keeping with this national attempt to promote Jamaican English as the medium of communication, Jamaican Creole continues to be used in music and popular culture, along with everyday informal use. Moreover, written Jamaican Creole appears in the writing of folklore, poetry, informal news and internet chat sites, yet these sources are often the ones that disseminate into a world audience. The impact of audience results in the question of whether the vernacular has, in fact, been re-codified as the ‘standard’ through popular culture.
ii. Codification of the Vernacular
Dictionaries provide an important medium of codification through which to examine the textualizing of Jamaican English. In the introduction to The Language of Caribbean Poetry: Boundaries of Expression, Lee M. Jenkins mentions the importance of Le Page and Cassidy’s editorial contribution to the first scholarly dictionary of Jamaican English published in 1967 and titled the Dictionary of Jamaican English (or the DJE). Yet, even though this dictionary, published in 1967, marks a significant event in the nation’s corpus planning, I would question the extent to which the dictionary represents a language spoken by the nation’s people. Despite the function of the dictionary as a regulating tool, the date of its publication situates it within critical debates in which poets such as Brathwaite argued for the importance of vernacular Jamaican English. The year of 1967 also marked Mervyn Morris’s article, “On Reading Louise Bennett, Seriously,” which contributed to this debate over the viability of vernacular as a language of literature and culture. As Jenkins notes in reference to Le Page and Cassidy’s editorial work on the DJE, the project stems from Le Page’s argument that the Creole continuum does not take into account the complexity of Jamaica — yet, as Jenkins notes, supporters of the continuum model note the “literary potential in the concept of a ‘continuum’ stretching between Creole and standard English, from which speakers naturally selected registers of the language which were appropriate to particular contexts and situations” (11). Nevertheless, the DJE provides an important reference tool that, as Peter Patrick explains, appeals not only to linguists: “the DJE provided an indispensable reference for students of Jamaican and other Caribbean English creoles and a model for dictionary-makers to follow and to adapt [...] It has served as a resource for scholars of Jamaican culture, since it is a storehouse of folk knowledge and is cross-referenced to a large number of documents treating Jamaican history, folklore, literature, geography, botany” (227). What becomes evident in this point (and what will become further evident in recent re-writings of the Jamaican dictionaries) is the extent to which an attempt to codify culture is embedded within the definitions.
The editing of oral sources for the DJE ’s codification of language and culture raises the concern of what has either been left out or cannot be textualized. Revisiting the interviews and materials used by Le Page and Cassidy in compiling the dictionary, Peter Patrick suggests revisions to the DJE based upon the changing of the language that he hears in listening to the following sources:
Another source was my own usage developed in the 1960s and early 1970s on the North
Coast and in Kingston, where many slang terms and items related to popular culture were
part of the teenage lexicon [...] a collection of oral histories distilled from the taped
speech of Jamaican working-class women and edited by the speakers themselves [...] The
remaining items, approximately one-quarter of the total, come from other, mostly
Jamaican, authors, scholars, popular singers, and news-media accounts. (230)
Interestingly, many of the examples draw upon speakers from the under-represented working and lower classes class and, thus, the necessity for these revisions emphasizes the ideological bias (intentional or unintentional) of the standardizing efforts of Le Page’s dictionary. What becomes further evident from Patrick’s examples is that the these sources that are more representative of popular culture need to be taken into account for corpus planning — yet the fact that many of his sources are embedded in orality raises the critical question of how to go about the codification of vernacular speech that resists textual form.
