By Helen Spalding
Jess Green is an accomplished performance poet or spoken word artist. Her poetry is created with its oral effect in mind – focusing on the aesthetics of spoken language, intonation and voice inflection. Jess dismisses the view that the poetry of Keats and Shelley is completely removed from spoken word, saying ‘spoken word wouldn’t even exist if traditional poetry hadn’t.’ Jess goes on to give Kate Tempest as a good example of a performance poet who tells both traditional stories and deals in what is happening now. Poetry of this genre is becoming more widespread, in Jess’ words ‘almost mainstream’, in London, with nights like Bang Said The Gun having become hugely popular. In other parts of the country however, such as Leicester where Jess lives, she finds her audiences to be, while not of a specific age, more left-wing, already involved in the art scene, often educators given the nature of Jess’ work.
Her work has a focus on education. Having grown up in a family of teachers, she says that this government is ‘probably the worst government to have taught under’ due to vast amount of pressure teachers and students are now put under. From her experience with teachers, ‘the thing that I get most when talking to teachers is there is a real feeling they are not being listened to.’ ‘Dear Mr Gove’ was a poem depicting a teacher’s perspective today, ‘expressing something in a public way that hadn’t happened before, directed at Mr. Gove.’ She filmed herself performing ‘Dear Mr Gove’ and posted it on YouTube after someone posted a version of her performing it in a pub that was getting hits. She was not expecting such a large reaction to it. At a gig six moths later, Micheal Gove’s Head of Office was present and she found out that Gove had asked for a transcript of the poem as ‘he couldn’t understand what I was saying because of my accent.’
When we spoke to Jess she was still in the research and development phase of her stage play, Burning Books, an adaptation of one of the poetry shows she toured last year. The play is set in a state secondary school and opens with clip of Nicky Morgan talking at the NASWUT conference back in March where she asked teachers to stop being so negative and told them to ‘step up’. Her play delves into the realities of what teaching today is like and the limitations both educators and pupils face.
To gather the information for her writing, she runs focus group with teachers to discuss how teaching has changed over the last twenty or thirty years, hearing more remote accounts through Skype interviews and Twitter. Since beginning the research process, Jess says that ‘I knew that education had changed but I had no idea how much.’ In the 1970s and the early 80s there was no National Curriculum, an hour and a half for lunch and no observation. It was Thatcher that actually brought in the concept of a National Curriculum, creating more of a structure and an idea of work scrutiny, which is one of the few Thatcherite policies Jess stands behind. Work scrutiny today however has reached a level Jess calls ridiculous. Teachers have to produce an A4 lesson plan for each and every lesson, which can mean spending 10 hours a week providing evidence for the work they have done in fear of an Ofsted visit, often to have that evidence go to waste. There is so much time spent on providing that evidence that there is little time left to teach. Jess is very aware to not try and come across as a teacher, though she has grown up in a family of teachers. She says ‘I don’t want this to come across as something I have just written in my back bedroom; I really want it to come across as though it is the collective voice of people who are teaching now.’ For this reason, Jess is using video to capture some of the interview and research process, to incorporate later into the performance.
Jess runs poetry workshops within schools as well, teaching poetry, creative writing and performance in primary and secondary schools, universities, care homes and prisons. When asked about how she tailors these sessions to her audiences, she comments ‘it is funny the way kids perceive poetry. When I go into primary schools and they say ‘Here is a poet for the day’, they are really excited and they think that that is a really fun thing to do. But the moment kids get into Year 7, I don’t know what happens, but they have this idea that its going to be really dull, and its going to be all Wordsworth and Keats… it is a lot harder to get them to engage with poetry in Secondary.’ Whether or not this is because there is no room on National Curriculum for modern poetry or in general a distaste for arts and humanities today is hard to say. Jess says that ‘schools really struggle to get visitors and creative people in because there is so little money but also because there is no room in the timetable. If you are constantly up against a deadline and trying to meet targets, why would you get someone in to do poetry or art for a day?’
According to Scroobius Pip, ‘somehow Jess manages to be hard hitting in a way that’s so subtle you don’t realise until the bruises comes up.’ Anyone that has watched ‘Dear Mr Gove’ will agree that it strikes a chord with a generation of teachers and pupils alike and makes you think about education policy entirely differently.
Photograph: Jess Green