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Interview by Dani Watson

Rowan McCabe has journeyed the length of the North–East to bring poetry to the doorsteps of strangers. His travels have taken him through some of the richest and poorest areas of the region, and everywhere in between. On Saturday he came knocking at the doors of the Palace Green Library, where he performed a new show on his experiences as the world’s first ever ‘Door-to-Door Poet’ as part of the Durham Book Festival.  

Roughly three years ago, McCabe began knocking on the doors of strangers with the simple aim of finding out what was important to them. Responses varied from person to person: from serious concerns about ‘organised religions’, to the simple appreciation of ‘spaghetti hoops’. For those who answered, he would return a couple of weeks later with a poem, ready to perform on their doorstep.      

A quirky idea, ‘Door-to-Door Poetry’ evolved from McCabe’s questioning of his own community and our increasing reluctance to engage with strangers: ‘I was thinking about the street that I live on and the fact that there’s about 300 people on it and I don’t know any of them… I started wondering what it would be like if you could use poetry to explore that.’ 

What started as an experiment ‘to see if anyone could enjoy poetry’ began to take on a deeper meaning, exploring the problems of loneliness and the inevitable prejudices which can stem from a lack of dialogue between different communities: ‘you see from door-to-door that people are really different to the stereotypes that exist about them…. We have these ideas about what everyone’s like in these areas of town but often, when you get down to it, it’s not really that simple.’

Through his work as a travelling poet, McCabe has spoken to communities across the economic spectrum in the North–East: from owners of some of the region’s most affluent homes to residents of a council estate in Stockton-On-Tees (a location of the controversial TV series Benefit Street). ‘A lot of them were places that had a bad reputation for one reason or another. Lots of people said it was never going to work. Once it did, it became about visiting different types of communities and trying to break down those stereotypes.’  

 At a time defined by growing political divisions and the rising sense of intolerance which goes hand in hand with Brexit, McCabe’s message feels particularly relevant. Funding–permitting, McCabe would like to see ‘Door-to-Door Poetry’ expand beyond the region. Ideally, he would like to travel to different communities across the country, and could even envisage creating a ‘School of Door-to-Door Poets’ to continue the project in future years.     

After the immense success of ‘Door-to-Door Poetry’, McCabe says ‘the only advice I have [for aspiring poets] is to keep doing it and don’t be afraid of thinking outside of the box. You don’t have to follow the methods that have been laid out – there’s many ways of finding an audience and getting your work out there.’  

It’s an approach which has clearly worked for him. McCabe has essentially managed to create his own job title within poetry, with his work gaining the attention of BBC Breakfast, Radio 4 and a Random Acts commission amongst other platforms. Hopefully, opportunities will continue to come knocking for this Door-to-Door Poet. 

This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.