Where is your home? Is it your birthplace? Is it the place you share with your family? Perhaps it’s a grass-is-always-greener concept that attempts to explain away chronic dissatisfaction: ‘Back home, it wouldn’t be like this…’. Is it simply the structure that houses your possessions? Or is it a place not identified by fixed compass points, where east and west are replaced by the body-centric definitions of right and left, a place that shifts as we move through space?
In a 1688 medical dissertation, Johannes Hofer referred to Swiss mercenaries fighting in France who described the pain of being separated from their native land: the condition was called ‘Heimweh’, or ‘homesickness’. So powerful is the mere thought of home, and our separation from it, that it can bring physical, as well as mental, anguish. Hofer, seeking a medical-sounding term for the condition came up with ‘nostalgia’ – Latin via the Greek nostos ‘return home’ + algos ‘pain’.
While nostalgia has been identified as a pathological condition for centuries, its positive psychological function has been scrutinised only more recently. Perhaps fixating on the loved places of the past brings us a semblance of companionship in loneliness, or provides an anchor when seas of change challenge our identity. And this could be why the pandemic, with its mix of house arrest and enforced separation, has prompted so many of us to reconsider the meaning of ‘home’.
walk · listen · create’s latest writing competition invites entries – flash fiction or poems, each up to 250 words – on the theme of ‘Walking Home’. Together with editor, author and publisher Anita Roy, I’ll be judging the poems. My pamphlet, A History of Walking (HappenStance Press, 2019), presents poems that consider the act of walking in all its variety, from promenade to protest march, as a way to explore themes of possession, loss and fear of loss.
While I’ll be interested in your interpretations of walking, I’ll be looking for poems that dig into the meaning of home. Consider home in a new country, Sophie Herxheimer’s Velkom to Inklandt, Daljit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming to Dover! Consider Emily Dickinson, the knowing hermit, or Billy Collins whose poems have the familiarity of home and then surprise us with an unexpected room. Consider the home-places we inhabit in dream worlds and dream histories like Sean O’Brien’s Hammersmith. Or the hurricane-destroyed homes of Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler. Or read ‘Homesick for an Imagined Place’, an interview with poet Aria Aber. And of course there’s Simon Armitage’s own Walking Home.
Whether your home is a place of deep contentment or one you approach with trepidation, a place with an address or a place in your head – make it alive in your poem and show us why you have to return.
Our ‘Walking Home’ writing competition has a deadline at January 31st, 2022. Details here.