Thursday, 14 March 2013
The Emergency Poet To the Rescue: An Interview with Deborah Alma
Poetry Parnassus, which took place on London's Southbank at the end of June 2012, was a particularly rich poetic feast because it took care to communicate on a variety of levels. On one hand, there were readings from Nobel Prize winners and intense discussions on translation and the political power of poems; on the other hand, there was a Poems on the Underground workshop, activities for children, music, and a helicopter-led Rain of Poems. In other words, it was possible to find something for everyone.
Among the outdoor activities luring in unsuspecting passersby were a Poetry Takeaway, and also the 1950s ambulance belonging to the Emergency Poet. My curiosity led me over to this one day and I found myself reclining inside the ambulance, being prescribed poems which turned out to be just the thing (Wendell Berry's 'The Peace of Wild Things', and a passage from Eliot's Four Quartets - I tend to suffer from anxiety.) It was pretty obvious to me that Deborah Alma, the Emergency Poet herself, knew her stuff. Somehow, I felt that the Emergency Poet encapsulated the festival quite nicely. It was fun but also serious, entertaining but also well thought out. Deborah was obviously prepared to prescribe anything appropriate for poetry enthusiasts, for those who suffered from poetry-phobia, and all between.
Deborah and I subsequently stayed in touch and she has very kindly agreed to be interviewed for The Stone and the Star.
TSATS: Tell me about your background and where your interest in poetry came from.
DA: I grew up in a North London council estate where the only poetry around me was a scrawled rhyme on the side of a house, although we did write poetry at school. I'm the child of child parents, an Indian mother and a grammar school boy who dropped out of education when I came along! My beautiful grandmother read poetry, though, and we had a few books in the house.
TSATS: How did the Emergency Poet get started?
DA: It seemed to come in a burst of madness. But I suppose really it has emerged from my work with poetry and dementia, my working with literacy in primary schools for years as a teaching assistant, from being a poetry evangelist and from listening to friends and their problems over the kitchen table.
TSATS: What are your objectives as Emergency Poet? Tell me a bit about what you do.
DA: Its objectives are simple: that poetry has something to say, that it is for everyone, that it does not have to be difficult, that to stop and take time to value one's inner life is important. All lofty aims, but the reality is light and fun, although often with serious poetry at its core.
"Patients" are invited into the back of the ambulance and asked to lie down on the stretcher for a private consultation. Sounds from outside are hushed and the patient is given my complete attention. I might put a blanket over their knees if it's chilly. Then I ask questions such as "When was the last time you stood by the sea and is this important to you?", "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 and their reading tastes, as well as their general well-being. 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 might read out the few lines from the poem that they should pay particular attention to and they are then advised to find some quiet space to take their "medicine". I might suggest they listen to birdsong, or to sit in silence for 5 minutes, or take it with a hot drink at bedtime.
TSATS: What are some of the most entertaining or inspiring things that have happened to you as Emergency Poet?
DA: I am always surprised at how open people are with their problems. I have been asked for a poem for a woman with breast cancer, a man who wanted a love poem for his wedding day, a woman whose best friend had died that morning... Being able to find them a poem has been such a joy. These poems have really mattered - this has been so inspiring for me.
I have prescribed poems with the words "bottom" and "willy" in them to children who have said they hate poetry and give them the instruction that they must take the poem with their favourite sweet. This prescription usually works!
TSATS: What are you particularly proud of accomplishing?
DA: I think the fact that I have got it up and running at all! I'm a single parent and when I started buying an old filthy ambulance and dressing up in a doctor's coat, my friends and family thought that I was more than a little crazy. It has been a work of real determination and has been financially scary, to say the least. At the end of last year I was delighted to have been successful with an Arts Council grant which has helped the project enormously and meant that I can take it more seriously.
TSATS: I know that you're also a poet in your own right. Can you tell me a bit about your poetry and its sources of inspiration?
DA: I have just completed my MA and for my dissertation I submitted a portfolio of poems. I write, I suppose, about relationships, about disappointment and loss and sex. I love to read widely and am often inspired by the writings of others. This is sometimes not good for my self-confidence, though!
(You can read one of Deborah's poems, 'On Sleeping Alone', in the Ink Sweat & Tears e-zine: http://www.inksweatandtears.co.uk/pages/?p=3529)
TSATS: Where are you planning to take the Emergency Poet next?
DA: I have a busy Emergency Poet tour for this year. It includes Wenlock Poetry Festival, Ledbury Poetry Festival, Stratford Literary Festival, Sparks' Children's Arts Festival, Ludlow Fringe, Lichfield, Nottingham Library, Walsall Library, Just So Festival, a new spoken-word festival in Knaresborough called Release the Hounds, and Poetry Can in Bristol.
TSATS: Do you have other poetry and/or literature-related endeavours underway at the moment, or in the works?
DA: I have several! As well as the poetry and dementia project, I teach Creative Writing for Writing West Midlands' Writing Squad, I occasionally work for Arvon, I will be teaching Writing Poetry for Worcester University from this autumn, and I am organising a Poetry Party as part of Ludlow Arts Festival this summer with the poet Jean Atkin.
You can find the Emergency Poet website here: http://emergencypoet.com/