‘Poetry as a tool of their own choosing’: In Conversation with the Young People’s Laureates
L-R: Theresa Lola, Momtaza Mehri, Cecilia Knapp, Caleb Femi
Now in its fifth year, the Young People’s Laureate (YPL) for London is UK poetry’s third most prominent ‘office’, after the Poet Laureate and the Oxford Professor of Poetry. It has been a launch pad for some of the most dynamic writers working today, and has helped to pioneer models of arts activism and outreach.
In early December 2020, Rishi Dastidar – chair of Spread The Word, the Arts Council England-funded writer development agency that runs the YPL programme – gathered the three previous laureates, Caleb Femi, Momtaza Mehri, Theresa Lola, and Cecilia Knapp, newly appointed in October, to reflect on the role, why it was important to them, and whether they felt any burden in representing a city like London.
Rishi Dastidar for Wasafiri: What prompted you to apply to become Young People’s Laureate? What was your motivation?
Caleb Femi: It was an opportunity to do something that I was really passionate about: working with young people. When I first applied, I was studying to become a teacher, and I felt the two career paths, teaching and poetry, would supplement one another. When I was actually appointed the YPL, I had just left teaching, and so it made sense to utilise the passion I had for poetry and literature in general, and education.
Cecilia Knapp: It’s a role that is foregrounded in working with young people. So if you’re a poet who enjoys opening up poetry to young people, then it’s really attractive. For me, it was the appeal of working with young people in different settings. Not just schools, but designing projects with specific groups, having creative input into what those projects look like, who they’re with and what the outcomes are.
When I was young, I was put off poetry at school. It was opened up for me by going to a subsidised poetry course when I was a teenager. So the idea of facilitating that always appealed, playing some role in making it a space for young people, when they might not have seen it that way before.
Theresa Lola: I was part of the Barbican Young Poets programme, and that changed the way I viewed poetry. So the YPL was an opportunity to be that change for others. It gave you an opportunity to meet young people who probably have never written poetry, didn’t like poetry or didn’t think poetry was something that they were going to use.
You get to visit schools, and work with different kinds of organizations, not just literary ones. The residencies were also something I found attractive, as you can have a more sustained impact on young people.
Momtaza Mehri: I really wanted to be somebody who introduced poetry to younger people. That was the experience I had, seeing poets come to my school and perform their work.
When I applied, I felt isolated in my poetic journey, so it was a way of pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I know how much I’ve benefited from being exposed to so many different poets and creative energies.
What did you initially want to do with the platform? Did you have themes you wanted to explore?
CK: I’ve only been in the role for a couple of months. But for me the thing I’m most excited about right now is creating content that showcases the work we’ll be doing. So I’ve been finding lots of charities and other organisations I hadn’t heard of before, across different art forms, that might want to collaborate on projects.
I want to focus on the principle of saying what you want to say, on your own terms as a young person. And that could be about anything. I don’t want to be prescriptive about it, I don’t want to say, oh you have to write about your area, or you have to write about something traumatic that might have happened.
TL: I had a strong thematic focus on mental health and wellbeing. There is a crisis in mental health care for young people, the statistics show that, so it felt right for me to have that focus. But I didn’t just want mental health to have this negative connotation. A lot of the workshops were also about joy and happiness, humour. The residency at St. Paul’s Cathedral, for example, was focused on hope.
MM: I always came back to this aspiration: ‘enabling young people to theorise their own lives’. They have their own voices, they have authority over their own experiences. I focused on London’s transnational diasporic poetics because I felt it reflected how young people engage with the local and the global, and the specificities of place and wider notions of belonging.
To me it was really enriching, because I was inspired to learn about the history of certain areas and spaces I wasn’t accustomed to. That was illuminating, and did a lot for my own poetics.
CF: The initial problem I wanted to help tackle, was the perception or feeling that poetry was something that was not necessarily for young people. I got that impression from the conversations that I would have not only with young people in schools, but the adults there too. We’ve all had that experience, speaking to someone and you mention poetry and they say how much they hated it in school, how difficult they found it or how they just don’t understand it. I wanted to try and tackle that.
I wanted young people to use poetry as a tool of their own choosing. To use it to say anything they want to say, to engage in discourses in the media or public consciousness, use it as a way to feel heard, to feel seen. To find their tribe, find their community. And tackle that sense of elitism, the feeling that poetry isn’t for the people.
How ‘on show’ did you feel during your tenure?
TL: It’s a privilege to be in a position where people do want to hear about your experiences and relate to you, so I don’t think it’s an issue being on show per se. It’s more about creating healthy boundaries. That’s just something that you learn. And that’s something that’s important, not just in the laureateship, but in life in general.
It has a lot to do with what you choose to give initially, and how connected you are to the theme you’ve chosen. If you tie it to yourself then, understandably, people want to know more about why this is important to you. As a Laureate, people want to know what you have to say, so you have to be prepared for that.
