Joelle Taylor wins TS Eliot Poetry Prize for her “flamboyant” poems in C+nto and others | TS Eliot Prize for Poetry

Joelle Taylor won the TS Eliot Poetry Prize for her look at butch lesbian counterculture in the 1990s, C+nto & Othered Poems, hailed by the judges as “a flamboyant book of rage and light”.

A mixture of memoir and conjecture, the collection, Taylor’s fourth, reveals the subterranean communities forged by women where they could reclaim their bodies. It was announced in London on Monday night that C+nto had beaten collections from big names such as Raymond Antrobus, Selima Hill and Michael Symmons Roberts for the £25,000 prize. The TS Eliot Prize is one of the most prestigious prizes in British poetry and has been won in the past by Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy and, last year, Bhanu Kapil.

C+nto and Other Poems by Joelle Taylor. Photography: The Westbourne Press

“Each book on the shortlist had a strong claim on price. We found it extremely difficult to choose between 10 stunning collections,” said jury president Glyn Maxwell, who selected the winner with Caroline Bird and Zaffar Kunial.

“The arguments towards the end were impassioned and thoughtful, but the jury’s choice fell on C+nto and Othered Poems by Joelle Taylor, a blazing book of rage and light, a grand opera of liberation from the shadows of the indifference and oppression.”

Maxwell said the winning collection was “quite autobiographical, about her life as a butch lesbian and the hostility she faced as a child in a conventional family”.

“But there are also imaginative renderings of the nightlife – lesbian clubs, some of which are a bit hellish and some of which are heavenly,” he said. “It’s a bit rabid, but it’s that kind of rage that generates light, and it’s a really vivid reading – that’s something.”

Run by the TS Eliot Foundation, the prize is Britain’s most valuable poetry prize and the only one judged solely by established poets. Taylor is a former British Slam Champion, who founded the British Youth Slam Championships, SLAMbassadors, in 2001.

“Joelle was born out of performance,” Maxwell said. “This collection proves that at the top level, there’s very little difference between that and what’s on the page.”

The collection, Taylor writes in her preface, is a dive into her own personal history, looking at her “exile as a consequence of my sexuality,” as well as an excavation into other people’s pasts through interviews and archives.

“It is important that we preserve our history,” she writes. “I interviewed other butch lesbians from that era, and together we began to build a simple story: exile, friendship, heartbreak, love, courage, and threat.”

The collection opens as Taylor imagines Soho and its bars as a museum, behind glass: “Everything, showcase. / Storefronts line the old roads // materialize alongside / cruising grounds and cottages // squats and roughs / fishbowl cenotaphs.

In O, Maryville, the narrative follows a night at a lesbian bar, revolving around four butch lesbians who watch and protect the space, holding their own even when the bar is torn down. In “The Body as a Battlefield”, she writes how “You completely miss your body landing somewhere/in enemy territory behind the lines your body a/foreign country you can’t get a visa for”.

“There’s no part of a butch lesbian that’s welcome in this world. It was bad when I was a teenager. It’s just as bad today,” Taylor wrote in her foreword, revealing that as a young teenager “temporarily coming out of the closet in the early 1980s”, she was “subjected to constant state-sanctioned abuse”.

Today, she says, war is[ing] on social networks”, and “we spend more time controlling ourselves than protecting ourselves”. C+nto, she says, aims “both to recognize crimes against the LGBT community and to reflect a time when we had a greater sense of togetherness, of self.”

Published by Westbourne Press, C+nto has been described as “visionary and powerful” by Hollie McNish, and as “one of the most astonishing and original collections of poetry of recent years” by Bernardine Evaristo in the New Statesman . Taylor has also published three plays and a collection of short stories, The Night Alphabet.

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