The Healing Adventures of Poemedic, Deborah Alma

If I have an headache, I generally take a pill. But are we really sure that only medicines are able to heal our illnesses? Deborah Alma, poet and poemedic, said no. Also poetry can give us a great hand to face our problems, in particular those that are hidden in our deepness. We had a brief chat about Deborah’s wonderful work and this is what came out.

Mendes: The theme of this issue is the healing power of art. Before asking you about The Emergency Poet, I would like to know your personal experience with art self-healing.

Deborah: That’s an interesting question and quite a difficult one to answer briefly. I think my own experience is like most people’s extremely varied, very common and often very unconscious.

The moments that stand out for me I suppose were in the compulsion I felt to write myself through and out of an abusive and damaging relationship, watching my own grandmother’s solace in reading poetry after the death of her husband and as she was dying. I remember also being overwhelmed by an exhibition in London of the works of Frieda Kahlo and how bravely she painted her pain. I have worked for a few years with people with dementia and at the end of their lives using poetry.

For me, there is no doubt that art is where we can best connect with each other in ways that are intimate, empathetic and authentic.

MENDES: Now it’s the time of the Poemedic as you like to call yourself. A white coat, a stethoscope and a poetry book are the main objects you need when you ask your patients to open themselves up and then you suggest to them the right poem. What happens when patient and poem match each other?

Deborah: Ah this has been the most amazing thing for me! I had no idea when I started prescribing poetry just how much this process can work. People love to have a poem hand-picked for them after some careful listening. They see the gift and make it their own. It seems to bring a lot of joy, and sometimes relief and comfort.

Mendes: Why people are frightened about reading poems and how can people involved in culture help readers to start loving poetry?

Deborah: I think that something happens, at least in the UK in secondary school where often pupils are asked to examine texts as though they were a forensic scientist, pulling out the meaning and the poet’s intention, leaving the student with a sense that somehow poems are difficult, like a puzzle to be decoded rather than being asked to respond emotionally and intuitively. They also seem to stop writing creatively themselves and being a writer yourself is the easiest way into loving poetry.

I think that there is a certain amount of snobbery in the poetry world, that asserts that poetry is not for everyone, that likes to encourage this perception of difficulty. Certainly some poetry is ‘difficult’ and the reader is rewarded and flattered by understanding it, its clever tricks, its craft, its vocabulary; but instead of saying it is just for us few, I believe we can help others in. This comes from reading widely, from a developing confidence in approaching a poem and through being invited in. This is what I aim to do with Emergency Poet, invite them in.

Mendes: You worked also with people with dementia. How can it help, in this case, reading poetry?

Deborah: I have worked using poetry with people with dementia and also with people in care homes and in hospice care for the last five years. As a poet I do know something about what it is to be intimate and honest and authentic. The thread joining poetry and these areas of work for me is this intimacy and honesty. Poetry I believe, more than any other art, with the exception perhaps of music, (and they have much in common), speaks as though directly from one human being to another. It is about connection and empathy.

Most of the people that I’ve worked with who have some degree of dementia, are from the generation that learnt poetry by heart at school. As a poet working with a small group of people in a care home or day care centre I have often had the experience described so beautifully in Gillian Clarke’s poem Miracle on St David’s Day that describes the poet reading Wordsworth’s much-loved poem Daffodils in a care setting somewhere, where the words of the poem long ago learnt by heart , ignite something deep inside the mind of a long mute man;

“He is suddenly standing, silently,
huge and mild, but I feel afraid. Like slow
movement of spring water or the first bird
of the year in the breaking darkness,
the labourer’s voice recites The Daffodils.”

It is a gift and a privilege to be the one who brings this to a group of people. I worked with a group of people with sight-loss last year and as I started to read Masefield’s ‘I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and sky…’ and to have at least twenty voices take it up with me, one woman reciting it word perfect all the way to the end was a joy to all present and it brings a tear to my eye even now as I write this and remember it.

Mendes: Best and the worst experience you have had with the Emergency Poet?

I think the best experiences I have had with Emergency Poet, and I have had so many, was when taking the ambulance to Bristol Southmead Hospital for a few days and parking near the other ambulances and prescribing poetry to patients, stressed staff and visitors . There was something very uplifting for people , (one woman still attached to her drip and in slippers) answering questions that were gentle, uplifting and being given the gift of a poem. It worked really well there. I’m starting to work in hospices prescribing poetry, which is wonderful and intense and extremely rewarding.
Bad experiences are usually to do with bad weather, wind , rain and cold! The hardest thing for me is to prescribe poetry to people who have never really read at all, not even as children.