MM: Visibility is something I struggle with – that was the scariest part of the role for me. I deliberated on whether I’d be able to shoulder the public-facing aspects of the laureateship. I felt I grew into it, even though it was something that I initially found unsettling. As Theresa said, it’s about having healthy boundaries. In a way I was thrown headfirst into the fire, which I now appreciate in hindsight.
I was used to doing a lot of things behind the scenes; an educational role was something I was comfortable with as someone from that background. Navigating public responsibilities and associations was tricky. But it was incredibly useful.
CF: It was a definite shock to the system in the first week after the announcement, with the sheer number of emails and calls from journalists. I always thought I was comfortable with being public-facing, but I struggled. Luckily there was good infrastructure to help.
You have a very public element of it, which I’m totally fine with – when you’re at a school, or in a library, or something poetry and young people-centered. It’s the other stuff – the commercial, and anything else you choose to do to keep the rent paid and food in your in your fridge, that I struggled with, because that didn’t have anything to do with poetry. So it was a little more tricky. A lot of lessons learned. More than anything I was grateful to have a team who was also trying to figure it out with me.
CK: For me right now, it’s just visibility through the Zoom screen. I think that the role being a few years on means Spread The Word are incredibly good at managing your calendar and your commitments. For years, I’ve always managed my own time, and it can be really overwhelming. So having someone taking that care over protecting you is quite nice.
I have noticed my increased visibility in the last few months. I’ve had to write quite a few articles, and like opinion pieces recently. I’m much better at writing poems than I am at writing an article or essay. I agonise over it for ages thinking, ‘God, what will people think of me? Am I getting my point across concisely? Am I representing the poetry community adequately?’ Echoing what Momtaza put beautifully, it is a baptism of fire in a lot of ways. But you learn so quickly.
People want to commodify your poetry, but they don’t necessarily appreciate the amount of time and agonising that goes into something, especially if you’re writing about things that are inextricable from your personal life, your identity, your experience, and your mental health. Having someone demand, ‘can you write a commission about this? The deadline is two days away,’ you can feel a certain pressure to complete that. But I’ve already been encouraged to say no to things; my whole life I’ve said yes to everything because being a writer is precarious. Learning to establish those boundaries has been already been a part of the first two months.
How conscious were you of being a representative of, or for, London?
MM: I didn’t think that I would be representing a city. I saw my role as belonging to the city’s varied mosaic. I wasn’t going round thinking I was Blake, or anything. My contribution was attempting to think with the city as an incubating space for a particular kind of poetics. Something that isn’t necessarily only going to reflect, let’s say, a part of London or London itself, but something that’s expansive, that spills outwards, simply because of how diverse London is, and how many kinds of people call it home, their stories, and the reverberating poetic traditions they offer the idea of a wider London poetics.
This expansive vision helped me accommodate the role’s demands. I wanted to serve as a conduit for these stories.
CF: The laureateship changed my perspective on London. I always felt like I had a good grasp, or at least geographical knowledge, of London. And I did a lot of gallivanting in my secondary-school days. But my time as laureate expanded my knowledge of London, and also my perspective, especially of what was going on in the outer boroughs. It was nice to meet young people who were living in ways that I could definitely relate to, and others living in ways that were definitely new to me – it really increased my understanding of what it means to be a Londoner.
TL: For me it was more about trying to represent the electric and eclectic spirit of London, and trying to engage other people’s relationships with London, and how these connect to their wellbeing – through housing, the local community football club, even just going to their local corner shop. I kept asking: what is specific about your relationship to London? How is that tied into your joy or wellbeing? It was about giving young people the freedom to define what London means for them.
Did you did you feel any duty to represent particular communities?
TL: I didn’t. At my initial meeting with Spread The Word, there wasn’t pressure to focus on one particular group of people. It was really about making sure that the laureateship was as open as possible, that we engaged with people from different classes, with different access to poetry.
CK: I echo what Theresa says, it’s been very open so far. Although the poetry community is largely inclusive, I think that in the creative sector and in the arts across the board there are gatekeepers. For whatever reason, I have been lucky enough to forge a path into creative writing that I don’t necessarily think I would have had, if I hadn’t been in that particular room with those particular gatekeepers.
So in the forefront of my mind is, how can I work with people who have not been encouraged as much in the past to engage with poetry, and use it as a space for them to discover and understand themselves, to tell their stories with their own authentic voice in whatever way they want to?
MM: I didn’t feel I was under any pressure to represent any community. I was allowed to pursue my own interests, and see where that took me. Yet, there were certain charities and organisations that inevitably approached me for projects – I could decide what I was comfortable with, and what I could turn down.
I was curious about what poetry could do across a diverse range of contexts. This led to some fruitful relationships, commissions and networks. Who could they put me in front of that I might not otherwise reach? For example: young adults with fraught experiences of migration as unaccompanied minors. I would not have been able to easily access these spaces on my own.
