“That Really Happened”: An interview with T.S. Eliot Prize Winner Joelle Taylor by Amy Ridler
Joelle Taylor is an award-winning poet and author. She founded SLAMbassadors, the UK national youth poetry slam championships, as well as the international spoken-word project Borderlines. She is a co-curator and host of Out- Spoken Live, the UK’s premier poetry and music club, currently resident at the Southbank Centre. She is the commissioning editor at Out- Spoken press 2020 – 2022. Her poetry collection C+NTO & Othered Poems was published in June 2021 and is the subject of Radio 4 arts documentary Butch. C+NTO, named by The Telegraph, The New Statesman, The White Review & Times Literary Supplement as one of the best poetry books of 2021, won the T.S Eliot prize in January 2022.
Joelle is reading from her T.S Eliot prize winning book, C+NTO, at Waterstones Gower street in two hours. We order our drinks at a pub close by and find a quiet corner. As always, her energy is electric…
AR: How does it feel? Has it sunk in yet?
JT: It comes in tides, it’s a bit like the sea. When it was first announced it was just pure shock, followed by elation, and then a little bit more shock. I’ve just been carried away by the waves of various interviews and suddenly there is a real validation, a real joy in being interviewed by well-known media outlets. I was in a bit of a bubble and then I stepped away and, well I’m still in shock. But really enjoying it.
On my way here today to meet you, and every so often since it has been announced, I have a moment where I just stop and think… ‘Yes. I did. That actually happened.’
It’s pure joy, and not just for me. I’m still getting a lot of messages from butch women, and different members of the queer community getting in touch and then, of course, there is the outpouring of love from the spoken word community.
AR: When the news was announced, Twitter was blowing up – my feed was filled with the news. Has the spotlight been a bit overwhelming or are you relishing it?
JT: It was a completely overwhelming experience but in the best possible way. I did panic a bit. I’m used to attention because I am a performer, I am on stage, but I can control that attention. It’s always been very controllable – whoever the audience is in the room and then maybe a smattering of people on social media, but this was crazy! It spooks me that I haven’t been able to respond to everybody. Even good friends of mine. I’ll be walking down the street and suddenly realise – I haven’t replied to them yet!
It was coming at me from every angle. In a sense it would be more tangible if it was 30 years ago and there was a knock on the door and I got 4 boxes of mail, you know? That would have been more tangible – easier to deal with, you could separate it all out and work through it. But I’m not complaining. I did a lot of crying, it was very moving. It has been a magnificent connecting experience.
AR: C+NTO not only brings visibility, but makes it impossible for butch identity, and in a wider context, lesbian history and experience, to be ignored. I remember seeing you perform at your Songs My Enemy Taught Me launch and thinking, I HAVE TO WRITE ABOUT THIS. I got in touch and you very kindly sent me some of your writing, including a section of C+NTO. I did write about it – I named the final chapter of my dissertation ‘Our Whole Lives Are Protests.’
Your work is so important- I imagine there has been an outpouring of support from lesbians around the globe – what’s that like?
JT: It’s been amazing. I knew I was likely to get online abuse – I’m talking about butch women. It’s a historical piece as you know and I thought to myself, I’m writing this book, and I need to be honest. Honest about what it was like, and what it feels like for me, but I wanted to be fairly nebulous in the sense that I want a universal. I want anybody that feels they don’t fit their body to find their place in it. Anybody who has ever had a friendship or a loved a friend whose known that amazing sense of radical community to find their space within my book.
Right from the start, I went out on the road with it. Taking something out there is the antithesis of Twitter – everyone is in the room with you. Every flavour of the LGBT+ community is in the room with you and they are all responding in the same way. All so full of love and joy, even though it is an incredibly depressing piece, but because we don’t get to hear it spoken about; that’s what gives you the sense of joy. It’s giving the voice to something that isn’t spoken about in mainstream culture. It’s been incredibly supportive.