Mendes: We always need a box of aspirin in our pockets. Who is, for you, the poetical aspirin? Can you suggest us any “everyday” poems?

Deborah: I have a few poems that I use very often; the poem I am prescribing a lot these days ( it has been a difficult year), is the beautiful poem Try to Praise the Mutilated World by Adam Zagajewski

Mendes: The ambulance is riding down the street. What and when is the next stop?

Deborah: It’s quiet over the winter because of the weather, but the next stop is to set up an inside surgery and run a workshop on compassion at a conference in London for Psychology and Psychological Therapies which will be fascinating for me. I will have fun having psycotherapists on my couch!

To know more about Deborah Alma and her work, you can visit her website The Emergency Poet, The world’s first and only mobile poetic first aid service.

Here are a few poems by Deborah Alma

Deep Pockets

I sit in the kitchen
in a yellow-striped dress
with deep pockets

thrusting my hands deep
there is string, a pin,
garden wire and three
sweet-pea seeds.

I sit sullen like a child.

On the table a roughly made
grey plate with flecks of blue
and four chocolate dainty cakes
and five of us in this house.

Pink Pyjama Suit

Five, I must have been,
just five, blonde kid
in my pink, shiny shalwar kameez.

Auntie, Karachi, pinched my cheeks,
Chorti pyara,
like a doll
like a little blonde doll.
Walk this way, try some dancing.
Behen! Now you have your little blonde doll
to play with!

Mummi-ji, I don’t want to wear it to school.
North London laughs too easily,
makes fools of us and this mix-up family, this
half-caste council-estate bastard.

Miss Minchin, one arm shorter than the other
knew how North London could laugh, and said:
Knock on all six doors and tell them
Miss Minchin says I must show the children
my clothes from Pakistan.

Mummi-ji, the glass on the doors is too high
and all those eyes
as I turn round and round, up on teachers’ tables
to twist in my pretty pink pyjama suit
like a little blonde doll.

On Sleeping Alone

oh my oh my what big teeth you have letters of love smelling of sandalwood in your special box of disappointment and raging not sleeping soundly remembering that you should be the start of the happy ever after story not the little girl swallowed whole to be saved by the woodman and his wielded axe

wolves in sheep’s clothing

grannies’ bonnets tied with a ribbon under their sweet little chins

now I sit tight on the lid

Pandora was not heavy in her hips like me not grounded by her own strong living days and nights

I am drawn instead to my own songs to let them sing in the fresh air love letters to myself wearing the blue slip with the butterfiles I take up the pretty teapot for one the scracthy pen the days the life floating lonely happy and sad

the blank sheets.

– Deborah Alma

© text, Mendes Biondo and Deborah Alma; poems Deborah Alma 

Piece by Painted Piece

art-washes-away-from-the-soul-the-dust-of-everyday-life-50This month’s theme at the BeZine is “The Healing Value of the Arts”. The Arts have an intrinsic value in and of themselves, of course, but most of the time when people read or hear the word “Art”, they don’t associate it with healing or medicine. And yet, there is a very real power in art to be and do exactly that. I want to share a personal story with you about how art really can change a person’s life and help them heal.

My brother-in-law, whom I will call “TW”* for the sake of this post, is a proud USMC and Army National Guard veteran who served our country for almost a decade. He did tours in Bosnia and Iraq and when he returned to the States, he was not the same vibrant, easy-to-laugh young man who first enlisted. The things he witnessed and experienced overseas changed his mind to such a degree that his everyday functioning was affected. You see, TW suffers from severe, debilitating PTSD. There are good days and bad days, but on the bad days, his body freezes up and he has problems performing simple tasks that you and I might take for granted. He has been known to curl up into a fetal ball for hours at a time, trying to escape the monstrous hell his memory is reliving.

Of course, he has meds which his doctor prescribed for him, and they help…to a degree. But the most amazing treatment of all has been his painting. His art has helped save him more than any pill ever could. TW builds and paints hundreds of miniature figurines and it has become much more important to him than a simple hobby. He agreed to answer some questions about how this type of Art has changed his life and how it continues to help him get better.


Q: How did you get started in using painting to handle your PTSD?
TW: I was having so many panic attacks, and when that happens, there are a lot of times it’s something that you’re not aware of until you’re right in the middle of it. It’s like your body does its own thing, it floods with adrenaline, the nerves go haywire and it gets hard to control your emotions. That’s something you learn as a marine…you learn the ultimate control, you don’t feel fear or rage or any of that, because having emotions over there can get you or your buddies killed. So to not be able to control it like that makes me feel like I need to do better somehow.

