By Jamie Ryder
Manchester Metropolitan University’s Manchester Writing series welcomed special guest poet Deborah Alma last Thursday night. The event was hosted by the Manchester Writing School and took place at the Anthony Burgess Foundation. Manchester Writing is a series that examines the techniques authors use and offers a debate about their work.
Deborah Alma is known for her role as the ‘Emergency Poet.’ She travels the country in an ambulance prescribing poems to make people feel better. When asked by Humanity Hallows what inspired her mobile poetry service she said that it began from “working with people who had dementia.” Humanity Hallows also asked for her thoughts on whether poetry helped people suffering from grief. Deborah described poetry as being “like a talk with a friend over a kitchen table. It’s very intimate and connected.”
Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing Joe Stretch introduced two MA writing students Hilary Robinson and Callum Richards to start the event. Hilary read three poems that conjured vivid and uplifting imagery. Her first poem was about a period of her life that was “dark and difficult” and involved her “fighting like a banshee” to keep hold of her son. The second poem was from the perspective of a hunter’s wife and the third was “set in Singapore about couple on holiday.”
Callum read the first chapter of his crime novel called The Drifter. He told Humanity Hallows that he wanted to read aloud because it “was a great opportunity to have people gauge his work.” His extract painted a violent and poignant scene of two men fighting each other over the love of a woman.
Next, Joe played a video of Deborah’s work broadcast by the BBC. It showed her greeting people in the back of her ambulance and offering them a poetry consultation. All of the participants seemed to come away satisfied and feeling happier.
Joe then introduced Deborah and asked her to go back to the moment when she first decided to start the Emergency Poet project. Deborah said it started four years ago and admitted she was “originally looking on eBay to buy a mini-bus to go into schools and teach children creative writing.” She tried the project out at a poetry festival and then she was invited to perform it again in South Bank. Deborah explained the secret to her success was “doing something that is you.”
Joe was curious about her process and Deborah said she asked her clients “non-invasive questions” that made her “feel like a fortune teller.” Once someone had opened up she gave them a poem that fit their mood. The conversation steered towards if she made any distinction between herself as a poet and as the Emergency Poet. Deborah described her poetry as coming from her experiences as a “council estate girl” while she is more focused on “listening to people” when they come to see her.
Deborah then read a few poems from her True Tales Of The Countryside pamphlet. Many of them dealt with “coming out of the end of a relationship” such as ‘Still Life’ and ‘Nearly Love.’ Both poems used sterile and suffocating imagery to highlight a bad relationship. Deborah also showcased her Emergency Poet anthology, full of “anti-stress poetry” collected from various sources.
Following the reading, the audience were invited to ask questions. A woman from South London said she wanted to thank Deborah for her Emergency Poet anthology because it helped her get through a break-up with her husband. An MA poetry student asked Deborah about the kind of opportunities available to a poet and she said there were chances to “run workshops and read at open-mic nights.” Another woman was interested to know if Deborah had ever needed to inform a doctor about something a client told her. She admitted she “had a limited amount of responsibility” and her poems were “a gift” to make them feel better. Deborah also said that most of the people she deals with aren’t into poetry and she enjoyed the fact that many “just have a go at things.”
Due to popular demand, Deborah finished the event by reading three more poems called ‘The Head Of The Church In Rome,’ ‘Relationships’ and ‘My Mother Moves Into Adolescence.’ The first poem was tongue-in-cheek and the second dealt with two people never seeing eye to eye. The third related to Deborah’s childhood and her Indian heritage. The evening ended with a huge round of applause.
For more information about the Manchester Writing series, see the Manchester Writing School website.