Working with Words: Joelle Taylor
Joelle Taylor is an award-winning poet, playwright, author and former slam champion. She is widely anthologised and the author of four full poetry collections and three plays. Her latest poetry collection C+NTO & Othered Poems was published in June 2021 by Westbourne Press and won the T.S. Eliot Prize. We spoke with Joelle about the importance of having diverse voices in the literary community and how having an at home office has changed the way she works.
Was there a particular moment or event that prompted you to start writing C+nto: & Othered Poems?
I was commissioned to write a 12-minute piece around the theme of ‘protest’ for Apples & Snakes, a UK spoken word agency. The most political of poems often have the most personal of beginnings. Our job as poets is to find the human.
Most of us walk around followed by ghosts. Sometimes poets get to talk to them.
What was the first piece of writing you ever had published?
It was a short story I wrote at 15 years old which looked at the images that flash before a drowning women’s eyes. In retrospect it was quite a poetic piece, separated in tiny chapters or cantos that marked each of her remaining 15 seconds. That was a laugh.
Where do you usually write?
For years I had no specific space beyond the notebook I was writing in. Then about five years ago I built a small mezzanine platform in my bedroom so that I could fit a working office beneath it. It transformed my working practice, just a simple desk and chair and the vague sense of privacy.
How do you know when something is worth writing about?
It’s more that it starts to think of me as worthy of writing about it.
What do you think is lacking in modern literature right now? What is thriving?
We lack diversity in representation which leads to a monotony of story and aesthetic. We must push for alternate narratives, different ways of telling a story, different understandings of what a story might be and what it wants. Possibly because spoken word poetry is founded on elevating the voices of the marginalised, live poetry is thriving in the UK. We have reached a balancing point on the bridge between what is written and what is performed. This creates a dynamic and urgent poetic that has the potential to startle and engage.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
As writers everything we do is a kind of research and development. This has really protected me during some of the most challenging episodes in my life, and has certainly kept me going through a range of dodgy jobs from envelope stuffing to selling windows, to making my living in more nefarious ways.
What are you reading right now?
I read a huge amount of poetry, but I’m also addicted to prose. I am about to begin A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, which by all accounts is a traumatic but magical novel about a boy surviving abuse.
Do you keep a diary?
I don’t keep a literal diary because the poetry acts as a constant journal. It’s certainly a barometer of feelings if not events. As well as that I am in the midst of writing a poetic memoir, due for publication in 2023.
You’ve been very involved in Poetry Slam events throughout your career and you’ve also written a number of plays. Are performance and voice always in your mind even when you write for the page?
Absolutely. There are quieter pieces that don’t work well in the mouth or on a stage, but they are always quite cinematic in their imagining: mise-en-scene, lighting, sound effects, the reader’s camera. Writing a poem is a an act of courage but performing it is a revolution. It connects.
Do you have a definitive answer to best lesbian bar you’ve ever been to?
I was very lucky to have been in my 20s when London had a different dyke bar for each night of the week. I spent a lot of time in The Royal Oak in Hackney, as well as the Duke of Wellington, Due South and the Artful Dodger. Elements of each of these spaces are the foundation of the fictious Maryville bar in C+nto & Othered Poems.
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