‘Prescribed’ poetry panaceas helping to combat lockdown loneliness

  • Events for National Social Prescribing Day on 18 March took place virtually this year 
  • The first time it's been celebrated under coronavirus restrictions and during a nationwide lockdown
  • Poetry Health Service is helping to fill the gap left by no social interaction, 'prescribing' poems to encourage connection and positive mental wellbeing 

As National Social Prescribing day was celebrated virtually for the first time due to lockdown restrictions, a Manchester-based wellbeing service is continuing to ‘prescribe’ poetry panaceas in an effort to keep the country connected. 

The Poetry Health Service (PHS) is the realised vision of writer, playwright and poet Hafsah Aneela Bashir and came to fruition as part of HOME theatre’s ‘Homemakers’ project.

Artists were asked to create ‘work from home, for an audience who are also at home’

As an Oldham Coliseum Theatre Homemakers commission in collaboration with HOME, the PHS operates as an interactive service that prescribes a poetry panacea based on the completion of a colour-based flowchart. With the interaction design by London-based company Coney, the user is then invited to write a haiku in return. 

“During the first lockdown, there was a lot of fear and anxiety and my first priority was to keep people safe,” Hafsah said.

“I knew that I couldn’t write poetry myself as I wasn’t in that headspace – so I thought, what can I offer at this time?”

PHS founder Hafsah Aneela Bashir

The PHS evolved from a lockdown initiative held over Instagram live in which Hafsah read to the masses, creating a circular network between strangers and building connections through poetry. 

The Homemakers commission allowed Hafsah to expand her idea beyond her social media reach, with the project being financed by HOME theatre’s pandemic response fund. 

The theatre ran scores of online events from September 2020 through to January this year, turning the definition of ‘live performances’ on its head – with commissions including streaming, recordings and interactive stories from a host of creatives. 

Hafsah invited both upcoming and well-established poets to donate poems to the PHS, with some celebrated names including the 2019 TS Eliot Prize Winner, Theresa Lola and the Young People’s Laureate for London, Antony Anaxagorou

Hafsah said: “What’s really unique about this service is the lesser known writers as well; the community writers, the emerging writers, the people who don’t even call themselves writers – they also wanted to contribute. It’s poetry by the people, for the people.”

Social prescribing day aims to raise awareness of the practice, whereby healthcare professionals recommend patients non-clinical activites or services to improve their mental and physical wellbeing. 

According to The King’s Fund, these can include cooking, gardening or befriending, and intend to aid those with varying social, emotional or practical requirements. These can include people with mental health issues, numerous long-term conditions, complex needs or those who are self-isolated.

Meanwhile, artforms such as poetry, commonly used in medical practice for holistic – and even physical – benefits, are being widely encouraged by experts during this pandemic to facilitate positive wellbeing. 

This form of self-expession has become much more accesible in recent years and is now being enjoyed outside of its usual confines in books or schooling. Poems can range from sonnets to ‘silly ditties’ and are often sent instantaneously through social media. 

Shannon Westacott, a resident poet at Manchester-based mental health charity 42nd Street, is also a strong advocate of the artform for wellbeing purposes. 

She said: “Writing poetry provides an outlet where your feelings can be heard or explored, whilst sharing your work or reading the work of others is an opportunity for connection, reassurance and validation in what is an incredibly isolating time.”

A poem by Shannon Westacott, from 42nd Street

MMU’s Poetry Society echoes Shannon’s sentiments, as Society Chair, Ariadna Garrido explains: “Poetry is the white canvas where we paint our emotions. Writing it is an understanding that connection between what we see and how we feel it.”

Moreover, Social Secretary, Hope Donaldson said: “Poetry can serve both as an escape when the walls seem to be closing in and as self-therapy when lockdown is taking a toll on our mental health.

“We can share our poetry and connect with the inner worlds of other people while the outer world is inaccesible and scary.”

Hafsah is confident that people will continue to find the PHS an effective approach to confronting the worries and woes they may be experiencing throughout these unprecented times.

The website already hosts a vast number of testimonials proclaiming its effectiveness from people all around the globe. 

She said: “I couldn’t write a full-length poem in the whole of lockdown, but something as small as a haiku made what I wanted to say much more potent.

“Sometimes when you give someone a limitation, there’s some sort of freedom in that; to be able to fit your feelings into that tight structure feels doable.

“I believe the PHS is one of those services that can provide that moment of stillness and muindfulness in your day, no matter how busy you are, or how chaotic it is in your mind. It can reach out and make somebody feel a bit less alone and connected … just for that moment.” 

Hafsah is the founder and co-directer of a women-led arts and activism collective Outside the Frame Arts and has worked in association with Manchester Literature Festival and The Royal Exchange Theatre

She published her first poetry collection The Celox and the Clot in 2018 and was the winner of the Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellowship the following year. Mental health has remained a consistent theme throughout Hafsah’s extensive catalogue of work.