Written by by Katharine McManus, CNN
With her “Traffic” series of poems in 2016, Lillian Allen set out to offer a dance of memories. The goal was to present the changes that occur in her life as she watches her hometown change while she still lives there.
At the heart of the work is an after-school special that Allen’s mother created when she was 16. “Road to Sooner to Later” traces the monumental trauma her life had undergone as an African-American woman growing up in Baltimore. It’s eerily similar to her mother’s poem, only Allen’s was more than 45 years older and offered a more robust narrative of adulthood that begins in the 1960s.
“When I read my mother’s words, I realized that, in many ways, I am continuing her journey and that this poem is not over,” Allen said during a recent visit to Moscow.
The piece moved Allen to tears and prompted her to create more poignantly honest work. Within a few years, Allen’s work had been read and praised all over the world, including at the acclaimed Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Powelton Village Literary Festival in the US.
Now Allen is moving on to a new project and presents it with the fresh perspective and expertise she gained from her previous work.
“Traffic With Me” is a new set of poems that Allen wrote while traveling throughout India. The poems seek to examine the melancholy of travel and the ways the nation’s faith in the U.S. and colonialism keeps Americans “on notice.”
Through a unique blend of spoken word, singing and poetry, Allen sought to explore her desires to experience new cultures and ways of living. In the process, she came to respect and see places she didn’t have the words to describe.
“There is so much of that lost language,” Allen said. “Many people don’t speak what they feel when they’re on a plane because they speak words but not what they feel. The language in the air is so pervasive.”
Charles C. Smith
While traveling through North-East India, poet Charles C. Smith tackled the darker side of consumerism that is often associated with monsoon season. Smith’s “Anxious for the Now” series was born out of a slow grocery store experience with a couple close friends.
Like Allen, Smith began working on his work based on the experiences of those around him.
“While on the road, I would really try to listen to people,” Smith said. “If I was talking to a taxi driver about the upcoming monsoon season, I would turn my attention to him, where the monsoon had taken over the streets and rendered them into cracks or ruts.”
For Smith, the process has been different than that of Allen, a more-established poet and performer who is now known as “the Method Man of Cleveland Heights.”
“Lillian is almost in someone else’s head because of her previous experiences,” Smith said. “When I’m on the road, I’m having this sonic exorcism, a field trip, this active listening.”
Smith worked alongside Allen on the project, looking at many of the themes and inspiration within her poems. Working alongside Allen gave Smith the opportunity to illustrate the sudden changes that can occur within a person’s mind.
“Lillian Allen’s work dealt with some important issues at the time, people’s fears that they weren’t special enough for the society around them and the crazy place we were in, where everything is newsworthy,” Smith said. “I wanted to get into that angst and energy of almost being trapped.”
Over time, the experience of his poems has opened up Smith to the notion of being haunted by moving forwards. For Smith, moving forward is often tied to a giving up of some basic hopes.
“You’re paying attention to what the others are doing. You’re kind of preempting in the same way you’re always trying to get through a crowd of people.”
Both artists were inspired by “Traffic With Me” to explore themes of nostalgia and optimism, exploring the evolution of American wealth and culture.
“My coming-of-age here is often characterized by urban decay,” Smith said. “I’ve seen land replaced by storm drains, beelining in a way that I find interesting. There are drugs, there’s crime, homelessness, hunger. That’s all part of the backdrop for how things have been changed.”