Interview With Owner of ‘The Emergency Poet’; The Travelling Poetry Dispensary

by Francesca Baker
The Emergency Poet

In an emergency, what is it you need? Medicine, a plaster, a hug – or something else. Sometimes though, it’s just a thoughtful word or phrase, well placed and well thought out. Bibliotherapy is a concept has long been used, and The Emergency Poet, by poet and writer Deborah Alma, is a fun way of bringing poetry to people.

Deborah and her creative partner and poet James Sheard have experience in writing, wellbeing and therapy, and aim to combine all of their expertise and experience with a fun way of discovering poetry.

I have a chat with Deborah about her service.

How did the Emergency Poetry project start? 

I spotted a 1950’s ambulance on e-bay about five years ago, and in a sudden moment of rebellion and independence decided to set up a travelling poetry dispensary. I was a single parent with no money and it was brave and slightly foolish! It brought together my work with people with dementia using poetry, my MA in Creative Writing and my long desire to own a campervan! It was very much an experiment and I didn’t imagine that I would still be doing it and that I’d go on to edit two successful poetry anthologies from the work.

What is the value of poetry for individuals? 

Poetry can mean very many things to different people. For many it’s a lifeline, an intimate connection to those who have gone before them to difficult places and understand; it can be a connection to the spiritual for those with or without religious belief; it can be a blessing, a curse, a comfort; it can be a challenge, an education; it can be beauty and art….Oh the list goes on and on!

The Emergency PoetYou go to literary and music festivals, libraries, schools, pubs, weddings and conferences – what’s been the strangest event you’ve been too, or quirkiest prescription you’ve delivered?

I have been to quite a few odd and interesting places; I loved working with a wild swimming project a couple of years ago in Shropshire where the ambulance went off-road and I prescribed poetry to people still dripping wet and in their towels. I enjoyed working at a hospital in Bristol where a patient brought in her drip stand and lay down on the stretcher in fluffy slippers; and another memorable moment was setting up at a library by golden sands in Auckland in New Zealand!

As for quirky prescriptions, I remember prescribing some poetry to a politician who was considering early retirement and felt a weight of responsibility when I heard that he’d resigned shortly afterwards! The consultation ‘process’ leads people to reflect on the quality of their lives, their priorities, whether they are looking after themselves and so sometimes it can be quite a profound experience.

The Emergency Poet has a team – Nurse Verse and The Poemedic. This humorous approach sounds fun, but is the idea grounded in therapy and bibliotherapy?

I usually have someone with me, to run the ‘pharmacy’ of poetic pills from an attached awning at the side of the ambulance and to help manage the queue and to set up. It is a light-hearted and self-conscious pastiche of a therapy session, but yes, the poetry is intelligent and my work with people with dementia and in hospice care has meant that I listen carefully and well. My background is in the poetry first though, I am not trained as a therapist, so the presentation as quack doctor or travelling fortune teller entices more people to come and have a go than if it were straightforward art therapy. It is also a piece of theatre or side-show and a powerful driver (pardon the pun) is my evangelical belief that poetry can be enjoyed by everyone, just that people need a little help in finding the appropriate texts or poet.

The Emergency PoetWhat ailments are most frequently reported?

Without doubt it is stress related to the demands of the modern world, to work, to juggling it all. Most people have overcomplicated their lives and actually seem to value more simple things, but seem to get caught in the work to pay for the rent trap with little time to do the things they most value.

Is the prescription done by issue, or is each person given some unique words?

If there is any skill in the work that I do, it is in this challenge to match the right poem to the person. I have a filing box with hundreds of pre-printed poems, but after speaking to people for ten minutes I am listening to whether they would respond to Seamus Heaney or to Mary Oliver. I am in the business of convincing them about the efficacy of poetry and so getting the poem right is important. They will each be given an instruction as to how to take their ‘medicine’; maybe with a hot chocolate at bedtime, maybe listening to birdsong, maybe in a café with people close by…

Other than poetry, what simple things are great cures?

The questions I ask are also to stimulate people into thinking about their own answers to this question, but broadly a connection to the outside world or going into beautiful places, time to sit still, time for friendships, a moment every day to do something lovely for yourself, whatever that might be (a hot bath, lighting candles, reading, gardening, walking a dog), giving yourself permission, giving yourself time.

The Emergency Poet

You can find out more about ‘The Emergency Poet’ by visiting their website here

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