When Brooklyn-based poet Casey Rocheteau first heard about Write A House Detroit, a unique writer-in-residence program that awards selected writers with a permanent home in Detroit, she didn’t know what to think. “I wasn’t necessarily convinced that I should apply right away,” she said. But when Airea D. Matthews , a Detroit-based poet, posted a status on Facebook encouraging other poets to apply to the program, Rocheteau says she was convinced. “I applied, of course, with no expectation of actually getting it,” she said. “I just thought it seemed like a really fantastic and interesting idea.”
Just last week, Casey’s phone rang early in the morning. A representative had called to inform her that she was the winner of the first ever Write A House. “I was half awake when I got the phone call,” she recalled. “My initial response was to go, ‘Wait, what? This isn’t real.’ But then I got off the phone and I just did a lap around my apartment, squealing.”
Rocheteau’s new home was once an abandoned house located at the northern end of Hamtramck (also known as Banglatown)– technically an independent enclave city within Detroit, a historically Polish neighborhood that has seen an influx of Bangladeshi immigrants in recent years. The neighborhood is also home to Power House Productions, a non-profit arts organization that is working to radically transform the area by creatively renovating neglected and abandoned homes. Toby Barlow, the founder of Write A House, bought the Hamtramck home at auction for just $1,000 back in 2012. To renovate the house (along with two others in the area that will be awarded to writers through the same program), the organization teamed up with a Detroit-based vocation school that assigned students to the project.
We spoke with Rocheteau on the phone today, less than an hour after she’d arrived in Detroit. She sounds excited, but also as if she’s still feeling everything out. Casey admitted she’d only “glimpsed Detroit” during a 2007 trip to nearby (but worlds away) Ann Arbor, Michigan. “I know folks who are from Detroit, folks who have moved away, and also folks who are still here,” she said. “But I’m coming to this and now I feel a little bit like, OK, well now I’ve got to learn. I have to immerse myself in what the city is actually like.”
Write A House encourages its writers-in-residence to engage with the existing community. “I’m acquaintances with Jamaal May through slam poetry. He came out with a poetry book recently called Hum– it’s all about the internal lives of people in Detroit,” she said. “And that for me really shaped my thinking around Detroit in general and what it meant to be from this place.“
Although Rocheteau is familiar with a few Detroit writers, she says the place doesn’t get as much credit as perhaps it deserves. “I applied, knowing that Detroit also has a very rich literary community,” she said. “Which I think gets overlooked often times.”
But some of her friends had a surprisingly negative view of the program. “A few people I told were like, ‘Yeah it’s a house, but it’s in Detroit,'” she said. “Some people feel a certain way about it, which is biased just for a lot of stupid reasons.”
Rocheteau admits she doesn’t know too much about the city, but she’s well aware of the history, and is particularly enthralled with the music that’s come out of Detroit over the past 50 years. This preoccupation with sound and performance relates to Casey’s own work. The 29-year-old has an impressive resume. She’s been involved in slam poetry for over a decade, and has already published four books and released two albums of spoken word. The focus of her work is race, sexuality, class, and gender.
A panel of judges, which included one-time poet laureate Billy Collins, chose Rocheteau out of 350 applicants, and she beat out another finalist from Brooklyn to win.
Despite her love for Brooklyn, Rocheteau, who is originally from Cape Cod, feels OK about leaving her home of two and half years in Crown Heights. “Brooklyn’s wonderful for a lot of reasons,” she said. “But I finished my Master’s degree in May and I was like, I need to get out of New York right now. It’s just too much for me.”
When asked what kind of changes she anticipated, Rocheteau said she was looking forward to a more Midwest-paced life. “The pace that New York moves at is overwhelming on a lot of levels — just literally the way time passes by. You blink and a month has gone by,” she said. “I feel like I was writing with this constant sense of urgency. And it’s part of the aggressiveness of the city.”
As to how the move might effect her writing, Casey’s fairly certain the subject matter of her work won’t change drastically. “I feel like I write about the same kinds of problems that are present in many places,” she said. “But I’m interested to see what Detroit does to shape [my writing]. I’m ready to re-navigate and redirect. I feel like there’s going to be this different kind of pace and rhythm.”
But at least one major change is on the horizon for Casey. “You know what’s funny? I don’t actually have a driver’s license,” she laughed. “And that was the first thing, I was like, ‘Oh! Now’s the time, now’s the time you do this, finally.'”
Write A House will be taking applications starting early 2015 for the next writer-in-residence.