I tried video games for awhile, but they didn’t help the same way that painting does. They say “idle hands are the devil’s work”, well, an idle mind is just as bad and I got sick and tired of being afraid all the time. So I was looking for an outlet, something to take the place of the fear, you know? Back in high school, I kind of messed around with models a little bit, so I thought, “Here’s something tangible to keep my mind and hands busy” and it just grew from that.

Q: How often do you paint and for how long at a time?
TW: At least once a week, but sometimes a lot more. It just depends on when inspiration hits, and if or when I need it. I’ve learned some of my triggers, but the attacks can still creep up on me and can happen at any time. If I feel like one is starting, then I can take some meds and start focusing on my painting and it helps calm me down almost immediately. I usually paint for a few hours, but sometimes it can go all day. It just depends.

Why do you think it helps?

TW: Well, this may sound weird, but it’s a routine I do. I have several steps, and those steps have steps. Like, I prepare my work space, and that might be two or three steps. Then I pick out my paints and brushes, and that’s a couple more steps, and so on. It’s a ritual, and it helps calm my mind by giving me something tangible to focus on, one thing at a time.

Another part of it is the ethos of the figurines I paint. What I mean is that the lore behind the models is something that empowers me. These figures, they’re Space Marines, so of course I can relate to that part of it, but it’s a fantasy world, too – they’re soldiers who don’t ever feel fear, they never get PTSD; I can command troops and build my own army without any of the weaknesses of real people. I mean, they’re super-human, genetically engineered warriors. So being able to pour myself into that…helps me feel better about myself, helps me be stronger.

Q: Have you told your doctor about it and has it affected what kinds or the amounts of medicine(s) you take?
TW: Yeah, I did tell him about it and it’s encouraged for patients like me to keep busy and calm. He called it a constructive focus, so that I can come back to reality with a possible different perspective, from a different place mentally. As far as the meds go, I can tell you this: before I started painting, I used to drink, a lot – to escape all of it…and now I don’t. I have a pretty good schedule for the meds I do have to take, but on days when I decide to paint, I don’t need some of them because I just don’t have any attacks on those days.

Plus, if I’m going through a period of insomnia, which happens more than I want, I can paint and come down enough that I can actually get to sleep. Most of the time, though, I like to paint during the high sun of the afternoon and my doctor has encouraged that, because the sunshine helps with my moods, too. It also helps me see how the models look with details that show up in natural light that don’t always show under artificial light.

Do you think it could help other veterans like you and have you mentioned it to anyone else whom it might help?

TW: Yeah, I do. I mean, it’s not for everybody, and some people might find it boring, but it’s helped me become more patient, keeps me calm and focused. Making sure all the details come out right is a good challenge for me. A couple of my buddies are vets, too, although they’re from different units, and I’ve told them how much it helps. But everybody has to find what works for them, and I think it’s good if you already have an interest in it, like I used to be sort of interested in it in high school. But I recommend that anybody should try it because you never can tell. I know it’s worked for me and I think it would work for other people, too.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that Art can’t heal. I’ve witnessed it, so I know that it can. I know TW’s case isn’t the only one, or the only way that art has helped someone. Look around, pay attention. I bet you can find ways that The Arts heal people, too. 🙂

* When I asked my brother-in-law what nickname I should use for this piece, he said to call him “The Wizard”. It’s a private joke with his doctor, about the ‘powers’ that each of them have to help TW get better. I abbreviated it to keep it from being too distracting to read.

©text and photographs, Corina Ravenscraft


Shadow_PlayA couple of days after the election my wife, Jennie, and I found ourselves teaching a master class at the Expressive Arts Therapies Summit in New York City. The class, an exploration of the uses of puppetry for clinical and social change, was an all-day affair, and we were teaching the afternoon portion. In the room with us were a group of long-time mental health clinicians and a few students and educators. All were artists as well.

Jennie and I had worked all summer on a brief toy theatre/object theatre performance that we hoped would introduce the group to some of the key concepts and concerns we wanted to share with them. The “play” was about the efforts of a village to resist loosing their beloved land to ruthless politicians and developers. Unfortunately, we could not decide on an ending, although we tried many. With each new idea, the structure of both the set and the play changed; this became a grueling process.

