Joelle Taylor: feminism is being reborn
Songs My Enemy Taught Me does not make for easy reading. It is not made up of delicate melodies or background music. It cannot even be described simply as a collection of protest songs. Many of the stories shared within these pages are aching, grieving, bleeding with pain and at times seething with anger. They are songs of silence, songs of survival, and songs of uprising.
Joelle Taylor’s poetry collection is a battle cry against the systematic oppression and abuse of women worldwide — a call for solidarity. It is testimony to the volumes that we can reach when we sing together. And it is a powerful, vital volume.
“I wanted to write the book to explore what was happening to women globally – because it was driving me insane.”
The amazing array of voices captured, collected and amplified in Songs My Enemy Taught Me traverse borders and time. Through Joelle’s poetry, women speak to us from Cambodia during the genocide of the late 1970’s, from Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, and from Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire today.
Joelle led a series of masterclasses across the UK while she was writing the book, to enable other women to write and communicate their stories. This power of collective voice and story telling is clear throughout the collection, revealing a universality to women’s experiences of oppression and the acts of sexual violence committed against them. There is an incredible section of Landays, written in Joelle’s workshops by Afghan women refugees – a Landay being a short poem meaning ‘short, poisonous snake’ and the writing of poetry being an act of rebellion in Taliban controlled Afghanistan.
Every individual’s experience of trauma is unique to them and their experience. But it’s the systemic nature of abuse and mistreatment of women worldwide that Taylor wants to highlight. “It’s systematic, it goes right back in every culture and country,” she says. “More than half the world’s population is a minority, and that’s hard to understand. Fundamentally, misogyny is based on fear and hatred.”
Joelle Taylor’s personal history of trauma is present throughout, and hearing her talk about it is devastating. “If you have experienced sexual assault or violence as a child, you are literally fucked out of your body. You have to leave it, because that’s the only way that you can survive.
“When I came out in the 80’s about my experiences of abuse and my sexuality, I became politically active, escaping at 15 to Greenham Common peace camp. I was there for nuclear disarmament, but I learned so much about the world through those women from all strata of society. Feminism was a life saver for me.”
The poetry collection, which Taylor says could not have been written without the support and creative input of Anthony Anaxagorou and Sabrina Mahfouz, was originally going to have been written in a sort of vacuum, where silence and silencing is the reigning response to women speaking up about their experiences of assault and abuse. However, one month after publication, the #MeToo movement began gaining momentum. Outpourings of pain, emotion and sharing of stories would result in the hashtag being used over 12 million times.
“It was amazing that #MeToo happened. My DM’s went crazy with messages from women, and messages from men.”
And the impact of #MeToo? “There is definitely a silencing going on. It all became very messy, didn’t it? It sort of evolved and became more of an everyday sexism thing – which calling out is so important too, of course – but we have seen a minimising of #MeToo.” However, “it certainly has individual impact – and I know that because of the messages I receive.
“Women are like water, seeping in, always finding a way through the cracks, and always finding a way to survive.
“Let’s not get too distracted by celebrity politics – that goes, and won’t be sold next week – let’s not forget about the grassroots humans who continue should not still be fighting for equal rights in 2018. It’s empowering for everyone involved – but let’s step it up.”
Feminism in 2018
Today, Joelle says, “we’re in an exciting time – feminism is being reborn.
“Feminism is and should be led by black women, because they are the ones who created #MeToo, Million Women Rise, created End Violence Against Women Coalition. We are in an exciting time where the intersections between sex, gender, class, race, are all understood better and talked about more. And we are at an exciting time where men are involved in feminism too, in a genuine and unapologetic way – and that is crucial.”
Taylor really stresses the importance of male presence, and about how the movement can’t just be about women fighting for women. “We are in a time where men can stand up and say they’re feminists, and talk about feminism and masculinity unapologetically. That’s a real step forward. Let’s keep that up.
“As artists, we talk. A poem is a piece of art, but it’s also the start of a conversation. And we’re constantly replying to each other, and that’s the important thing.”
Joelle Taylor is an award-winning poet, playwright and author.
A former UK slam champion, Joelle founded the national youth slam championships SLAMbassadors in 2001 for the Poetry Society and remains the Artistic Director and National Coach. She has performed her poetry nationally and internationally and is the host of Out-Spoken, London’s premier poetry and music night.
Her most recent collection, Songs My Enemy Taught Me (Out-Spoken Press), was inspired by workshops engaging groups of vulnerable women across the UK, including refugees, prisoners, young mothers and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.
The National Portrait Gallery has commissioned a portrait of her as part of their 2019 exhibition of Contemporary Poets. Joelle's collection of short stories, The Night Alphabet, is due for publication in 2019.