My interviewee for this issue seems very apt. In these troubled times I am turning more and more to words to provide solace and so am thrilled to be chatting to Deb Alma. It’s not often you meet someone who has made her belief in the therapeutic power of poetry her life’s work, and in such engaging and creative ways too.
Deb, I first knew of you as The Emergency Poet. Could you tell us a little bit about your life behind the wheel of a converted ambulance?! What was your mission? Where did you go?
Sue, thank you so much for this opportunity to sit back and reflect on what I do.
I set-up Emergency Poet in 2011, travelling in my vintage ambulance to offer poetry on prescription. The idea was to explicitly mimic a Quack Doctor piece of theatre; to be a little ridiculous, and fun and free to whoever wandered in. I felt it had something in common with gypsy fortune tellers and palm-readers and that it was connected to magic and not to be taken too seriously. It came directly from an evangelical zeal to share poetry with people who were frightened of it, because in the UK I think something happens in our secondary schools. Pupils are asked to examine texts as though they are forensic scientists, prising out the meaning and the poet’s intention, and in the process being thoroughly put off. Most people in the UK do not read poetry. I wanted to literally go out on the road and try to change that.
‘Patients’ would be invited into the back of the ambulance, given very good attention and asked a series of non-invasive and enjoyable questions. After listening carefully I would pull out a poem from my doctor’s bag. I’ve prescribed Love After Love by Derek Walcott for a broken heart or for not loving yourself enough; Postscript by Seamus Heaney for those feeling stuck, or jaded or overwhelmed. It’s not quite as simple as this poem for this condition, it really does depend a lot on listening and responding to the individual’s particular circumstances and their reading habits.
I have been to libraries, festivals, schools, conferences and more, all over the country. I have even been invited to New Zealand, the UAE and the USA to talk about, or do my Emergency Poet work.
Do you have any interesting encounters or incidents you could share from this era? Fondest memories? Worst nightmare!
I did love taking the ambulance on the ferry to Northern Ireland a couple of times and working in various libraries there. All my worst nightmares have involved driving a van without power steering, in city centres, across moors and hills in fog, parking in tight spots…
One of my favourite events was in Shropshire as part of a wild swimming project called Dip, and parking in an apple orchard on a hot summer’s day, with dripping wet people lying on the stretcher!
I can’t imagine a nicer combination than wild swimming and poetry!
You now run the Poetry Pharmacy in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, UK. Can you describe the shop and its ethos for those who haven’t yet been able to visit?
We are situated on the Shropshire/ Welsh border, in the pretty little town of Bishop’s Castle. I describe it as ‘the world’s first walk-in poetry pharmacy’. It’s a beautiful Victorian shop, a former ironmongers, with original shelves and a mahogany counter. It’s filled with books of poetry, philosophy, psychology, and ‘well-being’, as well as ‘pills’ and other literary gifts and products, to address emotional issues or for self-care. I make my own ‘poemcetamol’ pills for the shop.
The bookshop is laid out unusually into sections such as ‘Talking to Grief’, ‘Be Alive Every Minute of Your Life’ and ‘Matters of the Heart’ and the poetry is not generally displayed A-Z by poet (although we do that as well). For example, Jacqueline Saphra’s ‘All My Mad Mothers’ is with other books on motherhood, and Julia Darling is located amongst books concerning ill-health. A Poetry Pharmacist (me!), will be able to prescribe suitable poetic remedies. There’s also a coffee shop with good coffee and locally made cake. The coffees are freshly ground and served in chemical flasks and are named after some of the Romantic poets; eg Byron is described as ‘powerful, rich, dark and smoky; a kick up the arse coffee’.
We also have a workshop and performance space, where we have held Poetry Spa days, paper-cutting and book art workshops, a death café, book groups, a regular poetry writing workshop, open mic events, book launches and more. We have an outside courtyard and an extensive and largely donated poetry reference library where writers can come to find a space for quiet writing and reading and one-to-one consultations offering Poetry on Prescription by appointment. The idea seems to work.
This is a really big concept for Bishop’s Castle, which is a very small town. How do you survive with such a niche business? What is your secret weapon as a businesswoman!
