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Caleb Femi wears clothes by Calvin Klein Jeans, Photography Campbell Addy, styling Elizabeth Fraser-BellPhotography Campbell Addy

How Caleb Femi is making poetry relatable again

For the Young People’s Laureate poetry is more about freedom and truth than about dead white men

It’s National Poetry Day, which aims to reinvigorate an art form that many of us feel like we lose contact with after GCSE English. Naturally, it’s a busy day for the likes of Caleb Femi, the Young People’s Laureate for London, who also featured in the Dazed 100 this year. He’s part of the next generation of poets dispelling the myths that the greatest English poets are now dead or that the remaining living poets are old.

His upcoming projects will see him work with Channel 4, The BBC, musicians and art institutions like the Tate as he has become known for mixing mediums to truly reflect his experiences and the people around him. “When you're trying to figure out who you are politically, sexually, or whatever. You need a way to help make sense of it all,” he explains. “Poetry gets overlooked so many times because it is so embedded in our way of life. A lot of us speak and it could be poetry but we don't even know. It’s in everything.”

By adding melodies to his spoken word, employing visuals to bring his verses to life, and more recently, embarking on a theatrical debut – Femi’s finding new ways to use his platform to connect with those who overlook poetry.

As this year’s theme is “freedom” who better to talk to than the 27-year-old whose commitment to “normalise poetry” for disenfranchised youth is making him one to watch:

What made you get into poetry?

Caleb Femi: Mainly through song lyrics. I remember when I listened to a song it was always the lyrics that would stand out to me, more than the actual melody of it. Do you remember when The Streets brought out Original Pirate Material?  When that came out, that was an album that you couldn’t help but listen to the words. Fast forward to nowadays, listening to like Frank Ocean or Moses Sumney Aromanticism – you could literally just read these songs as beautiful poetry.

So why is it important to sort of get the message that poetry is an art form for everyone – not just academics?

Caleb Femi: It’s such a pure way of allowing people to communicate, allowing people to find that commonality between themselves. When you listen to some poems you think "Oh my gosh this relates to me so much, or this speaks to me so much", and it kind of gives you a strength because you think there are other people who understand your experience.

How do you think that becoming the Young People's Laureate has given you freedom?

Caleb Femi: Suddenly I could implement a lot of the initiatives and ideas that I have for the poetry community. The role has really allowed me to work with St Paul's Cathedral and the V&A museum – organisations that usually wouldn't listen or answer an email from someone like me at random. It’s legitimised what I want to do and what I've been doing. I’d never done a campaign but I’m working with Julius Meinl to get people to ‘Meet with a Poem’ over coffee. Now at the heart of it I would have thought before “that’s just coffee” but we’re trying to get people to say things that you can't usually say. I want to use poetry to facilitate conversations no matter what avenue.

Why do you think there is a need to normalise poetry among the youth of today?

Caleb Femi: The British curriculum really stifles poetry in the sense that a lot of young people see poetry as something that is mostly by dead white people. There's no excitement in it, there is no imagination or creativity in it. But you could see poetry in Instagram statuses, tweets. When Beyoncé collaborated with Warsan Shire that was amazing because it really encouraged people to say remember poetry and the power of poetry. 

Yeah like the Lemonade visual interludes where she says she’ll wear Becky’s skin and use her teeth as confetti. 

Caleb Femi: Exactly. And that might help people through difficulties. It helps us with our mental health or break-ups. It's like therapy.

It’s weird because the mechanics of poetry are so similar to writing a verse for grime or drill, genres that are only expanding, and can only get more popular. Why do you think it is that poems feel so alien?

Caleb Femi: I think a lot of the time, there's a sense of elitism that is connected with poetry. You don't see a lot of young poets. We don't see them heralded or celebrated, in the same way, musicians are. That’s almost a critique of the poetry industry rather than anyone else. There's a huge lack of diversity, especially regarding age, a lot of people that are heralded and celebrated are old, a lot of them don't really engage with things that are going on at the moment. We just need to see more of a mix in the poetry industry, we need to see younger poets, we need to see poets of different genders, sexual orientations, class backgrounds. That way young people can be like: "Cool, I can see people who are like me". And then that gives them the option to want to embrace it.

“The British curriculum really stifles poetry in the sense that a lot of young people see poetry as something that is mostly by dead white people. There’s no excitement, imagination or creativity in it. But you could see poetry in Instagram statuses, tweets” – Caleb Femi

You’ve tried your hand at photography where you told black men not to pose to encourage people to work to find the softness in the images. Is that what your poetry allows you to do? Do you feel like your work allows you to take control of your narrative?

Caleb Femi: Yeah 100 per cent. Especially being a youngish black guy from Peckham, who a lot of the time you'll see in a tracksuit. You run into the same perceptions, the same portrayal. That typical working class, road culture person. I grew up in that it's a part of my identity but there's a narrative around it that's in a sense it's very linear.

The working class black experience is so different, not everyone who even grew up in it can even relate to grime or a lot of the things that the media portrays a lot of the time. So with my poems what I have to do is write in a way that brings truth. Some of my work is about coping and trauma, and mourning and I remember a journalist said that tipping a drink to commemorate your friends is a gang thing. And that is actually so reductive. Why can’t they just see these are people who are mourning, and they have their own way of coming together. It’s these sorts of misunderstandings about black men.

Is this something you’re going to address in any of your upcoming work?

My Random Acts film I have coming out is about subverting the perceptions of estate life. A lot of the time I see that the entertainment industry uses the spaces for music videos – like Mura Masa’s A$AP vid. It’s the “in” thing at the moment. Then you look at Grenfell and how people in these places are actually treated. I want to take back the narrative. The film is quite fantastical, like a dreamland, and it’s quite Kahlil Joseph-esque type film where there are elements of speech but it's almost like a visual poem.

How much responsibility do you feel being the mouthpiece for that particular demographic, for that particular generation? What power does it hold?

Caleb Femi: The more we celebrate who we are the fewer historians of the future can misrepresent people who usually get misrepresented or those who felt invisible.