Codification of vernacular Jamaican English appears in both standard and non-standard forms, with the latter often involves the codification of what can be considered illicit varieties of the language. An example of a recent dictionary that offer a cultural counterpart to the formal DJE is the Jabari Authentic Jamaican Dictionary of the Jamic Language: Featuring Jamaican Patwa and Rasta Iyaric Pronunciations and Definitions. As the editor, Reynolds, articulates in his introductory comments, Jamaican identity is at the forefront of this publication: “We do not speak broken English, patois, or Creole. We speak Jamic, and we do so with pride” (ii). As an example of how the citations in this dictionary perform this function of legitimizing the Jamaican English, or Jamic as he calls it, I would like to highlight the definition of the word Jamic itself:
Jamic (ja-mik): n - of or relating to the language of Jamaica; the colloquial language of
Jamaica; (Note: although English is the “official” language of Jamaica, it is not the
predominant vernacular. Jamic is the indigenous speech pattern of Jamaica, although this
vernacular is called Broken English, Patois (Patwa), and Creole.) (70)
Combining this definition with Reynolds editorial comments about asserting Jamic as a language, we can see the extent to which the dictionary operates as a Jamic dictionary, rather than as a Jamaican English dictionary (thus positioning itself almost outside of the creole continuum in relation to standardization). Moreover, as the title suggests, the Jabari Authentic Jamaican Dictionary of the Jamic Language: Featuring Jamaican Patwa and Rasta Iyaric Pronunciations and Definitions includes the important codification of Rasta Iyaric, which further positions the dictionary as speaking in the lower mesolect and basilect of Jamaican English.
Despite its codification of non-standard varieties of Jamaican English, the Jabari Authentic Jamaican Dictionary of the Jamic Language markets itself as teaching tool, which can be problematic once its Rastafarian influence is taken into account. The introduction claims that the dictionary provides “a self-teaching tool for the home, school, office, social club, public library, and tourist resort” (x). But this does not acknowledge Jamaican responses to non-standard varieties of Jamaican English. In Dread Talk, Velma Pollard notes that the tendency to conflate Jamaican English with the Rastafari language presents a point of controversy over what is socially representative of the nation. Along with Pollard’s list entitled, “Jamaicanisms in Use since the Publication of Cassidy and Le Page Dictionary of Jamaican English” (40), Reynolds’s recent dictionary and Patrick’s revisions to Le Page’s dictionary all reiterate Patrick’s argument that projects of revisions to the DJE need not only include neologisms but rather they can include words that were excluded or have changed in meaning. In fact, Jamaican English exemplifies how language codification involves a constant process of revision, especially when codification attempts to textualize the vernacular. Why this point is relevant to this paper’s broader discussion is that it gestures toward how the process of revision becomes integrated into the poetic process of writing and performing in Jamaican English — a process that takes place outside of Jamaica in diasporic locations such as Toronto. Most importantly, I would argue that this process allows for codification to be rethought as remixing the meaning of language.
iii. Writing Jamaican Literature and Performance
Focusing on the poetry of Louise Bennett, this section explores how Jamaican poetry has been written down in forms other than the dictionary — namely, through literature — and what debates surround this process of codification. In the chapter, “The Lure of the Folk: Louise Bennett and the politics of Creole,” Denise DeCairns Narain refers to Bennett’s language as Creole; however, she acknowledges that this terminology elides the fact that what she means is that Bennett speaks through a hybrid language that can be aligned with vernaculars of other Caribbean nations. Narain explains how, with various movements towards self-government in the Caribbean during the mid-twentieth century, there emerged a desire to write the spoken language. West Indian novel such as C.L.R. James’s Minty Alley (1952), George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin (1953), and Roger Mais’s Brother Man (1954) were pivotal texts in a literary movement towards representing ‘folk’ speech. However, this prompted debates over how this textualizing of the vernacular should proceed: should the textual words mime the spoken ones? While Narain points out how this mimicking of “the folk tongue resulted in a stress, in fiction in particular, on Creole as a spoken language” (67), the genre of fiction made this representation of speech easier to contain within dialogue markers. In early Jamaican poetry, Claude McKay experiments with Creole-based poetry, but, as Narain points out, he had “difficulty in incorporating Creole into ‘serious poetry’” which explains “the general tendency in much of this pre-independence poetry for the Creole-speaking voice to be restricted to easily recognizable Creole characters” (69). What becomes evident in this comment on McKay is that poetry that was written in the vernacular was not immediately read as ‘serious.’ Thus, not only does this expose the divide between Standard English and Jamaican English but it also exposes the fact that performers and writers of Jamaican English encountered the colonizing presence of Standard literary forms. Textualizing vernacular Jamaican English involves challenging both of these notions of a ‘standard.’ For example, Bennett herself was not invited to join the Jamaican Poetry League — an organization that Narain positions as one of standardization in following conventions of English poetry (81). Despite Bennett’s appeal to popular audiences, she met resistance when asking readers to hear her work as poetry.
