Poetry and #dementiaawarenessweek

Margaret pointing to the pink windowsill

At 8am this morning I was on the phone to BBC Hereford & Worcester, talking about making poems with people living with dementia, and later on, I was in Highwell House Nursing Home in Bromyard, really making poems.

I shared printouts of a painting by Joan Eardley around the room of ten people.  Not everyone has dementia, though several have it quite badly.  I’ve been working with this group for over a year. Today, Joan Eardley’s painting of 1950s children on the streets of the Gorbals proved very popular with everyone.  I write down (a desperate scribble) exactly what they say:
“Oh they’re joyous!  They’re real children”.
“You can see your own children in there”.
“Look at the mum’s tired face”.
“I love the little boy in the braces. His trousers are too big.  His face is too thin”.

After a while I read back to them my scrambled notes, ‘so far’.  Everyone listens, and then I go back round the room, speaking to individuals and persuading further contributions.

Later, at home, I put together a group of poems.  I don’t add any of my own words, but I restructure the ones I took down in my notes.  I think this is today’s favourite.

Pink Windowsill

Red hair, red cardigan buttoned at the top. What’s that dark
in her hair?  Oh, is it the shadows?
I was always knitting cardigans
for my own children.

Mother’s tried to brighten the windowsill
by painting it pink.

Words from Jean, Jim, Peter, Iris, Cecil, John, Isobel, Margaret, Jean, Stella

Next week I’ll take the poems back to the group and we’ll read them and enjoy them slowly – and probably twice.

And then we’ll make some more.




Older voices on BBC Shropshire Radio

Apple in hand

So delightful this morning to have the chance to share poems made with residents of Highwell House Nursing Home on BBC Radio Shropshire with the wonderfully enthusiastic Jim Hawkins.

The link is here: and the clip is at 1hr: 39  (or listen to the show from 1h for more on poetry in Shropshire, including Jonathan Day‘s new work ‘Lyric’).

Here’s one of the poems I read.  It was made by writing down conversations with the group as they happened, which then I worked into the poem, using only the residents’ words, but finding a form and line-endings for the poem.  These are the voices of Jim Cecil, Eddie, Vera, Wilf, Peter, Stella, Margaret and Iris.


We’ve all scrambled through life.
We don’t know why
we go through it, but we do.
It’s called experience.
It’s been an amazing life.
We don’t know
how wise we are. 

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

Five Sites, Five Senses : disability, poetry & landscape

I’m working on a great project with partners Shropshire Hills AONB, the Vision Homes charity in Ludlow, Loudwater Studio and all-round dynamo and now good friend, Julia Walling from Woods for Wellbeing.  We’re taking 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.

In this way, for example, at Carding Mill Valley, I went with a blind man and his carer up a steep short path and over a plank bridge to reach a bird hide.  His carer walked backwards over the plank bridge, holding his hands to guide him safely across.  Once we got into the bird hide, it struck me that of course we were not going to look.  We listened.

5 Sites 5 Senses Loudwater poem bird hide CROPWe’ve made visits now to three of the Five Sites: Carding Mill Valley, Gleanings Rural Study Centre and Brynmawr Care Farm.  Our big scrapbook record is taking shape.  It includes photographs of participants, artwork by both service users and carers, my poetry drawn from conversation and observation, and artwork by Julia Walling.Book Carding Mill 5 CROP

Book Gleanings 2 Book Carding Mill 3 Book Brynmawr 2

In The Pink – a poetry project with people living with dementia

Lillian cups a tiny bird’s nest in today’s session in a Hereford Care Home.  She isn’t able to speak much, bLillian & nest Charles Court March2015 JAut she was utterly delighted.  It was marvellous to be able to bring such pleasure.

What bird lived here? 
So sweet. Soft.  
Keeps warm, I expect.

I don’t think we could do that.
They’re so clever. They just do it
with their beaks.

true     true    true
off they’ll fly

look there, look there

rspb_blackbird_big_grandeI also brought in a little RSPB blackbird, complete with song.  He sang to everyone in the room, and prompted some marvellous language, which I transcribed on the spot and later worked into poems, adding no words of my own.  Here is Paula’s poem.

Blackbird’s Eye

 Oh I’ve got him, I’ve got him.
He says, you’re nosy, just mind
your own business.
He has a pearly eye.

He sees everything.
He misses nothing.

I look in his eye.
I look in his eye.
Tweet, tweet, tweet.

He lifts in the air.
He rises to a height.
He flies away.

He didn’t tell you
what he said.
He’s coming back
another day.

Just contrails passing/ over us, & near/ a blackbird warns

Mod rock birds in the making

We met in Loudwater Studio in Ludlow to work on various kinds of art reflecting the project ‘Loudwater Studio in the Shropshire Hills’.  All these different pieces will form part of a three-dimensional sketchbook recording the visits of Loudwater Studio clients to five different and special places in the Shropshire Hills.
These beautiful birdRed Kite gets wingss are made from paper and Modrock plaster of Paris, with wire for feet.   One of the Vision Homes residents was painting them with her carer, while Julia worked on a huge Red Kite.

Here he is, having his wings fitted.


And below is a shrew thaShrew tilet Julia found, very dead, and which she most resourcefully pressed into a clay block to create this, erm, shrew death mask.


I worked on sorting out the words I’d gathered and tinkered with while we were up at Bury Ditches.


Here’s part of the poem.  I made it into what will become a path winding through the bottom of the Bury Ditches ‘page’ of the three dimensional sketchbook.

Poem Today at Bury Ditches 2







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