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28 October 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 9:16am

Caleb Femi: “Poetry is the art of the people”

The poet and former Young People’s Laureate for London discusses police racism, growing up on the North Peckham estate, and working against poetry’s “elitist” expectations.  

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When Caleb Femi was in Year 6 at primary school in Peckham, south London, a police officer gave a talk to his class. He told the students they had the potential to do great things, if they worked hard enough.

Two years later, aged 13, Femi was walking home from his mum’s workplace. He was stopped by a police officer who told him he “fit the description of a man”. He recognised the police officer, and told him so. “You gave a talk at my primary school,” he said. “How can I fit the description of a man when I’m clearly 13 years old?” Femi was arrested and held at a police station overnight.

[See also: Claudia Rankine and the construction of whiteness]

Femi, now 28, recalled the event with little astoundment in his voice when we met in the garden of the Albany, an arts centre in Deptford, south London, on a sunny October afternoon. He wore a durag, black tracksuit and Nike trainers, and tapped his fingers on the wooden bench as he spoke, as though marking out a rhythm.

“That sums up my experience with the police,” he said. “It was the most bizarre situation because I was 13, but it didn’t feel not normal. That wasn’t the first time [he was stopped and searched] and it wasn’t the last time.”

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Born in Nigeria, Femi was raised by his grandmother before moving to the UK to join his parents when he was seven. In London, he moved into the North Peckham estate, a sprawling network of public housing covering 40 acres and holding 1,444 homes, completed in the mid-1970s.

This is the setting of Femi’s first poetry collection, Poor. The effects of the estate’s brutal architecture on its working-class population, which comprised many people of colour, are detailed in these poems, written in Femi’s south-London dialect. “Who knew the streets was so frail,/could fall apart this easily?” he writes in “Gentle Youth”. “The youts ran in all directions/like scared cattle.”

Until its regeneration and demolition in the early 2000s, the North Peckham estate was a hot-spot for drug-related and violent crimes. It is regularly described as “notorious”, a “racialised” term, Femi said. “What it does is vilify the community. It’s an oversimplification to say that, without asking questions as to how this was a government-approved architectural design. They created a design that allowed for a self-governing community: outreach, and the relationship with the police and other services, was a poor one. I never once saw police patrol on the estate. They were more like a clean-up crew.”

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[See also: Booker Prize nominee Gabriel Krauze: “I always had this instinct for wildness”]

The estate is often remembered as the location where Damilola Taylor, a ten-year-old schoolboy, was stabbed and killed on his walk home from the library in 2000. Femi grew up in the same block as Damilola, and was only two years younger than him. Taylor is far from the only black boy Femi knew who died as a result of poverty, police violence, establishment racism, or a combination of all three. Time after time, he has turned on the news to see yet another black face appear before him. “How tragic is it to be a young boy and see yourself die so many times?” he said.

“The threat of violence was normalised. You learn very quickly the reality of the area that you’re in and you acclimatise. You lose your innocence much earlier than anyone should. But what replaces it is a tenacity to thrive, to want to have a good time in spite of whatever conditions you live in. It made me want to have more fun in life and embrace joy.”

It wasn’t until Femi studied A-level English that he became interested in poetry, although a love of language had been brewing for some time. As a teenager he was a grime fan and listened to Skepta, Wiley and Dizzee Rascal on pirate radio. He became obsessed with writing out lyrics and learning them by heart.

After school, he studied English at Queen Mary, University of London, and went on to teach English in a secondary school in Tottenham. His aspirations were soon interrupted.

“The culture of teaching and of the curriculum nationwide was one that was stifling creativity,” he said. “It was not about embracing all the various types of intellectualism that exist within human beings, within students.”

[See also: Don DeLillo’s echo chamber]

Femi was a schoolteacher from 2014 to 2016– and then he couldn’t bear it any longer. “I was teaching work that did nothing to expand minds. I needed to find a new way to interact.”

So he took up the post of Young People’s Laureate for London, working across the capital to find “ways to enable young people to say what’s on their mind, to be part of any conversation that they feel shut out from, to find commonality among themselves”. Though his official posting as laureate is over, he continues to work with disadvantaged young people who want to gain access to the arts.

Femi’s multifaceted, multimedia approach to the arts is clear in his own work: as well as his poetry he writes and directs films, and he accompanies the poems in Poor with his own original photographs – striking portraits of the community in which he grew up.

The old expectations of poetry – that a poet is someone who writes their work on paper and adheres to traditional techniques – are “definitely elitist”, Femi told me. But he’s inspired by the writers, editors and publishers who are working to make poetry accessible. “Because that’s its original mandate: poetry is the art of the people.” 

“Poor” by Caleb Femi is published by Penguin

This article appears in the 28 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning