When I meet Joelle Taylor, she takes me to a small sculpture of herself. It is green and bronze, with a 1950s pompadour-style quiff that is instantly recognisable as hers. Next to the sculpture is a small white card: “God Save the Poetry Today”, it reads. “HM Prison Wandsworth, Sculpture, 2023”.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by how much beauty and excellence there is in the darkest places,” Taylor, an author and TS Eliot Prize-winning poet, tells me. We are speaking at an exhibition she has curated: prison charity Koestler Arts’s annual Southbank display of art from secure settings—prisons, young offenders’ institutions, secure mental health units and immigration detention centres.
The sculpture was done by an artist that Taylor had never met who, she suspects, saw a promotional photo of her. She shows me her favourite work from the collection, Damage Done, a series of sketches of frightened little boys drawn on police charge sheets. The work “asks us to look at these inmates when they were children, and see what led them to this moment,” Taylor tells me.
We walk past intricate sculptures made from rice and seeds, carvings made from soap and miniature furniture made from matchsticks—some of the artists are serving long sentences and submit a sculpture every year, improving their craft each time. “What I’ve learned is that, no matter what, humanity has the ability to transcend itself,” Taylor says. “I’ve also learned that I really enjoy curating art.”
Taylor is brimming with energy as she describes her hard-fought journey into the arts after growing up in poverty in Lancashire and Yorkshire. She won the TS Eliot Prize in 2021 for her collection C+nto & Othered Poems, which tells the hidden stories of the butch lesbian counterculture of London in the 1990s. When she is on stage performing her poems, she looks like she was born to be there. Spoken word, she says, is “a performance of a heightened version of the self… it terrifies me getting on the stage, I really dislike that. But then, once I’ve got there and I’m in the moment, I feel like I belong. And like I’m home.”
Feeling at home in the world of poetry was not easy for Taylor. When she started out, there were very few female spoken word artists. “It was a very tough world to break into, particularly if you look like me… You had to appeal to men, and women like me don’t appeal to men very much,” she tells me, laughing.
Her gender was not the only barrier she faced—at university in Kent, Taylor often didn’t have enough money for food. She would go to other people’s houses and cook for them as a way to get a free meal. “You can’t talk about poetry without talking about class,” she says. Taylor feels that inequality in the arts is only deepening due to government cuts. When only wealthy people can afford to be artists, “you find that your narratives become the same.”
Taylor’s debut novel The Night Alphabet will be published on 15th February. She will tour a live show of the novel that aims to blur the boundaries between literature and live performance. “On stage and in a novel, anything can happen,” she says.
She advises emerging artists to work together. “Glory in the freedom you have to think and to imagine new worlds. And support one another… Collectivity is the antidote to cultural fascism.”