'I believe that poetry can help in so many ways with good mental health': Emergency Poet Deborah Alma
The Emergency Poet Deborah Alma – who dispenses poetic remedies from her special ambulance – plans to park her much-travelled vehicle and set up a permanent poetry pharmacy in a former ironmonger’s shop in Shropshire. Write Out Loud felt it was time to ask Deborah some further questions about her role as poetry doctor and anthologist, and about her future plans for the new pharmacy.
Write Out Loud first interviewed you just over four years ago, in 2014. You even dispensed some poetic first aid to me one Sunday morning in 2015, when I was knackered from covering a multitude of events at the Wenlock poetry festival. We get the impression that a lot has happened to the Emergency Poet – and to the poet Deborah Alma - since then. Can you give us a few selected highlights?
I remember our meeting very well, both hard at work at the poetry coalface and wiping our brows with our frilly cuffs! Thanks so much for asking me to share some highlights from the last few years. It’s a pleasure to have a moment to reflect on it all. There has been lots of hard work and some good fortune. Since then I have been amazed and delighted to have a pamphlet of my own work, True Tales of the Countryside published by the Emma Press in 2015, and was very proud to have the anthology I edited Emergency Poet - an anti-stress poetry anthology from Michael O’Mara become a bestseller; and it continues to sell really well. They asked me to edit a second anthology The Everyday Poet - poems to live by. Last year I edited the #MeToo- rallying against sexual assault and harassment- a women’s poetry anthology which won the Saboteur best poetry anthology 2018 award. It was an extraordinary project involving work donated by over 80 poets and artists and published by the amazing Nadia Kingsley at Fair Acre Press, with money raised for Women’s Aid and readings and panel discussions all over the country. This work we’re doing is still going strong. And then in May 2018 Jane Commane at Nine Arches Press published my first full collection Dirty Laundry.
I was invited to speak about the Emergency Poet project in Minnesota at the National Association of Poetry Therapy conference in 2018, was part of a panel discussion with Rupi Kaur in Sharjah in the UAE, took the ambulance to Northern Ireland on the ferry and was lent a vintage St John’s Ambulance at Auckland writers festival in New Zealand. I have recently been proud to speak at The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries about the efficacy of poetry as therapy to a room full of GP’s with Professor John Gillies OBE and Simon Callow. I’m also pleased to be teaching one day a week at Keele University. There have been so many wonderful moments and festivals and readings with poetry heroes of mine ... too many to mention. Phew!
Tell us more about your plans to dispense “literary first aid”, as the Guardian put it, from a permanent base, a former ironmonger’s shop in Bishop’s Castle in Shropshire. Is this really the end of the road for the Emergency Poet’s ambulance?
My partner James Sheard and I were peering through the dusty shop-door windows on the High Street in pretty Bishop’s Castle about two and a half years ago and I had a vision of the poetry pharmacy (currently bottles of poetry pills and potions under the awning of the ambulance) set against the beautiful Edwardian shop fittings, the original drawers and shelves and mahogany counter in a shop that had been closed for over 10 years. It had been on and off the market for all the years we’d lived in the area but wasn’t for sale at the time. By some strange serendipity my friend Roz Munro Derry and I were invited inside the six-bedroom house and shop and I fell in love. We have been successful on our third mortgage attempt and so can now begin to plot and plan our grand vision of a shop that is laid out as though it were a traditional pharmacy; instead of sections for skincare, and plasters and bandages, it will be a walk-in pharmacy dispensing poetry. A customer will be able to go to a section of the shop for ‘Love’ or ‘For days when the world is too much with us’ and find books, gifts and art work chosen to address a particular mood. We also hope to have a poetry cafe, a ‘consulting room’ for poetry on prescription in an office at the back and there’s a large upstairs space for workshops and performances. We have ambitions to run writing retreats and maybe even a poetry festival in the absence of Wenlock poetry festival, so that there remains a poetry festival in Shropshire.
We will have no money left from the purchase but lots of goodwill, friendship and offers of help and potential partnerships and will likely run a Kickstarter campaign to get us going. Fingers crossed now that the sale all goes through smoothly. As for the ambulance; I have become a little tired of driving all over the country and setting up in all weathers and working outside all day. I think we’ll keep the old girl for the occasional poetry emergency and to fetch groups of writers from the station for workshops.
In our 2014 interview you described the Emergency Poet service as “set up as a piece of theatre, as quack doctor, a fortune teller”. Is that still one way of looking at it? In the intervening years we’ve had the world of psychology taking poetry very seriously as a healing tool, for instance. And only the other day you found yourself speaking at the worshipful company of apothecaries ...
This is a really interesting question. I think it was important for Emergency Poet to be set up in this light-hearted way, with poetry dispensed without any money changing hands for the ‘patients’. The whole impetus for the project was to literally be a vehicle that took poetry to people who don’t usually encounter it. To be inviting and not intimidating, to counter the widely held perception that poetry is “difficult, obscure and not for the likes of me”. So the theatre is the way in. At the heart of it there has always been good quality, intelligent poetry; but the skill, if I have one, is to match the text to the individual. I have believed for a long time that poetry can do so much to match or alter a mood, to help in so many ways with good mental health. The Poetry Pharmacy will continue this element of theatre, this light-hearted approach and there will be something in there for everyone; maybe a Candlestick Press Poems Instead of a Card and a cup of Tea (S Eliot) and a piece of Philip Parkin from the cafe. (There may be some terrible puns). But I also hope that there will be workshops and performances and partnerships with all sorts of individuals and groups doing excellent work; from health care practitioners, vulnerable groups, young people and scholars.
Since you first set out your stall, one or two others have followed your lead in this field. Do you regard them as jumping on the bandwagon, or do you think there is plenty of room for more than one poetry pharmacist out there?
Hmm, I’m not sure that others have jumped on the bandwagon; there have always been people working with poetry as therapy. But I must admit I am slightly possessive or prickly around some of the quack doctor vocabulary of prescriptions and ailments and pharmacy, which feels like the slim territory where I make my living. But I guess the more the merrier!
You said in our first interview that you would not prescribe your own poems. Since then you have published two collections, True Tales of the Countryside, and Dirty Laundry. Does your own poetry not have the required calming, soothing effect?
I think that, in the main, it doesn’t. There might be one or two, but it would feel uncomfortable to me to do that. I would feel like I were in a grey area of promoting my own work rather than thinking about the person in front of me. I always would think someone else’s work was a better poem anyway.
You’ve said in the past that you’ve offered Brian Patten, TS Eliot, and Seamus Heaney as tried and tested poetic remedies, among many others. Are there any other poets that have come to the fore in the Emergency Poet dispensary more recently?
I have been prescribing Esther Morgan more recently, Tony Hoagland, Naomi Shihab Nye ... I’m always looking for new poems that might be useful and I have stacks of new poetry books around me all the time.
Recently there’s been a big feature about you in a national newspaper, you’re mentioned on the BBC. How does the Emergency Poet feel about becoming a national treasure? Is she ready for it?
Good grief! There has been a lot of media attention recently including radio interviews from as far away as New Zealand and possible films with ARD German television, Sky News, The One Show and Al Jazeera. I must admit I struggle being the focus of any attention. I love it when it’s for the ambulance, or the idea of the shop but hate being filmed myself. Of course I can’t really refuse it as it’s so good for poetry out there in the world, for our little business and for me to be brave and stretched - and say yes to scary things.
MAIN ILLUSTRATION: DRUSILLA COLE