Caleb Femi (1990– ) is a poet, filmmaker, and photographer. Born in Kano, Nigeria, he moved to London when he was seven years old, settling in Peckham – an experience he explores in his poem, ‘Children of the ’Narm’. After studying English Literature at university, he became a secondary school teacher, only giving up that job in 2016 shortly before being named London’s first Young People’s Laureate. He won the Roundhouse Poetry Slam in 2015, was featured in the Dazed 100 list of the next generation shaping youth culture in 2017, and frequently performs his poetry internationally. He is currently working on his debut poetry collection.
[My poetry is] about my understanding about being in London, Britain, the world.
When Caleb Femi became the Young People’s Laureate for London in 2016, he explained his vision for the role as seeking to,
re-engage young people, who have long been disenfranchised, through poetry. I don’t see it as far-fetched to normalise poetry among all demographics of young people in London. Poetry is the one of the purest forms of conversation there is. At its best, it allows us to communicate from an honest and safe place. And young people deserve to be included in such spaces.
Femi’s commitment to ridding poetry of its inaccessibility, revealing it instead as an art form in which young people’s voices can be heard, is central to the task of the Young People’s Laureate. Originally the role was known as London’s Young Poet Laureate (a post first held by Warsan Shire), so the name-change signals the emphasis on engaging young people across the city. In keeping with this, Femi has brought the democratising power of the internet to bear on his work throughout his career. He has uploaded his spoken word performances and short films, and made them freely available via his website and YouTube.
In this way Femi puts into practice his belief that poetry always remains unfinished, ready to be reworked and reshaped at any time. It is an idea he first explored in his undergraduate dissertation when he focused on the work of American poet Emily Dickinson, who frequently rewrote her poems or left them deliberately unfinished. In his own poetry it can be seen, for example, in the different versions of ‘Coconut Oil’ to be found online. One of these poignantly changes the close of the poem.
Often autobiographical, Femi’s poetry frequently focuses on the experiences of being a young black man in Britain. He has become a sought-after speaker, addressing audiences at the Tate Modern, the South Bank Centre, and TEDx events. In 2018, his poem ‘A Tale of Modern Britain’ was commissioned by Heathrow airport, to celebrate – in Femi’s words – ‘what it means to be British and the emotions that unite us all when we travel’. Images of the poet performing his poetry and giving words to people’s experience of flight are visible on big screens around the airport in exciting and provocative ways.
—Justine McConnell, 2018
Cite this: McConnell, Justine. “Caleb Femi.” Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds, 2018, https://writersmakeworlds.com/caleb-femi/. Accessed 21 February 2020.