An Interview with Jess Green, Performance Poet & Political Activist.

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”You get a real rise in political art being made … people are looking for answers”

Jess Green

Earlier this week, Jess Green, the critically acclaimed poet of Burning Books, swapped the stage at the Edinburgh Fringe, took a moment away from writing film scripts, and spoke to our Arts & Culture editor Delphie Bond about her new show touring the UK. 

The show, ‘A Self Help Guide to Being in Love with Jeremy Corbyn’ comes to Leeds this November following a raucous of 5 star reviews. Green is carving out her place in history as both BBC Slam Champion 2018 and winner of BBC Writers Academy 2019. An epitome of modern activism, it is clear that Jess Green is deserving of her grand collection of critical praise, from calling out Micheal Gove to declaring herself in love with Jeremy Corbyn, she is a force to be reckoned with!

Speaking about everything poetic and political, Green reflects on her first Liverpoolian encounters of performance poetry, what is was like to meet Jeremy Corbyn and the disappointments of the Labour Party under Blair.  

Q: Hey Jess, thanks so much for talking with me! So let’s get into it, have you always been involved in slam poetry? 

Jess: My first experience of performance poetry was going into a pub in Liverpool where there was a sign on the door saying ‘performance poetry night’. When I went in there were lots of old, retired dockers sitting around telling stories about the docks, and I realised I liked live storytelling. From then on, I started going to more mainstream nights at university. I subsequently moved back to Leicester and began to try and write/perform poetry for a living. I joined the Camden Roundhouse Poetry Collectors in 2012 and it’s kind of gone from there! 

Q: Wow, so what led your poetry in a political direction?  

Jess: I grew up in a political family and both of my parents were Labour Party activists, so I’ve kind of always been involved in politics from that angle. When I started writing, I found there were a lot of things that I found frustrating and infuriating about the Tory and coalition government. When I began making a living as a poet, I was doing a lot of workshops in schools and I come from a family of teachers, so I found I was sitting in a lot of staff rooms, getting involved in the politics of education. 

Q: Often at university there is the pressure to be left wing, for left-wing’s sake – what would you say to students who are trying to find their feet in politics?

Despite having grown up in quite a left wing political family, I definitely only found activism when I went to university. I think there is pressure to be left wing, because it’s seen as fashionable, but it’s important for people to gather as much information as possible and try and work out what your political beliefs really are. I think particularly at a time of populism and personality politics, it’s never been more important to have the right information for you, your community and the people around you. 

Q: That’s great advice! Another political question…For left wing students today, we have the benefit of Corbyn who has reignited hope in socialism and trade unionism, etc – you obviously grew up under a bit of a tumultuous period in recent Labour history, and have spoken about feeling betrayed by the party, would having a ‘Corbyn’ when you were in uni helped you politically? 

Jess: Yeah definitely. I remember growing up, the night that Tony Blair was elected and my parents didn’t go to bed all night and it represented an unimaginable hope because they’d both lived through a horrendous Tory government under Thatcher. Both my parents were public sector workers and to them Tony Blair represented such hope.  Unlike today, I was lucky enough to grow up under a Blair education which was fantastic and not like the education system now which has been ruined by Gove. And, even though Blair perhaps did not represent all of our views, we needed somebody that was going to get us a labour government. However, we were incredibly disappointed at where Blair ended up, where the Labour party ended up, and increasingly he didn’t represent my our views. Especially his attitude towards the welfare state and immigration. So, I suppose I grew up under this hope which changed to disappointment. Jeremy Corbyn, then reignited hope once again. 

Photo Credit: Camden’s People Theatre

Q: Poetry has historically always been seen as a medium for social critique, but often exclusively for the upper classes. Do you feel that slam poetry is changing how we see poetry? Giving opportunity to a wider range of people, working class, people of colour, women etc? 

Jess: Yes absolutely. Performance poetry has never been more accessible, you only have to go onto YouTube to access poetry. But at the same time, you have performance poetry nights in pubs, it’s becoming so mainstream that it is being used in advertising, like the Nationwide advert. And, I think it’s gathering a bigger and bigger audience because we are a time where, I mean if you look back through history it’s always during times of political unsettlement, periods of austerity where you get a real rise in political art being made and people engaging with that. I think one of the reasons for that is that people are looking for answers, and I think what poetry does is provide crystallisation of an answer to political problems. I think that’s one of the reasons that more and more people are engaging in poetry all over the world.

Q: Thanks so much for that Jess! So, now for some quick questions we’re all dying to know… What was Jeremy Corbyn like?

Jess: He was very friendly and very sweet, he seemed remarkably un-famous, a very normal person, talked about his love of Irish poetry!

Q: What are you reading at the moment? 

Jess: Ahh, well I’m at the BBC Writer’s academy which means I’m reading a huge amount of scripts, lots of tv scripts all the time! It’s a bit of a shame because it means I haven’t read a book for months, but I’m reading old Eastenders scripts at the moment which is cool! 

Q: What’s the future got in hold for you? 

Jess: I’m working on a new show, a poetry show which is about unity and looking at how the country can repair the damage done by Brexit. It looks at how we will try to repair from the divisions we face now, so I’m working on that. I’m also working for BBC Writers Academy writing some scripts for TV

Q: Favourite city/town to perform in? 

Jess: On this tour so far, my favourite place has been Liverpool as it’s where I discovered political activism, it was amazing, we did two nights and they were both sold out! Liverpool is such a Labour city so it was just a really electric place to do the show. 

Q: Have you got another date with Jeremy set up? 

Jess: I cannot possible give that away!!!

It was a pleasure speaking with Jess, check out some of her work on YouTube, and for information about how to get tickets for ‘A Self Help Guide to Being in Love with Jeremy Corbyn’ in Leeds visit https://www.jessgreenpoet.com/gigs

Photo Credit: Unity Theatre.