Joelle Taylor: ‘We all walk around with legions of ghosts within us’

TS Eliot Prize winner on absence, community and the importance of the ‘live poet’

Poet Joelle Taylor has won the TS Eliot Prize  for her collection C+nto & Othered Poems

Poet Joelle Taylor has won the TS Eliot Prize for her collection C+nto & Othered Poems

 

The poet Joelle Taylor is sharp-suited, wearing a gorgeous houndstooth jacket and checked shirt. Even one-on-one, she commands herself with the presence her performances are renowned for: she is rousing, intimate, considered and full of brio.

When I speak to her over Zoom, she’s still buzzing with the thrill of being awarded the TS Eliot Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in contemporary poetry, for her collection C+nto & Othered Poems, published last year with The Westbourne Press. “I feel like I’m balancing on the top of it at the moment. It’s not quite hit home. I’ve been trying to make it hit home by reading the names of the previous winners.”

And it’s quite a list. The Eliot, which is awarded in London each January, has been won by a roll call of greats: Seamus Heaney, Anne Carson, Derek Walcott and Ted Hughes, to name a few. Last year’s winner, Bhanu Kapil’s meticulous and arresting How to Wash a Heart (Pavilion) was, like Taylor’s, devised with performance in mind.

C+nto is a wide-ranging, urgent and moving piece of work. Conjuring ghosts, and walking through a city preserved behind glass, Taylor writes of erasure, protest, gentrification, community and being butch. The preface to the book begins strikingly: “This is a book of silences.”

Through the poems Taylor shows us various scenes from across the UK, each held in glass display cases: first loves, bar fights, arrests, protests and a fictional dyke bar, the Maryville. How does it feel to write into that silence, to populate it with words, to tell it?

“Lesbian history is the history of silence,” Taylor says. “It’s almost like our gender is silence, as lesbians. We’ve been actively erased, but we’ve done a lot of the erasure ourselves. We’ve needed to be quiet.” Keeping quiet is a product of shame, and also a necessity of survival. As one poem in the book, Homosapien, tells us, it is “a language of full stops”.

“The things we don’t say become the most powerful things we do say to one another. I wanted to honour that. I know it’s an oxymoron to speak of silence, but that’s what I wanted to do. To speak of absence, and of the absences within myself as well.”

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

Even though the book moves across history, and across continents, taking aim at the current political atrocities against LGBTQ+ peoples in Chechnya, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Uganda and Chile, it was a deeply personal undertaking for Taylor too. “It was an interrogation of the self, of things that I have been suppressing for years. I’ve portioned off aspects of my life, and writing this book meant that I had to excavate all of those partitioned off rooms, to touch the objects in there.”

It could be potentially difficult, introspective work. “Doors to rooms are often closed for a reason. It takes an extraordinary degree of stupidity and bravery to open the room and walk back in again.” What Taylor realised, during the writing process, was a degree of power. “I was walking through a room that I built. Although it was terrifying, I built it.” When I ask if she feels the process changed her, or what she has learned from it, she pauses. After a moment, she replies confidently: “I have remembered.” She is perceptibly moved as she speaks.

This realisation of power, and the power of memory, also developed Taylor’s writing process during C+nto. The title pun spins through the collection: taken from the Latin verb cuntare (to narrate, tell, or recount a story), it embodies the protesting, fierce, humane character of these fully-realised histories. A poet used to working with archives, interviews and through community workshops and performances, the successive lockdowns of the pandemic meant that she needed to adapt. Her original plan was to carry out research “quite formally” for the book. She managed to set up a few Zoom interviews, and was straight back to researching at Bishopsgate Institute (a cultural institute in Central London which houses archival collections) when lockdown lifted, but during those long periods of isolation, her practice changed.

“I’m a very peripatetic person,” she says, a knowing smile on her face. “I have to move, I have to connect. But that stops me connecting in an intimate way with the page. Whereas the pandemic meant that it was just me and the page, and I realised I was an archive. I was there.” This shows all the way through C+nto, which is formally diverse, moving from shorter lyrics to longer verse drama, taking in community history, memoir, and raising a sizeable army of ghosts along the way. “We all walk around with legions of ghosts within us,” she says. “And sometimes they force their way through your mouth, your pen.”

This act of mediumship and conjuring is paired with the undeniable fact that Taylor is an astute formalist: some poems fall into columns, others break energetically across the page, some have sound effects, lighting directions. The sense, throughout, is of an imagination constantly seeking the right shape, the right angle, the right atmosphere, for the poem to live in. What is remarkable about Taylor’s realisation of self-as-archive is that this is not only an introspective poetry. Rather, from her own recollection and research, she works against the atomisation of the individual, emphasising a communality she feels has been lost in the LGBTQ+ community.

Against the collective efforts of communities fighting state-sanctioned abuse, the HIV/AIDs pandemic, public ignorance, and the disastrous ramifications of Section 28 (a British law, repealed in 2003, which forbade the “promotion” of homosexuality by public institutions, including schools and libraries), Taylor sees a community now too prone to turn on itself. The internet (which asks people to “think in very intimate, personal terms”, focusing on disconnection rather than connection) is partly to blame. As is gentrification, which has led to the mass closure of LGBTQ+ spaces. “Always,” she tells me, “the first places to go are the women’s places.”

Reopening the “holy spaces” – not just bars and clubs, but community centres and sober spaces too – is high on Taylor’s list of priorities. Indeed, when C+nto is transformed into a stage show later in the year, with a cast of actors including Taylor, the fictitious Maryville bar (a recurring “holy space” in the collection) will come to life. After the play is over, the cast will open the bar, and invite the audience in for drinks.

What these places provide is a place where unity can be fostered. “We’re looking for people who do not even like each other to be in the same space, because there is one enemy coming towards us and it is not each other.” One poem in the collection, Butch Proverb No 3, follows a similar tack:

There is a stained-glass
   Window hanging
      At the back of a place
Of worship, Trade perhaps,
   Or the Fridge

The colours begin to bicker with each other – orange with green, “no one really believes / that blue is exactly blue” – and while the colours fall out with each other, none of them see “the silhouette of the man // approaching tossing // a loose stone between hands”.

Part of Taylor’s mission, on the page and in performance, is to emphasise the crucial importance of unity. As the founder of SLAMbassadors, the UK’s youth slam championships, she believes fundamentally in the importance of audience and of creating a stage for oneself. “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.” This is tapping into a “quite primal” function of poetry: coming together in a space, and seeing how the poem inhabits the body, creating what Taylor calls “a third sort of poem – the poem made in the space between the poet and the audience”.

Since its inception in the 1990s, the TS Eliot Prize has overwhelmingly favoured straight, white “page” poets, rather than poets who might be categorised as “spoken word” or “live” poets. Taylor reflects on her recent recognition by the prize judges with her trademark combination of humility and vigour. “I’m just doing what I’ve always done. But I feel validated. Winning this prize means that I am enough. It’s given me privilege.”

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