Blog: Deborah Alma

The emergency poet prescribes a trip to Settle Stories, 27 May

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Dressed in a doctor’s white coat and stethoscope and accompanied either by Nurse Verse or a poemedic, I travel in my 1970s ambulance to festivals, libraries, schools, pubs, city centres, conferences – anywhere where I’m invited.

This crack medical team administers poetry, either through a 10 minute one-to-one consultation on the stretcher in the back, or via the Cold Comfort Pharmacy, where there are bottles of pills containing poems for various ailments – from anxiety, internet addiction and empty nest syndrome to poetry Viagra and pills for unrequited love.

It looks like a piece of street theatre, but it has more in common with gypsy fortune telling caravans of the past – part theatre, but the conversations are real and intimate. The poetry is really good poetry and it’s always free at point of delivery, like the NHS (for now at least!).

Patients are invited into the back of the ambulance and asked to lie down on the stretcher for a private consultation. I might put a blanket over their knees if it’s chilly, the sounds from outside are hushed and the patient is given good attention. I ask questions such as “When was the last time you stood by the sea or in a beautiful place in the countryside, and is this important to you?” and “Which books have you loved in your life?” These and other questions are designed to give me a sense of the person and their reading tastes and what they love. Towards the end of the 10 minute consultation, I will ask if they would like a poem for anything specific and then make a suitable poetic prescription, which they can take away with them. I have about 300 poems already printed out as prescriptions that I can choose from. They are advised to take their poem and listen to birdsong, or to sit in silence for five minutes or something similar after they have read the poem.

The responses to the consultation have been universally positive – it is a “massage for the mind” or a little time out to concentrate on themselves. I respond to the patient’s attitude to the experience – whether they take it seriously or whether it is for fun – but always at the heart of this is good, accessible poetry and a sense of poetry being important and necessary. I work with people with dementia and also have worked with vulnerable women’s groups, as well as with children, and the idea for Emergency Poet came out of this work. I work with a lot of charities with the ambulance – charities that support people with mental health issues, with loneliness, with ill health and that want to encourage meaningful conversations.

I bought the ambulance from e-Bay for £2,200 when I was a low-income single parent in a fit of madness and with the overdraft facility from my bank. It’s is a ‘79/’80 registered Ford Transit with an older Wadham ambulance body bolted to the back. It came from a decommissioned nuclear power station in Scotland, where it had hardly been used, and so was in mint condition, with just 6,000 miles on the clock. It’s got a 2.5 litre engine, four gears and it has a top speed of about 60 mph. It is a wonderful thing and has been amazingly reliable – except we had to have a bit of an engine overhaul recently because of disintegrating pipes and bushes because of its age. Also, there is no power steering and so parking and manoeuvring in city centres and outside libraries can be knackering!

I love doing what I do and it’s taken me all over the country and to lots of unusual places. Most people don’t read poetry much anymore and I’m literally taking it to them and saying: “Look! Here’s a poem especially for you.”

I’m very excited to be at Settle Stories‘ upcoming Festival of Happiness on Sat 27 May. The festival is taking place in one of the most stunning corners of the Yorkshire Dales so do come along and check it out. There will be over 25 events in one day and 80 per cent of them (including mine) are free.

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