Poetry on Prescription


SILVIA PIO (edited by)

There was an old woman called Deb
who had a crazy idea in her head
to hear people’s ills
without giving pills
but give them poems instead

Deborah Alma travels around British fairs and festivals in an old ambulance with Emergency Poet written along the side, prescribing poetry to those in need.


Deborah, when did it all start?
There’s a very long answer and a shorter one; I’ll try to condense it! It started with being a long time reader of poetry, a writer, a friend sharing poems I love over my kitchen table, to working with poetry to assist communication with people with dementia and being a single-parent with no-one-to-stop-me-with-a –crazy idea combination!

What happens in a consultation?
‘Patients’ lie down on the stretcher, and they are asked a series of odd and unexpected questions about their reading habits, books they loved as a child, how long it has been since they stood by the sea, how they relax and more. It lasts at least ten minutes and then I will prescribe them a poem to address whatever it is they ask for. I prescribe the poem with carefully chosen instructions eg. to sit out in the sun, to listen to birdsong, to take once a day, or with a hot drink, or at bedtime and so on!

Who are your patients and what are the ailments they suffer from most?
It depends on the setting; whether it is a literary festival, at a library, a hospital…but my patients are everybody. I also do consultations for children which are fun!
The ailment that presents itself to me more than any other is a stress connected to work, to status, to anxieties around modern living, to unnecessarily complicated lives.


How many poems do you have in your, how can I call it? medical book, and how have you chosen them?
I have a big file of about 300 poems already printed out as a prescription, with space for the patient’s name and their instructions on how to take their medicine.
I chose them slowly, and carefully and keep changing and adding to them. They are intelligent and wise poems, mostly accessible ones that will appeal to people who have been put off poetry at school. This is very common in the UK, that people do not have a habit of reading poetry. They think it is too difficult for them.

What do you think poetry does to people?
I think poetry, maybe more than any other art, is capable of speaking directly and intimately and beautifully as though from one person to another.

What has poetry done to you?
Many things; comfort in loneliness, wisdom in dark times, been part of a supportive community of poets, an art that I can practice without needing anything more than pen and paper, a living…

What is poetry according to you?
What a difficult question! Maybe the answer is there in your last question. But also music, heightened language, something that everyone can do.

Where is the Emergency Poet taking you?
All over the place! From city centres, to weddings, to radio and TV interviews, to editing an anthology…I hope to travel further…USA, Europe and spread the idea further.


Pronto soccorso poetico sito


(Originally published on 14.10.2015)