On one side of the door, you are ugly, and the other side handsome. There are three inches of wood between exile and acceptance.
C+nto & Othered Poems explores the idea of the butch, and by implication the notion of masculine women. It’s about our difficult dance between survival and self-expression. I was compelled to write it as an honouring to all butches and wrong walking women, all of us who do not quite fit our own bodies. Part memoir and part conjuring, C+nto attempts to resurrect our buried and unbreathing stories, to drag the margins to the centre of the page.
We inherit a history of bruising, a taxonomy of exile. We inherit small anchors on wrists, blue tattoos, Fred Perry t-shirts, Ben Sherman gingham, the rolled trouser cuff, the ubiquitous quiff that rises above everything. We inherit ourselves. In spite of what you might have read, butches do not identify as men. We identify as freedom. We identify as survival.
Butch heritage is one of exclusion and erasure. We are what is made of silence. We are otherness made flesh. We are tangible, and obvious. Rough and unflinching. We have taken your contempt and sewn a suit from it. Butch is what happens when a woman stops.
We don’t want to be men and we don’t perform for the male gaze. Worse still, we are women. This makes survival tenuous in a world that has regressed to fixed sexualised ideas of a what a woman is and means. When males gaze at us, we tend to gaze straight back. Because this our meaning; to challenge quietly, to tick slightly outside the box, to disrupt.
At its heart, C+nto & Othered Poems is a book about love. Central to the story are four conjured characters – Valentine, Dudizile, Angel and Jack Catch – who are amalgams of real working class butches. It’s an honouring of their friendship, their place within the culture, their meaning and breadth. It’s also a prayer to our most sacred spaces: the dive bars and the dance floors. It’s a prayer to possibility.
The four butches in the book pilot us. They navigate the night, guiding the fictitious Maryville bar toward safer water. They watch out for the other dykes in the club, they observe clear rules and there are clear consequences for transgressing those rules. Most importantly, they protect the space from outside threat. In the book the threat is indistinct. In my experience, it always is until it is fact and in front of you.
Having this hidden narrative honoured by the literary establishment is a watershed moment for British contemporary poetry. It is not only a miraculous moment for me as a writer and artist, not only a real moment of visibility for a marginalised sexuality, but also a game changer for those who come from working class backgrounds and who have always built the stages we perform on.
While any prize nomination would be mind-blowing, the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry has a resonance that many other awards do not. It is the prize that all poets want to win, partly because they are judged by the most erudite and prestigious names in the craft.
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The readings for the TS Eliot Prize took place on Sunday 9 January in the cavernous Royal Festival Hall, with both a live and digital audience. I knew that there were some butches in the audience who had travelled across the country just to see those eight minutes that I was allotted on stage, just to see themselves reappear. Is this not what poetry is? The greatest magic trick?
Something is changing. Around me I can see butches re-materialising, re-finding their skin. All the ghosts are returning. And we need these ghosts now because our community is under renewed and concerted attack. I don’t mean by gender critical feminists. I mean by ourselves. And while we are separating and policing one another the real enemy approaches.
Around 100 towns and regions across Poland are now LGBT+ free zones. Gay men and lesbians are still under siege in Chechnya as it purges its streets and homes of us. Butch dykes are targets across the world for violence, corrective rape and murder. We face threats from the outside and division within. But if we recall these brave women and the sacrifices they have made to become, to be alive, then I believe we have a chance of unifying.
C+nto & Othered Poems is published by Westbourne Press and is available to buy in most book shops and online
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