I know what I’m writing about, and I think a real book is not meant to be instructive, it sets the scene, asks a couple of questions, maybe a couple of declamations, and then you do the rest of the work. The responses have been amazing – young butch femme couples are reaching out. The looks on their faces in the audience! I’m an elder, for me it’s really important that this hidden culture, this much maligned culture – because its women – is being elevated, even just a little bit, again and reinvestigated, particularly by younger communities, so that we have the sense of who we all are. I didn’t write the book with any political aim, I wrote it because I was full of grief. I wanted to talk about my friends and I wanted to talk about another grief, which is walking around London and seeing nowhere we used to have. We have 1 bar. People say, ‘there’s a few lesbian bars around’ – there is 1. 1 left. Our bars were our homes, our community centres in a lot of respects. People want these spaces, they want to create those spaces again – including sober spaces.
AR: I have been showing videos of your poems in classrooms around London for a long time, but to be able to talk about your work with students, and tell them that you won the prize – just in time for LGBT+ history month – was amazing.
One of my students said that seeing someone who looks like you, makes her want to take her creative writing more seriously because, ‘people like us are going places.’ She’s sent me 2 short stories since. Visibility is so important. If you could have seen someone who looks like you when you were a teenager, writing and performing, what would that have meant?
JT: That is incredible. It would have shortcut 30 years of journeying, much of which was full of obstacles because of the way I look. It would have meant I could have been myself instead of everyday getting up, trying to look like someone who should be in school in a workshop. That was the biggest panic for me, everyday – that’s why way into my 40s I am still dressing like a punk! I couldn’t find a way of looking that was normal, that was me.
To be able to shortcut that I think is a real power.
It would have meant I had someone to really relate to. To argue with and to not be like, because it’s really important that whilst we respect our elders and what they’ve done, we also find what they didn’t do, and make sure we work on that for the next generation to find fault with. That’s the way we develop and evolve.
I think one of the things I’ve been thinking and talking about – how it used to be. When you went into the pubs, people think it was just like popping into any bar – It wasn’t. It was like going somewhere and being met. Greeted by someone who knew you, as you walked in the room, even if you had never met before. You’re young, and some elder butch would come over and welcome you in, make sure you were sat alright and keep their eye on you, to make sure you’re safe and welcomed – because the welcome is such an important part of a culture that is despised. Suddenly, you’re outside the door and you’re hated, by family, friends, society, and inside the door you are welcomed. This incredible shift, created by 3 inches of wood. Those figures are so important, not just when you are young and new to scene, but all the time. My friend Roman is still that person for me, and for a lot of people. Roman remembers. Roman remembers the old ways and is passing them down.
AR: Who are your go to poets, either poets that have inspired your work OR new poets who you think are shining?
JT: There is some brilliant writing out there. I am hugely inspired by Danez Smith. I was lucky enough to be able to bring Danez over from the states for Outspoken a few years ago, to perform. Don’t Call Us Dead had just come out, it was a really amazing incredible performance- the books incredible, the writing, the passion, the power, the uncompromising nature of all of Danez’s work. I’m part of the spoken word Slam community, and there has been links with Danez for a long time, since they were a kid – they wouldn’t have necessarily known who I was, but I’ve always known who they were, through young slam projects.
What inspires me is the way they balance between spoken word and the page. It’s that balance.
Equally, Sam Sax. Kaddish is a superb performance, the writing is off the hook. I’ve had dinner with Sam Sax and they are an exceptionally lovely human.
Fatima Asghar, If They Should Come For Us is one of the best poems that I use in workshops, its beautiful.
Momtaza Mehri, is going to knock everybody sideways – absolutely stunning writing, her poem Glory Be To The Gang Gang Gang is the best praise poem that’s ever been written. She just does this thing that mixes working class, Muslim and Somalian identities together to create something that’s very new, very fresh. Academic but kind of street. Antony Anaxagorou because he challenges me every day. I can list poets for hours! I’ve just done a list of my 5 LGBT+ poetry collections and it’s actually very difficult to find women who are writing these ground breaking books. Where is Adrienne Rich? Where is Audre Lord? Who are they? Caroline Bird has written some of the most amazing poetry around lesbian subjects, particularly Dive Bar, about Gateways. It’s astonishing. I love it. I’m just very lucky to be inspired by listening to different voices every day and I think there are some really interesting non-binary and trans voices coming through.
