In January 2022 Joelle Taylor won the T.S.Eliot prize for her collection C+nto and Othered Poems. This prize, £25000, is considered the most prestigious award in UK poetry.
In this interview Taylor describes her winning collection: it’s the story of the butch counter-culture, mainly in London, in the late eighties, early nineties. There is passion and heartbreak on every page; hearing her perform focuses the intensity of the poetry. It is extraordinary, words imprinted by way of her body, both through her and through the listeners/readers:
“ … there are girls who have nothing to eat but themselves
their small spines flagpoles stuck into soft mattresses in Brixton bedsits all of our mothers are warnings.”
(the Unbelong mother C+nto)
Taylor is from a working class Lancastrian family. She has her roots in ‘physical theatre’, in drama, and through this she has become an educator, writer, performer.
In 2000 she became UK slam champion, founding the UK’s youth slam championships, SLAMbassadors, for the Poetry Society in 2001. When, five years ago, she interviewed Sabrina Mahfouz (for the Poetry Society), they compared notes and Taylor described her own first experiences as a poet. There were two camps: Slam Poetry was seen as dumbed down page poetry and she was one of these “illiterati” in the performance world. Sabrina and Joelle described an hierarchy, obsessed with ordering difference, allowing only the “top couple to have critical importance”. Spoken word was working class and page poetry was “for real clever people”.
But things changed and eventually they were performing “at the ICA not the back of the Betsy Trotwood1.” Now poetry venues are mixing page poets with performance poets, mixing different ways of reading. Taylor says of her performances, they act as
“……a ‘quite primal’ function of poetry: coming together in a space, and seeing how the poem inhabits the body….”.
Here Taylor reads from C+nto, describing this, the second chapter, as the origin of her winning collection. It is memoir, personal history, loss of friends: “written for all those wrong-walking women.”
“& now thirteen a man pulls you over the back seat of a bus
and stubs his kiss out on your cheek”
(Round three the body as trespass C+anto)
In her collection, Songs My Enemy Taught Me (Outspoken Press) Taylor describes her own story of surviving sexual abuse, and how using that experience she set up workshops with vulnerable women across the UK.
“some girls fall from sunlight skies straight down into flat-pack floral dresses grab their smiles from a hook behind the door rescue their faces from the rip-tides of mirrors
some girls are always falling” (C+anto)
The title linking the collection is taken from the Latin verb cuntare (to narrate, tell, or recount a story) an allusion that, apart from the obvious, points to Dante and then cantos by Ezra Pound, cantos being the sections of one long incomplete poem much as Taylor has done here. In the preface to the collection, she says
“This book is a walk through a maze of vitrines, one consistent narrative told in different parts.”
Taylor starts the preface with “This is a book of silences ….there is no part of a butch lesbian that is welcome in the world…we have regressed as a community.”
“We all walk around with legions of ghosts within us,” she says. “And sometimes they force their way through your mouth, your pen.” (C+anto)
These ghosts force their way through with imaginative and precise and playful language:
“we are untamed a wilderness of women we are waste ground nothing grows on us … snake boy come now, heretic healer where are the maths that solve us? How do we fit into your algebra your binary code?”
(Round Two the body as protest C+anto)
This story of the butch counter-culture – mainly in London, in the late eighties, early nineties – is told through four women, Duduzile, Angel, Valentine, and Jack Catch, composites of women Taylor knew. Those were the times “when we were handsome”. (C+anto)
“I’ll be in the back bar of heaven Cass will be getting a round in releasing that laugh a flock of wild birds
escaping her mouth and none of this will matter I’ll
be riding the ghost roads with Valentine bare back knee clench on her Harley I’ll be stretching skins with Jack
Catch or scuffing the city with Dudizile men will
stare like open shaft mines I’ll be walking white lines
with Angel tight mouth antelope heart.”
(from C+nto – Round Seven the body as uprising)
This collection is not just describing the ghosts of people but ghosts of places. O, Maryville follows the story of one night in a dyke bar (Maryville) that’s a recreated version of lesbian clubs and bars that have disappeared. It has stage directions, scenes, light, sound; these four butch lesbians, Duduzile, Angel, Valentine, and Jack Catch, protect the space:
“o, Maryville / let us walk alone at night / & let the night not follow us/…o Maryville / keep us alive this death/ keep us from prayer/ deliver us from ego/ for thine are the body / the birthing and the burning / forever and ever/ are you a man?”
(Scene One Psalm C+anto)
Taylor says that those lost clubs celebrated unity while “the internet celebrates difference”. She believes “The whole ethic of the live poet is to create poetry for people who don’t like ‘poetry’; it’s to bring people into an understanding of what they already know.”
“men are broken things breaking things”
(Round three the body as trespass C+anto)
In a Radio 4 programme2 looking at aspects of butch, Joelle describes it as an armour, walking out in the world and attempting to “avoid male attention, conceal vulnerability”.
“in the morning I dress in the reflection of the class
ceiling careful colours the shade of the UnBelong I
am my mother in my father’s suit still the girl with the
face of a man still wrong walking.”
(the Unbelong mother C+nto)
Yet trying to avoid attention, as opposed to willing it, seems just as dangerous, neither will defeat the fear and hostility. The butch world can be scary and violent, display doesn’t defuse the aggression. And it is mainly violence against butch lesbians. Butch women are murdered. There is rising global homophobia.
‘I ask all who are still at liberty, to take this message seriously and flee the republic as soon as possible.’
Final social media post from a LGBT group in Chechyna, 2017
(Scene eleven December C+anto)
And Taylor incants an extraordinary poem, ‘Eulogy’, the names of dead strangers – murdered lesbians across the world. With her recitation she absorbs each woman and distills an acknowledment of intense grief.
“This town is teeming with invisible women
they are not there everywhere”
(December viii C+anto)
In an interview for The Guardian, Taylor says: “Five hours away from London they are pulling lesbians on to motorways and beating their skulls open. It’s happening in Chechnya, in Hungary, in Russia. It’s happening in Uganda, in Ghana. Three-quarters of Poland now is an LGBT-free zone.
All these little things are very important on an individual level” – a reference to the internet infighting – “but they are literally murdering us. So could we just get together?”
Meanwhile, as Taylor says in Scene Eleven C+nto
“& as the cigarette is lit the smoke that dances from its end becomes a glass bead curtain & through it you are sat, quietly, reading this book.”
28 February 2022