Caleb Femi on Poor, ‘Bartering’ Poetry and the Mythos of the South London Estate
Caleb Femi is a poet and director featured in the Dazed 100 list of the next generation shaping youth culture. He has written and directed short films commissioned by the BBC and Channel 4 and poems by the Tate Modern, The Royal Society for Literature, St Paul’s Cathedral, the BBC, the Guardian and many more.
Until 2018, Caleb was the Young People’s Laureate for London. He wrote the liner material for Kano’s 2019 album, ‘Hoodies All Summer’ and was the face of the 2019 Mulberry Christmas advert. Poor is his first book, and is shortlisted for the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize, the winner of which will be announced in a digital ceremony in collaboration with the British Library on 24 March. (To register for the event, click here).
Speaking to Caleb from his home in Deptford, I ask him about his new collection, community, the poetry of everyday life, and the influence of architecture on the imagination.
Hi Caleb, we interviewed you back in 2016. You had just become the Young People’s Laureate for London. A lot has changed for the world since then but also for you, I imagine.
I’ve spent so much more time working with poets and other writers, immersing myself in art forms that intrigue me. I’ve been mentored, explored, tried things out, and experimented a bit to refine my voice and my approach on the stories I want to tell.
It was nice to be brought in firstly by institutions and organisations like Apples and Snakes and Spread the Word, who run the Young People’s Laureate programme. On a practical level you get more opportunities to enter new spaces, especially spaces you’ve always wanted to claim as a home for you to practise your craft.
The Complete Works was very instrumental. Nathalie Teitler is someone who has always helped, offered guidance and advice not only on my craft but me as a human being. Nick Makoha and Roger Robinson, the two of them have been very instrumental. Malika Booker as well. The list goes on. Max Porter, for sure. Jane Commane really helped shaped the work. My contemporaries Yomi Sode and Julian Knox. Everyone contributed to my development in one way shape or other.
Poor, above all things, is a book about community, about keeping community and how communities can be in opposition but also work together. In our last interview you mentioned the need for established platforms to build closer relationships with underground, grassroots happenings. Does Poor achieve this? Is that your hope for the collection?
It’s difficult to say. I think the real merit in this, really, is looking at it on a long-term basis. Like, how long have these things happened and continue to happen? There needs to be a less rigid relationship between established voices and the new ones entering the craft that are trying to say something or at least contribute to the British canon, the wide and diverse landscape that it is. And in that case, I think there is something to be said for how much accessibility has developed over the years. In terms of audiences and how we are widening the scope of our work to sit at the lap of readers who would not usually be reached.
When I say that, I don’t mean the craft. No one’s craft needs to change in order to be accessible. The work in itself, as it stands alone, has its own integrity. Just to be placed in more people’s hands than has previously been the case – feeling that there is a general ownership, like all art should feel. It should always feel inclusive. It should always feel like there is no expected decorum or dress code, or any qualifications for you to experience this piece of art.
The first poem in the collection is almost like a manifesto in miniature. I wondered who you were writing the poem ‘Barter’ for, if there was an audience you had in mind or if it was a general introduction to the themes of the collection.
I think for anyone to have a successful ‘barter’ there needs to be a level of understanding as to who you’re having a conversation with. You need to be able to allow yourself not to fall into specific perceptions you have when you go into conversations that actually will hinder you or leave you at a disadvantage in the tricky science that is bartering.
Generally, when we are reading – especially poetry – we are bartering parts of our self to gain new perspectives from somebody else. You are swapping perspectives, and it would be such an unproductive conversation if you enter a work filled to the brim with your perception of things, of people, communities, all of that kind of stuff. It’s all about making room, isn’t it?
It was never about it being for someone or directed towards someone but about setting the conditions for a session of bartering. And encouraging people to set themselves within those conditions and within an atmosphere that allows for open channels, before going into the rest of the work.
If poetry is a process of give and take, how does that fit with rigged economies in society or even in terms of cultural exchange?
If poetry is exchange but there is an issue with fairness, with things being with rigged – it’s difficult to polarise. In all bartering sessions, in all exchange, someone has to feel a sense of satisfaction because they have gained an advantage, even if it’s one that seems fair on the face of it. Fairness is imbued with a feeling that you have achieved something. In terms of rigged economies and the process of poetry, I can only look at it from a meta-perception of poetry and who we think it’s for. How is it culturally divided up for the people? And which pieces are more or less valued in that way?
