William Sieghart: ‘I want people to drop their fear of poetry’ | Books … – The Guardian

Publisher and philanthropist William Sieghart has many strings to his bow: he is the force behind the Forward poetry prize, a philanthropist who has set up charities to help the homeless and mediate in the Middle East. He is chairman of the Somerset House Trust, was commissioned by the government to review libraries and is a pusher – in the best sense – of poetry. After the publication of his anthology, Winning Words: Inspiring Poems for Everyday Life (2012), he has come up with The Poetry Pharmacy: Tried-and-True Prescriptions for the Heart, Mind and Soul, a “self-help book for life, using poetry”. For every affliction – loneliness, love, low self-esteem, lethargy – he prescribes a poem. The Poetry Pharmacy can, he hopes, be consulted as the Victorians might a herbalist and be kept for use in emergencies.

How did the idea of a poetry pharmacy come about?
A friend, Jenny Dyson, came up with the idea. At literary festivals, I’d set up in a little tent with a couple of armchairs and a prescription pad and see people for 10-minute slots. We had prescriptions printed that would include things like: “Take the poem but don’t operate machinery afterwards.” I thought it would be no more than a bit of a gimmick – but it really took off. People would queue and, three or four hours later, I’d not be finished. I had spent my life trying to get poetry out of “poetry corner” with National Poetry Day, the Forward prize… but many people remain intimidated by poetry; there is this sense of a slim-volume elite. I wanted people to drop their fear of the P-word.

How did you conduct your sessions?
I would ask lots of questions. The fact that people have come does not mean they are willing to open the door to a stranger. Sometimes, they’d say: “I don’t know why I’m here, I don’t have any problems, my life is great.” Those were the people who often would be crying within five minutes.

What was the most common problem?
Loneliness – exacerbated by social media.

You explain in your introduction how a poem once unexpectedly came to your rescue?
It was Ambulances by Philip Larkin. I had this extraordinary experience. I was about to cross the road when someone stepped in front of me and was hit by a car. I found myself pumping his heart, giving him the kiss of life – amazingly, his heart started beating again. An ambulance came, the police took my statement.

Apart from blood on my hands, I had a poem in my head – the startling poem in which Larkin reflects that all streets will eventually be visited by an ambulance. The people who see the body carried away and say “poor soul” are whispering at “their own distress”.

But how was this comforting?
It was not reassuring, but it offers complicity. Poetry is not a lullaby. Poems help you feel you are not mad, that what you are going through has been experienced by others. Take Recension Day by Duncan Forbes. His poem will not mend your broken heart, but it will help you wallow.

Wallowing can be just what the doctor ordered. You also prescribe poetry as a spur to pursue dreams. You write: “People can spend entire lifetimes putting off the risks that might make them happiest.” What is your greatest leap of faith?
Blimey! The biggest is getting married. No one tells you when you’re young that it’s the most important decision you will make in your life.

You are married to film-maker Molly Dineen – ever prescribed a poem for her?
No [laughs].

You prescribe a striking number of poems by mystic Persian poets Hafez and Rumi…
Persian or Iranian people say: “We don’t need a pharmacy book, we have Hafez.” Written 700 years ago, their poems have depth, range and contemporary relevance. Poetry is crucial for continuity. We live in a world of terrifying immediacy and uncertainty – Donald Trump has just said he’d be happy to take out North Korea. It is hard to protect our fragile psyches from assault. There are no easy fixes, but that is why we turn to poetry. Pursuing truths is worthwhile: the cupboard you thought was full of snakes turns out to be full of dust.

The Poetry Pharmacy: Tried-and-True Prescriptions for the Heart, Mind and Soul by William Sieghart is published by Particular Books (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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