Discussions of oral-based poetics became a topic of critical discussion in the 1960s, as documented through the debates in Savacou over the question of anthologizing non-standard poetry. Laurence Breiner’s essay, “How to Behave on Paper: the Savacou Debate,” emphasizes how the major issue related to textual representation itself:
[T]he critical furor over the Savacou anthology was most particularly about what should be printed, and about how a poem should look on paper. No one was fighting about techniques of improvisation, or about what should happen in a poetry reading or on the radio. The discussion was about written texts, and so about the canon created by print: about what should be in an anthology. (84)
There was a double standard in terms of there being uncontested freedom in performance practices yet contested guidelines over textual publication — although the latter seems to be unfairly rigid, one reason for these guidelines is, what Narain points out, the fact that “what is at stake here is the kind of poetic identity and voice which might be constructed out of the recognition of the literary potential of the Creole register” (84). Thus, the debate over canon-formation in Savacou speaks to the larger issue of how textualizing Jamaican English results in reifying a national identity.
In more recent anthologies such as The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse (1986), there is still a divide between textual and oral forms that can be read through the Savacou debate. As Morris contends, by classifying the anthology into categories of “The Oral Tradition” and “The Literary Tradition,” the editor (Paula Burnett) “encourages notions of ‘Them’ and ‘Us,’ the performers and the writers, the exciting ones and the conservatives, performance poets and real poets” (247). In this comment, Morris highlights the problematic binaries that are produced from attempts to classify language into its written or spoken forms. An anthology that offers a different approach to the textuality/orality divide is Kwame Dawes’s Wheel and Come Again: An Anthology of Reggae Poetry — a collection of reggae-inspired poems, some of which are dub poems and others that are not. According to Dawes, a reggae poem attempts to describe a reggae song but not to be a reggae song. This distinction between a poem and a song often blurs in the case of dub: “the poem cannot stand in the place of the reggae song — as I think that some of the writing labelled ‘dub poetry’ tends to do” (16); nevertheless, when justifying the poems in his anthology, Dawes clarifies that what he intends through distancing these poems from the dub movement is to counter expectations of the anthology as one of dub poetry. Instead, Dawes offers a collection of poems that, indeed, is informed by dub poetry but also involves what he calls “a reggae aesthetic” (20) — a counterpart to dub that parallels the presence of the Rastafarian language in the Jamaican language ecology because of its impact on what is perceived as identifiably Jamaican to global audiences.
In contrast to the compiling of a multiple author anthology, the process of textualizing the dub performance of a particular artist raises questions about what conventions of recording will be used and how this places the poet not only within a linguistic continuum along but also within a literary continuum. Morris offers an example of this experience through his work of textualizing the poetry of Michael Smith — a poet who, like Lillian Allen, enables dub poetry to cross geographical borders. In textually recording It A Come, Morris listened and re-listened to performances of Smith reading his poetry aloud: “I tried to follow the directives of the poet’s voice, and to produce a reader-friendly text” (246). Moreover, what Morris enacts in this case, and a solution that he offers to poets caught between the binary choice of defining themselves through page or voice, is “to regard translation into print as a challenge and an opportunity to be thoughtfully approached, not in the arrogant spirit of an ambivalent pretence that, though one offers the work in print, one doesn’t really care for the medium” (246). The latter section of this paper will focus specifically on a poet, Lillian Allen, who undertakes this challenge of translating her work into print and, while succeeding in audio recordings as well, succeeds in doing what Morris calls for when he imagines performance poets preparing their publications “with an eyes to the imperative of print” (247); but, before discussing Allen’s poetry, the specificity of her genre, dub poetry, must be examined because of its formal enactment of textualizing orality.
