'To write a poem as a working-class woman is an act of courage, of resistance. To perform it is a revolution' – Joelle Tayor
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About Joelle Taylor
Joelle Taylor is a poet, playwright & author. She became the UK Slam champion in 2000 and founded SLAMbassadors, the UK national youth Slam championship, where she served as artistic director & coach 2001 to 2018. Published works include Songs My Enemy Taught Me (Out-Spoken Press, 2017), The Woman Who Was Not There (Burning Eye, 2014) and Ska Tissue (Mother Foucault Press, 2011).
Her latest collection, C+nto: & Othered Poems (The Westbourne Press, 2021) stands as a landmark monument to the butch lesbian communities of the 90s, their rich inner mythologies and the persistent threats they have faced down with the raw morality of refusal and self-love, as well as their lives & bodies. It won the T.S Elliot prize in 2021.
The line between ghosts and gods lies in the grieving, and so Joelle treads in that space, lauding & mourning lost friends in archetypal, near-Herculean terms, their clothes and bodies, minds & souls capable of shifting and enhancing the real into aspiration, community & safety. “When Angel looks in the mirror / It looks away first”; of Dudizile, “tweed understands the idea / of her…”
It’s in the admittance of their bodies that things become complete however: these Butches, Bois & Studs are flesh and desire and humanity, and it is this human grit that fuels the revolution, the protest, the sense of necessary change. “Angels don’t fall from heaven / they leave at closing time / unscrew their fucks in the back of black cabs” It is the right to base humanity for which these women died and die still, not high faluting but a default, as necessary as water. Their heroic quality stems from society’s complicit & active mistreatment of their very forms, as in The Battle of Maryville, when local men storm the bar, “they had forgotten/ that if you/ punch a woman/ 6 more grow/ from the wound”.
Joelle is a master craftswoman of the Slam poetry scene, and her style can be felt in the reading, transposed tremendously to the page. Bold statements juxtapose with wit & subtlety, lending every phrase potential meanings larger than the sum. In Angel, “ / I have seen your fists sob / at the centre of every boi / is a bare room,” expresses grief and lust, loneliness and intimacy, conjuring all the complexities of an othered community forced to sit inside a hateful superstructure, made constantly aware of their tenuous foundations and forced by cultural limits to express in the masculine notions of the mainstream. As In Dudizile, “Is the only way out of woman / man. How can the exit / also be the fire?”
It is a life portrayed in paradox, but not a paradox exclusive to the Butch community. Rather, the communities’ constant commitment to opposition, and therefore to reckoning with these broader human tensions, to living in a heightened philosophical state, rises to focus throughout the collection. “The woman pushes open the door and enters her own body” seems both a relief and a sadness, safety and self also reminders of the danger just outside, and a simple night out dancing & flirting held up as the religious experience it becomes when you are elsewhere denied it.
“...People like us, we don’t get stuff like this…” an emotional Joelle said in interview with the T.S Eliot Prize. She, and her community, have always been worthy of it, though it took two decades to get there: to celebrate the community’s bravery is to simultaneously mourn the need for courage in the first place. This collection demonstrates the fervour with which we should celebrate anyway.
Recordings made at the Soundhouse Studio, North London on the 20th April, 2022, used by permission of the author. Photographer credit Roman Manfredi