Emergency Poet is a piece of theatre, a quack doctor show and also at its heart, a vehicle (pun-intended) for sharing and disseminating poetry. I travel to city centres, festivals, libraries, hospitals, conferences, schools – I have even been to a couple of weddings! My last ‘emergency’ call-out was to a conference of psychotherapists and psychiatrists for the UK National Health Service.
Dressed in a doctor’s white coat and stethoscope and accompanied either by Nurse Verse or a Poemedic, I travel in my vintage 1970s ambulance, which is still fitted with its original stretchers and medical equipment. It’s a mix of the serious and the theatrical. There are skulls, jars of eyeballs and other body parts inside the ambulance, and under an attached awning there is a ‘Cold Comfort Pharmacy’ with Nurse Verse dispensing poems-in-pills for various ailments, including internet addiction and anxiety. There’s even some poetry Viagra.
The process involves a ‘patient’ invited in to the back of the ambulance. They are then asked to lie down on a stretcher and I sit behind a clipboard and write down answers to a series of non-invasive questions, in a self-conscious pastiche of an old-fashioned psychotherapist’s set-up. 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 and is this important to you?’ and ‘Are you allergic to poetry or any types of poetry?’ and ‘What are your desert island book choices?’ These and other questions, are designed to give me a sense of the person, their reading tastes and also their general well-being.
At the end of about ten minutes I will ask the ‘patient’ if they would like a poem for a particular ‘ailment’. At this stage they might ask for a cure for a broken heart, something for loneliness, or maybe a tonic to lift their spirits.
They are advised to take their poem and listen to birdsong, or to take with a warm drink at bedtime, and to sit in silence for five minutes, or something similar, after they have read the poem.
Although the process is lighthearted, the poems ‘prescribed’ are wise, intelligent and beautiful. Often, for me, the connection with a stranger is intimate and profound. You can get a better idea of what goes on in this short BBC News video.
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.
My background is that of a poet, who has worked using poetry to assist communication with people with dementia and also in hospice care. It was fascinating for me to learn how much people like to be listened to carefully, and also how poetry can connect intimately and deeply. This is coupled with my zealous belief that there is poetry out there for everyone and that people just need a little help in finding the texts that might appeal to them.
Poetry, perhaps uniquely, speaks as though from one person directly to another, of a shared experience, with honesty and real intimacy.
Deborah Alma has an MA in Creative Writing. She taught Writing Poetry for three years at Worcester University and works using poetry with people with dementia and in hospice care. Deborah is also Emergency Poet in her vintage ambulance and is editor of Emergency Poet – an Anti-stress Poetry Anthology and The Everyday Poet – Poems to Live By. Her first poetry pamphlet, True Tales of the Countryside, was published in 2016. She lives with her partner, the poet James Sheard, on a hillside in Powys, Wales. See more at her website: emergencypoet.com