Read All About It: 'Burning Books' by Jess Green
Burning Books, published by Burning Eye Books, is a collection by poet Jess Green who is perhaps most known for her ‘Dear Mr Gove’ poem, which has now reached 300,000 views on Youtube. Burning Books is taken from Green’s spoken word show set in a secondary school which, as a result of the number of cuts made by the government, is suffering dramatically. She writes in sharp, concise, and hard-hitting lines with a resounding voice that entices the audience and promotes awareness of the injustice in the UK’s education system. It lends itself quite easily to spoken-word performance, which is a massive factor in Green’s poetry process: she is currently on tour performing Burning Books live at events across the UK which began this summer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Green worked as a librarian after leaving university and comes from a family of teachers. This is perhaps what influences her strong views on the education policies in the UK, having experienced first-hand the amount of pressure teachers are under. It’s an unfortunate truth that a fraction of society still view teaching as ‘lazy’ or ‘easy’, which can be a great disrespect to teachers. However, in Green’s poems and performances, teachers are depicted as something close to heroic, fighting relentlessly through every working day while under a great deal of stress.
Your poem ‘Dear Mr Gove’ has become a viral sensation, with over 300,000 views and 790 comments. What were your initial expectations for the poem and did you anticipate this level of success?
We first made the film for Dear Mr Gove because I had performed it in a pub in Leicester and someone had filmed it on their iPhone and put it online. It started getting a lot of attention and I wasn't very happy with it as a performance so we made a 'proper' film of it to try and direct some of the attention it was receiving in that direction. I in no way expected it to resonate with people in the way that it did. It was a complete surprise, I didn't really understand what was going on at the time. I wrote it as part of a show (which is now Burning Books) because I wanted to tell some of the stories that teachers I have met have told me.
Tell me about your experience of performing poetry and how it differs from your experience of writing poetry, particularly in relation to Burning Books.
I did a Creative Writing degree at Liverpool John Moores University and I really wasn't very good at any of the poetry modules I did. In fact, I only started feeling positive about writing poetry when I started speaking it out loud. The performance element completely changed the way I wrote. I had a bit of a light bulb moment when I realised that I could like traditional poets such as T S Eliot and Robert Lowell without having to emulate them. I think I discovered how to write in the way that I think and speak.
When people come and speak to me after a Burning Books show there are some who are really keen to buy the EP and others who are keener on the book. I think that sometimes, people who enjoy reading poetry can get frustrated with fast-paced performance poetry because they don't hear every word so then benefit from taking the book away and reading it. Other people, who maybe have an interest in rap and hip hop or have seen a lot of fast-paced performance poetry tend to not be so bothered if they don't catch every word and as long as they are following it and feel they're taking in the emotion and the atmosphere of the piece they're happy. I think Luke Wright is a good example of this. He is one of my absolute favourite poets and I enjoy reading his work but also watching him live. You don't hear every word he says because a lot of it is so-fast paced but I'm completely gripped.
Who/what were your influences and inspirations for Burning Books?
This show came from sitting in staff rooms and talking to teachers but before that it came from my mum who has always been a teacher and now works as a Head. My sister and my brother-in-law are also teachers so I guess it also came from Friday evenings in the pub with them. I have to thank Michael Gove, Nicky Morgan, Nick Gibb and David Cameron for their input too. In terms of the writing and performance, that came from the writers and poets who I come back to again and again - Michael Rosen, Benjamin Zephaniah, Luke Wright, Salena Godden, John Osbourne (the poet!),Hollie Mcnish, Buddy Wakefield, Kate Fox, Rob Auton. I'm also good friends with political folk singer, Grace Petrie whose work I love. It probably came a bit from her too.