“Welcome to the world’s first walk-in Poetry Pharmacy. This beautiful Victorian shop with its original shelves & mahogany counter is filled with poetry, philosophy and well-being books and ‘pills’ and other literary gifts and products, to address your emotional needs. Your Poetry Pharmacist will be able to prescribe suitable filters and tonics, and you will also be able to visit the Dispensary Cafe to be prescribed coffees, teas and tisanes, sodas, sherbets and seltzers to lift the spirits”.
That is the first statement you can read on the description page of the Poetry Pharmacy of Deborah Alma in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, UK. But what is a Poetry Pharmacy and where does this idea come from? We meet Deborah Alma for a classic interview but then decided her story needs a more structured tale…
She begun her activity years ago while studying for her Master in creative writing and working as an assistant primary school. At the same time she started to work with people with dementia, «listening carefully to their words and writing them down. People who start losing their words talks metaphors: “tin boxes on the road” to say cars is so much more poetic». Deborah composed poems with the images given her by the patients and then gifted those poems back to people: «they were always so happy that their words were taken seriously and elevated. They kept the poems and show around».
It was there, she said, that she learned to listen carefully and to use poetry as a means of cure and empathy. She even started sharing poetry with her friends in need around the kitchen table.
In 2011 the turning point: while surfing the internet for a camper van, she came across a 1950s ambulance for sale and decided to buy it, even though it was a tough period. That is how the emergency poetry adventure started, for eight years working festivals, conferences, hospitals and care settings, libraries, and schools. Deborah used to dress as a doctor and be accompanied by a “verse nurse” dispensing “poems in pills” in a pastiche of a therapy session and a theatre piece starring an old velvet couch used for the “therapy sessions” . Her activity had a great success in the press and soon made her able to give up her old job and become a «full time emergency poet».
Today Deborah has sold the ambulance and bought what she likes to call «a social place»: a coffee shops downstairs, where people stop to have a cup of tea, a slice of cake and read the poem of the day; upstairs a library, organized by emotions and stage of life to make poetry more accessible and welcoming (Deborah has always done her best to fight the prejudice of a “too difficult” poetry). There is even a garden on the back. The “counseling couch” is still there from the ambulance days and part of the Victorian-theatrical vibe you can sense all around the place. We asked Deborah why she choose this aesthetic and she said that it matches the building and helps to create a certain Freudian atmosphere where people can feel at ease, relax, and let some lightness in.
As a matter of fact, lightness and well-being are the core of the conversation with Deborah. She explained that she doesn’t want to make clients talk about their problems, but she likes to ask them «how they relax or what books they liked as a child» to understand when they fell at their best and being able to prescribe the perfect poem to «bring up the good they talked about». Deborah never ends to stress the importance of listening and asking the right questions, «but only love and enjoyable questions». She has more than one poem for every occasion, since she aims to always find a perfect personalized match.
The covid made the coffee shop open and close and the counseling sessions impossible for a long time, but Deborah is optimistic and working hard to gain an art council contribute to train new people as poet pharmacists to finally find some help and pass on some of the secrets.
In the meantime, she was also able work on her own books and to edit some interesting anthologies:
- The Emergency Poet: An Anti-Stress Poetry Anthology
A brilliant new anthology of poems that will help you to overcome stress, depression and other anxieties. Arranged by spiritual ailment, the sections include a range of verse, new and old, which may be of comfort to those in need of a pick-me-up for the soul.
- These Are The Hands: Poems from the Heart of the NHS
This anthology offers a unique insight into the real experiences of the people at the heart of the NHS – from the student nurse at the start of his career to the heart surgeon on the eve of her retirement.
Deborah is in the end a very kind and caring soul: she has been using poetry to cure for a long time now and, even though the pandemic was hard on her, she never stoped prescribing her literary pills trough email or phone sessions, waiting for the sun to come back shining on pharmacy of Bishop’s Castle.