II. Dub Poetry
i. Definitions of Dub
Within Jamaican English literature, dub poetry provides a unique example in which there is mixing and, indeed, remixing of spoken and written forms. The OED definition of dub: “to provide an alternative sound track; to mix (various sound tracks) into a single track; to impose (additional sounds) on to an existing recording; to transfer (recorded sound) on to a new record” — there is also the meaning of a ‘dub version’ which refers to an instrumental version of a song (the vocals are dubbed out)” (qtd in Habekost 53). As shown though these definitions, dub is embedded within music, especially with 1960s record with instrumental on the B-side of the album; but in Jamaica the definition takes on a much more politically resonant meaning in addition to this musical one. The phrase dub poetry implies that the poetry accompanies the dub line of the rhythm — or even that the poetry is the rhythm itself. We can hear this taking place whenever dub musically mimics the rhythmic bass line. As Habekost explains, dub is an avant-garde musical form, prefiguring the forms that became known as the art of toasting (DJing) or talking over the musical rhythm. Pivotal dub artists often define dub poetry as word sound and power — a definition that critic Christian Habekost focuses upon as necessary to the word message of vernacular Jamaican English in resisting Standard English; however, critic Maria Casas reminds us that “rather than epitomizing ‘the antagonism between writing and orality,’ dub poetry avoids such easy dualisms, for almost all dub poets publish their work in print as well as perform it” (184).
The popularity of the dub movement in Jamaica is most often associated with legendary dub poet Oku Onuora. His definition of dub poetry, articulated in 1979, became the quintessential explanation and defence of the genre: “[I]t is a poem that has a build-in reggae rhythm — hence when the poem is read without any reggae rhythm (so to speak) backing [...] one can distinctly hear the reggae rhythm coming out of the poem” (qtd in Habekost 3). This notion of rhythm coming out of the poem complicates the textualizing of orality because then the act is not simply one of writing words but rather writing words that produce rhythm. But how can written words produce rhythm?
ii. Writing Dub
Dub poetry began as an oral form of performance, but the artists who performed this poetry were also writers and this became an integral component of the recording processes of these poems. Recording processes for dub poetry can be thought of in two ways: written recordings and audio recordings. Poets such as Oku Onoura performed their poems in front of crowds before it became accepted as a written form — in fact, Onuora provides a key example of language change from within the system itself because he began writing and performing poetry from within a Jamaican prison (as if from within a Foucaultean prison of standardized language). In 1974, he was the first inmate allowed to give a poetry performance with a reggae band. Despite much of his writing being confiscated or declared subversive, Onuora continued to write and to disseminate his writing outside the prison walls, which resulted in library readings and a production of one of his plays for JBC radio. Once on parole in 1977, the Jamaican publishing house, Sangster’s published his book Echo, which was crucial for the spread of dub poetry. The social context out of which Onuora began his writing reminds us of the political activism that underlines dub poetry. Emerging alongside Jamaican independence, dub is a form of poetry that speaks to the debate over vernacular Jamaican English as a national language of Jamaica itself; moreover, when dub is placed within a diasporic context (such as in the case of Allen’s writing in Toronto) it is a form that asserts the importance of vocalizing cultural difference.
One way to theorize the process of textualizing orality is to follow Habekost’s model of “dub poetry as creolization” (1) — yet Habekost clarifies that its not a simple creole continuum of, for example, African oral tradition on the one hand and European written tradition on the other. As he explains, “dub poetry mirrors the whole spectrum of this continuum underlying Jamaican culture: Creole and standard language, African-derived riddim patterns and European-styled melody lines, black consciousness and socialist ideology, traditional poetic forms and call-and-response — while, in the background, reggae music encapsulates the whole continuum yet again in itself” (1). Habekost goes on to say that “the continuous tension between the variants of the cultural continuum is one of the fascinating aspects of dub poetry’s impact on African-Caribbean aesthetics” (2). The question of what this dub aesthetic sounds like can be addressed by returning to Onuora’s 1979 definition — “poetry with a built-in riddim” (qtd in Habekost 16); combining this definition with the 1970s political landscape of the Black Power Movement and the influences of Jamaican dance-hall and reggae music, then we can begin to understand what informs dub poetry’s message and what gives it its material shape. Yet this further complicates the notion of simply writing down the poetry onto the page because it is not only the writing of words but also the cultural politics and linguistic rhythms that inform them. In this case, the cultural politics and linguistic rhythms pertain to Jamaican English and yet the broader question remains as to what happens to these sounds once they are transported to another country. It is in these diasporic contexts that we hear cultures remixing each other through language.
