‘They’re literally murdering us’: Poet Joelle Taylor on bringing the LGBTQ+ community together | Poetry

Since winning the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry last week, Joelle Taylor has been called on more than one occasion a “slam poet”. Which, she says, is fascinating: “Because there is no slam poet.” A poetry slam is an event, a spoken word contest, she adds, not a type of poetry.

Taylor, who was named British Performance Poetry Slam Champion in 2000 and founded the SLAMbassadors National Youth Slam Championships, is lenient, however: “It’s just a way for people to try to understand another type of poetry.” But it is clear that this need to distinguish the spoken word from other forms of poetry has a scent of snobbery.

“You can’t talk about published poetry without talking about class, gender, race or sexuality,” she says. “Because all doors are closed – we are still in a publishing situation where the majority of those published are white males.”

Of course, the fact that Taylor’s C+nto and Othered Poems, which began as a spoken word poem about the butch lesbian counterculture, won one of the UK’s most prestigious poetry prizes is a sign that some of these doors open. When we meet for coffee three days after the ceremony, Taylor tells me her inbox is still flooded with members of the LGBTQ+ and speaking communities who feel like they’re finally seen. “The judges who chose someone like me are saying something really profound about how literature and poetry are changing,” she says (although, despite the overwhelming support, she insists she’s not going to cry).

Tears or not, it’s clearly an emotional moment for the 54-year-old poet, who has spent decades on the fringes. Growing up in a working class family in Lancashire where “you wouldn’t even say the word lesbian”, Taylor was abused by her classmates at school. By “pure blood of spirit”, she became the first member of her family to achieve O-levels, and eventually moved to London, hitchhiking to get there. “Coming out sounds so celebratory now,” she says. “But when we went out, more often than not, it was a direction: you have to go out.”

In London, Taylor has become part of the city’s underground butch scene, recently documented in the film Rebel Dykes – in fact, Taylor knows most of the women there. Those years of celebration and protest are the inspiration for C+nto and it’s a time that Taylor is clearly nostalgic about, despite regularly getting jostled or slapped in the street. “Although it was a very oppressive time, it galvanized us and brought us all together,” she explains. She describes the 1988 demonstration against Article 28 as one of the best days of her life: “It was the first time I held a woman’s hand in the street.

Part of the reason Taylor wanted to honor this community through C+nto is that she feels like something has been lost. The collection mentions dozens of lesbian bars – the fictional Maryville frequented by the characters in the poems, but also real ones like the Bell and the Y Bar. Today, there is only one lesbian bar left in London, She Soho. “One of the reasons there’s been all this shouting on social media is that we’ve lost these places,” Taylor says. “It’s very hard to disagree with someone sitting across from you in a bar who is very nice.”

Ah yes, the social media screams. It was inevitable, of course, that Taylor’s collection would spark a conversation about gender identity, given the focus on the female body and the way it is politicized. Before going on tour to perform C+nto, she was “terrified” by the reaction she might get from her own community. But she was pleasantly surprised by his positive reception. She spoke with trans rights activists, trans men and gender-aware feminists who all saw themselves in the poems. “Isn’t it wonderful? she says.

In fact, Taylor sees her book as a “bridge” that can hopefully bring a fractured community together. “I don’t want to add any more drama – it’s dry as shit. People just gotta pull themselves together.”

Instead of fighting online, the LGBTQ+ community “needs to focus,” she says. “At five o’clock in London, they pull lesbians on the motorways and cut their skulls open. This is happening in Chechnya, in Hungary, in Russia. This is happening in Uganda and Ghana. Three-quarters of Poland is now an LGBT-free zone.

“All of these little things are very important on an individual level” – a reference to internet infighting – “but they are literally killing us. So could we just get together?

Unity is what Taylor comes back to again and again — it’s the only way, in her mind, to fight the rise of LGBTQ+ hate crimes in this country and others.

Is there a chance of this happening? Are things like Rebel Dykes and C+nto signs of a change in attitude?

“Yes,” Taylor said, immediately. “We are alive. There is hope.”

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