Every Monday when Caleb Femi was a young boy in the 1990s, the walkways in the housing estate where he lived with his parents and four siblings were swabbed down with a detergent that smelled of bubblegum. Home was “one bedroom and seven bodies making do” on the 13th floor of a tower block: “But all of a sudden that space was transformed by my eight-year-old imagination into a wonderland where everything felt shiny and bouncy,” he says. “Mondays were my favourite days.”
London’s North Peckham estate takes centre-stage in his debut poetry collection, Poor, which has been hailed as “stunning” and “revelatory”, gathering advance praise from a stream of fans including British screenwriter and actor Michaela Coel and the American political sonneteer Terrance Hayes.
In the eyes of its architects, as Femi writes in one poem, the estate was “A paradise of affordable bricks, tucked under / A blanket, shielded from the world”. Its 1,444 homes were packed into 65 multi-storey blocks on a site so big that residents could live their lives – shopping, playing or going to school – without ever having to cross a road. The outcome was violence, communal trauma and a disastrous “othering” that resounded through the news headlines.
The poem goes on to contrast the lofty ideals of its designers with one of its most infamous episodes, the killing of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor, who bled to death in a stairwell in November 2000 after being stabbed in the thigh on his way home from the local library by two brothers not much older than he was. “It is true on paper there were no designs for a tomb,” writes Femi, “Yet the East wing stairs were where Damilola was found: / Blue dawn, blue body, blue lights, blue tapes.”
The bespectacled 28-year-old, who sits across a table from me in the deserted cafe of a theatre near his south London home, is astonished when I remark on how dark I found the collection. “It’s funny that you should say that,” he says. “I feel it’s got a very optimistic celebration to it. The conditions of the estate – poor public housing, poor design – did have the knock-on effect of being quite dark. But the young people within it are joyous and full of imagination. They embrace fantasy.”
Did he personally know Taylor? Yes, he says quietly, they lived in the same wing, though they were a couple of years apart in age and went to different schools. In a poem entitled “Survivor’s Guilt, or Anikulapo” he spells out the emotional toll taken by the deaths that were part of ordinary life for anyone who grew up on the estate: “My presence at funerals felt like bragging … I am a museum of all / The ghosts I could have been.”
Femi is a film-maker and photographer as well as a poet, and he became London’s first young people’s laureate in 2016. Scattered through the text are his own photos, which range from happy family gatherings to police crime scenes, from the geometric spines of multi-storey staircases to near abstract plays of brilliant light, and shadowy portraits of youths in hoodies.
The pictures were necessary for two reasons, he says – firstly because the collection carries an archival responsibility, but also because he wanted to police the imaginations of readers whose attitude to urban black youth is shaped and coloured by news photography. “I don’t believe in policing the reader, but this is the one time that I broke that rule,” he says, “because all those images are doctored: they follow one gender, they’re often mug shots or pictures that communicate threats, or aggression, or misfortune or sorrow. I wanted to challenge that discourse – to point out that young boys wearing hoodies don’t carry this innate threat within themselves.”
The poems amplify this theme by combining boisterous street language with an imagery that is so pure and transformational that at times it borders on the metaphysical. In one, he imagines a boy pouring himself into his hood like a raindrop: “Each tree grateful for the / wet boy, unaware that the outside world sees this boy as a / chainsaw.” His point, he says, is “that often these boys are just as delicate as we can ever imagine them to be. They are nourishing to the environment in a way that raindrops are.”
There is something deeply touching about such images, recalling the little boy who found a wonderland in the smell of detergent. Though autobiographical anecdotes are threaded through the collection, the relationship of his work to his own life story is not straightforward. One picture shows him grinning broadly beside a Manchester United birthday cake. Captioned “My first birthday”, it was actually his eighth, but the first he remembers, he says. While his mother, his three sisters and his younger brother were Arsenal supporters like most of their neighbours, he opted for Manchester United in solidarity with his father, who is now a bishop in a local church.
He had only properly met his parents less than a year earlier, because they had emigrated to London from Nigeria when he was a baby, leaving their children behind with a grandfather and an uncle until they had saved enough money to bring them over. Their circumstances were still difficult and he knows all about going to school hungry, he says. “Dinner time was when we ate.”
But grim though the estate was, it fed his imagination in unexpected ways. When he was 10, a mysterious mural appeared on a wall. Nobody today can remember exactly what it looked like except that it radiated bright colours across the concrete, and became a gathering point for the community. “Every good thing that happened on the estate was slammed into conjunction with that mural,” he says. “It birthed so much beautiful folklore: there were stories of people running through walls, or turning into cats – because of that painting, everything that you would find in Harry Potter already existed on my estate before I even knew about the books.”
