AN INTERVIEW WITH CALEB FEMI

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I was lucky enough to do my teacher training at King’s with Caleb. He was a great teacher, able to mesmerise even a group of sleepless grown-ups with grammar; I believed every last thing he said about double negatives and pronouns. Last year, after months of not being in touch with him, I read that he had been named Young Person’s Poet Laureate of London and I was so excited. Not just at the fact that something good had finally happened in the year of all things shit, but because he would now go on to inspire young people beyond the four walls of his classroom in London and spread a love of poetry – something pupils notoriously loathe – across the country. I immediately text him and demanded he let me interview him for my blog. Here’s what I asked him and here’s what he told me.

Do you write poetry for a living?

I write poetry for a living, for necessity, for survival and sanity.

How did the whole ‘Young People’s Laureate’ thing come about?

It’s pretty mental. Mental indeed, I was watching Orange is the New Black one day in July, I had just quit teaching full time as a secondary English teacher when I received an email stating that I was part of a shortlist of poets considered for the role. From this, I was invited to interview, so I went.

They only bloody gave it to me. 

Are you currently working on any exciting projects you can talk about? 

I’m currently working on a poetry pamphlet, which will be out sometime next year. Also, I have a theatre show called Goldfish Bowl I’m creating, which will be showing in the summer.

Where do you source inspiration from?

Life, everyday life. All the good and bad stuff that happens and, yes, that includes my time as a teacher, which was both good and bad.

Did you find teaching poetry easier than teaching, say, a novel?

I think it was more of a matter of the quality and accessibility of the work, be it a novel or a poem. I don’t think there’s much difference between a novel and a poem at the heart of it. They are both trying to convey a human experience, so it’s quite hard to say…

Who am I kidding? 

POETRY.

You’ve said in interviews that young people need to create a new voice for themselves. In the fallout of 2016 (AKA the year of shade), what do you think that voice might sound like? 

A fog horn on the morning of a hangover, if you’re doing it right.

Favourite poet? Dead or alive.

Impossible, can’t answer that one.

What piece of advice would you give to a young person with a passion for the Arts but without a way in?

Keep knocking until someone opens. OR, you could forge your own route, find like-minded people and dig your way through with them.

I know you’ve spoken about finally being able to embrace all aspects of yourself – do you think London breeds this sort of mentality and allows people to do just that? Or do you think it’s down to the individual? 

Definitely down to the individual. London isn’t some utopia where everyone embraces you, it only becomes something closer to that when you can make peace with who you are and understand that you don’t need to justify your humanity to anyone, only then does the city seem more like a beaut. 

Want to know more or watch him perform? Go for it.

THE CRAFT

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I used to have a little piece of paper that sat on my desk where I used to work (often hidden behind files and piles of useless pieces of paper) which read: ‘Make Time For Your Art. It’s Important.’

I think it came from an old calendar a couple of colleagues and I pulled off the wall when we moved into that office but I couldn’t be sure. Anyway, for the year that I sat at that desk, that quote was a constant, welcome reminder for me to go home and do what I love. I enjoyed my job, most days, but it gave me a much-needed nudge to leave work each day and write, read, strike up a conversation with other creatives online or sign up to a talk or a course that would teach me more about my craft. But when it came to leaving that job and emptying out my desk, I’m not entirely sure where that piece of paper went. It must’ve got misplaced during the move and I miss it.

The truth is, there are lots of us who aren’t getting paid to do what we love. In fact, scrap that, most of us aren’t doing what we love. We are all pretty much working 9-5 or lengthy shifts each week and then heading home to sit on a sofa because we’re too worn out from the day to do anything other than eat pizza or drink wine. Doing what we love becomes less of a priority than paying bills on time and getting the dinner in. Hobbies become more of a hassle than anything.

But, the point is, they shouldn’t.

Over the last few weeks, as things have grown a little hectic, writing for pleasure has taken a bit of a backseat. I, like many of us, have fallen guilty of neglecting to do what I love. I have felt so exhausted after work or at the weekend that I have ignored that this space even exists and it has made me more miserable than I ever could have imagined. It has left me feeling deflated, uninspired and a little lazy.

But all this is about to change.

I’m not promising that I’ll be burning through keyboards faster than you can say J K Rowling but I am making a conscious decision to write more and post more and I think even pulling this together when I can barely keep my eyes open is a good start.

I’ve learnt that when that piece of paper that I kept on my desk used to whisper at the end of a long day that making time for art is important, it meant so much more than I ever could have realised at the time.

Perhaps this is a little nudge that you might have needed tonight?

Here’s to all of us being creative after hours.

THE UNDERGRADUATE

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Living in Bristol means that, since the start of September, the city is now awash with students and I have found myself queuing for longer at the supermarket, dodging bleary-eyed teens on my walk into work and being forced to reflect on rugby initiation ceremonies, which I still can’t quite believe are a ‘thing’.