III. Diasporic Dub: From Jamaica to Toronto
i. Lillian Allen
Lillian Allen is a poet who both represents and enacts the movement of Jamaican English into the Toronto dub poetry scene. In 1969, Lillian Allen left her hometown of Spanish Town, Jamaica, and moved to New York and then to Toronto, where she received a B.A. from York University. Although Allen had been writing since she was a young girl, her writing career began to thrive during her involvement with community activism and literary groups, with poets such as Clifton Joseph, Devon Haughton, Ahdri Zhina Mandiela, and Afua Cooper. In an interview with Dawes, Allen describes how, after watching Onuora and Smith perform in Cuba in 1979, she wanted to bring the style and energy of dub poetry as a recognizable genre to Canadian audiences:
I came back to Canada and gathered up everybody and I said, ‘We are doing this stuff, and we know what it’s gonna to be? It’s gonna be dub poetry. We have a brother, right, who is connected in spirit to us and he’s doing it. We need to part of it. We are not individuals, we are part of this movement, right, and we need to have a signifier and symbol that we are connected to.’ And I think that’s what basically fuelled the movement. This Canadian centre fuelled the movement and gave it articulation and analysis and actually moved it towards a literary place because of the background; myself and Clifton Joseph who had English degrees and were part of the literary community of Canada. (151)
Allen draws a connection between the political activism within the Toronto dub community and the movements of Jamaican independence and Black activism out of which dub emerged. As Allen writes in the introduction to Women Do This Every Day, dub poetry in Toronto developed through Black political activism: “We worked to organize Black parents, for African liberation support committees and for various other solidarity causes across racial and cultural lines [...] We believed in possibilities. That art is political” (18). Along with the powerful messages within the poems themselves, Allen’s poetry contributed to building this politically active group of poets and to drawing a worldwide audience to their work in Toronto. She received Juno Awards for her albums of dub poetry Revolutionary Tea Party (1986) and Conditions Critical (1988). The poems, “Rub a Dub Style Inna Regent Park” and “I Fight Back” appear in her collection, Women Do This Every Day and on the audio recording, Revolutionary Tea Party — although I discuss the differences between these versions of the poems, what I want to place at the forefront of this discussion is the question of how these poems foreground the process of textualizing orality. Moreover, I ask what these poems tell us about this process in relation to Jamaican English, especially since the poems inscribe an oral medium of performance in the same way that written Jamaican English textualizes the spoken elements of the language.
ii. Code-switching: “Rub a Dub Style Inna Regent Park” and “I Fight Back”
Allen’s poem, “Rub a Dub Style Inna Regent Park” exemplifies how her poetry integrates Toronto geography with Jamaican English, thereby gesturing towards the importance of Jamaican English as displaced yet empowered within this diasporic setting. (http://www.nald.ca/fulltext/caribb/page76.htm) The specific setting of this poem is Regent Park, Toronto — a neighbourhood known for its immigrant community and low-income housing development (http://www.regentparkplan.ca). In the first stanza, Allen outlines the form of dub itself, as if setting up a scene with “dj rapper hear im chant / pumps a musical track” (82). But Allen makes it clear that this is not just any scene by reiterating that this place calls for a different style: “a different style / inna regent park”(82). Words mark out the rhythm of this different style. Rhythm becomes more pronounced in the recording of this poem on Revolutionary Tea Party, but on the page Allen must rely on the effect of written rhythm.
