This year, NorthWords dives into dub poetry and children’s books

NorthWords NWT takes place in Yellowknife at the end of May. The four-day festival features writers from across Canada and offers workshops, readings, and panel discussions.

Among this year’s authors are Ontario-based dub poet Lillian Allen, who will offer a masterclass on performance poetry, and the Yellowknife author of The Fox and My Boot, Lana de Bastiani, who will host a workshop on the writing of children’s literature.

Both authors will take part in panel discussions. Allen will offer readings of her work at the NorthWords gala.


A detailed schedule can be found on the NorthWords website, where you can register for events happening between May 26 and 29.

Allen, who is Canadian, was born and spent most of her childhood in Jamaica.

“Since I was a child, there was a lot of reading poems at church and school. I got an appreciation for all kinds of poetry because in our culture, which is aurally based, we have an appreciation for language and what it can do, the effect of it,” she told Cabin Radio.

“It’s a tool that is almost democratic in a way. Everyone has access to it.”


The acclaimed poet established her style early in her career.

“When I started to study poetry in school, they didn’t really celebrate what we did because we were colonized. We grew up in a colonized community,” she said.

“So we started to study the classics in school, and I could appreciate the effect their language would have on their communities and some of the beauty in how they expressed an idea and nailed a point of view and evoked emotion.


“I wanted to do that, but for my community. I didn’t want to be like them.”

Allen quickly became a pioneer of spoken-word and dub poetry.

“It didn’t dawn on me that writing was anything other than to share with my community,” she said, describing how she felt able to uniquely hear each poem because she wrote them not to publish them, but to share them with her community.

“The idea of the poetry itself was to engage community.”

That approach became Allen’s dub poetry.

“When I started writing the kind of poetry that we were instructed to write, it came out with a different cadence, because the British English-Shakespeare thing didn’t really fit the Jamaican cadence,” she said.

“I was crafting these lines the way that I knew was the way that I spoke.

“It could be a poem with all of the things they want – metaphors, hyperboles, written in iambic – but you could still feel the Jamaican cadence and Jamaican references.”

Canadian spoken-word and dub poetry enthusiasts recognize Allen for her cultural activism, which she incorporates into her writing. She advocates for cultural equity and cross-cultural collaborations.

“I write in the present, because to me, the present connects to the past and into the futures,” said Allen.

“Each generation has to rediscover their mission. The movement of things, that is decolonizing. The sounds mean something different and are meaningful to certain cultures.

“So then we’re left with the question: can poetry actually do something?”

And according to Allen, yes, it can.

“With poetry, you can shut down the system.”

Allen’s workshop at NorthWords will engage with participants to show them “how to be effective in presenting their work to a public,” she said.

She encourages all types of poets, not just performance poets, to join the workshop to learn about engaging communities with poetry.

“Whatever kind of poetry [you write], it’s going to be poetry intended to engage the community and make that impact,” she said.

“That’s what distinguishes us as communities and as people who imagine a better future in this colonized and unequal place, and want to contribute vision and language, and be part of the process of connection and creating a better world.”

‘Could this be a story?’

De Bastiani’s NorthWords workshop will allow aspiring children’s book authors “to first reflect on and think about what we know about children’s literature, and what are our favourite parts of books, and then come up with some themes,” she said.

The workshop will walk participants through the six pieces of a classic children’s narrative. “You start with the setting, the characters, what happens, the initial event, all the attempts that are made to resolve that, and then some sort of resolution at the end,” de Bastiani told Cabin Radio.

“A huge part of my creative writing process was reflecting back on children’s books that I loved.

“I loved [the stories] I could relate to as a kid, so I really drew on that when I started getting into writing and I still carry it through with my writing.”

Illustrator Janet Pacey (left) and Lana de Bastiani launch The Fox and My Boot in 2018. Photo: Supplied

The writing of children’s books is becoming more popular in the Northwest Territories, with authors like de Bastiani hoping to invigorate children’s literature in the North.

“Growing up [in Yellowknife], there weren’t that many local children’s books that you could see yourself as a character in, so I get really excited when I see myself in books,” she said.

De Bastiani’s debut, The Fox and My Boot, describes a fox who stole her boot while she was skating.

“When I posted on social media about [my boot], there was so much interest and people kept saying ‘this needs to be a book.’ And I thought ‘it does, but why?’

“That’s when I started looking into research behind children’s books and now, I just feel like I want to write them all the time.

“Now, when I’m out doing things, I’m always thinking: could this be a story?”

The children’s author says the lack of northern children’s literature is one of her biggest motivations when it comes to writing.

“The more you can see yourself in characters or in your setting, the more children can relate to it and understand it.

“The approach I use is to write the kind of books I would have wanted to read when I was a kid.

“It’s nice that northern kids can have access to local books, and people down south, when they get them. It’s time for people down south to learn about us rather than us just learning about them.”

De Bastiani is publishing another children’s book this fall.

Nick the Northern Special, written by de Bastiani and illustrated by Janet Pacey, will tell the story of a dog – de Bastiani’s dog, to be specific – who gets lost after running away. While finding his way home, he meets other “northern specials” who teach him about what makes them special.

“It’s about dog adoption, told from the dog’s perspective,” said de Bastiani.

With real NWT dogs used as characters in the book, de Bastiani is hosting a contest for families to submit a photo of their northern special alongside a write-up about what makes them so special. The contest will launch this summer, and at least one winner will be featured in the book.