AR: Does this recognition feel like an honour to the community, and more specifically to the women who influenced your work? It was already an honour to the community, but has the level of publicity that comes with the prize elevated that?
JT: Absolutely. It feels like a memorial to them. There are far more than I listed in the book. I made a little list on my phone. Obviously I never tell people their real names, but there is a huge long list. It’s not just for the 4 women I talk about – they are amalgamations of people, plus me, I am in every character as well – it’s for people who aren’t explicitly talked about in the book. What I’ve been getting in the feedback is that it feels like that for a lot of people, about their friends.
It’s about grief and loss as much as it’s about butch culture. I think I was trying to get across – and what comes across stronger in the stage play – is the particular grief of how butch women die. I talk about specific instances in the book – violence, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, as well as corrective rape and getting battered. There is a real grief in not being able to control our bodies, even after death. It bears reminding younger LGBT+ people that its only very recently that if I suddenly die, my wife can inherit my money. Those things don’t seem to matter when you’re younger, but when you get older, you start thinking: who IS going to look after me? Where am I going to go? And of course, many gay people don’t have that. Some of us lost our families very young, and many still do, in that sense of exile. It has been a memorial, not just for those mentioned but for a lot of butch women, and gay people in general.
AR: If someone had told you, when you first started out, that in 2022 you would win the TS Eliot prize – what would you have said?
JT: Oh man, have I got to wait that long!? (Ha).
No, If someone had told me when I was 22 that I would win this in 2022… It is absolutely mind blowing.
Because I’m from a working-class community, I have two sets of friends. One set is all about poetry and literature, they really get the enormity. The other is all about who we are and where we’re from – and that means when you get something like the Eliot’s or the Booker, or anything like that, whilst your working-class friends are pleased for you, they’re not that involved. They haven’t dreamt of winning the Eliot prize, but they have all been there for me 100%, and I’ve been really really grateful.
AR: What’s next?
JT: I’m doing a lot of touring! I’m off to Australia for a month and it will be the 3rd time I’ve toured across Australia. I’m touring to less places this time, but the size of the events are considerably different. I’m doing Adelaide Writers Week at the beginning, which I’ve done before and it is one of the best festivals I’ve ever been to. From there, we go to Melbourne, for one night only at the wheeler centre, which I’m really excited about because it’s a place I haven’t toured. It is also the home of Butch Is Not a Dirty Word magazine, and the home of a vibrant lesbian culture, so I’m told. Then I finish with 2 events at Sydney Opera house. The tour is threaded together with about eight performances, panels and masterclasses, most of them are remote because it’s difficult to travel across states. Then, when I come back, I’m taking up a poetry fellowship at the University of East Anglia, where I will be terrifying students as much as possible (Ha!). I’m doing a residency for Liverpool University for a week, then off to Finland, Belfast, and Edinburgh International Book Festival.
BUT really, the real work is that I am finishing The Night Alphabet, the book that I started in 2018 AND I’ve been commissioned to write my memoirs.
…and the big big big BIG thing is that C+NTO has been adapted to a 2 hour live musical stage show. We did a section of it in November and we are trying to find a home. I still need to do some work on it, but the aim is that by the end of this year that will be done, ready to tour in 2023. It has the most amazing actors in it, I play Jack Catch. It’s going to have a lot of circus skills in it, and inside vitrines, maybe some DJs from the bell, the door of Gateways, a cigarette burning – So, I’m trying to bring the book alive. I’ve changed the story slightly, to make it clearer, but you’ll have to come and see.
The atmosphere at the Gower street event, reflects the excitement that has been buzzing in the LGBT+ community since the prize was announced. Joelle steps out on stage, impeccably dressed, and the applause is overwhelming. Sitting amongst the people in this audience feels like community. It feels like coming home.