CoffeeHouse: An Interview with Andrew Irwin

ⓒ CoffeeHouse
ⓒ CoffeeHouse

Founded at the beginning of Michaelmas term, CoffeeHouse is a student-run online literary journal that regularly publishes poetry and short fiction written by current Oxford students and alumni members. Priding itself on its community ethos, the site differs from most print and online publications by providing a forum for emerging talents to publish, discuss and critique both finished pieces and works-in-progress that require external feedback. The site currently has thirty-three active contributors and nearly twice as many published pieces of writing. I spoke with editor Andrew Irwin about the inner workings of CoffeeHouse and his take on Oxford’s creative writing community.

How did CoffeeHouse start?

CoffeeHouse started late last Trinity [Summer Term]. I was on my year abroad in Paris and had been working on quite a few short stories, but felt that they could do with some feedback. I realised however that I knew of nowhere in Oxford where I could put them up, get them seen and then get some opinions. So, that was the original motivation. Sitting in my dingy little Paris flat, I started sending out emails and quickly found that there was some appetite for a project like CoffeeHouse. People interested both in editing and contributing came forward and so it started to take shape.

Is there anything in particular that you look for in a submission?

We’re not too fussy about specifics. We’re happy to look at anything that someone has been working on and thinks readers will enjoy. Poetry, literary fiction or more genre-style—as long as it’s well written we’ll be glad to have a read through.

CoffeeHouse promotes a forum-based approach to writing by providing a platform for discussion and critique. How successful has this been, and why did you choose to make this a feature of the journal?

The forum element was part of the founding idea behind CoffeeHouse. The internet seemed like a good space for maximising readership and facilitating neutral feedback (it’s much easier to write critiques in front of a computer screen than it is to say them to people’s faces). The idea was very much to combine a journal with a discussion space. We do get reader responses, and it’s always nice to see that readers have responded to a piece, but I think the site has evolved somewhat. Our principal aim now is to get great writing out there and to get it read; if readers want to leave their thoughts behind, that’s a bonus.

ⓒ CoffeeHouse
ⓒ CoffeeHouse

How many people work on CoffeeHouse and how does the editing process usually work? 

Nominally there are three of us, but the editing process is a pretty casual affair. Very rarely do we do any significant editing to a piece. It seems too much like second-guessing the writer. If it’s good enough to go up on the site, it’s good enough to go up as the writer intended.

Any thoughts on turning CoffeeHouse into a print journal?

Not at the moment. The internet seems like a good match for us. Maybe in the distant future…

Where does CoffeeHouse stand in Oxford’s vibrant creative writing scene?

There are an awful lot of good writing opportunities available for Oxford students at the moment (and not just creative writing). There are groups like the Failed Novelists and Oxford Poetry Society, and with new publications like The StoryGraph (and of course The Oxford Culture Review), through to old university staples like ISIS, I doubt there’s ever been more chances for someone to find their niche. I’m always amazed when I learn about another publication, site or group. Our job isn’t to compete with all the other things out there but to create an online community for writers and a space for people to publish whatever they’ve been working on, whether that’s a beautiful, polished poem or the first draft to a chapter from the novel they’re writing.

Oxford’s creative writing community is constantly renewing itself. What else would you like to see happen? How else do you think it can grow? 

It’s interesting that you say it’s renewing itself; I think that this constant regeneration of a community must be unique (well, probably not entirely unique) to universities. Inevitably there’s a constant in- and outflow of people here, and resultantly there’s permanent transformation in the culture. Any impression that the scene is static can only be an illusion. So, in brief, it’s an ideal situation for innovation and evolution. How exactly it’s going to change is not a question I could even guess at, but personally I’d like to see a little centralising—some magazine or society that would draw together disparate strands from across the university and provide some clearer route through the Oxford writing community. I can imagine that with things the way they are, the fresher trying to get involved in writing might feel a little overwhelmed and burdened by the choices.

Who are some of your favourite poetry and short fiction writers?

Well, as much as I enjoy poetry, short fiction is really where my main interest lies. Neither is particularly contemporary or cutting-edge I’m afraid, but the two writers I always recommend for short fiction are Truman Capote and David Foster Wallace (about as far apart as two writers could be). Highlights are A Tree of Night by Capote and The Depressed Person by Foster Wallace, but only if you can tolerate footnotes punctuating your fiction. I also like Ian McEwan‘s short stories, even if they’re closer to Cement Garden McEwan than to Saturday McEwan.

R. Lim

CoffeeHouse welcomes new submissions of short fiction or poetry from Oxford students and alumni. Submissions should be no longer than 4000 words and should be sent as attachments to editor@coffee-house.org. For more information, please visit their website. You can also find them on Twitter and Facebook.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

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