There’s been a lot of talk in the media recently about poetry being on the rise – why do you think people are increasingly turning to the artform?
Poetry is the last free art. In times of struggle and oppression we need it to help us understand our own humanity, to help connect with others, to examine and interrogate power structures, and to provide small spaces where we can all breathe again. It is an antidote to Fake News, to glossy You Tube shows, to the glaring inanity of online and broadcast media. I have seen the underground poetry scene and spoken word culture explode over the last decade, because people not only need to feel their own mouths working against the bit but to have a meeting point where the like-minded can exchange ideas and the comfort of revolution. Poetry is both intimate and exhibitionist at the same time, it calls to something deep within us. And it is old, so very old; an ancestor we can pray to.
In her novel Why Be Happy If You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson writes that ‘a tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.’ How do you interpret this in relation to your own experience of finding poetry and developing your language as a writer?
I have been searching for the right word my entire life. I am hoping I will say it on my death bed. Until then, language is freedom, a run across the dark field to find the shelter in the woods. As a teenager dealing with abuse, homophobia and poverty poetry was a home, a good friend, an uncritical ear. As the years have passed and I have devoted myself to a particular branch of the art, I have invested more in learning how language works, how we can create alternate futures for ourselves in the written and the performed. The word ‘authentic’ is used a lot in spoken word circles (which is heavily class-based) but I believe it can take a life time to become authentic, to remember ourselves, and poetry can help us to do this. Hard words softly spoken.
As a teenager you spent a time at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, what do you think of present day teenage protest movements e.g. the school strikes?
They are essential. There is something seriously wrong though when we need our own children to parent us, to demand the answers to the questions we should have been asking. What is particularly inspiring is the way they have made themselves felt as a physical presence, rather than remaining behind their individual laptops in carefully kettled social media groups.
On 28 & 29 May you’re performing your poem CUNTO in Rallying Cry as part of the Albany’s REBELS season, what do you hope people will take away from the piece and the show as a whole?
I want the audience to feel inspired, to feel their own sense of power and potential for change. I want them to understand the daily struggle that lesbians, especially masculine women face. The piece is biographical and looks at the female body as a site of protest in a world that has rigid notions of sex stereotypes and genders, and strong punitive actions for those whose bodies are coloured outside the lines. It’s set in the mid 90’s among the working-class squat scene and club culture, moving through rejection of that body, grief, the curating of a community, the joy of the disobedient body and a final acceptance of self. I want them to dance without moving.
You’re currently working on a debut collection of short stories. How have you found working with the short story form, and what tools do you feel it offers a writer that diverge from those of poetry?
I have been writing the Night Alphabet for around 12 months now, and it has been a long journey with many sudden stops along the road and a few hitchhikers. The skill is finding the balance between poetic language and a compelling narrative, the decision between character and idea, locations and meaning. I’ve written the main long stories now and so I’m entering a time where I feel I can relax a little and let the poetic moments in each story rise to the surface. The most important lesson I have learned is that I don’t need to tell a whole story, just a moment. Throughout the process I have been mentored by Courttia Newland, an author who – though different to me – has extraordinary knowledge of the medium and huge success in the crafting of both stories and novels. I always knew I wanted to be guided by him.
If you could only read two writers for the rest of your life, whose work would you choose and why?
Too many but I’ll focus on contemporary UK poets:
Anthony Anaxagorou – he has an astonishing range, which balances muscularity in language with a softness in addressing the issues he speaks of. His journey has taken him through spoken word arenas to prestigious poetry magazines, and I enjoy that surprise in his writing and methodology. I would also be watching him on You Tube, and learning, learning.
Fran Lock – I don’t even have the words to describe the dense journey’s this poet takes us on. The most extreme use of language I have encountered, I know that Lock will always find a way to say The Thing I didn’t know I wanted to say.
If you weren’t a poet, what would you be?
Someone who wanted to be a poet.
Joelle is appearing in Rallying Cry at the Albany, next week. Find out more by following this link.