Open House Oxford: Writing Home
After my visit to Open House Oxford, a “talking shop” for housing and homelessness in the heart of the city, I caught up with Rowena Cooper over email to find out more about her experience of running the Writing Home workshops. It’s worth reprinting her words in full, as they sum up much of what makes the project so important.
What was the inspiration for the Writing Home project?
It really came about through a series of small conversations which spiralled very quickly into action. I moved to Oxford at the end of 2016 to study a Creative Writing MA and stumbled across the Oxford Poetry Library on a walk in South Park. I loved their mission of making poetry accessible to everyone in Oxford and wanted to get involved.
Phoebe, who runs OPL, asked if there were particular causes I was passionate about, and personally the thing that has always made me really angry is homelessness and inequality. It’s just madness to me that we are living in a first-world country and people are suffering like this. (Don’t get me started!) Anyhow, Phoebe told me that Open House was opening up the following month and that OPL wanted to support them.
Open House is a “talking shop” about housing and homelessness—they’ve taken over an empty space for one year with the aim of getting the Oxford community to work together to figure out solutions to the housing crisis here.
So, another conversation happened… I met up with its founder, Lucy Warin, and said I wanted to start a writing group for people who don’t usually get their voices heard; that I had no idea what it might come to, but I wanted to do it. And Lucy said that she followed an ethos of “get it going, and see what happens”. A bit Wayne’s World: book it and they will come, you know? And that’s what happened—the first Writing Home sessions started three weeks later, and have evolved based on what the participants want them to be.
What’s the project all about?
I started with this far too lofty goal of helping people to write about their own experiences of housing and homelessness, giving them the creative tools, confidence and personal support to speak directly about their struggles. But it turned out that that wasn’t what people in the community wanted. What they really wanted was a place to meet other people, and enjoy the act of creation itself. So now, once a week, we sit around a table, drink lots of tea, enjoy stimulating conversation, and have fun creating poetry together.
If anyone’s got poems which they want to share then they tend to stick their hand up at the start of the session. They read, everyone responds. Then we’ll work on a few writing prompts together, or muck around with the magnetic poetry kit which is always there. If anyone doesn’t fancy writing then I bring a selection of poetry collections to read. It’s always fluid.
What do you think the impact of the project has been so far?
Well, I can’t count how many people have written their first EVER poem at Writing Home sessions. It’s a wonderful feeling when someone overcomes the fear of “Poetry” and realises how fun and rewarding it is. Even better when, like some of our regulars, they come back the next week with an exercise book full of new poems.
More importantly, we’ve allowed people to step away from very stressful, turbulent and often isolated daily lives, just for a couple of hours, and to do something creative. I know I personally feel brighter after a Writing Home meeting, and I’m hoping other people do too. The thing is, you see it in the poetry—even if the poem is ostensibly about a beachside scene, a breakfast, the emergence of spring flowers, the underlying theme I see, time and again, is about a moment of tranquillity found within a turbulent state. I hope that’s a reflection of the poets’ experience here.
What have you learned from the experience?
A fair few things, now that I think about it!
I’ve learned the importance of creating connections within a community. If you have some spare time, it’s easy in Oxford to get stuck in. The best sessions are when someone, from any background, wanders in off the street and sits down for a bit to write a poem, talk to a stranger, and have some tea. We all benefit from that time spent creatively together, and I’ve learned that’s the real point of doing it.
As a poet, I’ve learned too. I’ve always struggled with the inner critic stopping my pen. Joining in with the poetry prompts, and seeing how readily people in Writing Home share their work after it’s just been created, has helped me loosen up with my own writing and get first drafts out into existence.
Same time, next week! We’re there every Wednesday, 10am–12pm on Little Clarendon Street. We’d love more new faces, so if you’re reading this then please pop in one time. But the other outcome of this has been that we’ve actually written some genuinely fantastic poetry! As Open House is only around for one year, I’d like to capture this, and create a collection of everyone’s work to show what’s happened over this time.
In the meantime, we’re hoping to run a one-off event at the end of April to pull people in Oxford together to create a magazine—from nothing to something, all in just one day. Watch this space.
Rowena also spoke to Rob, the Writing Home regular who I met at Open House and briefly chatted to. Again, I’ll let Rob’s words speak for themselves.
So Rob, how are you today?
Wednesday morning can be a bit dull. But its market day and so first of all I can get some nice, cheap cheese on the market and then come here for an interesting cup of coffee and some poetry. It’s time well spent.
What inspirations and experiences do you draw on for your Writing Home poem(s)?
Well, I’ve just written something under a Zen title, and I am a zen student. I spent quite a lot of time with men with bald heads discussing the meaning of existence and philosophical whys and wherefores, in the Dalai Lama School of Buddhism (who gave me a handshake many years ago); and we spent a lot of time chanting in Tibetan on and off ten years ago. I also studied for A Levels in Oxford and used to write super long essays about Blake and Coleridge and so my educational level is really quite high, and as I’ve spent a lot of time in France I’ve got a French dictionary lurking in my brain, and German, and I’ve even got a Latin O Level—so there’s all these words lurking in my subconscious which have to come out sometimes.
What have you got out of the project?
I can very rarely do things purely off my own back. I always need a bit of interaction with other people to do this. As long as you’ve got even two, three, four, half a dozen people together then collectively their minds will produce something. Here, within that interaction we all start to produce some stuff. It takes two to tango!
How do you think homeless people can be given more of a voice in Oxford and the wider community?
Well a voice is one thing, but actions speak louder than words. In the past I used to squat quite a lot in London and just “borrow” a house off the local council for short periods of time, and we never messed them up— it was tolerated at the time—but what do you expect with all these extortionate rents people have to pay? I’ve taken to living in a boat recently, and any kind of independence is welcome. You can say one thing, but today I saw another bike shop close down because they’re having trouble with the rents being too high to make any mathematical living from it. The mathematics, you’ll find, just doesn’t meet up, and people lose all their money.
It’s a serious situation, and basically the rents all have to come down. I don’t know how you do this. It’s like a game of snakes and ladders— very quickly, you can go from up here to down there. And from down there, people go terribly adrift on the city streets; and once you lose one thing, a lot of other things, negativities, come in their wake. I rely on my kitchen and my space— home is where the heart is— and if I’ve got that then I can start to build a life up from that.
Do you see any solution to the housing crisis in Oxford?
Or anywhere else, you might say… I’ve just come through Paris, and there’s all these people sleeping round the railway station there. It’s a worldwide problem. If you have to live in a tent, then put it up somewhere nice is my point of view. Whatever work you have, a good third of your income has to go on accommodation costs, and that’s the situation, I’m afraid.
So you don’t see any solution?
I think the actual, more effective use of space. People don’t need too much to live on. If they can be content with a smaller living space, maybe that would help. The kind of big houses you see here with only two or three people living in them, it’s a very… It’s a waste of space, basically. They don’t do that in China much!