Joelle Taylor

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.”

Jane Kirwan

28 February 2022

1

2Butch – BBC Sounds

Making an audio book out of my novel, Who Do You Love

I’m very excited to be working on an audio book version of Who Do You Love, my novel which I published with Blue Door Press in 2017.

I have investigated ways of doing this over the years, having a go at reading myself. I found that although I can be an expressive reader — some would say too expressive! — I don’t have the skills of a properly trained actor and audio book reader. To be a great reader of audio, you have to have a lot of different skills: you’ve got to interpret a story meaningfully and emotionally, you’ve got to read it in a dramatic but not too dramatic fashion, you’ve got to be able to voice the different characters properly, and you’ve got to give it all drive and energy. I think I have found just the person after quite a bit of searching, in the voice of the wonderful actor and audiobook reader Christopher James. I found him through ACX, the audio partner it seems of Amazon’s KDP. The process for me was great because it was so simple. I posted my book for auditions and was surprised to find quite a few auditions up within a matter of two days. I listened to them, and picked Christopher as the most suitable for the book. All of them were good, but it was the accent and the nuanced reading that I was looking for, which I really found in Christopher. Here’s his audition tape:

My soundcloud file of Christopher James’ Audition

Reading Who Do You Love well is really tricky. Not least because the novel explores the emotional experience of a contemporary male, something not frequently done. There are not a lot of novels like this around, with the possible exception of David Nicholls, the author of One Day and Us. Christopher and I have talked about this because it affects the way the novel should be read: it can’t be too deadpan, nor too over-the-top in terms of sounding emotional. The other tricky thing in the novel is the range of accents: the Norwegian lilt of Ellida, the heroine, the refined New York accent of Hadley, the Spanish accent of Arnholm, Jack’s older child voice, and the narrator’s own southern English accent, which is neither posh, nor particularly cockney/local. I felt Christopher captured all of them really well. I was delighted by the way the novel suddenly came alive for me again. Anyway, we are just at the beginning of the process; he’s reading the novel just as I write, and will be recording the whole book quite soon. I hope to keep you updated about how it’s going.

Blue Door at the Troubadour

Delighted to announce that 3 Blue Door Press poets – Jennifer Grigg, Pamela Johnson, Jane Kirwan – will be reading at the legendary Troubadour in London on 4 November 2019. They will read from Stories & Lies and The Goose Woman as part of the autumn season of Coffee House Poetry.

 

 

Joining them, to celebrate Blue Door Press, will be 20 poets with 20 newly commissioned poems on the subject of doors, doorways, entrances & exits, locked or wide-open doors,  porches, garage doors, shed doors, doors from distant memory and more – Fiona Larkin, Katie Griffiths, Caroline Hammond, David Bottomley, Mary Powell, Helen Adie, Heather Moulson, Steve Boorman, Angela Kirby, Wendy French, Nisia Studzinska, Vanessa Lampert, Mary Mulholland, Audrey Ardern-Jones, Jean Hall, Jan Heritage, Edwina Gleeson, Matt Barnard, Andrew Ball, Susannah Hart, June Lausch, Jennifer Nadel & Karen Rydings

To be sure of a good seat book tickets, here

 

TAKING LIBERTIES with The Goose Woman

Prague_Lapidarium

Many of the poems in The Goose Woman focus on a village in Bohemia. I did worry that a neighbour might come across them and take offence but decided that was unlikely. The collection was in English, published in Britain, I was safe. And there were only a few poems that might be insensitive.

However, when asked by Svět Knihy to talk on a panel about translation, and read a few examples, the risk became more pressing. Svět Knihy is a book fair held annually in Prague in May, both a trade fair for publishers and a literature festival, combining promotion with readings, discussions, argument. The events are held in Výstaviště, exhibition grounds that were built around an industrial palace in 1891.

This year had the usual long queues to get in, people of all ages in a three days extravaganza, a celebration of books: fantasy, romance, TV cooks demonstrating their dumplings, people hunched over incredibly complex, incomprehensible interactive games, talks on politics, philosophy…

An event at the Cafe Europa was about Brexit, with an emphasis on its literary ramifications. David Vaughan moderated and Bernie Higgins and I identified ourselves as fully Europeans, and tried not to get too heated. Questions from the audience included confusion about what the Labour party or more precisely Corbyn was up to. Fintan O’Toole was quoted from Heroic Failure ‘…the strange sense of imaginary oppression that underlies Brexit. This mentality is by no means exclusive to the Right.

The poetry events were held in the Lapidarium. This extraordinary museum houses stone sculptures dating from the 11th century. I could only hope that no one in the audience or wandering through looking at the original statues from Charles Bridge would glance over at the poems projected wall size behind me.

I was asked ‘How has your relationship with Czech (and a Czech) affected your poetry? Which was impossible to answer. The second question ‘because of your close relationship with Czech and your translators (Aleš and Tomáš), when you are writing do you ever pause and deliberate on whether to use a line that you know will be difficult to translate into Czech?’ made me realise I’d failed completely to consider and value translators. Tomáš Míka talked about the difficulty in translating ‘One Made Earlier’  from Stories & Lies. It looks impossible but he did it – a few in the audience were even familiar with the reference to Blue Peter.

Then I was asked to read ‘I Am Slabce’ from The Goose Woman. My untruths/exaggerations were projected behind me; no one seemed to have any difficulty in understanding. Slabce was less than eighty kilometres away; I could only imagine Mr Novak or the mayor or Vladimir wandering in and being appalled by such slander.