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Blog Post | February 13, 2024

Joseph Green Interview: Children’s Authors and Illustrators Week 2024

Children’s Authors and Illustrators Week is celebrated the entire month of February here at SAFE Project! Our third interview for 2024 is with Joseph Green, author of Talk Ugly & Other Poems:

Who is Joseph Green?

Hello, world. My name is Joseph Green and I would like you to see me as a father, storyteller, narrative disruptor, author, and a person in sustained recovery from substance use disorder and mental illness who is extraordinarily grateful to speak with you.


What is a spoken word artist?

I’ll explain it the same way I would if I went into and elementary or middle school. I ask them to break down the words:

  • “Spoken”: To speak out loud;
  • “Word”: The characters that we glue together and attribute meaning to;
  • “Artist”: I do that as an art form, speaking words out loud.

And then you add poetry onto it, which makes it infinitely more difficult to pin down. If you think of certain poetry meant to be heard aloud, and certain poetry meant to be read on the page, then you can understand that there are two different disciplines on how to be excellent in those spaces. There are some people who are really good at spoken word poetry who don’t want to be as good in the written area. There are people who are really good at both. A spoken word artist is, at its simplest, someone who speaks poetry aloud.

I am the recent recipient of having my book published, called Talk Ugly & Other Poems. It is a graphic novel and verse, where three poems that I’ve written have been taken into the hands of the magnificent Sydney Long, a graphic artist. We’ve created these graphic novels and verse for the people of the world.


What challenges are unique to today’s youth? What is universal across time and space?

I had this transformative experience maybe six years ago. I do a lot of work in local schools as a poet in residence and I’m known for being very high energy and optimistic, because a lot of kids don’t want to do poetry workshops. You have to have a bright and cheery attitude to get through some of that. I was doing this workshop and we were getting to the last class in the day, and the teacher pulled me aside and said hey, I know you’re normally really positive and upbeat but this next class they’re very cynical, very pessimistic and I don’t think that attitude is going to really work with them. You might have to try something different. I looked around at where I was. I was in a relatively affluent space, and not that money equals happiness, but their material needs were definitely not lacking. I was curious: what is it that these young people have to be so cynical about? This is eighth grade by the way, where I’m still thinking school is fun for the most part, right?

And so I did a 180 on my workshop and instead of doing what I planned to do, I sat down and I had a conversation with them about what is it about the world that you’re in right now that makes it so hard for you to find joy and happiness? When was the last time you enjoyed school? They said third and fourth grade. What changed for them was that at some point school becomes less about the joy of learning and more about what learning will do for you in the real world. The metric of success is no longer are we having fun here, but are we learning things here. It’s more of are we going to be able to pass the test to prove that we know things. That sucks some of the joy and authenticity out of why learning is such a magical, powerful thing.

In addition to that, they talked about their access to the news. Speaking to the difference between their generation and our generation, in 1992 I was eleven years old and that was when the riots happened in Los Angeles. The only way I knew about that was because my parents were watching the evening news, and then it became maybe a current event at school as it became a bigger and bigger story. But I had no way to access that news except for turning on the TV, and in my household, that was a controlled process. So now these young people can grab their phones and swipe left, and in the newsfeed they find all of the horrible things that are happening in the world, and these things are not presented to them with care or concern for the trauma, the stress, or the anxiety it may inflict. Nor do we have the ability to really keep up with the rate of news when you add in social media and things of that sort. So I think that’s one of the main differences, is not so much that the world is a worse place, but how we access the bad things in the world and who’s in charge of getting and giving that information to our young people.

One of the universal things that I think from every generation of human ever is the need and the desire for connection. I think that is something also — because of this time and age, technology and social media, and then add on the pandemic — that connection is something that is not nearly as strong as it should be, but it is something that we have always needed. No matter how old we were, no matter what technology was — a horse and and buggy or a Tesla — no matter what was happening, we always needed to be connected to other human beings in meaningful and authentic love.


Where did “Talk Ugly & Other Poems” originally come from?

This project is actually almost a decade in the making. I used to run after school creative writing programs here in the DC area, and one of the schools that I worked at was actually the school that I graduated from. Our clubs were spoken word clubs, but it was really a safe space for anybody who wanted to be a part of what we were doing. One of the students we had really wasn’t a writer, but they were a graphic designer, an artist, and an illustrator. We would do little books that would wrap up the year with all the poetry. When they graduated high school, the gentleman that I worked with, Brian Hannon, said I should talk to Sydney about turning my poem into a graphic novel. That was an interesting idea, and we tried it. That first summer, between their senior year and freshman year of college, we made something special, but we both knew it wasn’t the right thing. The storytelling wasn’t there. Their artistic skills were still developing, and so we kind of sat on it.

They went on to MICA in Baltimore, and by the time they graduated, their skills for drawing were through the roof. And so four years later, we picked up the pen and the story again, and we started to go back and forth. It took us about six years with our schedules to actually get to this point where the book was done. All three of the poems in the book were written ten years ago. They’ve been edited and changed and adapted to fit better into the type of storytelling that we’re doing, but the source of the material comes from when I was writing a lot of slam poetry as part of the competitive circuit that I used to be a part of.


