“I write best when I’m angry” — Poet Jess Green @ Chelping & Leeds Lit Fest
This week Chelping is returning to The Leeds Library. The first event of 2019 is part of the first ever Leeds Lit Fest, and that itself is a great indication of where the city is at right now. The cultural heartbeat of Leeds is louder than I’ve known it in a long time — from the bards in the back rooms of boozers to the ball-based bliss from Bielsa’s bucket.
I have a small confession to make — I’ve lived in London for just over two years now. But I’ve always maintained a strong connection with my West Yorkshire heritage, and Chelping has been the leading light. It launched last April, with a headline slot from poetic powerhouse Joelle Taylor, and since then we’ve had headline sets from other highly acclaimed poets including Sabrina Mahfouz, Theresa Lola and Cecilia Knapp. Programming a regular event in Leeds and partially “watching it from a distance” has helped me to realise how vibrant and exciting the city is right now.
The atmosphere inside the 251-year-old Leeds Library is truly special. I’ve been programming a diverse range of acts from London and Glasgow, alongside some of Yorkshire’s best talent, and every single act has been blown away by the venue. Audience members I’ve spoken to have felt the same.
Spoken word nights are a unique experience. And with the scene flourishing as it is right now, we’re welcoming first-timers on almost every occasion. It means everything to me to programme and present a night that’s engaging, dynamic, high quality and accessible. I know that sounds like pretentious funding application speak, but I mean every word of it – I want people to leave Chelping with a thirst for more and more spoken word poetry events. We have a real opportunity to shift people’s perceptions of poetry right now, and nights like Chelping are central to that.
This week’s event will be sure to start 2019’s programme with a bang. In the headline slot we have Jess Green, one of UK poetry’s rising stars. After completing a full run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe with her show ‘A Self Help Guide to Being in Love with Jeremy Corbyn’, Jess is embarking on a nationwide tour. The show is accompanied by a book — her second release on Burning Eye — and having seen it myself, I can vouch for how powerful and important it is.
Jess is without doubt one of our leading political poets. The way she condenses issues and expresses opinions with a blend of honesty and passion is a real joy to behold; political poetry isn’t easy to execute but Jess is a natural. You may have seen her viral video ‘Dear Mr Gove’ a few years back or seen her debut play, ‘Burning Books’. You have may have also seen her on the line-up for the BBC 6 Music Festival in Liverpool at the end of the month, or seen her win the BBC Edinburgh Fringe slam last year. Or you might be encountering her for the first time at Chelping. Either way, I guarantee, this is not a night to be missed.
Last week I asked Jess half-a-dozen questions, which she very kindly answered.
MA: The UK is experiencing unprecedented political chaos at the moment. How do you see poetry playing a role in this?
JG: It’s no surprise to poets that as the world has become more chaotic there has been a rise in poetry sales and more people attending live poetry events. I think poetry is one of those art forms that lets writers express anger and frustration and gives readers some control and understanding. That probably sounds horribly pretentious. I write best when I’m angry. I wish that wasn’t the case, it’s not very healthy. A young person in a school asked me the other day when I’d started writing about politics and I realised it was in 2010, the first time I’d lived under a Tory government. I also write about education a lot, coming from a family of teachers, and a piece of feedback I hear is that it feels cathartic to hear your own experiences reflected back at you.
MA: It’s incredibly rare that Edinburgh Fringe shows are as current as ‘A Self Help Guide to Being in Love with Jeremy Corbyn’. How did it feel performing the show as the situation continued to develop throughout your run?
JG: My goodness. STRESSFUL. The anti-semitism row was kicking off over the summer but I was also performing it in Edinburgh which is a pretty safe liberal, Guardian reading hub. I didn’t realise at the time but I think it was quite a low risk run. I’m about to take the show on tour for six months (including a show on 29th March) and the divisions in the country feel that much more toxic than they did last August and I’m going to cities with Tory seats and some with a large EDL presence. I’ve received that much trolling online since I announced the tour that I’ve become desensitised to it. We’ll see how long that thick skin lasts while I’m actually touring!
MA: In terms of your political poems, how do the responses tend to vary, depending on whereabouts in the country you are?
JG: Sorry, I seem to have answered this question above! But the answer is that it varies widely. And I try to pre-empt that when I’m putting my set together. Sometimes I get it wrong. I did a gig recently where I got it very wrong. I was in the middle of the set before it dawned on me that I was in a Leave heartland performing to people who believe Corbyn to be a terrorist. I couldn’t wind the set up because I was being paid to do a full 30 minutes but it was very difficult. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why they booked me for that!
MA: Have you ever felt betrayed or let-down by a cause or person that you’ve defended in your poetry?
JG: I’ve written in praise of the Labour Party since 2010 but have also felt hugely let down by them (bedroom tax and welfare votes they abstained on, anti-immigration mug etc) which is probably one of the reasons I wrote the Corbyn book and show. It is a show which looks at how Corbyn’s rise came from a whole swathe of the party feeling that Labour didn’t represent them. And I am always on the edge of my seat at the moment that Corbyn could be about to do something undefendable. Oh god, it would be a nightmare. There was a moment last week when it was suggested they might let George Galloway back in to the party and I would have really struggled with that.
MA: Which poets do you think we should be looking out for at the moment?
JG: Two poets I’ve seen recently who I’ve been blown away by are Katie Watson (York based) and Lisette Auton (North East). Katie’s work is fierce and funny, she writes about being queer and disabled. She has this wonderful dry but heart-warming performance style. You come away feeling like you want to be her best friend. I saw Lisette perform just a couple of days ago. Her writing is beautiful and humorous. Again, she writes about disability but does it in this unapologetic, in your face, hilarious and moving way. She has a wonderful piece called ‘people are dicks’, you should hunt it out. I’m not sure if it could be on the internet somewhere. Both of these women are brilliant and important voices, you should book them!
MA: What’s been your favourite performance from the last twelve months?
JG: I’m afraid I’m going to cheat here.
Jemima Foxtrot‘s ‘Above the Mealy-Mouthed Sea’. That show is so clever the way it deals with its subject matter in such a surprising way. It didn’t get the recognition it deserved in Edinburgh, I have been telling people about it ever since.
Joelle Taylor performing from her new book ‘Songs My Enemies Taught Me‘ at my night, Find the Right Words, including the poem ‘Everything You Have Ever Lost’. Heart-breaking and strengthening all at once.
Bohdan Piasecki performing this poem he has which I am about to butcher by describing to you — it’s about finding peace in the chaos of the world but it’s angry and sad and very funny. I love it. I wish I could request him on Deliveroo to come and perform it for me on bad days.
See Jess Green, Steven B. Williams and the open mic showcase at Chelping, part of Leeds Lit Fest, at The Leeds Library on Wednesday 6th March. Get more information and your tickets here.