FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
CALEB FEMI: My draw to poetry was sparked through music. I remember being ten years old and finding that my favourite songs were my favourite songs because of the lyricism rather than its instrumentation. Then, as I came into my teenage years, whilst studying the works of Robert Frost, T.S Eliot, Anne Sexton and W.B Yeats. Poetry became an important part of my life as it helped me make sense of the world and my place within it. But it wasn’t until I started uni that I started writing poetry. They were awful poems but I didn’t care, it was a cathartic for me.
FP: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
CF: I have always had huge respect for the craft of poetry. I have always held reverence for its multi-realm transporting nature hence it took me a while to comfortably recognise myself as a poet. That comfortability eventually came about from years of working on my craft and honing in my voice as a poet. Mentorships generously given by other poets such as Jacob Sam La-Rose, Nick Makoha and Roger Robinson immensely contributed to my development. The Roundhouse poetry collective and The Complete Works were poetry programmes that I attended. These spaces were so important for me as I was able to write alongside fellow budding poets and feel part of a poetry community that provided a support system.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
CF: Ever since I was aware of the Forward Prizes, I have found the Felix Dennis Prize the most exciting category as the shortlist always contained bold new voices that, for me, shook up the landscape of poetry by providing fresh offerings on craft, on topical themes and even on the general understanding of poetry. This was the prize that inspired me the most. So to be part of that shortlist is a great honour and a huge compliment to my collection.
FP: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?
CF: The poem ‘How To Pronounce Peckham’ was the first poem in the collection that was written. It was in late 2016 a long while before the conception of the collection. This poem was evidence of a planted seed in my mind, a small light of an endeavour to articulate the lives and times of my community of North Peckham and explore how architecture and social policies influence the lives of many working-class communities like my own. It would be another year until I officially started to research and write the then untitled collection. By the end of 2018, with a loose first draft of the collection completed, I reached out to editor Jane Commane for a series of editing sessions which led to a stronger second draft of the collection. I had further editing sessions with Kayo Chingonyi, Natalie Teitler and Max Porter who’s wisdom fortified the structure, craft and voice in the collection and by early 2019 I was proud of the latest version of the collection and so it was sent out to publishers. The final stage of the collection’s development was done with Penguin’s editor Donald Futers who’s brilliant editing process refined the collection into its best self. It was in these latter stages that the name Poor was officially settled on. ‘The Painting on The Concrete Wall’ and ‘The Book of The Generation of Peckham Boys…’ hold a special space in my heart and, for me, are the engine of the collection.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
CF: I admire the work of most of my contemporaries and find inspiration in their words. But perhaps I find myself returning often to the works of Terrance Hayes, Alice Oswald, Momtaza Mehri and Will Harris.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
CF: A second collection.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
CF: Read more poetry. Soak up the mundanity of your life, it will fuel your writing in beautiful and unexpected ways. Trust your own voice.