The day before the class we were sitting in a restaurant across Central Park from the Met, having breakfast, when we settled on the idea that, rather than having an ending, we would stop the performance and shift into Forum Theatre, in which the audience is invited to come up and try out a number of alternative endings. Sure enough, audience members gleefully presented a series of very satisfying endings, most of which we had not thought of.

Jennie then announced that as there seemed to be a good deal of angst in the room, we were, with the permission of the participants, going to teach less and focus on facilitating their creation of short performances. She reassured everyone that whatever happened and whatever was said was to remain in the room. Immediately a woman in the back of the room stood, introduced herself as an experienced clinician, and said, “I just want to get an AK-47 and start shooting people.” There followed a collective gasp. (Wow! What a brave person!) Jennie asked whether others had similar thoughts, and many hands went up, mine included. Suddenly, there was breathing space in the room!

The discussion that followed made room for tears and fears, much anger, and a tiny bit of hope. There was also a good deal of laughter as twenty-five clinicians of diverse ethnicities and sexual orientations compared post election notes. A couple of hours later five groups of clinician-artists presented the plays they had spontaneously developed. The creativity, visual engagement, and deeply held feeling of the pieces resulted in works of rare beauty and power.

At the conclusion of the class, participants spoke with us about the palpable relief they felt in being able to safely put aside their clinician role and give expression to their raw experience. Others stopped us in the halls the following day to share similar thoughts. Clearly, playing with puppets had allowed much healing.

We were not surprised. Puppets have long held a special role in many cultures, freely saying and doing much that would be dangerous or forbidden for mere humans. They carry a sense of the uncanny, seeming to act independently from, and often, in spite of, their human collaborators. Puppets have a propensity for truth telling that can leave the observer moved, mirth filled, and/or dumbfounded. They seem inherently suited to healing.

We have put away the set for our puppet play, although if we can find an ending that works we may take it out and make a video. We’re talking about creating the next piece of toy/object theatre. For the moment though, we are still processing the events of the past few months. I wonder whether those experiences will feed the next play, or whether the piece will arise from something we have not yet encountered or imagined. We’ll see.

© text and photo, Michael Watson

The Power of the Word

He lay silent, wordless
trapped in a body of pain
no movement possible
no hope of recovery.

Outside the trees sang their arias
conducted by the breeze
it was a painting of life
his eyes rested on the light.
She sat beside him stroking his hand
passing the touch of life with every stroke
as she read poetry the soft words
familiar rhythms entered his ears

brought healing peace through this sense
as the day slipped into evening’s song
the poems became prayers.

© Carolyn O’Connell


Poetry finds you when you are broken, insists on taking you into its fold, puts your pieces together and then you never leave.

It struck me when I was standing at the doorway of my home one July that the sunshine over the mussaenda was a rare shade of rose-gold and that the leaves under it were a luminous green. The street noises seemed to recede as if the stage had been taken over by some other troupe and sure enough, there was a sudden onset of activity. An excited squirrel ran up and down the guava tree, a few babblers screamed and the jackfruit tree came to life with bird cries. All because there was a long rat snake slithering leisurely across the sunlit ground. There had been stray tears on my cheek and I was a dam on the verge of a collapse but then the other world swung in and took over from me.
I was privy to nature’s poetry slam. I wanted nothing to capture it, not a camera, or a laptop nor pen and paper. A poem followed by several others swung its legs over the cacophony of humdrum routines and marched into me settling deep into waiting trenches filling me up with purpose and with immense joy. While steadily ploughing up the driest top soil and turning it over to the elements to ravage, it was changing me.

I remembered Stanley Kunitz’s translation of Akhmatova’s lines

“No foreign sky protected me,
no stranger’s wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
survivor of that time, that place.”

Writing a poem is akin to exercising. To begin is difficult at times because it is easier to wallow in conceptual dramas and imaginary hammocks than to sit in one place and write or type. Think about the singular joy of munching on peanuts and reading fitness magazines on the couch compared to going running on a cold day.

Some poems are difficult to birth even while being exhilarating with senses functioning at heightened awareness and making one sore with the intensity of thought . Once begun, every thought zooms into the present; nature, politics and emotions collide, collaborate and confound the notions of what constitutes poetry. The end comes when the experience has gone through like a sword and untwisted all the overlapping images to give one’s vision a clarity that is brighter than the sunbathed green leaves of the mussaenda.

