Momtaza Mehri’s Year as Young People’s Laureate for London

Network & Knowledge

As Young People’s Laureate for London 2018-19, Momtaza Mehri has had a rich, varied and creative year, working with young people across London, nationally and internationally. Momtaza tells us about her year of being the laureate:

‘Being Young People’s Laureate for London has been an enriching and wildly varied experience. The role has helped me develop both as a poet and a person. My work with young people has been a particular highlight. I have been able to lead workshops, mentor young poets, get involved with youth collectives and help young people host their own events. The range of activities has been vast. It has taken me across London, the United Kingdom and internationally, participating in everything from poetry slams to conferences and festivals. The role has opened up paths for me across the disciplines of visual art, theatre and performance. It has been a joy to play a part in nurturing young poetic talent across London, witnessing the growth of young poets as they win competitions I have judged and go on to form collectives and communities. The Young People’s Laureate Tour took me to libraries and high streets across London, building lasting relationships with them. My work with Wembley Library connected me with young poets and initiatives in my own borough of residence I was previously unaware of.

My residencies at the British Library have combined my interest in archival research with engaging young learners with issues of translation and poetry. Likewise, my residency at October Gallery involved working with young people who were in the process of applying to art school. I led workshops and conversations, connecting poetry to October Gallery’s past and present exhibitions as well as its wider history as a hub of international art. My residencies at Resonance FM and Free Word allowed me to commission poets, journalists and filmmakers. I have fostered contacts useful to both my tenure as a laureate and my own professional development post-laureateship. My roles as a resident columnist at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Open Space and BBC radio work have been a result of this laureateship and an example of its unexpected reach. As a direct result, I am now working towards an experimental short film and have immersed myself more in the art world through talks, criticism and commissions. BookWorks is publishing my forthcoming art book, edited by the artist Hannah Black, in 2019.

I have also received British Council funding as part of the new Art new Audiences (nAnA) grant. Sawti, a multidisciplinary arts project, will invite poets and artists across Sudan, Tanzania, England and Scotland. We aim to host workshops, readings, a digital platform and a physical zine inviting submissions in Swahili, Arabic and various languages indigenous to East Africa. Before the laureateship, I would not have the skills, contacts or confidence needed to even apply for such a grant. In that sense, the laureateship has been instrumental in my own growing sense of self as a poet. I am now clearer and more intentional about the kind of work I want to do and more courageous in pursuing it. This has reverberated throughout my practice and the opportunities I am now seeking out. The laureateship has inspired me to imagine without limits and speak to all my interests and obsessions. This has been its ultimate gift.

Reaching and engaging young people
During her tenure, Momtaza led four residencies and produced four commissioned residency poems, the residencies were with:

  • Resonance FM – producing a series of radio episodes called ‘Your Fave Could Never’ featuring six young poets;
  • The October Gallery – engaging young people with their ‘Present Moment’ exhibition of Asian artists;
  • The British Library – engaging supplementary schools with their Somali Collections;
  • Free Word Centre – curating the ‘Our Bodies will not be Policed’ event as part of the ‘This is Private’ season.

Momtaza led Spread the Word’s 2018 Young People’s Laureate Tour which took place in six outer London library services (Brent, Redbridge, Bromley, Barking & Dagenham, Sutton and Kingston), engaging young people through workshops, performances and The Poetry Takeaway van.

She ran a PoetryLab masterclass programme at the Roundhouse supporting the development of 21 young poets and creating a Poem for London – ‘Voicenotes from London’.

In addition, Momtaza undertook a further 52 engagements across the year, including:

  • Being a judge for the 2018 Asia House Poetry Slam;
  • Performing at events at the National Theatre, the Bristol Old Vic and the V&A Museum;
  • Participating in panel debates and running workshops for young people as part of the Words Go Round Festival in Singapore through a Spread the Word partnership with the Singaporean National Arts Council and Writers Festival;
  • Producing new writing on commission for the BBC for National Poetry Day, St Paul’s Cathedral and Granta;
  • Writing a commissioned poem and judging children’s poetry competition for the opening of Kew Gardens’ new children’s garden (Spring 2019);
  • Writing a commissioned poem and performing it to officially open Xmasbox – Wembley Park’s Christmas cultural season.

Over her year as laureate, Momtaza reached an audience of over 6,800, with over 3,900 young people being reached and engaged. It estimated that her radio appearances and work had a reach of over 500,000 and her commissioned poems, an estimated footfall of over one million.

Commissions, films and podcasts

Media coverage
Momtaza and her work featured across the media, including: the Big Issue, the Bookseller, the Guardian and the BBC news website. Momtaza also led a National Poetry Day press campaign for the Royal Mail around their specially painted postboxes in London and the North West. Radio interviews included: Radio 4’s Front Row and Saturday Live, BBC Radio London, and BBC World Service.

We would like to thank Momtaza for all her hard work, her poetry and her dedication and commitment to engaging with young people and supporting young poets. Momtaza has been an amazing Young People’s Laureate for London. It has been an honour working with her and we wish her all the best as she moves on to the next stage of her career.

Find out more about the programme and our 2019-20 Young People’s Laureate for London, Theresa Lola here.