London’s 24-year-old poet laureate is revitalising the voice of youth poetry

Somali-Brit Momtaza Mehri has been named as Young People's Laureate for London, but why do we even need one?

In April, Momtaza Mehri became the new Young People’s Laureate For London, a role that will see her spend the next 12 months convincing young people across the capital to engage with what was until recently seen as a dying art form among the youth: poetry.

While Britain’s first official poet laureate, John Dryden, was appointed in 1668 and tasked with duty of writing poetry for occasions and celebrations of the crown and court, today’s poet laureates—including the Young People’s Laureate positionsare designed to wholly inspire the masses in what feels like somewhat of a poetry renaissance. The Young People’s Laureate title itself is only five years old, and Momtaza admits she only found her footing in poetry just four years ago.

“People will come up to me and say ‘I didn’t know someone like you could be a poet’,” says the 24-year-old, who was first exposed to poetry at a young age through her parent’s Somali spoken-word cassettes, only later developing her own flair for exploring identity, displacement and belonging.

“I want to continue the work that the previous Young People’s Laureates have done but I also want to branch out into my own interests and see how I could get young people interested in the intersections between music and poetry,” Momtaza tells me over the phone from her home in Kilburn, north London.

Somewhere between this intersection of music and poetry lies the secret behind the UK’s poetry boom. In 2013, English poet and musician Kate Tempest bagged the Ted Hughes Award for her collection Brand New Ancients. A year later and her debut album Everybody Down was nominated for the 2014 Mercury Prize.

Momtaza recognises the work of artists like Tempest in bringing poetry to the masses, but it doesn’t stop with her.

“With a lot of artists that young people are listening to they’re putting much more complex ideas out there, and young people are reading those footnotes and find that a lot of the time a poet is involved in some shape or form,” she says.

“There’s a lot of poets on the Grime Daily channels, there’s Kate Tempest, there’s Warsan Shire [a former Young People’s Laureate for London] who has worked on Beyoncé’s latest album so young people are a lot more interested now in who was involved in projects and poets keep coming up time and time again.”

But it’s the internet more than anything that has opened up poetry to the country, Momtaza opines, something she sees working in London’s outer boroughs where access to spoken word nights and performance poetry is more limited.

“A lot of poetry is being recorded now and uploaded to social media and YouTube, so people are able to access it a lot more easily than before,” she says. “And also just engage with it more, so they can begin to write their own and share it more easily. There’s a whole community that just exists online that I don’t think even existed 10 years ago.

The communities Momtaza speaks about are dotted throughout internet forums like The Poetry Society and Poetry Space, scattered over YouTube comment sections and across Twitter.

Momtaza says these communities democratise poetry because young people don’t feel they’re being graded for the quality of what they’re saying. “I think younger people are feeling more authoritative on their own lives,” she says. “They’re more confident in their own understanding of the world instead of thinking I can’t really write about this because I don’t know enough about it.”

With the internet at their fingertips though, why the need for a Young People’s Laureate to encourage the youth of today to become captivated by poetry? It goes beyond the simple act of a YouTube video or reading a poem online, as Momtaza herself recognises, saying it’s a skill in itself to learn how to read and enjoy poetry.

“While I do work with young people who are very much pursuing a career in poetry and want to write for a living, there’s also masses of young people for who it would be helpful for them just to have this as an emotional tool, as a resource they can draw upon for the rest of their lives,” says Momtaza.

Founded in 2013, there has been four predecessors to Momtaza’s title of Young People’s Laureate for London. Originally titled the Young Poet Laureate for London, the position was retitled in 2016 to better reflect the focus on engaging with, and representing the voices of young people across the capital, with nominations voted on by national arts bodies including the Poetry Society and the South Bank Centre.

Momtaz Mehri. Image: Lee Townsend for Spread The Word

During her time as laureate, Momtaza will engage young people (aged 13-25) across the capital with poetry through residencies and commissions, co-curating a Poetry Lab for talented young poets and support the Young People’s Laureate Tour where she will visit six of London’s outer boroughs: Bromley, Redbridge, Sutton, Brent, Kingston and Barking and Dagenham. Engaging with the regions youth and introducing them to the accessible poetry of 2018 is very much Momtaza’s goal.

Momtaza doesn’t see the boom slowing down after her tenure either, hoping that more young people will see that poetry grows beyond the classroom.

“I think poetry is going to continue to grow because with each generation of upcoming poets it’s widening the definition of what poetry is,” she says. “Now young people are being exposed to things they actually relate to more and think they can do it too. They can try it out and develop their own unique voice. With each new poet there’s more doors being opened.”