Book House The Lead

“C+nto & Othered Poems”: Joelle Taylor explores the themes of sexuality and gender in this poetry collection

Author Joelle Taylor
  • The book “C+nto & Othered Poems” by Joelle Taylor is a poetry collection exploring underground lesbian culture.


  • Joelle Taylor is an award-winning poet, playwright and author. Taylor’s documentary about being a masculine lesbian, Butch, was recently featured on BBC Radio 4.


  • The book enters the private lives of women from the butch counterculture, and explores sexuality and gender in poetry that is lyrical, expansive, imagistic, epic and intimate.


  • Read an excerpt from the preface of the book below.


Preface

This is a book of silences.

C+nto opens in a time of absence. Glass display cases appear across the UK outside the old bars, cruising grounds, and squats that once held the LGBT+ community in parenthesis. They come in the shape of snow globes, fish tanks, jars, crystal music boxes, vivariums, bottles and grand museum cabinets. Each case holds a different scene: first loves, bar fights, arrests, explosions, serpentine Pride marches, an old drag queen, a woman circling a boxing ring, and the old Maryville, a fictious dyke dive bar. This book is a walk through the maze of vitrines, one consistent narrative told in separate parts.

The second chapter looks at personal history and is focused on the loss of my friends, and of my exile as a consequence of my sexuality. It was this second part, from which the collection gets its title, that began this writing journey. Apples & Snakes commissioned me to write an original fifteen-minute spoken word piece reflecting on the word ‘protest’. I was on tour in Australia at the time, a distance that gave me the intimacy with the page I needed.

First, they take your mouth. Then the whole of your body. As a young teenager stepping tentatively out of the closet in the early 1980s, I was subjected to constant state-endorsed abuse: spat at in school, punched in the back of the head while walking home, attacked on buses, chased from bars, followed home by whistling men, to name a few. I wear the abuse as a suit.

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. While this book is set in what is now thought of as the ‘golden age of the gay’, we have regressed as a community. Our meeting places, clubs and bars have closed, and we gather in distinct flocks across social media, each flock speaking a different language. We inhabit separate rooms in the same club. If we were to regain the real-life meeting grounds, if we were to be in the same room, then perhaps we would remember our commonality. The internet celebrates difference. The club celebrates unity. In these distinct spaces we learn to protect one another. We learn that we are one another.

O, Maryville follows the narrative of one night in a dyke bar, and is based on an amalgam of some of the dirty oasis I spent my beardless youth in. I wanted to recreate that sense of belonging, especially in terms of an indistinct outer threat. The bar is safe ground and a space for those within to examine their lives. The story revolves around four butch lesbians who observe, nurture and protect the space. Even when the bar is demolished these four women hold their ground. Dudizile, Angel, Valentine and Jack Catch are composite characters, based on real people I met on the scene.

It is important that we preserve our history. I excavated my own past and that of others through the extensive use of archives, both digital and on location. I interviewed other butch lesbians from that era, and together we began to construct a simple story: exile, friendship, grief, love, courage and threat.

Certain words are repeated throughout this collection: face / eats / o / fist / body / lemniscate. They are the six words that summarise me.

At the time of writing, seventy-two countries criminalise same sex relationships; forty-four explicitly criminalise female homosexuality; eleven jurisdictions support the death penalty for lesbian and gays; and fifteen specifically criminalise trans identities.

Unknown numbers of lesbian and gays have been declared missing in Chechnya during the Purge, rounded up by security forces after tipoffs from former friends, neighbours or family. They are transported for interrogation where they are tortured to reveal more names from LGBT communities. Films exist of lesbians being publicly murdered by family members, often at the behest of the police. As males, gay men have more freedom in Chechnya than lesbians, and so some are able to escape the Republic. Meanwhile, lesbians are trapped inside the strict religious state indefinitely, predominantly because of their sex.

Meanwhile, 100 municipalities in Poland have initiated LGBT Free Zones and Pride marchers have been attacked with bottles. In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is punishable with 100 lashes or death by stoning. In Uganda, the Anti-Homosexuality Act (2014) has led to hundreds of LGBT refugees migrating across East Africa. In parts of South Africa, ‘corrective’ rape is carried out by gangs of jackrollers who search for masculine lesbians. Equally, in Chile, the Red Zone in the mountainous Fifth region is a dangerous area for la camiona, who are taken from the streets after nights out or on their way home from work. According to the Human Dignity Trust it is illegal to be a lesbian in almost a quarter of the world’s countries.

In the UK, we argue about the correct colours of stripes on a flag while war rages across social media. In the UK, we don’t need security forces: we pick each other off. Brexit has led to a nationalist confidence unparalleled since the Second Word War, and bigots from both sides are emboldened to assault homosexual and trans people. The word ‘lesbian’ is synonymous with that hated epithet, ‘TERF’, and, as a community, we spend more time policing each other than protecting.

It is against this backdrop of rising global homophobia, transphobia and misogyny that this book is written. I wanted 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.

In 2021, we face extreme threats from the outside and division within. Unity has never been more important, but in order to achieve that, we must reflect on our histories, where they converge, where they differ, and make a joint decision on where we are going — and how we get there. We build the road we walk on together.

Everything in this book is preserved: salt, vinegar, alcohol, aspic, in vitrine. Whatever is within remains there.

In case of emergency, break the glass.

— Joelle Taylor

February 2021

Excerpted with permission from the preface of the book C+nto & Othered Poems, Joelle Taylor, The Westbourne Press. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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