Why Young People's Laureate Caleb Femi wants to re-engage his generation with poetry

Photo: Ed Stone

Caleb Femi, who was chosen as Spread the Word's first Young People’s Laureate in autumn last year, is aiming to re-engage disenfranchised young people with poetry. As part of this year’s Rivers of The World project, he ran a workshop at St Thomas More Language College in Chelsea to help students create river-related poetry whilst they made Zambian masks, both of which will be incorporated into the final artwork that you can see along the Thames throughout September.

We caught up with Caleb to find out more about his whirlwind year and what he got up to at the workshop.

Tell us about what you’re doing in the workshop today

Today we’ve been looking at the art of captions. Captions that accompany pieces of art are usually quite informative and, dare I say, bland. They tell you the inspiration behind the theme, give you a bit of context. But people don’t generally engage with captions as much as they should. They either don’t read it or skim through it. So we’re looking at how to make captions more interesting by writing them as poems. So one it’s more interesting to read, and two having one art form complement another really brings everything to life.

What kind of role do you think poetry can play in giving young people a voice, something you are passionate about?  

I think exposing young people to poetry is really good in terms of giving them access to the conversations that are going on in society. Giving them ways of expressing how they feel about politics, about social issues, or just about themselves – as a way of helping them mentally. It also allows them to be able to get their voices heard. And this isn’t necessarily having to write poetry and read it, but using poems as a springboard to let them talk about some issues. It’s also a way of feeling like you are not alone, like you’re part of something more. I think as a young person you can sometimes feel like you’re alone in some of your experiences and thoughts, it can be isolating, so it’s a way of finding unity and commonality amongst others.

Rivers of the World is obviously about rivers. Do you respond to it as a creative theme in your own work?

Yeah, I’ve used the river as an entry point to a lot of my personal poems. Even when I think of a poem of mine that’s quite well associated with me now ‘Children of the ‘Narm’ that begins on the Thames, on the estuary plane in London. So yes water more than anything seems to be quite a recurring theme in my body of work at the moment. I’m quite interested in the idea of water and nature in proximity to concrete and things like that.

  • Photo: Ed Stone

What do you think being involved in a creative project like this can offer young people?

I think it helps their communication, and it helps them with saying exactly what they mean. Writing down how they feel – this is important in any context of their adult life. I think being able to listen and empathise and begin a discourse: analyse, evaluate, and deliberate. All of these skills are fundamental as an adult, and even as a young person. For those who are already passionate about writing, poetry helps you – it’s all part of the process of becoming a better writer. Whatever you write, whatever form – whether you prefer prose, or composition, or journalistic writing I think that poetry really forces you to express yourself in the most succinct of ways. Once you can do that, you can sort of do everything else.

What are you working on at the moment in your own personal work, and as Young People's Laureate?

We've just started the Young People's Laureate Tour – which goes out to the outer London Boroughs (Merton, Bexleyheath, Dagenham etc.) and tries to facilitate young people in starting their own poetry events and workshops that they can do alone. I think that outer boroughs are usually left out when it comes to art. So at the moment, I began with the project by starting focus groups and taking it further. It’s like a whole 2 year programme that we have with Spread the Word. On a personal level I have a poetry theatre show that’s ready to be debuted next year in different theatres up and down the country. And then I’m working on a pamphlet – a collection of poems.

> You can view the work made by students during Caleb’s workshop at the Rivers of The World exhibition throughout September as part of Totally Thames.