Questions & Answers
Can you describe how the hands-on ‘pharmacy’ came about?
Some years ago, the year of the Olympics (2012), I made an anthology for Faber & Faber called Winning Words, which was a collection of inspiring poems, partly to celebrate the fact that we had the Olympics in London. We had a lot of poetry at all the Olympic venues and on all the screens, and I managed to get some sports commentators to recite poetry to camera, and so forth. Then a friend of mine, Jenny Dyson, was programming the Port Eliot Literary festival, and had this lovely idea. She said, ‘Come on down, I’m going to get you to be interviewed by Rosie Boycott and then afterwards I’m putting you in a tent with a prescription pad, because you always prescribe me poems to cheer me up or change my state of mind, and I’m going to get a couch and an armchair and put a blackboard outside and people can book slots and come and tell you their worries and you can prescribe them a poem.’ And I thought it was a charming idea that would last an hour or so and that would be that. But the hours went on, and on... and on! It was a three-day festival and even though I’d done four or five hours of consultations that day people wanted to book for the next day, and so it became a fixture and I returned the next year to the festival and did it all over again. And that’s how it began. Someone must have heard about it and the next thing I knew I was doing it on Radio 4 and for the newspapers.
So were people phoning up and explaining their situation on the radio?
They sent in emails. It was striking that the producer kept saying they’d never had so many emails for any subject, so it obviously touched a nerve. Then they asked me back to do it again at Christmas time. Christmas can of course be quite stressful, with families and so forth, so the idea was for me to come up with poetry to help people get through it all. Then about 18 months ago I was telling a literary agent about it and she suggested turning it into a book and now here it is.
In a way it’s a synthesis for me of 25 years of trying to get poetry out of ‘Poetry Corner'. I feel with the Forward Prizes and National Poetry Day I’ve made the corner a bit bigger but I haven’t necessarily been able to make the crossover as big as I’d hoped, and I think this pharmacy is for me the crucial point, the crucial way to reach people who have an enthusiasm, an interest in poetry, but don’t really know how to engage. Most people in this country know about dead poets, not about living ones, they love the idea of poetry and tend to turn to it in time of need, whether it’s for a funeral or any of these various big events we go through. Poetry always, always, always shows up but most people don’t know where to find the right poem for their current state of mind.
Why is that do you think?
Most people don’t have a particularly – and why should they? – forensic knowledge of the great poetry that’s been written between 500 years ago and today. There’s a lot of it about but why would people know? I think partly because my generation and younger generations have been let down, dare I say, by the intermediaries, the teachers, the librarians, the booksellers even, and made Poetry Corner a sort of fusty, dusty, back of a bookshelf elite thing, rather than something which is actually our pride and joy, our biggest cultural export, our language to the world, the language of Shakespeare, and so on, as well as something that we celebrate in the most extraordinary way. You go to watch rugby at Twickenham and you’ll hear people chanting William Blake’s 'Jerusalem', or at Anfield football stadium you’ll hear ‘You’ll never walk alone’. These are all outstanding pieces of poetry. But when you say the P word, most people will go, ‘Oh no, not for me.’ It's a bit different if you’re a Celtic cousin. I think if I was in a bar in Dublin and started reciting a poem I’d probably get bought a pint. Not necessarily the same here!
We need a reclassification of what the P word is. And it’s what I’ve been trying to do with National Poetry Day and the Forward Prizes - to broaden people’s understanding that actually poetry is in greetings cards, it’s in rap music, it’s in the copywriting for the advertisements you read, in jingles on the radio, it’s all around us.
In your book you talk about the sense of complicity the right poem can give, the ‘precious realisation: I’m not the only one who feels like this.’ Is poetry better at this than other art forms and if so, why?
Yes I think it is better because while you might find a semi-complicity in a picture or a photo or a piece of music, there’s something about the elegant expression of what’s going on in your brain, expressed more elegantly probably than you could express it yourself, which takes you really to the kernel of what’s concerning or bothering you. It’s direct. If it’s an accessible poem – and hopefully all of those I’ve chosen are – it’ll come straight at you, whereas all other art forms are probably more tangential.
You talk about the therapeutic power of a poem existing only ‘if you can find the right poem for the right state of mind’, but isn’t there a therapeutic benefit to simply ‘losing oneself’ in a powerful poem?
Yes, I think there probably is. It’s just as therapeutic a benefit as losing yourself in a beautiful piece of music or losing yourself in a wonderful painting, but that’s not going to help you feel understood about your specific worry or problem or anxiety. And as I say in my introduction, get it right, find the right marriage between what’s disturbing you and the right poem and I see people get out of the chair a foot taller. It makes them feel understood, a problem shared, and they’re not mad. That’s really very helpful.
The selected poems and one or two extracts are mostly short, sometimes as few as 4 lines. Was the idea to make them easily portable in one’s head?
Yes, and accessible. The shortest one is from 'My Brilliant Image' by Hafez:
I wish I could show you,
When you are lonely or in darkness,
The Astonishing Light
Of your own Being!
Well that’s almost a mantra-like statement for the lonely, the isolated and the sad and I think much more powerful taken as that couplet rather than 16 lines.
Your book covers everything from mental and emotional wellbeing to fear of the unknown, divorce and even news overload. How did you decide which ‘conditions’ to address through poetry?
Partly on the basis of experience of all the near thousand people I have listened to. I think rather like any local doctor would tell you, most people come to see them for the same sorts of conditions, so of the 56 poems in the book probably 10 of them are the main conditions that people suffer from so I focussed on those areas. I then haunted bookshops, libraries and particularly second hand bookshops for poetry anthologies that were long out of print or whatever because I just wanted to go through every poem I could find until I found the one that hit me and made me think ‘this would be really good for this’, ‘that would be really good for that’.
