“We know about the death of the high street. And we know that poetry doesn’t sell. So here I am, opening a shop on the high street selling poetry, in a quiet little town in the middle of nowhere! But it seems to work."
Deborah Alma’s shop The Poetry Pharmacy is a magical place, where poems are packed in jars and prescribed for heartbreak or stress, desire or mindfulness. There are books, card and all things rhyme-related, but also tea and cakes, readings and workshops.
It’s a cosy hideaway in a small town on the borders of England and Wales, and there is no rational or commercial reason for it to exist at all. Which is of course what makes it so wonderful.
I love her story, too, because it’s all about creativity finding its own unconventional path. Alma shows how we’re all free to invent our working lives, if only we have the imagination. As well as the resilience and resourcefulness you need when you’re choosing to go your own way.
For years now, Alma has been the Emergency Poet, travelling around British festivals and literary events in an old ambulance, and giving one-to-one consultations. Her ‘patients’ share what ails them, and she then prescribes a healing poem.
Now she’s gone a step further with The Poetry Pharmacy. Just to makes things more difficult, she’s opened her poetry shop in the unlikely setting of Bishops Castle, a small town in rural Shropshire.
“We know about the death of the high street,” she says cheerfully. “And we know that poetry doesn’t sell. So here I am, opening a shop on the high street selling poetry, in a quiet little town in the middle of nowhere! It’s clearly a really stupid thing to do. But it seems to work.”
Alma always wanted to be a writer, but ended up with a shadow life instead, living and working around books and literature. She worked as a bookseller, and then at a publishing house for many years, before her two sons were born.
In her forties, while recovering from an abusive relationship, she went to university to study creative writing, expressing her pain in poems that were eventually published in a collection, Dirty Laundry.
This is turn led to her using poetry while working with survivors of domestic abuse and with people with dementia. This then inspired her to buy an ambulance, and become the Emergency Poet.
Then, one day, she was walking down the high street in Bishop’s Castle, a few miles away from her home, when she looked into a closed-up shop, saw the dusty and neglected Edwardian shelves and drawers — and fell in love.
Her partner, Jim Sheard, is an academic — and of course a published poet. He is supportive of her work, but it still took a while to convince him that they should buy the building, and live above the shop.
“It’s mixed commercial/residential building, so we’ve got a stupid mortgage,” Alma explains. “But it’s our home, so we don’t have to pay rent for the shop. And that’s key, because it is an experiment.”
The refurbishment funded with a successful campaign on Kickstarter. A grand total of £15,907 was pledged 387 backers to bring the shop back to life. “It was other people’s belief in the idea that tipped the scales into doing it,” Alma says.
There’s a skill to creating spaces where people feel really comfortable, and it’s one Alma seems to possess in abundance. You see photographs of her shop and you just want to be in there, reading a good book in the cosy café while sipping a nice cup of Tea (S Eliot) along with a piece of Philip Parkin cake.
“There are,” Alma says, “a lot of bad puns.”
She has a space put aside for the Emergency Poet, styled like Sigmund Freud’s consulting room, with a chaise longue for her ‘patients’ to recline on. There are creative writing classes (funded with an Arts Council grant). The shop sells poetic remedies, cards — and of course lots of books. “I’ve managed to get the stock without going into debt, which has been difficult. But I was resourceful.”
The shop opened on 5 October 2019, which — not uncoincidentally — is also National Poetry Day in the UK. “We’ve only been open for a few months. It’s like to having a new baby. You love it, but it completely dominates everything. So I love it, but I also think I’ve created a monster!”
Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Bishop’s Castle is not known as a literary hub. How has the community responded?
They’re delighted. It was a shop at the top of the high street that had been closed down for 13 years, and it had become almost like an emblem of this little place with its shut-down shops. We have events here every weekend, and there’s a little coffee shop. It’s comfortable. People can sit and read and talk to each other, without feeling rushed. And they’ve been really supportive. We even have couple of volunteers who are helping out, because they want it to succeed.
So why poetry, for you?
The brief answer is that I did a degree in creative writing in my forties, then did an MA a few years ago. I’ve had a poetry collection published, Dirty Laundry, which was me writing through a difficult — well, an abusive — relationship. And I worked with people with dementia for a few years, using poetry to assist communication. That’s how I ended up doing Emergency Poet: a combination of all of those things. And bloody-mindedness.
I think there’s a need in all of us to express ourselves, connect intimately in a spiritual, philosophical or thoughtful way with your own life or with the world. And words are the way I found to do that.
Tell me about your consultations. Very few people feel really heard these days. It seems that’s the great gift you’re giving.