Do you reflect on and feel differently about poems you wrote so long ago?

The book consists of three poems: Life is Short, Talk Ugly, and Dear Me. I can speak about that through the lens of one specific poem:

Life is Short is a poem about my relationship with my father. He passed away last year in October, and I had a moment where I sat down and I was like, I need to change all of the tenses of this poem to past tense. I stopped myself from doing that, and the reason why was because the person who I was when I created this art is still who I am. I’ve evolved, but that person is still within me. The things that I learned, the lessons that I was trying to share, what I was grappling with, as far as my relationship with him is concerned… I think it’s important that it be honored in the time that it was created. It would change the meaning for me to write this poem posthumously, as opposed to when my father was still alive, because at the point that I wrote it, it was a cry out to myself and to him that we heal our relationship before it was too late.

Part of the beauty of it, and one of the short stories that will be added in the final version of the book before it goes out, is expressing how we were able to make that connection happen. I think that the lessons of each poem are still as important now as they were ten years ago. If I didn’t think that was the case, I would have taken them out of the book and written new poems to go in their place.

Dear Me is a call for folks to reconnect with their inner child, to find ways to heal that person, and to draw lessons from the things that we’ve gone through in the past. Talk Ugly is a call for me to be able to forgive myself for what I thought was not enough action in a moment that may have been able to save someone’s life, but realizing at the end of the day that it’s never our fault… but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be willing to say certain things to folks, even if it means that they might not like the way it sounds. That’s a lesson that I think is universal throughout time: being willing to have those hard conversations with the people we love, and being willing almost to create an enemy in order to save the life of someone we love.


What prompted the decision to format the book as a graphic novel but then to also include separate pages with the full text of the poems?

I want you to connect to this work by any means necessary. I’m not doing this because I want to be a professional graphic novelist for the rest of my life. We might do this again, depending on the success of it. But if you get your hands on this and you love spoken word poetry, then not only can you read the book and read the poems, you can go to my website and hear the poem. If you love graphic novels, you can sit and look at the art that Sydney created for hours, picking apart the metaphors and things that are in it and connect to the work in that way. If you like to read poetry, you can then sit with the actual text and see how it was meant to be seen on the page and have that experience also. To me, the message is more important than the messenger, and I am willing to adapt my message, as the messenger, so that the message can reach as many people as possible.


Can you speak to and expand on a couple select quotes from the book?

“How could I speak ugly to you when I have yet to speak it to myself?”

The story that I wrote that’s going to be preceding this poem is about a moment when a mother came up to me after I performed at a conference. She had lost her son, and she said, “I did talk ugly to him. I said everything that I could say.” I realized for the first time that not everybody was hearing the same thing in the poem that I was trying to share. That was a line that got added into the poem to try to expand people’s understanding without me having to talk to everyone after the show. The idea behind that is, if you wait until you are perfect to say something to somebody that needs to hear it, there is a chance that you may wait too long. If you wait until you’re perfect to speak, you actually spend the rest of your life in silence. So sometimes the only thing that really matters is that you have something in your heart to say and that there’s a person you love in front of you that needs to hear it.

It was a way of speaking to that, like, my mistake was thinking I needed to wait until I was perfect to say something. Because the fear of if I say something to you and you’re like, “oh, man, but you’re doing the same thing I’m doing”… maybe. And maybe I need to check myself also and make sure that I do get better. Maybe we can get better together. Right? But there’s no time. A friend of mine wrote, “it’s never too late until it’s too late.”

What I mean by that line is there’s realization. There’s having a coming to Jesus moment, if you will, where you realize what you have to do. But that’s never the end of the work, right? To be human is a practice. To be patient is a practice. To be at peace is a practice. And forgiveness is a practice. I can’t just say, I know I need to forgive myself and forgive my father. Work’s done. I’m still waiting.

“Forgiveness is medication. I am still waiting for it to spread evenly.”

About spreading evenly… it is an indication that the realization is, here and now, the hard work starts. How do I live my life in accordance to this principle that I say I have, which is it is important for me to forgive myself, to move on and be the best version of myself? And it’s important for me to forgive my father, not so much for him, but so that I don’t carry that weight with me. Because if I’m not talking to my father, because I have hateful feelings towards him, I’m the one carrying that hate, right? This is a concept that has been explored, but it shows that even the simplest concepts still have a lot of hard work behind them if you want them to resonate in your real life.


Do you have a piece of advice for youth today?

I think, in accordance to what we’re doing here, it may not be poetry, it may not be art, but there’s something that you can find for when the pressure becomes too much, when the pain becomes too hard to bear, to express how you feel in a way that is constructive as opposed to destructive. If it’s running, if it’s tennis, if it’s dancing, if it’s bird watching, find that thing. For me, it was poetry. It figuratively — and at times literally — saved my life. I ask for the adults in your life and for you to give yourself grace enough to find what that thing is and then protect it and use it when you need it.

Thank you to Jospeh for sharing his stories and experiences. Learn more at