Poetry, Punch & Judy in a Care Home

The children sat in front, legs crossed, looking up.
You want to be a bit scared, then brought back
into the real world again.
He had a trail of children following him, 
just like the Pied Piper,
all bewitched.

This week I was working in a Herefordshire care home with a large group of elderly people, many of whom are living with dementia.  I work regularly with this group, and this time I took them my grandpa’s Punch and Judy puppets to look at.

The puppets were passed round, their fragile condition much remarked on, and soon the conversation was flowing.  I keep the ball rolling, and do my best to write down as much verbatim, of what people say.  No punctuation!  Doing this work has made me inventive with a personalised shorthand…

Later, at home, I work on these notes to make poems, using only the words actually spoken, so adding none of my own.  Here are some photographs and extracts from the poems.DSCF0044

Mr Punch looks sly.  You wouldn’t trust him.
He’s on the make.  The Policeman did
a lot of shouting.  He wags his finger
at Mr Punch.DSCF0047


This ghost is a bit menacing.  Feel that rough carving.
It’s been handled such a lot.
That skull’s all shiny
with people smoothing its head.
He’s bad before you look at him.

Next week I’ll be back in the care home to read the group the poems we made together.  And make some more.


Poetry, disability, joy and fog on the Stiperstones

I turned off the engine.  The car informed me it was 9 degrees outside on the Stiperstones.  Visibility was down to 20 yards, but I could just see a few cold-looking people pulling on extra layers in the car park.

#5Sites5Senses is a collaborative project which takes people with severe disabilities, with their carers, out into the nearby countryside in the Shropshire Hills. It’s called Five Sites, Five Senses to reflect the nature of the places we’ve been out to visit, and bearing in mind the various and differing capacities of the service users.  My role is to make poetry with everyone, capturing voices and creating a record of our experiences together in these beautiful places.

Unsurprisingly, the state of the weather had put off some of our regulars, but here we all are (except me, behind the camera) at the start of our expedition along the all-access trail.

Everyone at Stiperstones

We told stories of the Stiperstones, of how the devil comes to sit on the Devil’s Chair when the cloud is down (so yes, he must have been in residence), of 11th century Wild Edric, who it is said sleeps with his soldiers under the hill, ready to protect this place from harm.  Bob the artist, who comes along as a volunteer, asked if we knew how to make a fairies’ handmirror.

Do you know how to make a fairy’s handmirror?
His waterproofs crackle as he bends to pick one

green stem from flowering reeds beside the path

& twists it to oval.  He grips the flattened swirls
of his handmirror’s handle.  He dips it, once, twice,
& a third time, through rainsilver folds of cobweb

while out on the steeps & crinkles of the moor
the fairies tread the heather, unseen in fog: 
Cherry, Tamarisk, & Toadflax Pug.

The Fairies Handmirror 

Jenni Tibbett from Natural England, was walking with us.  She told us about the three Exmoor ponies that graze on the Stiperstones.  Their names are Cherry, Tamarisk and Toadflax Pug.

We focussed on what was close at hand. The marvellous September cobwebs. The brilliant strangeness of Fly Agaric fungus.  The brightness of rowan berries.

Fly Agarics Stiperstones
By birches the quick and sinister/ year turns, & Fly Agaric ripens
Rainy cobweb Stiperstones
Here’s a cobweb draped on gorse/ cold drips pegged out on silk
Rowan Berries Stiperstones
Rowan berries shout through grey:/ fetch redstarts

When everyone was starting to feel cold, we scarpered down to the Bog Visitor Centre, who gave us a most warm welcome, hot tea, and homemade cake, while we told stories and sang songs.  Later, I put this together.  Maybe we’ll sing it together next time we meet.

When dragons died of fighting on this hill
they smashed down on the ridge & left their bones
for Shepherd’s Rock, for Devil’s Chair, for Manstone Rock,
for Cranberry Rock, for Nipstone.

When simple giants were tricked and shamed
they dropped their loads of stones along these paths
for Shepherd’s Rock, for Devil’s Chair, for Manstone Rock,
for Cranberry Rock, for Nipstone.

When Devil was fooled his tears of molten lead seeped
down through hill to mines.  He flies in cloud to Stiperstones
by Shepherd’s Rock, by Devil’s Chair, by Manstone Rock,
by Cranberry Rock, by Nipstone.   

