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C+nto & Othered Poems, a poetry collection centred on the butch counterculture by Joelle Taylor, has been shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize. Taylor, who is in her fifties, is published by The Westbourne Press (an imprint of Saqi Books) – only the second poetry collection published by the imprint in its 10-year history.

This shortlisting is the culmination of a long career for Taylor that has included mentoring new talent as well as producing and touring her own work. Taylor founded the national youth slam championships SLAMbassadors in 2001 for the Poetry Society and was its Artistic Director and National Coach until 2018. The project has been responsible for discovering and mentoring a significant number of emerging artists who are now regular faces on the UK and international spoken word scene – including Anthony Anaxagorou, PACE, Kayo Chingonyi, Jay Bernard and Aisling Fahey (London Young Poet Laureate).

Violence and fear.

Taylor says of the shortlist announcement: “I’m overwhelmed to have my work included on this year’s shortlist for the T.S. Eliot Prize. It feels like the pinnacle of 25 years as a live poet and it is especially gratifying that the shortlisting is for a book which explores the hidden history of a marginalised group, elevating their voices. All our narratives are vital to create a strong, questioning and plural poetic community. I believe there is a bridge between live and published works and am grateful that the judges have given me the opportunity to share it.”

Taylor’s path to success was not guaranteed. She had a violent father and faced sexual abuse at a young age. Her poetry often reflects on these bigger issues, as well as highlighting the violence and fear that the butch lesbian community have faced, and still face today. Poetry is a way for Taylor to express this and highlight both her strength and vulnerability. She says of her work: “everything I do is an exercise in my own reclamation”.

Underground lesbian scene.

C+nto tells the story of the subversive butch counterculture that has been missing from the LGBTQ+ narrative. Inspired by Joelle’s own experiences, these poems explore the 1990s underground lesbian scene, revealing the protests these women led to reclaim their bodies as their own. C+nto is a deeply moving, fearless and fierce breakthrough collection from one of the most established voices on the spoken word scene. Taylor is currently producing a stage adaptation of the book, which will be showcased to theatre commissioners at the Albany in November.

Watch Joelle in action here:

Publisher at The Westbourne Press, Lynn Gaspard, said: “Every once in a while, as a publisher, if you’re lucky, you receive a book that stops you in your tracks and that you know will make a difference. C+nto is one such book. Joelle’s performance of C+nto moved me to my core when I first heard her perform it several years ago. I was completely transfixed and transported by the power and rhythm of her words, which so poignantly relayed the pain and violence endured by butch lesbians – an experience not yet widely recognised. I am incredibly proud to publish C+nto. I cannot think of a writer more deserving of a T. S. Eliot Shortlist than Joelle, who has dedicated her working life to the advancement of poetry and spoken word in this country. C+nto is a poetic tour de force, earth shattering in its impact and vital in its representation of a community increasingly losing space within the mainstream.” 

Announced at an event at Cheltenham Literary Festival, C+nto joins nine other titles on the shortlist. The winner will be announced at a prize ceremony on Monday 10 January at The Wallace Collection.

Check out Rob Harkavy’s review of audio drama How To Drop a Piano.

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