In ‘Barter’ you write of using your ‘voice box . . . to its full potential’ and those who would ‘take it / for when you need to rap hiphop songs’. I wondered if you were speaking to an expectation in publishing that you, as a poet who is Black and from the North Peckham estate, should be writing a certain kind of material, or that you should fit into one or other of these cultural divisions.
That’s a tricky one. Because ‘Barter’ itself, in the larger conversation about Blackness – there wasn’t necessarily a statement there to be said about the existence of how things are. I don’t think it’s looking for any didactic resolution or anything, other than to capture photographs, moments, to capture sentiments and have it on the page for people to consume.
Everything that needs to be said about Blackness will always need to be said until it doesn’t. So there isn’t anything in there that I felt like I was answering anyone’s mandate to write as a Black man. I’m not writing this because I’m expected to write this, I’m writing this because I want to write about a community and I want to capture a moment (in this case one that has spanned years) of a community that I was part of, that lived in this way, to celebrate them but to write it for its own sake.
I’m currently writing a new collection about the infinite possibilities of dancing; and if this was the one that came before Poor, I wouldn’t have paused it to write Poor.
On expectation, you quote T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and the ‘people who expect / Nothing’ as an epigraph to the collection. What can readers expect of you as a poet and the communities they encounter when they read Poor?
The ‘people who expect / Nothing’ is anyone who reads Poor and sees something of their community within in it. I think at least one of the poems should remind you of something that you have lived or that you are aware or have seen in your community. There’s something very universal, on a certain level.
I think a lot about The Waste Land. I remember the first time I read it properly all the way through for my A-levels – I think I was about seventeen or eighteen. There is something about existing in spite of everything, thriving in spite of everything. You take each day as it comes. And that is best you can ask for. You just look after what you feel is most important.
You fight for your children, you fight for generations to come. But ultimately you’re not really doing it for yourself. As an individual, you expect nothing anymore. You do it for the bigger causality, the bigger need, or the integrity of your community. I think that has always stuck with me, hence ‘my people . . . who expect / Nothing’.
Like Eliot, you write about London. Is your city also the ‘Unreal city’, as he put it? Do you think of it as mythic in the same way Eliot did?
Absolutely. When you’re a young boy – of seven, eight, nine, ten – the membrane between imagination and reality is at its thinnest. You’re constantly navigating the world, and in this case it’s my city, through the dual lens of reality and fantasy. You’re hearing stories and you’re not sure whether to take them as metaphor, as figurative language, or whether to take them literally – and I managed to sort of keep that. I think if you live in a certain community that stays with you and doesn’t fade away.
By the time you’re in your teens and people are telling normal neighborhood stories, they’re coated with this sense of magic and surrealism. It naturally bled into my work and I think that’s why Eliot’s has always resonated with me. That mythic sensibility has always existed within me; it’s very much part of my identity. It’s also something that I lean into to navigate the mundanity of how laborious life can be.
Like the boy in Poor who ate an apple seed? He thought a tree would grow in his belly. I love that story. Was it told to you by a friend or family member?
Yeah, that’s my Mum. That if you swallow a pip from an apple it will grow inside and constantly wait on you to germinate somewhere. I spent too much of my time wavering between worrying and wonder at just that thought, of turning into an apple tree. My Mum said it once and my siblings took it on. They’re the ones who want to remind you and terrify you, but also make it seem super cool if that happened.
Childhood, imagination, innocence and experience – these are recurrent themes in the collection. What do you make of Malika Booker describing your writing as reminiscent of William Blake’s visionary poetry?
It’s an incredibly flattering thing to say. I spent so much time at university obsessing with English Romanticism, this whole idea of the sublime and achieving it through nature. That was something that always stuck with me. If that’s the mandate for the identity of a Romantic poet, what does that say about the time I live in now, the area that I live now, which is very much the opposite – the polar opposite – of the environment that allows you to access the sublime. Does that mean that we’re forever doomed not to have access to this beautiful and almost holy, human experience? Thinking about that whilst writing the collection made me add to that conversation.
Where I went wrong, I think, is seeing them as opposites. I don’t think it is the opposite. The way that I approach that philosophy now is that the sublime is something that exists in the world already, and it’s about how you and your community define and identify it within your physical or geographical location. Much of what I’m capturing in the book is my answer to the question of the sublime that the Romantic poets were obsessed with. How innocence works and what the loss of innocence does; how those two things are also divided. In that way, I was trying to contribute to the work of the Romantics. The sublime in this community exists. The terrain is very different; it is man-made. There is something very – I was going to say unnatural – but that really doesn’t make sense.