Winner of the T.S Elliot award 2012 Poet John Burnside said,“Poetry reminds us that lakes and mountains are more than items on a spreadsheet; when a dictatorship imprisons and tortures its citizens, people write poems because the rhythms of poetry and the way it uses language to celebrate and to honour, rather than to denigrate and abuse, is akin to the rhythms and attentiveness of justice. Central to this attentiveness is the key ingredient of poetry, the metaphor, which Hannah Arendt defined as “the means by which the oneness of the world is poetically brought about”. It’s that power to bring things together, to unify experience as “the music of what happens”, that the best poetry achieves.”

It also unifies the people reading it and the poets who write it because we search for affirmation, for reassurance that our feelings and experiences are shared by someone else somewhere and that we aren’t all alone though our pursuit of the game is almost always solitary.

While the visualized poem changes a lot after being handed over to language, the thing that is most changed at the end of the writing is me. I feel kindly and tolerant to all forms of obstacles and injustices that were hindering the poem till then, feeling mostly gratitude for the crash course on changing perception. If there is more indecision, more poems might be written.

As David Biespiel says”You become a poet when you navigate your poem’s labyrinths of mutability, not to a point of stasis, but to a point where your discoveries blossom into ecstasy, intoxication, even beatitude — or, to downplay that bit of grandiosity, into clarity, insight, judgment, understanding, private vision.”

And believe me language plays a mighty role here – give it all the vocabulary and range you can and the poem rushes through like a thing on fire. Don’t let anyone tell you that language doesn’t matter. It does. It does. It does. You wouldn’t want to be subjected to an operation if your doctor uses an rusty, blunt knife he found while swimming in the ocean. It is the same thing with poetry. Hone your weapons before you go to war. Because after that poem is written, you are healed of whatever ailed you. The better your poem, the better you feel. I have no complaints about life as long as I can write because there somewhere between the thought and the written word, lies my wetland, my wildlife reserve, my sanctuary.

Leaving you with Amiri Baraka’s lines from Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
“Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus…

Things have come to that.”

©Reena Prasad

Armageddon and The Art of French Cooking

“Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.” – Nietzsche

Civilization kills. We are living in apocalyptic times. The Anthropocene is here; humans are dominating and destroying the Earth. Like all civilizations in history, though, ours will fall back into the dust, and Earth will absorb it in some fashion. I get angry with humans because of this. Our arrogance and hubris and stupidity is truly abhorrent. I would wash my hands from all association with my species if I could, but for two things: music and food. I am willing to forgive everything for Puccini and Marcona almonds sauteed in butter and thyme.

Perhaps it is nothing but hedonism to feel that my pleasure in a fine meal at La Reve on Tuesday might bring me back from the brink of utter despair. The “Holiday Train” event in the village late that afternoon had created horrific traffic congestion with black-clad pedestrians pushing strollers into the dark streets while some pop Christmas frenzy blared over a loudspeaker. I felt truly Scroogeish; humans are complete humbug. But then the ambiance of a Parisian bistro — chattering guests and tremulous accordion melodies — and the buttery oak in the Chardonnay spread its warmth over that cold, post-Truth fear surrounding my heart. I asked Irene, our Asian-American server, about how the chef prepared the pumpkin soup. We talked about how roasting brings out the deeper flavors of vegetables and stock bones and what items on the menu were gluten-free. By the time I had savored my way through triple-cream brie, salmon, lamb and chocolate caramel, I was ready to admit atonement of the human race was possible.


The next day, however, my thoughts turned dark again. How could I justify the expense of that meal, even though almost half of the cost to me was covered by a gift certificate? How had the animals invested in that meal been treated? How far had the ingredients traveled on fossil fuels to get to my plate? My awareness of suffering may have been dulled for a time, but it was not erased. I may have been treated quite well, but was I healed?

Healing. In Western culture, it’s about fixing pathology. In Eastern culture, it’s about making whole. Awareness is about opening up to understand the whole, the complete Oneness of the Universe. “Life is suffering” is the first noble Truth in Buddhism. Suffering is in the Oneness. Arising from the awareness of suffering are two responses (at least): Fear and Compassion.buddha

I experience my fear for the human race and my compassion for it as well, blended contrapuntally. To recognize that only as thoughts criss-crossing my brain might drive me mad. To see that reflected in a complex pairing of wine and cheese or in the first act duet of Mimi and Rudolfo in La Boheme saves me from perishing from the ugly truth. I will never comprehend the Truth, although I live it every day. Making, enjoying, or experiencing Art is as close as I may ever come to holding the Whole in my heart. I believe that those who practice Meditation seek to do the same, while sparing the harm caused in producing Art.

May we all find a way to happiness, a way not to perish from the Truth, a way to be at peace with the Whole.


© text and photos, Priscilla Galasso