Aside from being an old grump about Bristol being busier and the fact that students here are better dressed than most adults with actual wages, I can’t help but feel for the first years who have been arriving with their brand new pots and pans over the last few weeks. I regularly overhear awkward conversations between barely-friends and often hear second and third years talking like they have life sussed. Seeing all these fresh faces makes me think back to when I was at university and how desperate I was for someone to guide me through it all because, no matter how it may have seemed to my fellow students, I actually really struggled with the whole thing.

With this in mind, I have decided to write a list of (hopefully) helpful and (at least semi) relevant advice that I would give to any fresher, should they ask. Baring in mind I do not have my shit together in the slightest, I’m not holding out for a young person to come up to me and ask my opinion on how they should spend their time at university, but should one lonely fresher read this and find some comfort on a lonely day in a new city, for that it will have all been worth it.

So, here goes.

Let your parents help you pack

Although you’re probably all moved in already, don’t huff at the hundred sachets of lemsip hiding at the bottom of your suitcase or the childhood comfort blanket they forced you to bring. Trust me, when the weather grows colder, you’re feeling a little lonely and you fall ill? You’ll be grateful for their interfering.

Be kind

Looking back, me and my friends were so wrapped up in our own world to even notice that there were people sitting alone at dinner times or in lectures. I was so worried about not making friends that I ignored those who really could’ve used one. Those people who refuse to come out of their rooms? Listen, they’re not being weird, they’re probably just struggling, so knock on their door and offer to share a cup of tea and a packet of Hob Knobs with them. You could be the difference between them quitting or seeing it through. And that hour spent in their room? I promise that it will make no difference to forging new relationships for yourself. Open your eyes to everyone around you – uni can be tough when facing it alone.

Go to lectures

I hate to sound like your grandma, but just fucking go. Yes, even to those 9 o’clock ones that the fit guy from your course doesn’t even go to. Let’s be honest, you probably have no more than ten contact hours a week – not going is not only a really bad habit to get into but it doesn’t leave a positive impression on your tutors (who you will really need down the line). Spend the rest of the day in bed if you must, just make sure you get up and go.

Participate

I’m not just talking in seminars, I’m talking your whole course: presentations, actually reading the books, pair work – own it. Never forget that you have paid thousands of pounds for the privilege of being there. You won’t be the mug for geeking out, those pissing away their degree will, which brings me onto my next point…

Don’t waste too much time drinking

I’m not going to lie, some of my greatest memories from my time at uni were from when I was blind drunk on WKD (see photo evidence above) but my friends and I went out a lot. Like, four times a week, a lot. It’s fun, but it’s not conducive to much else. University is supposed to be a time of discovery and exploration – if you’re hungover, you’re less likely to go to lectures, get involved in the cool stuff or find something you feel really strongly about. Missing one night out isn’t going to make a difference to your life, no matter how hard that is to believe at the time.

Don’t get sucked into the ‘hierarchy’

Exeter was pretty bad for this. Those people who are part of the ‘it’ crowd who always walk around in large groups and talk five decibels louder than everyone else? They will probably refer to university as the best days of their lives, even after travelling the world, having kids and getting married… you do not want to be one of them.

Find something to do

Basically, get involved in something other than shots at the bar. Think sport, charity work or writing for the student newspaper. This is one of my biggest regrets looking back, especially because I knew I wanted to get involved with so much at the time but just… didn’t. Branch out of your comfort zones and make the most it because you will spend the rest of your adult life wishing for so much spare time.

Ramp up that CV

If you can intern during your holidays, then for god’s sake, do it. Ask your friend’s mum or that distant relative if you can get some work experience at their company, gain as much relevant experience as you can, start a blog (I started this in my third year) or spend time researching what you might want to do when you graduate.

Have that relationship if it feels right

People always say that you should remain single while you’re at uni. Although I think it’s good to have a bit of both (I was one of those lucky ones), if you meet someone and fall in love, then go for it. That shit doesn’t happen often, so embrace it, people.

If you need to work, then work

I was pretty much the poorest person at Exeter, which made it difficult to find the motivation to go to work when hardly anybody else did. The peace of mind I got when I received my pay packet, however, was well worth it.

Finally and most importantly…

Be yourself. It might sound like such a cliche, but honestly, this was what ruined university for me. I have spent many a conversation blaming the city itself or the abundance of obnoxious rich kids as to why I hated Exeter so much, but really, I was just pretending to be someone I wasn’t and that shit is HARD after a week or so. Be yourself and you will find true friends and enjoy great experiences without driving yourself insane pretending to be someone you’re not.

So, undergraduates of the UK, even though you will probably ignore all of the above, get ready for an emotional time – on so, so, so many levels.

Take care of each other and good luck.