Blake illustrated Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. For you, it’s the camera. How did you go about pairing photographs with the poems in Poor and why was that important to you?
I wanted to redefine people’s mental references when they were reading the work and reading about the community. There are readers, because they do not have access to what the community is like, or what the people are like, that have been fed specific images of the community; ones that are usually not very flattering or even real. In this depiction, I felt like people needed a palate cleanse. They needed to have a more balanced perception, a visual reference in their heads of who we’re talking about. Of course there are people to blame, but in terms of the everyday person – we all have access to the same newsfeed. So if you’re watching or seeing something visually and that’s all you see, it’s very easy to believe that’s what it is.
I also wanted to provide a space for intimacy. There’s a sense of wanting to capture something steeped in realism but the photography moves away from that. I didn’t want it to be too surreal, I wanted it to get to this halfway point. I felt it necessary to add in some childhood photographs in the collection. I’m also talking about myself, I’m part of that, and I think we don’t often, as readers of poetry, get to have a picture or an idea of who the speaker really is. I would’ve loved to have images of some of my favourite poets who have written about their childhood, and had a different sort of experience with it. Not to say it’s a better experience, but a different one. It’s quite an exciting addition to the poetry.
You write lyrically of the built environment, about the influence of architecture and the architecture of the estate. I wondered how this architecture in particular influenced the form of your poems, either structurally or just in how it shapes an idea.
Architectural philosophy and design were central to my approach in writing the collection. I’ve always been preoccupied with how the built environment affects or shapes the lives of human beings, specifically looking at materials likes concrete, the rigidness of them but also the flexibility or propensity of it to become flexible, depending on who is looking and interacting with it. And in that way, there was something new that needed to be built. I say this when I’m thinking about the form in which I am trying to communicate this impression.
The impression that this architectural decision has had on this community can only really be delivered by the people who exist within the space, right? Not even the architect, particularly where there isn’t enough work being done with the people who actually have to live in the spaces that are being designed. Especially when we looking at public housing. The voice of the people is often erased before it hits the white page. So, in this sense, I really had to think about how form serves the language that is coming out of this space. And it really didn’t.
I had to think about how to either augment preexisting forms or think about creating new ones to allow the language and all of its essence to really shine and come through in the collection. How can we try to map out the experience of people, if the tools themselves or the modes of communication do not allow for the sentiments to be translated from experience to the page? In its early stages, the second or third draft, the poems did not feel like they were working because they were bending or interrupting the integrity of the language in order to fit this preexisting structure.
A great example of that is ‘A Designer Talks of Home / A Resident Talks of Home’. It didn’t work how I wanted it to work initially. It took on a very different form and went through various different lives and incarnations. One of them focused on one voice at a time. There’s another example where I thought I needed to write ‘problem, resolution, problem, resolution’ – very much in the way that a lot of sonnets preoccupy themselves with doing. And that didn’t work. Instead, it was about finding one that really allowed the essence of what needed to be communicated to come through.
I tend to bang on about this, as I’m usually the one leading a workshop: Poetry exists in everyday life, in the way that we speak. There is poetry in there, we just don’t stop to recognise it. Taking that approach, I went back and lifted what was said, to find the poetic-ness, for lack of a better word, to see if there’s life in it. And I think there is.
In ‘Ode to South London Gyaldem’ the architect is also an Orphic figure (‘the night / architect who builds my dreams’). As a poet, I wondered what kind of architect you’d hope to be.
As a poet, I hope to be the architect that allows you to feel at home, that allows you to not feel confined within the space you’re in; an architect that builds homes, that gives you a wide and almost audacious view of the world, a view that looks in as much as it’s looking out; one that is colourful and full of joy and makes you appreciate the impossibilities – and the possibilities – of the world; of what could be and what couldn’t be, on a literal level and also on a fantastical one.
Caleb, thank you.
Poor by Caleb Femi is his debut book, and is shortlisted for the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize, the winner of which will be announced in a digital ceremony in collaboration with the British Library on 24 March. To register for event, click the link below: bl.uk/events/the-rathbones-folio-prize-2021
Jack Solloway is a writer and critic living in London. He is the Online Editor for The London Magazine and former Assistant Editor of Voice Magazine. His articles have appeared in the TLS, Aesthetica Magazine, Review 31 and The Times.
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