Truth in the written word is an important aspect of our democratic lives, and it can be a powerful tool when writing creatively. And, with its ability to entertain, engage, enrage and speak truth to power, poetry is certainly no exception. So, with Nottingham Poetry Festival just around the corner, we caught up with award-winning poet and author Joelle Taylor to talk about her recent collections, what to expect from her performance at the festival and how she’s representing LGBT communities, women and the spoken scene…
To kick things off, can you tell me how you first got into poetry?
I fell into poetry much like the way people fall in love. It was listening to the lyrics of punk songs that hooked me, and that brought me closer to written poetry. As well as that, many of the punk bands I watched in the eighties had a performance poet supporting them - Joolz, John Cooper Clarke, Atilla the Stockbroker. I owe them for allowing me to dream that a working-class kid could become a writer too.
Congratulations on your recent success, winning the T. S. Eliot Prize 2021 back in January for your collection C+nto & Othered Poems. This collection is also a New Statesman, Times Literary Supplement and White Review Book of the Year. What was your inspiration behind writing it?
C+nto is part-memoir, part-creative thinking based on real events. I was compelled, possibly by my age, to honour the extraordinary women who formed the dyke counterculture of the late eighties and nineties, which is when the book is set. And it struck me that there is so little to read about butch women in the UK, certainly in mainstream culture. I wanted to try to change that.
What is the significance of winning the T. S. Eliot Prize for the gendered topics C+nto & Othered Poems exposes?
I represent both LGBT communities and the spoken scene, and winning has had a profound impact on both. When one wins, we all win. It’s all about diversity of voice and representation, about exploring and expounding new narratives.
You have published other collections of poetry, such as Songs My Enemy Taught Me in 2017. While writing Songs My Enemy Taught Me, you led a series of workshops across the UK to allow women to tell their stories. There is a particular section of Landays that stood out for me, written in one of your workshops by Afghan women refugees. Can you explain more about this workshop and what a Landay is?
I led masterclasses in poetry with 28 different groups of marginalised women and non-binary people, such as from the prison system, the care system, LGBT refugees and Paiwand, who are an organisation that support refugees from Afghanistan. The landay is a folk form - often sung - indigenous to Afghanistan, that only women write, though women are now banned from writing at all in some Taliban-controlled areas. As such it’s a revolutionary form. Landays look at grief, belonging, exile, and love. To write of love when it is forbidden is an act of resistance and uprising, and women have been severely punished - even lost their lives - for creating them. And so, I wanted to dedicate a chapter of the book just to Afghan women writing landays about their experiences. It’s unusual to hand over a poem in a book to another group of writers, but I think it’s one of the ways we can use privilege effectively.
Poetry’s whole purpose is to uncover truth and to spread that understanding. It’s a vital tool for activists, as is all literature
As this is the mythology issue, we're tying all of our interviewees in with mythological figures. For you, we've chosen Bragi, the Norse skaldic God of poetry, as skalds were both respected and feared for the impact their poems could have on a ruler’s reputation. Do you think poetry can still be used as a tool for speaking truth to power? And if so, how important is that sort of activism at this moment in time?
Poetry’s whole purpose is to uncover truth and to spread that understanding. It’s a vital tool for activists, as is all literature. It’s how ideas are explored, and ideologies formed. Most importantly it is an empathetic bridge between disparate peoples. The most valuable work is done in schools, allowing students to creatively critique their lives, culture and political situations - and that is very dangerous.
How would you encourage more people to start writing poetry or creative works to express social issues or their own personal experiences?
If you want to write, the first thing you need to do is read. Poetry is a conversation - join it, respond, become part of it.
What is your next project? Have you been working on anything recently?
I’ve been focussing on completing my debut novel The Night Alphabet. It’s poetic prose examining the life of a heavily tattooed woman, quantum physics and the idea of infinity, how that relates especially to women. I’m also working on the stage version of C+nto, bringing The Maryville dyke bar back to life.
You are performing at the Nottingham Poetry Festival on Friday 13 May. What can we expect from your set?
The hidden narrative of the butch dyke, and the journeys we each take to arrive at the identity. There will be poems about each of the characters in the book, plus chest-punching pieces.
You can see Joelle Taylor perform live at The Old Cold Store as part of Nottingham Poetry Festival on Friday 13 May. For more information or to buy tickets, visit the Nottingham Poetry Festival website.
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