TS Eliot Prize-winner Joelle Taylor: ‘The internet has killed off our subculture’

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Joelle Taylor cuts a sharp figure as she walks through Soho: three-piece suit, burgundy tie, oxblood brogues and what she calls a “tsunami quiff”. For the poet and playwright – and the fellow lesbian “butches and studs” she celebrates in her writing – a suit is not just a suit. It’s a mark of identity, a kind of battle armour against others’ disapproval. As she writes in one poem, “You cut your first suit out of the thick silence when you enter a room.”

On Monday night, Taylor won the £25,000 TS Eliot Prize, poetry’s equivalent of the Booker, for her superb C+nto & Othered Poems, joining the ranks of previous winners including Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. It’s a life-changing moment, “a validation, a vindication of 30 years’ hard work” for the 54-year-old, who has followed a long, rocky road to reach this point. She speaks with passion about how poetry can change lives, but doesn’t take herself seriously. “Let this book be the light that…” she begins, before cutting herself off with a laugh: “That sounds so wanky!”

She grew up with “quite peripatetic” working-class parents, who constantly moved her and her two brothers around the North as they tried to find better jobs. “I lived in 13 places before I finally left home, so I never settled properly into a school or had childhood friends.” Taylor struggled with depression, and after two suicide attempts was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where she felt she had to lie about her sexuality to secure her release.

In the early 80s, she explains, “You really didn’t admit to being gay or anything like that – Boy George hadn’t even appeared at this point… So it was something that made me very vulnerable and a target. And it made me quite violent as well, because I felt like I was always having to protect myself.”

That youthful violent streak, surprisingly, helped her meet her first girlfriend. “It was a bit of a Romeo and Juliet, rough trade sort of story. I was the ‘cock of the girls’, the girl that represents your school in fights. She was the hardest girl at the grammar school, and they arranged for us to fight. We all met on this waste ground, we each had about 70 kids behind us. We walked up to each other and both went ‘ooh!’ We tried to have a fight, but it just ended up in snogging.”

That girlfriend introduced her to feminist literature and protest movements. Inspired, at about “15 or 16” Taylor left home and hitchhiked “a few hundred miles” to join the Women’s Peace Camp at RAF Greenham Common. “I got arrested for planting a sapling on a nuclear silo, and then putting my finger in the end of a rifle. I was pulled up in court – we were called the ‘Greenham Seven’.”

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