A few months later the mural was demolished, along with the tower block where the Femi family lived, and they were moved to a four-bedroom terrace house down the road. By 12 he had been identified as a high achiever capable of boosting his school’s league table ratings by taking GCSEs early. He would be entered for a couple every year, with the result that, when his peers were gearing up for the exams, he only had two more to go, but was expected to show up for every lesson anyway. He got bored, and was excluded, with potentially disastrous consequences.
For nine months, until it was time to start his A-levels, he hung out with other teenagers who had fallen foul of the school system. “There was a whole bunch of us and what do you do as a teenager who’s been kicked out? I found myself loitering a lot. Gallivanting, really, falling in love with girls, immersing myself in other things like music,” he says. A friend died and, at 17, he was himself shot in the leg. He’s reluctant to say more, because he doesn’t want this to become a hard luck story of working-class trauma, but one of his short films, Survivor’s Guilt (available on the BFI website) tells movingly of his struggles with post traumatic stress disorder.
For sixth-form, he took himself off to school in north London, making use of the 50-minute bus journey to catch up with his reading and all the latest albums. What was it that saved him from the fate of so many of his peers? Not exceptional brilliance, he insists – “there was nothing special about me” – but having teachers who inspired him early on with a love of poetry. One of them gets a big shout-out in the acknowledgments for Poor. Yomi Sode is a fellow poet, who had been a pupil at the same school. “He was very young, so he felt like a big brother figure. He developed a lot of my self-confidence as a young, skinny boy with glasses and huge insecurities. He showed me that there were ways in which you can love yourself and have a good time, and test yourself as well.”
It was an example that Femi would carry with him through an English literature degree and on into a teacher training course at King’s College London, from which he went straight on to teach at a Tottenham comprehensive school. Arriving full of dreams about saving others through poetry, he had a rude awakening and quit after two years. The problem was not that the kids were unreachable, he stresses, but that he had blundered into the straitjacket of the “Gove curriculum”, in which the then education minister Michael Gove had imposed strict limits on what could be taught.
For someone who loved Yeats and Pope and had discovered a reflection of his own experience in TS Eliot’s descriptions of Margate in The Waste Land, it was a bitter disappointment. “It was such a rigid curriculum. I didn’t have the best experience of school growing up, but there was still space for your imagination and your individualism to at least stretch its legs a little bit.”
It helped that his poetry career was already taking off. In 2015 he won the Roundhouse Poetry Slam and performed at Tate Britain, and in 2017 he was included on the Dazed 100 list of the new generation shaping youth culture. But it’s hard to pay the rent as a poet, so he has also made film-poems to order for Heathrow airport and – comically, given his views on gentrification – for the upmarket handbag manufacturer, Mulberry.
His two-year tenure as young people’s laureate coincided with one of London’s most horrifying urban design disasters, the Grenfell Tower fire. “In the future,” he writes, in a diary extract from the time, “every time I write grief on my phone its autocorrect asks if I mean Grenfell: have I written Grenfell so many times that it has registered it as a familiar word, or is this how collective mourning works?”
The Covid-19 crisis has yet again drawn attention to the structural disadvantages of being poor and urban, he points out. “In lockdown, when we all had an hour allocated to us to go out into the fresh air, how many had access to greenery and nature? And what was the effect on mental health of not having it? That’s something I wanted to investigate: the impact of urban landscapes in impoverished public housing areas; how it shapes the way that people who live in these spaces see themselves and how the world sees them.”
For now his own space is a flat in Deptford, which he shares with a cat called Dennis Adeyemi. It’s a female cat, he volunteers, because he had originally intended to adopt a male but took pity on the runt of the litter and couldn’t be bothered to think up a new name. He is by nature self-contained and nomadic, in regular touch with, but not close to his family, tramping the city streets with a head full of plans, dreaming of the films he will make and the poems he will write.
Not dark at all, in fact. “Actually, I’m obsessed with laughter. I feel like it was important to make this work, but henceforth I’m solely preoccupied with being a merchant of joy,” he declaims, rising to his feet with a rhetorical flourish. He pulls up his hood and sets off through the driving rain towards a concrete underpass. On the back of his puffer coat, the word “FANTASTIC” is printed in large white capital letters, and for a split second it shines out from the darkness after Femi himself has disappeared. Or perhaps, after an hour in his company, I’m imagining things.
• Poor is published by Penguin (£9.99) on 5 November. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. Caleb Femi will be in conversation with Brenda Emmanus for a live-streamed event with Penguin Live and Theatre Peckham on 5 November. Visit penguin.co.uk/events