It’s a kind of pastiche of a therapy session. It’s very theatrical, and hopefully it’s not intimidating. People seem quite happy to come and have a go. It’s what I did with people with dementia. I sat with them and listened, really carefully. And I wrote down their words.
What I learned is that people quite like you listening, valuing the small things they say. The questions I ask are all intended to take people to positive places. They’re intimate without being invasive, which is key.
I ask about books that had particular meaning, or that they loved as a child. Or I take them to really lovely places by asking something like: When was the last time you stood by the sea, or in the countryside or a beautiful place where you felt properly rested? Then they go to that place, in their mind.
They’ve got their feet up. There’s something about that different state. Being supported by the chaise lounge in my consulting room now, or the stretcher in the ambulance. I’m writing, so I’m not making a lot of eye contact. You see their eyes go up and off to the left, and they go off into their head. It must feel like an aromatherapy massage or something. For the mind!
Was there a poem that changed your life?
My God, what a question! At the end of my difficult relationship, there was a poem by Derek Walcott called Love After Love. I prescribe it to people when they are heartbroken and/or they’re in love with the wrong person. It talks about being in love with your own rich and interesting life.
When I give it to people now, I tell them to do what I did: stick it on the fridge, and make it your own. So you have it as a kind of mantra. It says, ‘ Sit. Feast on your own life ‘ and talks about welcoming yourself in your own mirror. That was really important to me. I knew I had to get over being in love with someone inappropriate, and it was helpful.
I suppose it also changed my life because I realised how powerful it can be, if you get the right poem to the right person when they need it. It’s a message that you can hang on to. So it led to the work I do now.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
Oh yes! When I started, I was a single parent, and I was also working full-time. The first ambulance I bought was a 1950s one, and all the money I made from festivals went on putting the bloody thing on the back of a trailer and paying somebody to take it somewhere for me. I thought, what on earth am I doing? Then after seven years with the ambulance, I got tired of driving all over the country, and working outside in all weathers. But that led to the shop, which is just as hard in a different way. I’m clearly mad!
Yet you sound very happy.
I am, but I do too much. That’s my problem. Which is ironic because I sit there listening to people and saying, ‘You must go out for a walk!’
That’s why I’ve ended up doing this, I think. I’m probably trying to find my own answers. But I am learning.
Is there a habit or routine that has served you?
I live with a man of habit and routine. Who is lovely and gentle, kind and generous. And needs to sit with me in the evening and watch something on Netflix. He’s really grounding for me, and really important.
The Poetry Pharmacy at the moment is mad, but normally I’m also pretty good at having a cup of tea in the garden, or going for a walk.
What’s the last book you really loved?
Because life’s been a bit stressful, I’ve been re-reading old favourites. There’s a 1922 book called The Worst Journey In The World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. He was one of the men on Scott’s [doomed] Polar expedition. I’ve got this weird interest in Polar exploration! I just find it really comforting when things are awful for other people, reading how they overcome them.
What book would you recommend to inspire creativity?
For writing inspiration, Jo Bell’s book Write A Poem A Week. Start Now. Keep Going. For more general creativity, Philippa Stanton’s Conscious Creativity is a pretty coffee-table book, but it’s not too airy-fairy!
When you’re teaching writing, how do you help people get over their self-consciousness?
I make it fun and easy, usually, with exercises which are slightly silly. Each session we do something that’s frivolous, and I might give a prize or something.
There’s an exercise I do right at the beginning. I get the group to introduce themselves to each other by writing a couple of paragraphs — without using the letter E.
Everything they write is going to be weird or faulty, so they forget about it being a good or elevated piece of writing. They’re just struggling with the game.
And learning how to play again.
Absolutely! I’m teaching them to stop taking themselves so seriously. Playfulness is really important, I think.
What motivates you to get up in the morning?
Every day there’s loads of interesting things going on. But mainly it’s my bad back! I’m so old, it wakes me up.
And what most gets in your way?
I have too many ideas. I say yes to too many things. And they are all exciting! What gets in my way most is lack of time.
What’s the big, impossible dream for you?
My madness doesn’t think that anything is impossible, really. I’m doing it! It’s hard work, and it would be nice to have lots of money. I don’t have any. But living the dream isn’t easy. It’s great that the Poetry Pharmacy was on Sky News, for instance. But what happens is hundreds of people then send you their poems. They want you to read them. They want feedback. And you just can’t give that.
Finally, if you put a message out to the world, what would it be?
Have fun. Muck about. And do no harm. It’s about kindness and fun.
Oh, that’s not very articulate. I should write you a poem!
The Poetry Pharmacy is at 36 High St, Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire. Find it online at https://www.poetrypharmacy.co.uk