Men last no longer than snowflakes in summer.  Nights
fog tugs at your clothes, you’ll catch a stink of sulphur
by Shepherd’s Rock, by Devil’s Chair, by Manstone Rock,  
by Cranberry Rock, by Nipstone. 

Poetry and Dementia – on film

For three years I worked as a freelance poet for In The Pink, a poetry and dementia project managed by Courtyard Arts in Hereford.  As the project reached the end of its funding cycle they made this little film, which focuses particularly on the work I was doing in one of Herefordshire’s care homes.  I like the film because it demonstrates the joy and engagement of these very elderly people with words, and with each other.

VERSE TO GO! – your choice!

Today I had a lovely time at Helena Lane Day Centre’s Open Day in Ludlow.  Helena Lane Poet at Work (1)They invited me along (in association with Creative Inspiration) to set up with my 1932 Good Companions Portable (Very Slow & Noisy) Typewriter.  Then all sorts of nice folk dropped by to order a poem. In no time I was clattering away making poems with them on requested subjects including:

  • Zumba
  • Snakes
  • Steam Trains
  • Komodo Dragons
  • Love
  • Being a chef
  • Being on the beach
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • His violin
  • Bouncy castles

Here’s a few!  I photographed them, then we tucked the poems into the envelopes and away they went.

Helena Lane Poet at Work (3) Patrick Helena Lane Poet at Work (8) Ollie Helena Lane Poet at Work (12) Snake

“Give us your inner guillemot!”

said John Hegley to Section E.  Section E was two nice people selected because they wore spectacles.  Sections A to D were whole corners of the very well-packed Sitting Room at the Blue Boar in Ludlow, but when their big moment came, the two members of Section E gave vent to their inner guillemot in style, bringing a wonderful night of poetry to a rampaging close.

John Hegley & Leaning Audience 2
“Lean to the left!”

Every two months I organise The Poetry Lounge in the Sitting Room, Ludlow’s open mic night with guest poets.  It’s great fun.  But last night we did excel ourselves, because we had not only the excellent poet Ian McEwen in town, but also Mr. John Hegley himself.
John read us poems about his grandmother, which teeter on the very brink between regret and celebration, he read poems about the great divide between spectacles and contact lenses, and generally delivered poems which carried the audience with him every joyful step of the way.

Lively audience
Happy Audience
Audience participation Ian McEwan
Ian McEwen inspiring some audience participation

Ian McEwen gave us a set described later (by poet Steve Griffiths) as both playful and substantial – an exact and accurate phrase I can’t improve on.  His Fridge poems, which were both thoughtful and surreal:  ‘the light that is/and isn’t there’ – were hugely well received.  He read us his National Poetry Competition prizewinning poem, the truly beautiful Our Lady of the Pylons.

… Her shadow

laid on corn, on tar, on earth,
is levering the sun around the earth,

to explain the hollow landscape,
and her faint construction-lines

are the gateways to a sky. Hum for us
Our Lady of the Pylons, hum for us
or hum

Ian finished his set by sending out his ‘poetry ninjas’ (oh, yes) to hand out copies of a poem for audience participation, ‘Fire’ ‘Fire’ Fire’ we all chanted happily.

As an audience we were also treated to some really fine performances from our Open Mic spot poets – it was just lovely to watch Nina Lewis’s rapport with her audience, hear Paul Francis’ honed sestina on Ian Duncan Smith, Graham Attenborough’s questioning on what we make poems for, Rob Harper on Arthur Smith’s difficulties in a newsagent’s queue, Meg Cox’s inimitable delivery of her Fuck poem, Miriam Obrey’s long weather-people poem and its riff on ‘Sumer is Icumen in’ and Claire Leavey, whose poem about displaced people created ‘the quietest quiet of the night’, said John Hegley afterwards.

Thank you everybody who came along, who performed, and thank you to Adam and all at The Blue Boar, who are so supportive and enthusiastic about The Poetry Lounge.

Miriam Obrey
Miriam Obrey
Meg Cox
Meg Cox
Graham Attenborough
Graham Attenborough
 John Hegley's Souvenir Poem & Jean's dad's railway sign from the downstairs loo.
John Hegley’s Souvenir Poem & Jean’s dad’s railway sign from the downstairs loo.


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