The title, “Rub a Dub Style Inna Regent Park,” draws upon the notion that a new style is called for and repeats this line like a refrain. Textualizing the “musical track” (82) that her poem speaks of, Allen employs this musical technique of a refrain in order to stress a political message. In this case, the refrain that draws upon the political activism of dub history corresponds to a localized place of hardship within the Toronto community. Another line with political relevance that creates a musical refrain within the poem is the phrase, “Oh Lawd Oh Lawd Oh Lawd.” Allen’s pronunciation of the word “Lawd” comes to the forefront of the recording, to the extent that seems to echo Michael Smith’s famous line from “Mi Cyaan Believe It”: “Laaawwwd - mi cyaan believe it - mi seh - mi cyaan believe it” — a line that he would draw the crowd into applause by stretching out that word, “Laaawwwd” (qtd in Habekost 134). Hearing this word sung by Allen reminds us of the continued relevance of conveying a political message to a diasporic audience. The rhythm of the poem is what conveys this message; thus, the words, “riddim line vessel” and “words cut harsh” (82) emphasize the textual material of the poem, composed of both its text and its sound.
Allen’s poem, “I Fight Back” enacts code-switching by employing standard English yet interweaving words that are either culturally encoded in Jamaican English or deemed otherwise untouchable by the speaker of the poem. In the very first line, Allen cites transnational companies whose names reflect the social hierarchies of Jamaica and its trading partnership with Canada: “ITT ALCAN KAISER / Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce” (139). Allen invokes these codes for capitalism at the start of her poem because, as she explains in the next stanza, “these are privilege names in my country but I am illegal here” (139). In Habekost’s close-reading of this poem, he mentions that the names of the transnational companies are ones with presence in the Caribbean (149). The word here brings the reader of the poem to the speaker’s new home of Toronto. The fact that the meanings of certain words are denied to the speaker here foregrounds a dissonant sense of linguistic displacement and potential for linguistic empowerment A similar conflation occurs when, as Habekost observes, Allen invokes the dub tradition of lamenting the urban conditions of a city, such as Kingston, in the descriptive style of Onuora and Smith (149); yet, Allen translates this convention into her Canadian context through lamenting the living conditions of a diasporic urban centre, Toronto.
The poem evokes an image of the speaker as barred from society — “I am illegal here [...] I came to Canada / found the doors of opportunity / well guarded” (139) — yet the poem conveys a misinformed image of the speaker’s homeland, alongside a lingering hope that informed the immigrant’s journey to this new land. It is a hope that continues despite the titles that are denied and, thereby, prompting the refrain that is capitalized on the page and in the sound of her performance: “I FIGHT BACK” (139). Rather than letting them label me Allen writes herself into language — and into her own language. She calls for the definitions to be revised in order to include those who are excluded from them:
They label me
Immigrant, law breaker, illegal, minimum wager
Ah no, not mother, not worker, not fighter. (140)
She underlines this argument with the rhythm of fight back repeating with its capitalized form on the page and in her voice. Moreover, the fact that this poem appears on the printed page and written in Standard English gives legitimacy to this re-definition; yet, at the same time, this use of standardization suggests that the poetic voice is still confined by these conventions, still attempting to fight back through these constraints of language.
The presence of Standard English in this poem contributes to the sense of how the poem itself is about feeling othered — a feeling of speaking someone else’s language. Allen uses Standard English, but she continues to fight back through the rhythm of the poem — and through asserting that she too can claim these codes as her own. In the end, it is not as much about the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce as a privileged title than it is about being denied the title of mother, worker, fighter — titles whose status depends not upon capitalism but rather titles that remind us of human rights. Through code-switching, Allen persuasively makes this point in placing the Jamaican English word backra amid Standard English: “I scrub floors / serve backra’s meals on time” (139). The DJE defines backra as a white man or woman (with the first usage cites Apra Behn’s Oroonoko in 1688); the word is a loaded term in Jamaican culture with meanings that originate from slavery: “a term of polite address, equiv to sir, master or boss,” “in reference to people of light enough colour to be associated with whites rather than negroes,” and “one who, though not white, lives like a white man or moves in white society” (DJE 18). These definitions inform a number of other compound words that use backra to inflect the meaning, such as in backra country — which can refer either to Jamaica (as the place where slaves were brought) or to England (as the home of the white man). Nevertheless, the history of slaves is infused throughout these meanings. Since Allen’s poem written mostly in Standard English, this example of backra stands out and calls attention to what function it serves in the poem and why such a concept is even being perpetuated in a country that claims to support cultural equality. Thus, this manoeuvre brings the discourse of slavery into the present and re-situates it within urban Toronto.
