A new kind of pharmacy has opened in the UK to dispense medicine in the form of the written word.

Two academics from Keele University in Staffordshire, England, have refurbished an old Victorian storefront. Their shelves are lined with poetry to heal the soul. 

“Emergency Poet” Deborah Alma and fellow lecturer James Sheard started the venture to promote poetry, but also to focus on helping the community with their mental health and well-being.

The Poetry Pharmacy offers free consultations while serving as a place for creatives to work together.

Visitors can browse the pharmacy based on their mood and desires. Sections include “Matters of the heart” and “For days when the world is too much for us.” They also offer a selection of books and local artwork.

For those seeking a more tailored treatment, a pharmacist is available to deliver full-length consultations in a private room and prescribe a medicinal mix of poetry for complicated emotions. 

For those who can’t make it to the pharmacy itself, Deborah Alma also prescribes poetry from her vintage ambulance around town.  The ambulance is set up at a venue, and patients take part in a free private poetic health consultation with the Emergency Poet. Within 10 minutes, patients are prescribed an appropriate poem, verse or lyric.

Considerable spoke to Deborah Alma about the project.

How did this project come about?

I had been working as an “emergency poet” for the last 7-8 years and driving a vintage ambulance with no power steering all over the country. At my age, it was getting a bit much.

My partner James and I had been aware of this former ironmonger’s shop on the high street that had been closed down for the last 13 years. We were peering in the windows and I just imagined all my bottles of poetry pills on the shelves.

How do these “poetry pills” work?

They are kept in pill bottles and labeled with quack-esque doctor phrases like, “soporifics for insomnia” or for “existential angst,” “internet addiction” or “a broken heart.” Inside the pill is an extract of the poem. So the pharmacy now has shelves of these poetry pills and we sell them as well other things. 

What has the response been like?

It’s been extraordinary. It works on lots of different levels. Local people like it because the shopfront is open; it’s restored some life to the street. Then there’s the poetry community. I’m now working with them to set up readings, workshops, writing retreats and poetry spa days. It’s also gone international. People are contacting me from Paris to India wanting to set up their own pharmacies.

Have you heard of this type of thing happening in the U.S.?

There is an organization in the states called the National Association for Poetry Therapy, and it’s been running since 1950s — it’s quite a thriving organization. 

What does poetry mean to you?

It’s taken over my whole life! It started, like most of us, in elementary school with nursery rhymes and enjoying words. I’m a poet in my own right and I also teach at Keele University. I think it means lots of things. It’s sharing a poem with a friend who’s got a broken heart over the kitchen table, and I also work with people with dementia. 

Can you tell us more about that?

That work I did with dementia is what led to my work as the emergency poet. It’s the act of listening carefully to somebody and finding a poem that they might like.

The dementia project was quite innovative and created by a man named John Killick. We went into care homes and sat and talked to patients and recorded their words verbatim. Because dementia is so fragmentary and people often talk in metaphors, it was almost as if they were telling us their story in the form of a poem. So we would write it up, take it back to them to check if they were happy with it, and they could keep it.

Lots of people learn poetry by heart and, like a song, it seems to stay quite deeply embedded in the memory. I also learned it can change the mood of a patient really profoundly, and that mood can stay with them for a few hours. It was influencing their state of mind into a positive place. 

Could you prescribe a poem for our readers?

Oh gosh, well, one that’s come to mind is Tony Hoagland’s “The Word.” He’s an American poet and it’s a really simple poem that reminds people to sit out in the sun and listen, to take time to sit still. 

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