Yesterday, Selina Nwulu was chosen from 6 young poets to be the new Young Poet Laureate for London. Supported by Foundation for FutureLondon and London’s Writer Development Agency Spread the Word, this year-long role offers the London Laureate the opportunity to work with young people across the city’s diverse communities to encourage the development of new poetic talents and to provide a platform for untold stories and unheard voices.
A bright, passionate young poet, Selina has already established herself as a socially engaged writer, having previously worked with groups such as The Battersea Arts Centre and the community lead-up to the Women of the World festival in 2014. She also appeared alongside writers such as George the Poet, Ruth Padel and Alice Oswald in a pamphlet produced by the RSA, 9 Original Poems on Climate Change, and recently published her debut collection The Secrets I Let Slip.
We caught up with Selina in the aftermath of her victory. Since yesterday’s announcement, its been a press and publicity whirlwind, but she jokes that, coming from a down-to-earth Yorkshire family, her sisters will make sure the new-found fame doesn’t go to her head. We chatted with her about her aspirations for the next year.
As a poet whose work to date has been inspired by social issues and current affairs, what are you thoughts on the role of poetry in enacting practical social and political change?
This is the aspect of poetry that I’m really passionate about, and I think can take form in both subtle and obvious ways, for example, through satire or through poetry that is lyrical and descriptive. When I first started consciously performing and sharing my work, it was always with that political edge and I think it was very blatant that that’s what I wanted to write at the time. But what I’m realising more and more is that the personal is political, and the things that I write about, although they are personal, are still to my mind politically engaged. They’re about human stories. What I try to do is cross the line between the two. I think that poetry is very well-suited to this because if you have a conversation about, for example, climate change, or read a report about climate change, it can be quite a dense, alienating subject. But if you write a poem, that taps into an emotional place. That’s what I think is really powerful about poetry and art – it evokes many more interesting conversations that you wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise.
Why do you think poetry is an important mode of expression for young people?
I think I was my most creative when I was younger – I had less fear and I wasn’t writing for anyone but myself. It’s a really important space to protect and nurture in young people and I think they’re not always given the opportunity to do this in school. I didn’t really get into poetry through school and that’s not how I associate with it. When I was younger I remember being encouraged initially to write creatively, but there was a time when this stopped, and it became more factual – writing about books and analysing books. This is still a really important part of education for young poeple, but not necessarily about creativity – its a reaction to a text someone else had written. I think it’s important to nurture that creativity in young people because otherwise it’s a massive resource wasted, being that people are at their most creative and explorative in their younger years. Its also about giving people confidence.
How do you plan to develop your the role as London Laureate with regard to engaging with young people about poetry?
This will be the next challenge after the initial hype of reciving the Laureate role. Its only since coming to London myself that I’ve started more consciously writing and performing and that began because I did a course run by an organisation called Platform. It was open to 16-25-year-olds and focussed on art, media, race and power, and choosing an artistic outlet to explore these themes. I chose poetry. I was unemployed at the time and was very socially engaged, but hadn’t considered before how that could be connected with my poetry. After I went on that course, it changed how I looked at my writing, so I’d love to do more stuff with them. I’ll also seek to do things with schools – I have 5 residencies to do in this year, so if one was with a school that would be great. I’m also interested in working with youth groups or anywhere I could connect with young people about poetry. I don’t see my role as one of shoving poetry down people’s throats but rather showing them what’s out there, from the more classical texts to contemporary poets talking about global issues to spoken word clips on Youtube – showing them all of that and emphasising that they can explore anything in that spectrum that interests them.
What was really amazing about the shortlist for the Young Poet Laureate this year was that the six of us were so different, and that is a testament to all that poetry is. That’s at the heart of Spread the Word’s project.
What are you plans for the future as a poet?
I’d really like this year to be the testing ground or springboard for where I go afterwards. My passion is in writing and I want this year to contribute towards my confidence, both as a poet and a social commentator.
All five poets also shorlisted this year will continue to participate in the prestigious London Laureates scheme. Find out more about them on the London Laureates page.
Selina’s collection The Secrets I Let Slip is available from Burning Eye.
Interview by Rachel Chanter