iii. Textualizing Performance — Recordings
The issue of how to codify dub poetry when preparing it for publication raises the question of how this process can highlight the very process of textualizing orality. Allen’s poem, “I Fight Back” is written in Standard English spelling, yet the performance of this poem on Revolutionary Tea Party layers reggae rhythm upon this standardized spelling. As Habekost observes in his discussion of Allen’s spelling, even though Allen writes, “slave shipppppppp” (83) in the poem, “Rub a Dub Style Inna Regent Park,” she does not choose to spell the word imperial in a style that mimics the oral delivery. [Habekost offers an alternative spelling of this word as “Iiimpiiirial” (156), as if he is sounding it out on the page.] Moreover, in a discussion of Allen’s spelling within the context of textualizing orality, Maria Casas suggests that Allen creates linguistic effects that require the reader to read with sound of Jamaican English. Since readers might interpret the Jamaican English spelling of “yu” as “you,” Casas argues that Allen must compensate for this in including words that will confuse the eye and will invoke what reader’s will hear as what Casas calls “stereotypical Jamaican English grammar” (171). For instance, Casas cites an example in the poem, “Riddim an’ Hardtimes” in which Allen uses him instead of he in order to disrupt standard syntax: “An’ him chucks on some riddim” (Allen qtd in Casas 171). The word riddim itself, as Casas argues, provides as a way in which dub poets are able to “[get] around the limitations of English orthography” (172) — thus, giving an example of how new words can be created as direct results of attempting to re-create Jamaican English speech in writing. Nevertheless, in creating spellings for dialect there is the risk of creating yet another fixed standard — however, what is produced is not a static poem, but a riddim poem: a performance.
The notion of a riddim poem offers a framework through which to understand debates over anthologizing Jamaican poetry as either “oral” or “textual” because this notion of a riddim poem is a performance that includes both forms. A riddim poem, as operating within both audio and print, responds to Mervyn Morris’s comment to critics who claim that dub poetry sounds best off the page: “If these [dub] poets communicate more fully in performance, or with greater force, so do some of the poets we much too readily pretend are prisoners of print” (qtd in Habekost 8). Connecting this defence of printed dub poetry to the issue of spelling, we might keep in mind how Morris images the translation from orality to print as one of opportunity (“Printing the Performance” 246). The way in which Casas reads the spellings of Allen’s poetry as fighting back against the limitations of Standard English enables us to see how one poet is embracing this opportunity and, in fact, perpetuating the cultural dialogue that results from an ongoing translation from print to sound and from sound to print.
