Created by writer’s group Spread The Word, 26-year-old Peckham native Caleb Femi was chosen by a panel including the Poetry Society and the Forward Arts Foundation to hold the year-long position of Young Poet Laureate for London last October.
His intent was to give Londoners aged between 13 and 25 a “platform to voice their concerns and experiences through poetry” through such projects as the Young People’s Poetry prize, the Young People’s Poetry Lab, a showcase of the best new written and spoken word poetry at the Young People’s Poetry Salon.
Thee days ago, Femi performed at the Evening Standard’s Young Progress Makers at the Roundhouse in Camden – an evening designed to inspire, inform and entertain 18 to 25 year old Londoners.
It all seems to be working. Poetry sales are UP! Last year The Bookseller reported that annual poetry-book sales were set to surpass the £10 million mark for the first time, and it seems to be buoyed by a surge in interest from young readers and celebrity endorsements. Beyoncé, for example, used the work of Femi’s predecessor – London-based Somalian-British poet Warsan Shire — on her album, Lemonade.
Femi said, “A decade ago, the only place you’d find poetry was at a show, in a bookshop or at school… Nowadays it’s on your phone, it’s on your Instagram, it’s on your Twitter, it’s on your eBooks, while there are poetry films and recorded versions of readings by artists such as Kate Tempest on YouTube. It’s much more accessible…
“As a child, you think you’re the only one like you. Poetry is just another way of finding people, not only who see the world as you do but from the perspective of those who don’t. It shows you where you fit in.”
Poetry has also helped the ex-school teacher to solve his own problems of bouts of anxiety and depression. He has been haunted since his schooldays after his “first heartbreak” at 16. Writing poetry for the first time was “a good type of therapy,” he said. He felt trapped by “doctrines of masculinity” and couldn’t talk to his friends, three older sisters, his younger brother, bishop father or mother, who runs a teenage pregnancy charity.
“We talked about trainers and clothes. We talked about girls but it was in a fleeting way, to be one of the lads. No one talks about the vulnerable elements of being in a relationship because you might be seen [as] weak… That’s part of being a man; no one expects you to be the one who wants to cry.”
He recently spoke at the Southbank Centre’s Being a Man festival about breaking down gender stereotypes, using the theme of superheroes with young boys to discuss “the set of performances they’re expected to adhere to. They’re expected to be physically strong, mentally strong, and this idea of mental strength seems to mean being void of emotions. They’re the ones who are meant to always have it together.
“When you’re young, you’re just not at the top of the list of people who get listened to,” he said. And, “London moves so quickly, because it’s so focused on improving itself and being bigger, being better, that sometimes it doesn’t give you a chance.”
So this young Nigerian-Brit with a wise head on his shoulders is convinced that poetry us the answer. “I don’t see it as far-fetched to normalise poetry among all demographics of young people in London. Poetry is the one of the purest forms of conversation. At its best, it allows us to communicate from an honest and safe place. And young people deserve to be included in such spaces.”