Introducing: the new Young People’s Laureate for London, Theresa Lola


Theresa Lola is Spread the Word’s Young People’s Laureate for London. Spread the Word’s Laura Kenwright interviewed Theresa about what she would like to achieve in her tenure as Laureate, what poets she’s enjoying reading / seeing right now, what she loves about London,  her journey into poetry that started as a young teenager and much more…

Laura Kenwright: How did you discover poetry, and what was the driver to make you pursue it for a career?

Theresa Lola: I discovered poetry when I was 13 after attending a poetry festival as part of an English department school trip. I didn’t consider it as a career until a friend entered me for an open mic night at Battersea Arts Centre in 2014. It was surreal to have people from the audience voice out their connection with the experiences in the poem. I was in awe of the idea of a poem transporting people to a memory or a future, to share something new about what they already knew. I realised then I could contribute to this world of poetry, or at least try to.

Laura: How does it feel to be Young People’s Laureate for London and what do you hope to achieve in your year?

Theresa: I hope to empower and connect with as many young people in London as possible on physical and digital platforms to encourage them to explore the power of poetry in expressing their imagination, documenting their stories and the pressing stories in London. I also hope to help other young people interested in poetry and trying to access and carve their way through the poetry field in London. In the 2 months since my tenure began I have met many wonderful young people, some I have formed a bond with and have undoubtably promising careers ahead. I’ve run 3 free poetry workshops for young people. One for BBC London themed on Mental Health and creativity, the second for Poetry School was an introduction to poetry for new and curious writers, and the third was for Spread the Word alongside the youth laureates of Chicago, and that workshop was exploring the relationship between poetry and activism. I hope to leave something lasting that young people can point to guide and inspire them, something that exists beyond my tenure.

Laura: Your collection, In Search of Equilibrium, was published by Nine Arches Press earlier in 2019. Can you tell us a little about what putting together your collection and getting it published was like?

Theresa: The writing of the collection was emotionally challenging as the poems touch on sensitive topics about death, faith, family and mental health. After handing in the collection manuscript I felt proud to have articulated those experiences, a weight off my shoulder. After submitting to Nine Arches Press, I got an email from Jane Commane, the editor, and she was interested in publishing it. The editing of the collection was done over a year, the process of feedback and editing of my poems was one of the most transforming things for my craft as a poet and perhaps as a person.

Laura: What are your top tips for people just starting out in poetry?

Theresa: Commune with other poets, attend events, it is essential for your growth as a poet and it’s also an invaluable networking space. Try not to write for the sake of ‘hot topics’ or for constant pleasing or applause of the audience, it’s easy to lose your own voice in that. Attend workshops, or other alternative ways to grow in your craft, it could be a poetry programme or one off growth spaces, make sure you are taking in as you are giving out.

Laura: Who are your favourite poets?

Theresa: The list can go on and on, as it differs for different times. There are many young poets whose work I am currently revelling in, I’ll list some;

Rakaya Fetuga, winner of the 2018 Roundhouse poetry slam, she just had her poetry play Unbraided as part of the Roundhouse Last Word Festival.

Ella Frears, a poet and visual artist, she is currently a project on the motorway service stations between Cornwall and London, the project is produced by Tom MacAndrew, who is also project manager for Spread The Word.

Caleb Femi, the former Young People’s Laureate for London released SLOG, the poetry visual and audio experience.

Kareem Parkins-Brown, a brilliant performer and winner of the 2019 Roundhouse Poetry Slam, I love his careful balance with humour to touch on important issues.

And Belinda Zhawi, her pamphlet ‘small inheritances’ is a sure recommendation, it explores her experiences between different places and traditions, London being one of them.

Laura: Would you say poetry is currently thriving?

Theresa: I do believe poetry is currently thriving, yes there are still barriers that need to be pulled down, but I love the work that young poets in London in particular are doing, how unapologetically themselves they are in their work and the new ways they are engaging with their audience.

Laura: What do you love about London?

Theresa: I love how eclectic and electric London is, how there is something for everyone and every interest, people from different walks of life come together to create rich connections and stories. From street parties, Notting Hill Carnival, to Thames Festival and more. I also love that in the darkest times, London comes together to fight against what is wrong and to defend what is right.

Theresa Lola is a British Nigerian poet and facilitator. She is the 2019/2020 Young People’s Laureate for London. She has held residencies at St Paul’s Cathedral and Bethlem Musem of the Mind and been commissioned by the Tate. She was the joint winner of the 2018 Brunel International African Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the 2017 Bridport Poetry Prize. Her debut poetry collection ‘In Search of Equilibrium’ was released in February 2019 published by Nine Arches Press, and is described as a ‘a glorious hymn to being alive and wounded.‘

Photography credit: Hayley Madden

Published 1 July 2019