Oxford Writers' House presents an interview with Phoebe Nicholson, whose recognition of a gap in the Oxford literary scene has led to our new, flair-filled, pedal-powered poetry library! Find out here why this genius innovation is exactly what local readers need, and how you can browse and borrow from the library yourself.
How did the idea for your mobile library come about?
So I’d just come back from Edinburgh where I was living for three months. I’m quite connected to the poetry scene there, through some friends who are involved in the Scottish Poetry Library, which is this independently run, beautiful facility, about the size of a college library here - they have lots of poetry readings, poetry workshops, poetry events. I just thought “what a good idea.” Scottish Poetry Library did a lot to democratise poetry, which I think is either seen as something dusty and irrelevant, or this “spoken-word Beatnik” thing. Most people feel pretty alienated by it. So I was really inspired and I did a lot of volunteering there. Then when I came back here I realised that actually there’s no equivalent facility for poetry - in Oxford, of all places!
A gaping hole, really.
Exactly. It’s hard if you don’t have a Bod card. The public library does its best but it doesn’t have the time, energy, budget for a proper poetry section. And then you go into Blackwell's which is supposed to be huge and amazing -
And the "poet’s corner"…
Is a corner! And if you’re interested in poetry, but you don’t know anybody who has the books or you don’t have the money to buy it, [Oxford] can be limiting. Also poetry in its nature is one of those things you want to dip in and out of. For me, I want to peruse a book, and if there’s a poem I like in it, maybe I’ll copy it out into the back of a notebook somewhere. It’s something that you visit again and again, and the library set-up works really well for that.
So why a mobile one?
Originally I thought, “When I come back to Oxford I will set up a facility”. I wanted it to feel independent, grass-roots - a place where people could come and share and collaborate. My vision was kind of a combination of a poetry library and something like the Forest Cafe in Edinburgh, which is an arts collective masquerading as a vegetarian cafe, and really is the beating heart of the “indie” art scene. But, Oxford is expensive, and property is gold-dust! So the permanent space dream had to become a pipe dream.
But what you came up with is a genius idea!
Well, that’s the thing! I was chatting to my housemate, thinking “How can I make this happen?”, and he was like, “Get a van! Why don’t you get one of those vans to drive around?” But, I don’t drive. What can I do? I can cycle! I cycle everywhere, so, there you go.
And it’s a pretty cool looking bike…
Well, yes that’s important I think. I went for red because it’s adorable, and also I can’t pretend this is sleek and cool - I couldn’t go for matte black, you know - so I went for something bright. And people engage with the idea that it’s a bike, too. It’s eco-friendly, and there’s a sort of honest physicality to it that people like (in a real sense: It’s hard work pedalling around the streets of Oxford!)
Especially if it’s just you. Have you had much help?
Oh, I’ve roped a lot of pals into it! I actually had a huge donation of books from Oxford Brookes. Zines as well - which is great, because they're light! And people have crafted them. There’s something really attractive to me about that.
So when there are so many books, how will you go about selecting them? Do you have a single-handed screening process?
Ideally, I’ll always have a broad spectrum, a mix between contemporary stuff, children’s books, anthologies, classics. I’m keeping the full collection (which is 300 or so books) in storage, and so whenever I take the bike out, I select my range. I’ve been really lucky as well. At first, I thought that the way donations would work is that I’d get a lot of stuff from well-meaning people who just want to get rid of their GCSE set texts, or huge Victorian anthologies, which I don’t think is what will excite readers. But actually I’ve had a lot of publishers get in touch, lots of contemporary and very local pamphlets and collections.
Why do you think the library appeals to people?
Well, perhaps initially because it’s kind of twee. It’s a novelty. The cargo bike is funny, because it definitely started as a practical solution, but I think it’s become a selling point. It’s also got me in touch with a lot of organisations I might not otherwise have been collaborating with, especially the environmental, eco-minded projects in Oxford. It’s opened doors.
How does it work on a regular basis?
I want it to be really collaborative. I want it to be something that is out in the community for people to participate in, but also get involved in running it. I’m not interested at all in it being my baby! That’s how these things grow and catch on.
How did you yourself first get in touch with the artistic community in Oxford?
When I was a student here, I didn’t really get involved with the university poetry scene. I immediately found Catweazle and everything that was going on in East Oxford. I met so many performers and writers there. That for me is the demographic. The university is fairly well catered for, but actually I’m much more interested in providing for local communities.
So where and when can we find the library?
We had our first proper appearance at the South Oxford community market, and I aim to be there every week or fortnightly, Sunday mornings 9.30 to noon. Also the East Oxford market every couple of weeks. We have a number of events and pop-up appearances we’re booked in for: Tandem Festival, Oxford Green Week, Cowley Road Carnival. Basically, the aim is to be as present as possible in lots of different places. You can find where we are going to be via our Facebook and Twitter or by joining our mailing list.
Do you have a favourite poet?
Larkin - in fact, that would be an apt name for the bike, since he was a librarian too! He’s the one I routinely go back to again and again. He’s so delightfully dour. Only Larkin could write a poem which is ostensibly about a hedgehog being run over with a lawnmower, but actually about kindness.
Interested in perusing the Oxford Poetry Library? Have a look to see when it is next out and about at https://oxfordpoetrylibrary.wordpress.com/, on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/oxpoetrylibrary/) or follow it on Twitter (@OxPoetryLibrary).
Phoebe Nicholson has lived in Oxford since 2009, and when she isn't cycling poetry through the city's streets, she is writing it, (as well as working variously in lexicography, research, and at The Story Museum). She recently collaborated on a chapbook with her sister called Red Devon Mud, about roots, family, and creeping things. It can be found here: http://faitheliott.com/red-devon-mud/ She also edits and designs The Catweazle Magazine (http://catweazleclub.com/?page_id=484), a quarterly arts publication which arose out of The Catweazle Club (a performance night that happens every Thursday night from 8 pm at the East Oxford Community Centre).