I am only slowly starting to see myself as a businesswoman, and less of an arts practitioner. Beginning to employ staff has been a slightly scary enterprise, but it’s the next step of investment in the business after seeing that the idea of a Poetry Pharmacy does seem to work.
I guess we survive partly because it’s so niche. No-one else is doing it and we are located somewhere very beautiful too, so people seem prepared to travel out to us here in the middle of nowhere. We also have an online presence, with a web-shop and our poems in pills that we make and sell. We are always looking for funding and collaborative opportunities too, although I do often feel a little overwhelmed. I am learning to be a bit more business-minded, which sadly means saying no more often. I always want to try everything. I have set up a grandly titled ‘Advisory Board’ of critical friends who can kindly roll their eyes at me…
As a poet, how do you think your approach to stocking poetry books differs to other owners of bookshops and also bigger bookshops which might stock a few shelves of poetry?
This is a key and important difference from other booksellers. The books are displayed in ways outside of the conventional A-Z categories, which means that the book buyer, and significantly, the non-poetry buying general book browser, can have some help finding poetry books that they might enjoy. I have the luxury of featuring poems on the café tables as poem of the day, or in the window; I can display them face-up on tables and their context makes them less intimidating somehow.
How do people react when they first enter such an unusual shop? Have there been any interesting incidents?
We have two very different sets of customers; those that happen upon the Poetry Pharmacy and those that have beaten their way to the door. We aim to be an enjoyable experience for both. Lots of people drift in for the coffee shop and end up buying something from the bookshop. We do not appear intimidating or specialist, despite the name. We look welcoming and we are. The antique shop fittings and the pharmacy theme mean that people really enjoy their visit. And we get a lot of positive feedback and many returning and regular customers.
We have had a few people thinking we’re a real pharmacy mind you!
How do you find time for your own poetry and what do you think are your main themes as a poet? I know your partner is also a poet. How do you give each other space to write and are you each other’s first or last critic?!
The Poetry Pharmacy is such a new and multifaceted business that I simply do not have time for my own writing. I wish I had a few lives! I am very, very slowly working on my next collection, which may or may not be focused on my Indian mother and her Muslim culture as part my life. My partner James Sheard is a very fine poet, but he’s not writing much either. Oh dear!
Jim won’t share anything with me until he’s finished it, he works and works on a piece. I tend to share first drafts with him so I can pretend that it would have been good if I had taken time to edit it!
What’s next for you Deb? Can you share any future plans?
I am trying to get some help, whether from investing in staffing, setting up an advisory board or seeking funding support, in order to be able to develop some of the interesting collaboration approaches that are coming my way, now that we are to a degree established. Lots of exciting things going on, but all at very early stages. I have to focus on actually being business-like. So much still to learn!
Thank you so much Deb, for taking the time to chat to me. I am desperate to pay a visit to this amazing space. It has made me think why I love certain poems, what emotions they tap into and how they would make others feel. In my dreams I see Deb getting a huge funding pot and being able to create a chain of Poetry Pharmacies so I can amble out from my village on the other side of the UK, to my local branch, and get some much needed poemcetamol!
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Deborah Alma is a UK poet, editor and teacher. She has worked using poetry with people with dementia, in hospice care, with vulnerable women’s groups and with children in schools. From 2012 she was the Emergency Poet offering poetry on prescription from her vintage ambulance. She co-founded the world’s first walk-in Poetry Pharmacy in Shropshire with her partner the poet James Sheard in 2019.
A mix of the therapeutic and the theatrical, Deborah offers consultations inside the Poetry Pharmacy and prescribes poems as cures as well as dispensing poemcetamols and other poetic pills and treatments.
She is editor of Emergency Poet-an anti-stress poetry anthology, #Me Too – rallying against sexual harassment- a women’s poetry anthology ,Ten Poems of Happiness and, co-edited with Dr Katie Amiel, These Are the Hands-Poems from the Heart of the NHS. Her first full collection Dirty Laundry is published by Nine Arches Press.
Go here for a virtual visit of the Poetry Pharmacy:
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