Deborah Alma is setting up the world’s first Poetry Pharmacy in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire. She will be dispensing poetry and art on prescription from a former ironmonger’s alongside her partner, the poet James Sheard.
As the Emergency Poet, Deborah dispensed poetry as medicine from the back of a 1970s ambulance for the past seven years, driving around various fairs, schools and hospitals in her belief that poetry is good for you.
The Edwardian shop is still under renovation pending its official opening but events have already started to take place such as a special opening for three days for the Bishop’s Castle Open Studios. Illustrated items relating to poetry, antique and modern medicine are for sale, in a hybrid of two, usually disconnected areas. There are blue-and-white hanging ceramics created by Ellie Tarratt at Pretender to the Throne of leeches, bottles of tinctures, hearts with their veins and arteries attached and other souvenirs relating to this festival of a shop.
Next week, on Wednesday 26 June 2019, for National Writing Day the Poetry Pharmacy will open for visitors to look at the space in its transition between clearance and restoration. One visitor, Dulcie Fulton, announced that it could be the start of a chapbook for the pharmacy shelves. This is the kind of creative relationship that Deborah and James want to encourage, saying of this day ‘the results will become part of the record of our project, as well as, hopefully, giving you some new work.’
Recent stock has come in from far-flung manufacturers including boxes of Soviet-era pencils from the Ukraine. The shop’s image has the romance of former institutions, hospitals, schools, mass-production reused and upcycled. The project is an aesthetic adventure in more ways than simply writing. Prints on the world include a Hamilton Ellis carriage print (1951), commissioned in the year of the Festival of Britain. Cabinets display a skull alongside the books and trinkets. Poetry carefully arranged in bottles is offered as a pleasant tonic and a present. Katy Alston, artist, has been creating beautiful prototypes for a paper sculpture of Deborah’s Emergency Poet ambulance, remembering the mobile stage of Deborah’s vision.
Bishop’s Castle is an interesting town with a growing alternative arts community. It’s a small market town high up in the Midlands countryside. Hillwalkers call by and take refreshment in the old time. The town has been an important route for walkers and riders for millennia. Shropshire Way, a long distance footpath, runs through the centre of the town, Offa’s Dyke is a few miles west and the Kerry Ridgeway, a Bronze Age route runs from the town. Drovers have taken their animals over this way from farms in Wales to markets in England for centuries. The track has incredible views of mountains and never dips below one thousand feet above sea level.
This location adds a sensibility to the enterprise of being connected to the life of generations. When I was younger I picked up on this feeling through my own father’s love for the poetry of AE Housman. My father, with his younger brother and sister, was evacuated to Matlock from his home in Stretford, Manchester, and developed a lifelong love for the hills of Shropshire and Derbyshire. He gave me a copy of ‘A Shropshire Lad’ when I was young and I was struck by the old-fashioned, backward-looking romance of the language. Seeing the blue hills of the area on a recent visit to Genevieve Tudor, who produces and presents the long-running ‘Sunday Folk’ for BBC Shropshire, Housman’s lyrical and epigrammatic verse, reeking with gods and lost youth, suddenly made a new sense to me.
In fact Housman spent little time in Shropshire himself, but he picked up on a sense of longing in the landscape that I also feel. A sense of yearning suggested by the hills themselves. When I visited Genevieve in the old mining village of Snailsbeach I was overwhelmed with the blue whaleshape of these impossibly shaped hills that I had previously only seen in storybook illustrations. Driving down the road and seeing their distinctive shapes felt like a lifting, a spiritual moment. As a poet, for my own taste, Housman is too patriotic, but the sensibility of the landscape holds true for me emotionally, those ‘blue remembered hills’. Imaginatively, I feel something of this nostalgia in the Poetry Pharmacy, looking back at previous industry, rendered attractive by the passing of time. The ‘happy highways’ where we ‘cannot come again’. I miss my dad.
Recently, nostalgia has been rehabilitated into the canon of positivity and accepted as a useful tool in daily battles against anxiety and depression. The Poetry Pharmacy draws on this power alongside the creative therapy of poetry when dispensing its prescriptions.
Deborah Alma deserves to have real success for this enterprise. The idea is imaginative. The expertise and energy she has put into the project is huge. And she herself is a supportive poet of other poets, helping other writers feel positive about their own work. I feel she is the spirit of this enterprise. Brilliant, outward-looking and determined. I shall have to order a few leeches.