Joelle Taylor: Writing From Archives

I am currently completing my third collection of poetry, CUNTO & Other Poems, which will be published by Saqi Books in June 2021.

In my last collection Songs My Enemy Taught Me I worked explicitly with marginalised communities of women. This was both part of the research and a fundamental commitment to enable participants to develop and share their own stories. Although its starting position of using my own childhood experiences of surviving sexual abuse was deeply personal, the book quickly took on a more global aspect.

CUNTO is the reverse of Songs. It starts with something global – homosexuality and queerness – and focuses in toward my own experiences as a masculine presenting woman – aka Butch or Boi – in London’s 90s underground scene. CUNTO focuses the narrative on a fictitious bar called The Maryville – an amalgam of the many spaces that provided home to me – a bar, a community centre, a family, a riot. It is a book about community, friendship, grief and identity. It is the story of the hidden.

I wanted to set the book during this time not only because I was there, but because in retrospect it has become known as the Golden Age of Gay, especially the lesbian, across the western world. Clubs and bars specifically for women proliferated, as did meeting groups for lesbian-focused political campaigns. Since then, 132 gay bars have closed in London alone – only one lesbian bar survives.

Locating the working class lesbian

The central question to my research was: how do I write the story of an absence?

While there is plenty of material to look at, lesbian history is obscured by centuries of misogyny, homophobia and class difference. As a consequence, much of the material available refers to upper and middle-class women, in the form of diaries, artworks and analytical texts. Locating the working-class lesbian has been more difficult, and as the Butch identity is largely a working-class phenomenon, I have had to dig deep.

Much relied on a balance between research and instinct, a fusion of external and internal worlds. As writers we must interrogate ourselves. Whatever we write we are always the first person to be interviewed. We strap ourselves to a chair, shine a direct light in our eyes and say, ‘Why? When? Are you sure?’ We mine our memories and then burn them. They are fossil fuel for our writing but not the fire. It is the fire we want to try and capture.

To help me do this I used a storyboard, like those used to script films. This reminded me both that poetry is cinema – my pen a camera – and that time is an important aspect of the project. This encouraged me to zoom in on a moment, rather than an event. I can choose to use a close lens or a wide angle. Even though the storyboard is linear I attacked it in a cyclical way, writing down images as they came to me.

At the same time, I sent a call out on social media and via relevant organisations seeking to interview lesbians who were active during that time period. Collating their direct, often meandering, thoughts and experiences was vital to rebuilding not only my memories but the feeling – the numinous of the time.

Fact and fiction

Most archives are to some extent digitised, but between lockdowns I’ve visited the Lesbian and Gay National Archives at the Bishopsgate Institute to access their extensive collections. LAGNA curates a brilliant library of objects from LBGT history, from banners to badges to t-shirts. Each time I held an object it became a portal back to the woman I was. I sat in the library and watched this old world unfurl around me. I saw where I was sitting. Who was there that night. What the weather was like at the last Pride of the 90s.

Whilst I wanted to construct an accurate picture of the feeling of the time, I also kept at heart that the research was a springboard. I wasn’t writing a period piece per se, more a creatively adapted memoir. The characters who appear in the book are fusions of real people, and people I met in books. If I met someone in a book that I felt might like to spend some time in my own book, I went deeper. The events described both happened, and did not happen.

I used as many descriptive passages as possible from wide ranging sources I looked at both fact and fiction responses to the theme and side-tracked into what poetry was being generated during this time. I supported the texts with primary source material, including press cuttings and magazine spreads.

The events described both happened, and did not happen.

Legal documents are another great resource and can be accessed online. I investigated charge sheets for lesbians from the 1940s onward, confirming a deliberate campaign to criminalise the Butch including regular street arrests for wearing less than three articles of women’s clothing. But as a poet I was attracted to the language used in these documents too. Extracted in the right way Acts of Parliament, charge sheets, postmortem papers, Human Rights Act all become a kind of poetry.

Numerous photographs of underground lesbian bar culture are available online but suffer from class differences – even in the 90’s none of the women I hung out with owned cameras. And so, I relied on photographers like Dixie Thomas, Laurence Jaugey Paget and Del La Grace Volcano for direct visuals. Although most of the photographs are posed, it still allowed me access to clothing, hairstyles and dominant aesthetics.

I found it valuable to provoke my senses during the writing too, asking a DJ friend to create a playlist for me. What was I listening to in the bars back then? Would music conjure the night? The result is a kind of breathing subtext to the collection – I’m currently debating linking each poem via barcode to a particular song.

Our work as poets is as witness and subject. We go into rooms first.

I hope that CUNTO is a room you will want to spend time in.

WRITING EXERCISE

You Tube has a seemingly infinite source of rough documentaries, re-discovered film clips and interviews. Transcripts are also available where film does not and can be explored as a source for block-out poetry. London Metropolitan Archives has some excellent audio interviews I’ve referred to. I fell into them during my research for CUNTO.

If watching an interview, I imagined that I was the person I was watching and as the interview closed, continued to write in her voice. It is a kind of method writing.

  • How does she speak?
  • What does accent do to the poetry?
  • What clothes has she chosen to wear to this interview?
  • How does she move within her clothes?
  • What does the idea of body do to the poetry?

EXAMPLES

Interview – YouTube
Newspaper Clippings from 1969 – Columbia University Library
Legal Documents – The New York Times website

By Joelle Taylor

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