Beth Calverley and her Poetry Machine have become familiar sights at events, festivals and workshops in Bristol and beyond over the last few years. What is not so well known is the amount of work she does to bring poetry to the wider Bristol community; with schools and hospitals (recently being made Poet in Residence at South Bristol Community Hospital) and with charities and businesses such as Teenage Cancer Trust, University of the West of England and Arnos Vale Cemetery.
She took time out of her busy schedule to reveal more about The Poetry Machine and what poetry can do to change lives.
When did you first get interested in poetry?
I’ve always been in love with stories. I wrote my first poem aged 7 and started performing at open mics aged 8. My village primary school teachers were lush. They let me write poems during class once I finished my other work, and sent me on residential writing adventures. I was unwell during adolescence and was affected by parental illness, so poetry became a way to express my emotions and search for truth.
How does The Poetry Machine work?
With my travelling machine, I visit events, festivals, hospitals, schools and universities across the country, writing poems for students, patients, staff and guests. I’ve developed my co-creation practice to surprise and inspire guests while making sure they feel completely relaxed and supported. I start by conducting a warm conversation with each person, and then I write an original poem on my vintage typewriter in minutes especially for them. Afterwards, I read the poem aloud, before handing it to them to keep forever or give to a loved one.
What inspired you to set up The Poetry Machine?
I set up The Poetry Machine because I wanted to make it easy for everyone to take part in poetry, which can seem intimidating to some people. The machine is playful, with a bubble machine and flagpole – shy guests often tell me that their curiosity has got the better of them!
The feedback I receive inspires me to continue building The Poetry Machine. I’ve been told that I bring light into people’s lives and help them to put their thoughts and emotions into words. It’s the best feeling ever to see kids tugging their parents’ arms and pleading for a poem!
You take The Poetry Machine into institutions, including hospitals. What do you think poetry can do to help those suffering with a serious illness?
I’m Poet in Residence at South Bristol Community Hospital, funded by Above & Beyond as part of University Hospitals Bristol NHS Trust’s Arts Programme. I work with patients, carers and staff at the hospital, at patients’ bedsides and in activity rooms. There are many patients with stroke or dementia related illness, and a high proportion of elderly patients. I also work with patients who are receiving cancer therapy treatments.
There is a growing body of evidence that artistic intervention can positively affect mood, pain and healing while in hospital. It helps to keep patients cognitively stimulated which can prevent the onset of “pyjama paralysis”. During my visits, patients tell me that I lift their spirits, capture how they feel and provide a renewed sense of hope. I believe that receiving a tangible poem can help people to process and externalise their emotions. When a patient chooses to give their poem to a friend or carer, this may also help to restore the relationship balance between “patient” and “visitor”. Giving something back is a powerful act.
Many of the older patients I work with love the sound of the typewriter. It reminds them of days gone by when they worked with or around typewriters. The keys create quite a clatter, but the sound has a relaxing, rejuvenating effect.
Poetry can also fire up a new or latent skill that becomes a foundation for fresh experiences after hospital. Some of the young people I work with through the Teenage Cancer Trust have gone on to continue writing and even compete in poetry slams after recovering.
What are some of the hardest poems you’ve had to write for The Poetry Machine?
I can’t give you specific examples without talking about people’s stories, so I’ll speak generally.
It’s always a responsibility when people ask for a poem to fulfill a certain purpose, or to express a delicate message to someone they care about. When someone is in a difficult place, my challenge is to articulate hope, while staying true to their feelings.
The hardest briefs can create the most vital poems. I tap into some inner resource and completely focus my energy on the task in hand.
Bristol poetry is really thriving at the moment. Why do you think the city has such a dynamic scene?
This is a creative, socially-conscious city, the perfect place for poetry to thrive. Our community is fuelled by dedicated promoters who work hard to create platforms for passionate writers and supportive audiences. The community is growing and finding its place in this city’s most iconic venues: Milk Poetry is relocating to The Wardrobe Theatre soon, Blahblahblah takes place at Bristol Old Vic and Raise The Bar is at Arnolfini. Yet there is always that grassroots feel and a consciousness of where we started: upstairs in that cosy backstreet pub you stumbled upon one night.
Which poets do you most admire?
I’ll try to keep this brief, which means I’m going to miss loads of people out, including poets whose work I think about every day: the natural soundscapes of Seamus Heaney, the concise wit of Wendy Cope, Pink Mist is an incredible spoken word play by Owen Sheers, Benjamin Zephaniah’s work taught me how to be warm and challenging simultaneously.
The long list of South West poets I admire include my fellow Milk team members Malaika Kegode, Tom Denbigh, and Sam Grudgings. Also, Tom Sastry and Melanie Branton. Lyricists I admire are Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.
And finally, Dr Seuss’ Oh The Places You’ll Go is a poem that all aspiring creatives should read to buoy themselves up. I’ll leave you with an extract:
Out there things can happen
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you.
And when things start to happen,
don’t worry. Don’t stew.
Just go right along.
You’ll start happening too.
She will also be co-running a character-based creative writing workshop with award-winning author Alison Powell of Write Club on June 23. For more information, visit https://www.jumblebee.co.uk/Character
Main picture credit: Tim Lo