Have you since come across others that you thought would have been perfect?
Yes I have come across a few and people have sent some to me but maybe that’ll give us a chance to make a second volume!
And how hard was it to restrict yourself to just one poem for each condition?
There were times when I found more than one poem for the same condition but they seemed to be saying the same thing. I didn’t see much point in the context of the way this book is structured to put both. So in the end it was about choosing the ones that I thought – and it’s probably entirely subjective – were accessible, understandable and evocative.
You’ve listened to over a thousand people’s problems in order to ‘prescribe’ the right one for them. How far were you and the recipients able to distinguish between the benefits of unburdening to you and the power of the poem you introduced to them?
Well I think the whole experience is important. I think just doing it by email is interesting but not as powerful. What’s powerful is the direct human engagement, a sense that there’s someone to listen to your problems. More than half of the people who come to see me avail themselves of my box of tissues and the fact they entrust me with what they tell me is pretty significant and powerful, and so the human experience of sharing is first and foremost what it’s all about. The second thing is the impact: if I can prescribe appropriately, if I’ve done enough clear listening to get to the kernel of the concerns of the 'patient', then getting the right poem is everything on top of that. If I get the two, I’ve done a good job. The last four days I’ve been travelling actually, doing pharmacies in various places, and it’s both sad at times and depressing, but it’s also utterly inspiring, that people can unburden themselves and feel a sense of restoration when I’ve prescribed the right poem for them.
How does the poem get introduced, do you read it to them in the first instance?
I read it to them and then ordinarily give them a copy to take away with them. If it’s a little one I’ll suggest they learn it off by heart. I gave the Hafez I mentioned above to a woman suffering from a real sense of isolation in Liverpool many years ago. I got an email from her some months later saying, ‘You won’t remember me but you gave me these lines of poetry in Liverpool and told me to stick them on my mirror'. She went on very movingly to say that her flat had been burgled the previous night and everything was everywhere but the only thing that hadn’t moved were those lines of poetry, which got her through the night. So that was to me a really moving vindication of what we were doing.
Have you had people who didn’t ‘get’ the poem?
I haven’t as yet. I’ve tried to make all the poems accessible. One or two might take a re-read to get the most out of then but none are really challenging. I always say never read a poem only once because there’s always something more you can get out of it.
Given how powerful you’ve seen poems to be, what more could be done to get more people to benefit from the power of poetry? Should there be some carefully selected volumes in doctors’ surgeries, for example?
Funnily enough that already exists, not in the form of my pharmacy but there are a number of schemes. There’s a wonderful scheme called Books on Prescription which is supported by the Reading Agency and the Libraries as well as Doctors'waiting rooms, where people go in with a condition and they are given a suggestion of what to read. So that already exists. And there’s also a very small poetry charity, Poems in the Waiting Room, that prints up poems for doctors’ waiting rooms to try to cheer people up, just some things to read while they’re there rather than some well-thumbed magazine that’s four years old. But yes, I would love it if this book were taken seriously by the medical profession, or at least the people who are focussing more on the mental side of health because I think it could be very, very helpful. The last few days I’ve been back on the road listening to people and I’m just more and more galvanised by the power of it, it really has an extraordinary impact - but I would say that wouldn’t I?!
Has anyone ever come to you with a condition for which you couldn’t find an appropriate poem?
Yes. Well I gave her a poem but I actually wanted to give her a gun, to be honest. She was being stalked by somebody really terrifying and the powers that be were not giving her adequate protection and that was very scary for her and also I felt inadequate being with her. So all I could do was try and support her and give her temporary relief at least, but then there are limitations even for poetry.
You must wonder what happens to the people you see in these quite particular and special circumstances. Do you ever hear from any of them again?
I do wonder and it’s a very mixed blessing this, because it is overwhelming listening to problems. It does weigh one down and when I was listening to a lot of people every day and doing it three days a week travelling around the country I no longer felt carefree, I felt I was carrying quite a burden. I thought about providing my email address and contact details to people who came to tell me their worries but I was a bit anxious about opening up relationships with hundreds of people. It doesn’t really seem appropriate so on the whole I don’t, and I think that’s probably the right way forward.
How did you get into poetry yourself?
As a child I got involved at school in poetry reading competitions and things and seemed to do well in them and as that was about the only thing I was any good at in school it became my thing. As a result I started to really think about the poems I was reciting and then I did English A Level so that gave me more exposure. I had a really inspiring English teacher who devoted her heart and soul to poetry. When I was about 28 I'd been running my own small publishing business for a couple of years, and a friend brought a dog-eared copy of The Guinness Book of Poetry round to my house. Of course I knew of The Guinness Book of Records but not of Poetry, and I discovered that in the 1950s there was a poet called Robert Moyne who was a member of the Guinness family and had persuaded the rest of his cousins that they should share some of the lucre that they’d made from their delicious stout by giving some of it to him. So he started a prize called The Guinness Poetry Award and made a Guinness Book of Poetry to go with it, a sort of Top of the Pops of poetry you might say. I opened it up and the very first poem was ‘The Night Mail’ and then I read more poems from it that were all published in the same year and I thought what an interesting idea that was. So I rang up Guinness and proposed reviving it, but they said no and that is how the Forward Prize began - I decided to do it myself. National Poetry Day followed a couple of years later. So that’s where it all began.