We meet the Young People’s Laureate for London.
The latest Young People’s Laureate for London, it was with considerable pleasure that I caught up with Caleb Femi, making the time between preparations for a forthcoming night of “spoken word, live grime and breathtaking visuals” a.k.a. new show Goldfish Bowl, taking place 5 and 6 October at Canada Water Theatre.
The work of the Peckham-based artist – an accomplished filmmaker and photographer in addition to award-winning poet – is based on the various experiences that constitute his life story; from moving to London from Nigeria at the age of seven, to falling in love to being a black man in Britain today.
For World Coffee Day – which lands on 1 October – Femi is teaming up with Viennese coffeehouse Julius Meinl to encourage people to reconnect with their forgotten inner poets. Through this project, he explores the challenges of communicating with loved ones and hopes to encourage everyone to share the love through poems. As he tells me below.
So when were you first introduced to poetry?
I’ve always been interested in poetry. Right from school to university where I studied English Literature, poetry was a big element of my life. School was how I got officially introduced to poetry. But when I think about growing up I have always been interested in the lyrics of songs. I would go and look up lyrics of different songs and just really appreciate the lyrics. Even more than the music sometimes!
Last year you were awarded the Young People’s Laureate for London by Spread the Word. How has this year been?
This year I’ve been working with young people in regards to allowing them to find their own voice through poetry, allowing them to engage with the wider conversation that is happening in the world whether it’s artistically, socially, politically…
Poetry sales are booming right now, likewise young people being driven towards the art form. Why does poetry matter and how can poetry help young people?
Poetry matters just as much as any other art form. Listening to music for example helps people process their emotions. To look within ourselves. To access elements of ourselves that we find difficult to understand. And also to have a good time! I think poetry does the same thing. Poetry is essentially a lyric based art form and so is music. In regards to young people, poetry can help them find that they have talent, that they might be talented with words but not necessary with music. Young people might find in poetry a viable art form for them to express themselves.
Part of your work focuses on your upbringing in Peckham. In “Children of the ‘narm” you mention learning “to love the BBC, and tea, and the Queen, and Oasis”. How would you describe your experience of growing up in south London?
Growing up in south London was a bittersweet experience. I grew up on an estate where everyone was close. It was a close community where you knew everyone’s mum and dad and cousins, it was just like one huge extended family. It was really interesting because there were people from different backgrounds, different countries and you get to experience different types of friends and cultures. But then it was also an incredibly poor area and there was a lot of crime as a result of the poverty in the area. So a lot of times it was emotionally bittersweet in that way.
What does it mean to be black and British today?
I think compared to when I was growing up, in the 90s, there’s been some progression in the visibility of young millennial black British people. Mostly, the rise of grime and successes of Skepta or Stormzy have helped. But at the same time, it is really hard to narrate the Black British Experience because there needs to be more variety. Right now the main exports of Black Britishness that we see are a specific type of working class culture. But we need to see the Black Britishness middle-class culture and other experiences along the spectrum of black Britishness. That’s why I appreciate a programme called Chewing Gum. It’s still representative of working class but it is a different form of working class experience. Regardless, I think there still is a long way to go in regards to the variations of black British identity that are not represented in the mainstream.
What’s a topic that you find particularly challenging to write about?
I find it difficult to talk about my family or my relationship with my parents. My relationship with my mum, my relationship with my dad. Which is why I’m glad that the Julius Meinl campaign came out. It allows me to start that conversation, start writing poems about things that I wouldn’t say, specially to my mum. I want to express the gratitude that I have towards her because of the difficult life she has had and the effort she has put into raising me and my siblings. That is something I find difficult to talk about in poetry.
So how ow can people get involved in the campaign?
Get coffee at a participating location (in London, Cleveland Arms or Forge and Co amongst others) and feel inspired to share your feelings with significant others. You can also use and follow the hashtag #MeetWithAPoem on all platforms.
Nice. Finally, what’s next for you?
I have a theatre show coming up in October. It’s called Goldfish Bowl. After that, I’ll just be working on my book. Oh! And I also have a short film with BBC coming up next week exploring how British young people use language to confine and solidify bonds. I’ve also written and directed a film for Channel 4 that will be out in November.
Caleb Femi is a London-based poet, filmmaker and photographer. Caleb entered the world of poetry with the aim of showcasing the power of spoken word, broaching difficult topics, and re-engaging disenfranchised young people through his work. He is currently the global ambassador for Julius Meinl’s annual Meet With A Poem initiative, which is taking place on World Coffee Day (1stOctober) in cafes and restaurants across 17 countries. As part of the Meet with a Poem campaign in the U.K Julius Meinl commissioned research which uncovered that the iconic bedtime story, The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear is the nation’s favourite poem. For more information and your nearest participating location visit: meinlcoffee.com or follow the social conversation at #MeetWithAPoem