For Write A House winner, Detroit feels like home
Casey Rocheteau was one of 350 American writers in 2014 who vied to win a Detroit literary contest. First prize: A $1,000 Detroit house, bought at auction and then rebuilt by young tradespeople.
When Rocheteau saw a Facebook post describing Write A House, the nonprofit program that sponsors the competition, she dismissed it as "crazy." She entered the competition anyway and won. For the past 10 weeks, she's been here, a poet transplanted from New York with her own Detroit house, sorting out a new city and life.
Before Write A House, Rocheteau had visited Detroit just once, on a trip to a poetry slam in Ann Arbor. After a semi-nomadic existence, she was prepared to settle in a city that's in asm uch of a transition as she is.
One of 10 ferociously talented finalists, Rocheteau was selected as the first Write A House recipient in part because the poetry judges (Billy Collins, a former U.S. poet laureate and Major Jackson, a professor and nationally honored poet) admired her work, in part because she presented herself as absolutely prepared to pack up her possessions and move, without regrets or second thoughts.
"Some people were very talented writers but they didn't seem totally ready to take this crazy leap into Detroit," says Sarah Cox, the Write a House co-founder who administers the program. "It was really looking for the right fit. We were looking for someone with the gumption to do that."
Despite an initial impression that the house giveaway was either nutty or a glib ploy to gentrify an established neighborhood, Rocheteau paid attention when a Facebook friend insisted that Write A House was worth a look.
Its founders, Toby Barlow, an advertising executive and novelist, and Cox, a journalist, conceived the idea in 2012, during Detroit's grim days. The pair envisioned a way to provide writers with housing, to help repopulate a Detroit neighborhood and to provide jobs for young construction workers and tradespeople, as they rehabilitate the houses.
"It's like a writer-in-residence program," the Write A House website explains, "only in this case we're actually giving the writer the residence, forever."
With her mass of curly hair and soft features, Rocheteau looks younger than her age, 29, but she's a published poet with a book and two recorded albums behind her, and a newly completed master's degree in history. After a decade of moving — from her Cape Cod roots to colleges in New Hampshire and New York and writing retreats as far away as Sicily — she felt ready for a home.
Rocheteau was absolutely willing to decamp from her previous residence — a Brooklyn, N.Y., fifth-floor walkup shared with roommates — and the expensive throb of New York, where urban vitality comes at a high price point.
At her interview for the contest, Rocheteau remembers saying: "I don't have stuff. I don't have credit cards. But the amount of debt that I have makes me feel it's impossible that I will ever be able to own a house."
Rocheteau's a contemplative person and she's not given to superlatives. In person, she says the house is "good." But on the Write A House blog she began recently, she describes herself as being "constantly enchanted" by the city's visual beauty and surprised by the friendliness of Detroiters. It is, she says carefully, "atmospheric" and "complicated."
These aren't euphemisms, because she is clearly enjoying the challenges of life in Detroit, including the problem of getting around without a car. ("I've driven four times in my life," she says, all without a license.)
For now, she uses ride-share services like Uber and Lyft and friend services. As the first Write A House recipient, she's a bit of a celebrity within Detroit's arts community and her presence here seems to bring out the helpful side of Detroiters she meets.
She's been stunned by the reach of the Write A House name and its power to suggest Detroit as a welcoming home for artists and writers. When a friend of hers visited Istanbul last year, he explained his midwestern origins to a new acquaintance. "Oh, Detroit," the Turkish man responded knowingly. "That's where they give houses to writers."
"They" have given one house to one writer, but the plan is to give away three more this year. Cox says the program will award homes to three writers in 2015, all purchased from the city and located near Rocheteau's house. The plan reflects an intentional effort to build a community, while strengthening a struggling neighborhood. A recent $100,000 grant from the Knight Foundation is helping the nonprofit forge ahead.
Rocheteau has a teaching position — through the Inside/Out writing program — that enables her to teach creative writing to students at Western International High School and at the Detroit International School for Young Women. "I get to teach in a public school and talk about art and writing. That's fantastic," she says.
At night, she listens to the quiet on her street and marvels, half-nervously, at the stillness. "It's quieter than anyplace I've lived," she says over coffee after school one day. That is refreshing, at least some of the time.
"Overall, the transition from Brooklyn to Detroit has been personally revelatory for me," she writes on the Write A House blog. "I find myself far less tense, moving with less urgency and having time and space to dream and create. I am also in awe of the amount of gorgeous visual art around the city, from landmarks such as the Heidelberg Project and the Detroit Institute of Art(s), to neighborhood murals and graffiti writing."
If she has already found the beauty tempered by ugliness, she doesn't say exactly that. But Detroit crime has not bypassed her. Just before Christmas, vandals broke windows in one neighbor's house. Another home on her block was destroyed by fire, probably by an arsonist. Yet, she is soldiering on.
Perhaps sensing the need for resolve, Rocheteau has dubbed 2015 "the year of relentless optimism." It should be, she muses, a good year to learn how to drive.
"Friday Morning in Detroit"
By Casey Rocheteau
When I opened the back door, I found Tiresias
just beyond my neighbor's fence mouthing Me?
I waved him off. He wasn't the reason I was
stepping into the cold brown yard. A woman
with a video camera followed me, for television.
When I neared my shed I noticed him dragging
a dented water heater & raised my eyebrows.
He told me it was his, and slid through the alley
as if we were not both lying. Who removes
that which belongs to them like a thief?
My lie, more fog than glass: It makes sense.
These news crews, the handshakes, the imprint
of my lip upon the champagne flute.
When the camera left, I called to Tiresias
hoping that he would give me knotted rope
too simple to heed until I'm already
staring down its reflection. All I found was
a gauntlet of windows with bleeding gums
and a chorus of children singing the wind.
I am here now, I tell myself, already home.
What question would I ask of an oracle
that time itself won't answer promptly?
For more information on the Write A House program, go to http://writeahouse.com/
An earlier version of the story misstated the value of the house.