CF: I think I carry a personal mandate to represent a community. For me, it’s the black community, the working-class community. The underclass, as some scholars put it. I feel a duty because I come from there, identify with that community the most. So I did – and do – have a sense of duty to represent them.
Did your period in office change your perspective on London itself? Did your relationship to the city change?
TL: It made me appreciate London more, seeing the work people are already doing. I did a project with a group called Football Beyond Borders, a space for young women who are interested in football to come and play, and ran a creative writing workshop with them. Those kinds of spaces are beautiful to witness.
MM: As someone who has always lived near central London, the laureateship was a reminder of how lucky I’ve been compared to young people in outer boroughs. This proximity meant I benefitted from the accessibility of youth services, transport links and the general possibility of some sort of burgeoning creative life.
The role opened up the city for me. It was transformative: I’d been writing away in my room, sharing my work in journals I’d been reading, but I hadn’t physically been part of London’s abundant poetry scenes. The laureateship was a real education in how people come to poetry, and why they stay with it.
CK: Starting to plan how to roll out my residencies for the year, and talking to various organizations and how they reach the young people they work with, and what those young people’ stories are, has underlined how many amazing things there are going on in London in terms of youth arts provision. The fact we have so many charities doing this is an indictment of how the government is failing, but I get to work with and learn from them, collaborate with them in an authentic way.
What is the one memory you’ll take from your time in office?
TL: It’s so hard to pick. Probably my residency at the Wellcome Collection. I got to spend six weeks with the young poets there; I call them that because some of them have gone on and continued to write. I’ve physically seen the change in people. Especially those who their parent had forced them to come at the start, and by the end they’re at the front, wanting to read their poem out.
Because it was based on an exhibition called ‘Being Human’ we got to talk about climate change, mental health, home … it was evident how poetry allows us to address so many issues and aspects of our lives. That residency was the culmination of so many things I’d been trying to do through the laureateship.
MM: One highlight was my residency at October Gallery. I was working with a group of local young people – from aspiring art historians to kids who had grown up on the estate just behind the gallery. We discussed artworks, attended exhibitions, and tackled difficult subject matter. We came together to see poetry as this living, pulsating force anyone could grapple with, one which was never divorced from other mediums. It was a beautiful nourishing experience.
CF: Two things. One is the global impact of the laureateship; I remember being in Singapore, and working with young people there, and also Nigeria; those two trips stay with me. The other biggest thing are the conversations I had with young people, especially those who felt reluctant to engage in poetry. And being told by them that they were now able to engage with it in a way that they hadn’t before.
CK: No memories yet! The last two months have been dealing with Covid-19, and working out what the future of working face to face might look like – whether workshops, residencies and collaborations are even going to be possible. I want to work across different artforms. I want to work with young filmmakers and pair them up with young poets, to create content remotely that can be shared widely – hopefully that can combat not being able to meet for months.
We don’t know what we’ll be able to pull off. But everyone’s so willing to make things happen whatever way we can. So I’m hopeful for next year.
Momtaza Mehri – and the Octavia Poetry Collective – feature in Wasafiri 105, which you can purchase here.
Find out more about the Young People’s Laureates for London:
Cecilia Knapp is a poet, playwright and novelist. She is the current Young People’s Laureate for London. Poems have appeared in The White Review, Magma and Bath magazines. She was shortlisted for the 2020 Outspoken poetry prize and the 2020 Rebecca Swift Women’s prize. Her debut novel is forthcoming with The Borough Press (Harper Collins). She teaches creative writing in a number of settings, including as one of the lead tutors for The Roundhouse Poetry Collective.
Raised on the North Peckham estate in South London, Caleb Femi is a poet and director who uses film, photography, and music to explore the boundaries of poetry on the page, in performance and in digital media. He has written and directed short films for the BBC and Channel 4, and poems for Tate Modern, the Royal Society for Literature, St Paul’s Cathedral, the BBC, The Guardian and more. He has been featured in the Dazed 100 list of the next generation shaping youth culture. POOR is his first collection.
Theresa Lola is a British Nigerian poet based in London. She was featured in the September 2019 issue of British Vogue which celebrated people who are forces for change. Her debut full length poetry collection In Search of Equilibrium was published by Nine Arches Press in February 2019. She was joint winner of the 2018 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2017 Bridport Poetry Prize.
Momtaza Mehri is a poet and independent researcher. Her work has appeared in the likes of Granta, Artforum, The Guardian, BOMB Magazine, and The Poetry Review. Her latest pamphlet, Doing the Most with the Least, was published by Goldsmiths Press.
Rishi Dastidar is a fellow of The Complete Works, a consulting editor at The Rialto magazine, a member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, and chair of writer development organization Spread The Word. A poem from his debut collection Ticker-tape was included in The Forward Book of Poetry 2018. A pamphlet, the break of a wave, was published by Offord Road Books in 2019, and he is also editor of The Craft: A Guide to Making Poetry Happen in the 21st Century (Nine Arches Press). His second collection, Saffron Jack, is published in the UK by Nine Arches Press.