Caleb Femi

Caleb Femi: ‘I see myself as an archivist’

His debut POOR is one of the most celebrated collections of 2020, with fans ranging from Michaela Coel to Max Porter. Here we talk to Caleb Femi about poetry, politics and what he hopes to capture with his work. 

To call Caleb Femi a rising star would be to dismiss how far above the ground he already is. He has been producing art, in forms such as poetry, prose, photography and filmmaking for years, and it is only now that people who run outside certain circles have seen the pace and decided to catch up. In 2016 he was selected as the First Young People’s Laureate for London, promoting the power of poetry around schools and youth organisations in London while simultaneously creating short films, directing videos, and giving us the thoughtful, no-frills poetry that fills his debut collection, POOR, released on 4 November – a book charged with the mundane and the majestic, magic and mischief but, mostly, the ordinary lives and goings-on of young Black existence on council estates in London. 

"The stories existed before I put a pen to a paper, they were stories from the Ends,” he tells me. "I would love to say that poems like 'The Painting on a Concrete Wall' was a figment of my imagination, but that was a story that occurred, as with most of the stories in there, which is why I'm actually looking forward to the next collection, because it’s me; me dabbling into my fantasy and dabbling into my folklore, my stories that are dipped in surreal imagination. [POOR] is actually just a reflection of what already exists within this community."

Caleb Femi
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

Of course, this is not the first time that council estates and lives that are often pushed to the fringes have been depicted in fiction. But the originality and clear-sightedness of POOR comes from the efforts of Caleb to reflect a different dimension of the ‘mandem’, the day-to-day without glamorisation or falling into clichés or exaggeration.

'Everything is structurally against working-class people. I'm writing how they exist in spite of that.'

"These are their good times, these are how they escape their conditions mentally, spiritually, sometimes physically as well, this is what they do in spite of grief and all these things, this is how they celebrate birthdays, this is how they fall in love, this is what they do when they're having a bad day, this is how they gossip, do you know all of that kind of stuff?

"That's what I'm really interested in. I guess what I want to do is to capture the sort of – this is a phrase rather than a word – the 'in-spiteness' of working-class people, how they exist in spite of everything that is structurally working against them, everything that is reducing their standard of living and trying to compromise their quality of life. I'm writing what happens and how they exist in spite of that and how they thrive in spite of that."

Caleb Femi
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

POOR contains not only stunning poetry, but also Caleb’s photography: poignant black and white images that complement the poems. With all that he creates, Caleb considers himself an archivist, someone who "documents the lives and times of people who live in my imagination, both in reality and in fantasy".

"And sometimes," he says "to capture the complete essence of a story, of a community, of a people, you have to dabble in various forms of communicating."

'You have to find new forms, new metres, new structures...'

But within forms, there are others – techniques, poetics, etc. – that a poet must grapple with or sometimes choose to ignore. Not every form suits the desired expression, and Caleb, as a lover of literature whose university dissertation was poetry centered, argues: "If your narrative hasn't been talked about widely enough, surely forms that have existed before can't fully hold it? Hold what it is you're trying to communicate, so therefore you have to find a new way to find new forms, new metres, new structures that reflect the moments that you're trying to capture. The way people talk in my Ends is different from them times and can't necessarily be contained in iambic pentameter. In the same way that poets had to change the Italian sonnet into the English sonnet in order to reflect the way that that society digested poetry and spoke and all of that."

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