Joelle Taylor has won the TS Eliot poetry prize for C+nto & Othered Poems, an exploration of 1990s’ butch lesbian culture as counterculture. Originally published in June, 2021, “C+nto is a love poem, a riot, a late night, and an honouring,” the back cover reads.
With the multitude of DMs Joelle’s been sent from lesbians around the globe, expressing that they finally feel seen, she’s aware of the impact the poetry collection has had. “The judges choosing someone like me says something really profound about the way that literature and poetry are changing,” she says in an interview for The Guardian.
However, she’s still adjusting to winning the TS Eliot prize, the United Kingdom & the Republic of Ireland’s most valuable annual poetry competition. “It’s all very surreal. I never thought I’d be in the Telegraph, for example. Very grateful for all the support,” Joelle wrote on Instagram, captioning the picture below.
In C+nto, Joelle considers the complicated relationship butch lesbians have with the misogynistic expectations surrounding womanhood without alienating them from being female. “The female body is a political space,” the back cover reads. Then, in the preface, she writes, “There is no part of a butch lesbian that is welcome in this world. It was bad when I was a teenager. It is as bad today.”
Reflecting on the way she saw ‘90s lesbians unite in diversity, the poet warns that wars raging across social media today can, have, or will, destroy the possibility of community. “We spend more time policing each other than protecting,” she says. The poetry collection, she mentions, intends to both “acknowledge the crimes against the LGBT community and reflect back to a time when we had a greater sense of unity, of self.”
The poetry collection looks at Joelle’s experience of “exile as a consequence of [her] sexuality,” as much as it reflects collective experiences from the ‘90s lesbian scene. “It is important that we preserve our history,” she writes. “I interviewed other butch lesbians from that era, and together we began to construct a simple story: exile, friendship, grief, love, courage and threat.”
Through protest, lesbians forged, and forge, our right to exist. “C+nto enters the private lives of women from the butch counterculture,” the back cover reads, “telling the inside story of the protests they led in the ’90s to reclaim their bodies as their own – their difficult balance between survival and self-expression. History, magic, rebellion, party and sermon vibrate through Joelle Taylor’s cantos to uncover these underground communities forged by women.”
While being a lesbian in the ‘80s and ‘90s was dangerous, the rage from the treatment, and need for protection, unified tight-knit lesbian communities. “While it was a very oppressive time, it galvanized us and brought us all together,” she explains to the Guardian. Joelle remembers the 1988 protest against Section 28 as one of the best days of her life: “It was the first time I’d ever held a woman’s hand on the street.”
“The phrase ‘coming out’ seems so celebratory now. But when we came out, more often than not, it was a direction: we must get out.”
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