When I first read your words, I was deeply moved. Your verbs transported me somewhere else; notions I have pondered for so long embodied themselves on page. I was experiencing poetry in that space in time and I was touched profoundly. Now, touch and movement are at the core of your work. What moves you to write poetry, and what does poetry stir in you? How do you move from one state – the poem on page – to another – the poem on stage? Is a constant state of movement at the core of what you do?
Movement is certainly at the core of my practice. It is not simply body and what body wants and can and can do, but the sense of liminality and pushing forward. There is a fluidity at the heart of poetry, it shapeshifts, finds itself dressed in strange clothes. Like water, poetry becomes the shape of the vessel that holds it – so published poetry becomes book shaped, and performed works become the shape of the space between performer and audience. Think of the poet as a fisher of a river ruled by divergent undercurrents. We stir up all the drowned things; some of those can be brought back to life.
The word “fear” features five times in your collection C+NTO & Othered Poems (2021). You speak of fear experienced by little girls to the extent that "fear is a girl backing into her face." I cannot help but remember Margaret Atwood's words: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Fear might freeze one person, and stimulate another. Do you see fear as a catalyst of movement? What other emotions act as a springboard to your poems?
Fear is the great protagonist in my work. Much of my poetry examines systems of fear, especially those that are state designed and governed. Fear is a control mechanism, one that maintains the status quo and derails dissidence. I am also fascinated by the Monstrous Feminine – how women are monstered within wider society, particularly in terms of body ownership and sexuality.
Overall though I would say the emotional drive in my work is toward hope, toward the sense that if we are able to name and injustice, then we are able to change it. In C+NTO & Othered Poems hope comes in the form of friendship and community, of a collectively held vision of our combined futures.
Do you feel readers should be equipped with a dictionary of sorts before starting to read your poems? I love the fact that the book comes with a glossary. Do you feel it is a necessity or a luxury?
I wouldn’t normally provide a glossary for a collection but in the case of C+NTO, the language – the private language that has evolved between lesbians, like Polari – needed clarification so that a mainstream audience could access that world. I do however strongly believe we should all think about providing references for words that are not in common currency, and for ideas that are provoked by the text. In other words, I view accessibility as the whole point of poetry.
As I see it, our body is a tool, an instrument, a means to. In C+NTO you describe the body battleground, protest, trespass, cemetery, backroom, haunted house, and uprising. To what extent do you see the woman’s body as a space of contestation? Is there a limit to what our body can be/become?
The female body is a political space, one that everyone seems to have erected a flag in the middle of. Our bodies are governed in a way that the male form is not, from reproductive rights through to the right to privacy, to intimacy. The female body is also a pornographic space. None of this is contentious, it is something that global societies have acknowledged for hundreds of years and yet in various ways wish to sustain. This tells me that the female form is not just a pornographic, and a politically pornographic, space but a terrifying one too. It must hold such power to excite such control and debate. This means that we can do anything. This means that we must do everything.
The female body is a political space, one that everyone seems to have erected a flag in the middle of- Joelle Taylor
While words and languages may be the primary tools at hand when writing poetry, the body can be an extension of those words and languages. Whatever we do not communicate verbally, our body does so through non-verbal communication. How do verbal and non-verbal language go hand in hand in your poetry? Are they ever separable? And if not, is there one that comes first and another that follows?
I am known as a physical performer though it is not studied. I just allow my body to listen to what I’m saying and the movements materalise from that. I think it’s important to remember that performance is not acting. It is remembering. It is allowing. Often the movements become fixed in some way, as though they are words themselves. For example, I know when I say ‘some girls’ my arms are going to be raised to describe her sudden descent to the ground. My hands are another language. While the body and the mind are inseparable in my work, it is the words that come to me first and why I am writer rather than just a performer. The skill is to give two completely different experiences from one body of work: the intimate (reading), and the public (performance). Two opposites can exist in the same space, and there’s an argument to suggest they should.
From what I’ve read and heard about your work, the “I” in your poetry is you as Joelle Taylor. Anaïs Nin expresses that: “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” That means that through writing, poetry, or other genres, we relive the joyous and happy moments but more often than not, the sadness and the pain. To what extent do you think we should write ourselves? And should we write ourselves to the point of pain?
I believe we all write ourselves. Our bodies are libraries. We curate the past, we re-script it, hold it up in front an audience, polish it until we can see our faces in it. Poetry is both adventure and comfort. It is the distillation of thought and heart, a kind of breath held outside the body. The poetry scene is where I began to understand myself a little better and others a great deal more. It is how I remember and release, how I look forward in to a possible life.
Your words flow from one line to another, from one page to another. There are instances when words are huddled together, and others where words are scarce. Fluidity oozes from each line, each poem, each sequence. Does this suggest anything about you as a poet, as a person?
Poetry has a thousand functions and so must take a thousand shapes. If that describes me as a person as well, I would be happy with that assessment. I think it’s about the adventure of writing, the joy in that, and the endless excitement of the possibility of innovation.
Do you see performance poetry as a kind of gift? As an act of kindness to your audiences? What role do you feel your audiences play when you are performing on stage?
The relationship between poet and audience when on stage is entirely symbiotic, especially for those of us with roots in the exclusively live experience. We know that a poem is finished by an audience, and that the poem may take on different meanings according to the people it is performed to. The gift is mutual. Poetry is alive, and must be fed.
If we think of words as movement and poetry as a journey, where would you like poetry to take you? Or where do you aim to take your poetry to?
I hope that one day it will lead me home.
Award-winning poet, writer and editor Joelle Taylor was a guest at this year’s Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival organised by Inizjamed in collaboration with the European network Literature Across Frontiers and other national and international partners.
Taylor is the author of four collections of poetry. Her most recent collection C+NTO & Othered Poems won the 2021 T.S Eliot Prize, and the 2022 Polari Book Prize for LGBT authors. C+NTO & Othered Poems was the subject of the Radio 4 arts documentary Butch, and was named by The Telegraph, the New Statesman, The White Review and Times Literary Supplement as one of the best poetry books of the year. She is a Poetry Fellow of University of East Anglia and the curator of the Koestler Awards 2023. She has judged several poetry and literary prizes including Jerwood Fellowship, the Forward Prize, and the Ondaatje Prize. Her novel The Night Alphabet will be published by Riverrun in Spring, 2024. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and the 2022 Saboteur Spoken Word Artist of the Year. Her most recent acting role was in Blue by Derek Jarman, directed by Neil Bartlett. 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 and was the commissioning editor at Out-Spoken Press 2020-2022.