‘The Julian Trust Night Shelter has two entrances, one for volunteers and one for the people that go there for hot food, tea and a bed for the night. Soon after the overnight sleepers had left through one door, I was knocking on the volunteers’ door to start a day of listening, absorbing and writing. The idea of being a writer-in-residence during the Doors Open day in a place that serves the night and the homeless sat with me throughout my time there. I realised my task was to work with absences, the unsaid and unheard. It also became apparent that to work with absence is not to work with nothing. The continuous passing of people in and out of the shelter means it is a space that is full of traces, stories and voices. The shelter is minimal and clean, properties that lend itself to being an emergency stop-over, rather than a place where you’d want to stay. I imagined the almost clinical aesthetic transformed into layers upon layers of stories and poems etched into the brickwork.
The Doors Open day saw the shelter transformed into a public space with guided tours, endless cake and balloons. At first I thought this change in atmosphere would go against its usual night feel. I then thought that any usual night feel would be impossible to track down as each person brings their own life stories. As visitors and volunteers talked to me about the building I began to get overwhelmed by the multiplicity of voices and anecdotes. Centring myself and tuning into the recurring themes led my writing. The incredible dedication of the volunteers inspired every visitor I spoke to and defined ‘shelter’ as a support web that extends beyond the physical properties of the building. I chose to write a sequence poem entitledShelter in order to explore how we understand the term. I wove together snippets of conversations with the history of building and the land before it was built in 1974.
The first poem, Harvest, gave voice to the agricultural land in the 18th Century that fed the city. I then tied this history into the present. At this time of year, the shelter receives more food donations than usual in a reinvention of harvest time. ‘Shelter’ meaning nourishment and growth. The second poem, Sugar, refused to not be written. Everyone was talking about sugar— sugar in their tea, mounds of sugar in the store room. The site was a sugar invert factory that boiled raw muscovado into refined sugar with a higher sweetness value. My third poem,Earplugs, explored the shelter as a soundscape. And my final poem, Peep Hole, gives a glance into the tension between the shelter as a place where the homeless are watched and supported.
After getting my head down and writing during the day, the performance and the public’s emotive responses reinforced the importance of listening and ‘giving voice’ in such a space.’
Nothing but fields
to survive and sunlight
to feed our city
of growing seedlings.
Now harvest time has its own rhyme —
tins, cans, beans, spam —
waiting in line to be warmed
from the inside.
Stirred in pans so big
they echo back the food we put in.
Ladles the size of cradles
our taste buds are pacing
the streets, the cold concrete
that gives sore hips, numb feet.
We’re walking together
we’ll see each other
through the steam
while we shovel sugar
to calm the shivering
the ghost-like whispers
the sips that nourish us.
1 lump for the bump on my brow
2 for the pile of shoes that go unused
3 for the stables and strong ale
4 for an open door that closes
5 for the lightning strike that ripped the outside in
6 for silent and suspicious
7 for digging deep beneath the rubble bed
8 for sunlight squares above my head
9 for time to wake up like a bomb going off
10 for a den to stop trench-foot
11 for a road map of veins
12 for burnt treacle, hard to get rid of
13 for wandering shelter, for Penny Well Road
14 for my unrefined stories saying as much as the unsaid
15 for woollen blankets and twitching legs
16 for the slow burn of cigarette
17 for underpass, mattress of smashed glass
18 teaspoons of sugar for Meg, for this night, this bed.
Listen the muffled footsteps of him
shuffling away in a misty dream
as he loads up his shoulders
with tents tearing at the seams.
The heating pipes are creaking
keys on a keyring I’ve never seen
are clanking against the other-side.
Is that the tap dripping or the clock
sipping away my sleep-time?
The sound of sugar settling
like resting my bones.
When he turns over, the other moans.
She’s cleaning on Friday morning
I can hear the laundry drying.
Impossible to decipher where one voice ends
another breathes in.
Listen it’s a bell ringing
someone coming down the stairs.
The snores almost making a rhythm I can bear.
IIII Peep Hole
We watch through post-box gaps
for a quick light up
we glance for a chance
they might just sleepwalk
down the old path
where everything is blue-washed.