Conclusion: Future Oralities in Toronto
Toronto’s dub poets have produced a thriving scene of dub performances, but what this calls for us to consider is how these performances are translated into text. More specifically, how can written dub poetry serve to textualize the orality of an urban centre such as Toronto? In the introduction to one of the integral Toronto dub poetry anthologies, Utterances and Incantations: Women, Poetry and Dub, editor Afua Cooper articulates the influence that this community has had on her own writing. In an interview with Kwame Dawes, Cooper explains how she sees the dub community as drawing upon Jamaican experiences yet also drawing upon the sense of displacement:
I am a displaced person and I feel displaced — I come from Jamaica or the Caribbean and the experience shaped me. Those people from whom I come, that sensibility which I have, that is like the course, the feeding ground — and then you are sort of hurled, you are shot as from a rocket into different areas and spaces. What do you do with that? I don’t know what I would do if I was living in Toronto and there were no black people here. Maybe I wouldn’t write. It would be a problem. (222)
The necessity of community that Cooper speaks of can be charted through organizations that do not necessarily represent themselves in textual forms; for instance, the Dub Poetry Collective website functions as a version of an anthology with its list of Toronto dub poets and sound clips (http://www.dubpoetscollective.com/). Nevertheless, in terms of textual collections, I would argue that the words of a younger generation foreground the future of written dub poetry in the anthology entitled, T-Dot Griots. Editors Steven Green and Karen Richardson explain that the publication of T-Dot Griots “fills a wide gap in the African Canadian Arts movement, and it focuses on a new generation” (i). Not only does this new generation include “first generation Canadians who, unlike many of their parents, did not choose to be here” (vii), but also they are united under the term griots, which draws upon the West African notion of the griot as storyteller within a community. Moreover, the fact that T-Dot Griots exists as a textual object speaks to the necessity of documenting the oral cultures of Toronto in print.
The bridging of genres, ranging from poetry to lyrics and from fiction to essays, in T-Dot Griots evokes the mixing of genres that informs the history of dub poetry. It is through this mixing within the print medium that T-Dot Griots becomes an exemplary work through which to conclude this paper’s discussion of negotiating between the textual and the oral. Since Allen’s work raises the geographical specificity of Toronto itself, T-Dot Griots offers a significant glimpse into the future of dub poetry in this city. It is a hopeful future with this work guiding the way towards understanding the textualizing of orality within popular culture as well as literary culture. Along with drawing upon the historical tradition of the griot, Green and Richardson’s anthology unites a young generation of Toronto poets under a popular phrase for Toronto, T-Dot. In the same way that the term dub poetry allowed for an identification of the genre as political sound poetry, the acceptance of T-Dot as a word for Toronto reflects a popular acceptance of oral hip-hop culture (and recognition of this culture working in Toronto). The fact that this term has now been documented and defined is only one of the many ways it has been standardized, or rather co-opted into mainstream culture. I mention this word as a contemporary and Toronto-specific example of textualizing orality that provides a comparison to the textualizing of vernacular Jamaican English. In T-Dot Griots, Del F. Cowie’s tracing of the word t-dot alongside the process of Canadian hip-hop gaining mainstream recognition — two events that collided in Choclair’s filming of the video for “What Does It Take” on Toronto Island and his use of the term “T-dot O-dot.” Cowie traces this use of t-dot in order to lead up to the cultural moment when Jamaican Canadian hip-hop artist Kardinal Official integrates the term into his song, “Bakardi Slang” (2001) a song that in its title plays upon the notion of it being non-standard English (and cultural slang). In the line, “You think we are all Jamaican, when nuff man are Trinis, Bajans, Grenadians, and a whole heap of Haitians, Guyanese and all of the West Indies combined T/ o make the T-dot O-dot, one of a kind,” Cowie observes how this “expands the song beyond its African-American and West Indian influences and localizes it to the city of Toronto” (49). However, Cowie further notes how this moment of T-Dot entering the mainstream is not its beginning, but rather it constitutes a moment within grassroots hip-hop culture to re-name a space — Toronto.
Toronto is often thought of as a literary city due to the fact that it has been written about by authors such as Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, and Dionne Brand; but what all of these authors share in this textualizing of the city is that they attempt to capture the voices, or rather the oral culture, of the city. Dub poetry offers one medium through which the voices of Toronto can be heard and, for us as critics, placing dub poetry within this oral tradition of writing the city involves a powerful hearing of voices that have been otherwise marginalized. As I have argued in this paper, this hearing of dub can take the form of both audio and visual — and, through outlining the evolution of dub poetry in Jamaica and its translation into the city of Toronto, the codification process is necessarily understood as combining the acts of writing and recording. It is through the interaction of these two actions that the potential for creative change can take place and for the poem to produce its material sound: rhythm. As Allen’s poetry reveals through its redefining and questioning of the codification of spoken words, language is still unfixed, thereby allowing for the possibility for text and sound to mix — and remix.
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