How did you find your university experience - what societies were you a part of?
It was a really good experience, I definitely didn’t appreciate the education side until the third year which was a bit of a shame really because when I did start to study, I realised it was actually really interesting, but then it was over - haha! It was an amazing time though, I made loads of really good friends and I had a really good community of shared houses that was lovely. I was in a society, yes, I was a member of the New Student Writing Society, which is a creative writing society. That’s where it all started for me, the society used to run open mic nights and I performed my first poem there. It was so encouraging, everyone said, “Oh my God, that’s amazing!” and really, really liked it, so I sort of threw myself in. I made a lot of friends and even started a relationship there. Eventually, I became the chair. We also used to produce short anthologies and journals once a semester along with the open mic nights so it was a really good opportunity for writing.
How did you discover that you could perform - did performance come first or the writing?
I have a long history of acting and being part of music: I was in school plays and I was the front woman of a band before I even got to university so I’ve always been interested in performing. The writing came after, as soon as I realised I could write things that people wanted to listen to my interest in acting dissipated a bit. When you’re an actor, you have to spend such a lot of time waiting for hours for an audition for a shit part in The Bill or whatever and you say these crappy lines. When I realised that I could do this poetry and it would go down well, it all sort of came together. Performing has always been very important, I love writing but for me the joy is in the performing, that’s why I’m a performance poet.
Could you tell us a little about your creative process: I’m particularly interested in your use of very sincere themes and balancing that with your music choices and these gems of humour which ultimately expresses a real honesty for me. Where does it start?
I really like music, my knowledge of different bands is not that vast, people are always talking about things and I’m a bit like, ‘I have no idea who those people are or what that song is’. But when someone puts me on to something, I will listen to an album or a song over and over again until it’s really ingrained. I get addicted to certain songs and often the inspiration to write a poem comes from just tiny sections of a song. I wrote the poem ‘The Bog Eye Man’ simply because I came up with the phrase “hiccuping kicking up sycamore leaves.” I thought it sounded good and then I wrote the whole poem from that. Walking is important too, I tend to walk around and think about things, then write them down in a notebook, then put them onto a computer where I can delete lines, copy and paste them etc, so you can see it all in front of you. After that, I learn it and by learning it, I then edit it again because when you practice saying something outloud you realise that certain bits don’t sound quite right. I tend to walk again while I learn it. Walking is very important.
When I listen to your work, I wish I had heard it when I was, say, 15 years old - particularly the words about relationships and body image. Do you see your words as advice you want to share or are you being purely confessional?
I’m really glad of that, lots of younger women come up to me and say, “Oh my god, that really spoke to me. That was amazing.” Of course that feels really good. However, I do think it’s quite important not to preach to people. A lot of performance poetry can be quite, “You should be this” and “you must do that” and “these people are twats.” For me, my interests lie in using poetry as a tool to explain, “Well yes, these people might be twats but why is that and why aren’t they twats?” I wouldn’t like to think of it so much as advice as much as making people think a bit and question things and feel things.
How would you advise a young woman who wanted to get into poetry?
I mean, I think everyone would say this but it’s so important: read a lot of poetry and go to a lot of poetry nights. I’ll go to both spoken word and page poetry nights and I’ll take a notebook and just write. Sometimes it’s just hearing how just a couple of words or phrases can inspire you and start you off. It’s hard to find your own voice at first, especially if you don’t know what is around. Also, some practical advice, I’m 26 now and I’ve never had a job with a salary and as scary as it may be, especially when your friends start getting these high-flying, well-paid jobs, you need to just try and resist a bit because there’s nothing more precious than your time and your headspace. Travelling helped me so much because being in different environments really helps you to write and I’m sure lots of parents would be cursing me for saying this but I think it’s good to just do things, do small projects, do a cafe job so you’ve still got time to meet people or whatever. If you’re in a full time job, you can’t take opportunities as easily, that’s the other thing - if someone gives you an opportunity, you’ve got to be able to say, “Yes, I can be there next Wednesday.” You really need to make the most of that.
What challenges have you faced throughout your professional career?
Motivation. I can’t pretend that I get up at 7am and write for three hours, my life gets in the way and sometimes a lot of the job is admin and picking websites, sending invoices and signing contracts. It’s easy, but it’s boring. It’s all about self-discipline.
I’m also interested in your film collaboration for the BBC, how do you find working with other people affects your creative process?
I think what they did at the BBC was absolutely amazing, it looked incredible. It was quite stark waking up as my first professional commission, it taught me a lot about the process. If you’re being commissioned to write something about body image, they have every right to say, “I’m not sure about this line” or “can you put something about this in?” In the Edinburgh show I just did, I worked with a very good friend of mine, Lucy, from the writing society at uni. She’s an amazing director and a really intelligent woman, so she co-wrote and edited the show with me and I found that totally invaluable and incredible. Lucy would say, “Right, you’re rambling here, I’m not interested in this,” and cross a whole page of poetry out and because I really respect her and really like writing with her, it was fine. She’d say to me, “Go and write a bit about going out with your friends when you were a teenager,” and I quite liked being given a task, so it’s really nice to have that structure that you get with a commission and a deadline.
Which women personally inspire you?
Joanna Newsom is a very big one for me, I love her - she’s adventurous and inspiring. Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Amy Winehouse, she was a big influence on me. Erykah Badu, too.
What do you like to read?
I like novels, I’m trying to read more novels by women because I’ve got an awful lot of books at home but only 20% of my bookcase is books by women. I’m also reading more and more poetry. I feel a bit guilty about it, but I read a lot of political articles and The Guardian articles that are really great, stuff from feminist Facebook groups - that’s my guilty pleasure when I know I should be reading complicated contemporary poetry.
Do you consider yourself a Feminist?
What is the one piece of advice you have picked up over your professional life that can apply to any career and you would like to pass on?
Always say yes. Try to take on opportunities because opportunities lead on to other opportunities, that’s what I’ve found with performance. The more you do, the more you’re seen, and work breeds work.
Greenhurst college in Huddersfield
A-Levels: Theatre studies, English Language and Lterature and Government and politics
BA in English Literature
What did we learn from Jemima?
Self Dicipline is key
If you want to write poetry, you have to read it
Performance nights and readings are essential research, to see whats out there
You don't have to write all of the time, find a creative structure that suits you
Make yourself availiable and able to say yes to as many things are physically possible
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