November 2020

Beth Calverley: The power of poetry

Image credit: Paul Blakemore

“Poems are simply extraordinary,” says poet Beth Calverley (English Language and Literature 2015). “In a short space of time, they can take you on a journey that changes the way you see the world.”

As founder of The Poetry Machine and Poet in Residence at University Hospitals Bristol and Weston (UHBW) NHS Foundation Trust, Beth co-creates poems with participants, helping them to experience that journey for themselves. Since setting up her freelance practice in 2018, Beth has collaborated with charities, companies, care settings, universities, councils, schools and festivals in Bristol and around the UK.

“I talk to participants. I listen closely before writing a poem which expresses the essence of what they’ve shared with me and reading it aloud to them. I then give them the poem to keep or give to a loved one. The poem is totally unique to them.

“Being a poet helps you to see the world differently. You’re always on the lookout for moments and experiences, and that enhances your connection with the world.” Beth is helping people to realise that they can do it too.

Image credit: Paul Blakemore

The ability to listen to and write under the eye of the waiting participant does not develop overnight. After writing poetry as a child and performing at community events, Beth continued to write through her teens, before her passion for the artform took flight at Leeds.

“Leeds rekindled my love of poetry and performing. I took a module in creative writing, and suddenly found people who loved poetry as much as I did. We relaunched the Spoken Word Society with the help of LUU, and I still remember our first event upstairs in LS6 café. We were so worried people weren’t going to come, but by the time it started people were lining up the stairs.

“There were a few things about Leeds that helped me. I was encouraged to get up and perform my work which was a great feeling. Alongside the Spoken Word Society, I took an early form of The Poetry Machine to events on campus, which gave me the confidence that it might work. I also developed the range of skills I needed to run a business – I was mentored by Tess Hornsby Smith, Learning and Teaching Enhancement Officer, who is so passionate about her work. Helping to run some of her projects honed the promotion, co-ordination and communication skills that are needed to get people feeling warm and excited about a project.”

“The Poetry Machine works well as a creative activity for staff members. Even small doses of creativity in your day have been shown to make people feel better.”

Beth Calverley (English Language and Literature 2015)
Founder of The Poetry Machine

Even so, when Beth graduated, the transition to full-time poet was not immediate. She found work as a Community Manager, supporting the online presence of third-sector organisations, before deciding to follow her passion full time. “I remember thinking, you can’t be a poet, can you? People don’t do that unless they’re really famous?”

She would prove herself wrong.

Beth started out by taking her typewriter to charity and company events, and soon found a formula that worked. Word spread, the business grew, and the machine expanded with it. The typewriter is now complemented by an umbrella, a bubble machine and a stamp – there’s an air of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang about it, which was the inspiration behind Beth’s design. “As I developed my practice, I realised that the sound of the typewriter helps people reminisce – particularly older people. The Poetry Machine excites people's curiosity and helps them to feel welcome to take part. I'm very grateful to Kieran and Ryan O'Shea, a family team of a theatre-maker and interior designer, who designed and built it for me.

“Now I’ve taken the machine to all sorts of places with hundreds of participants. I had an entire stag party in tears at a festival after writing a poem for the groom. I wrote 100 poems in a day for Sky at a family event. The Poetry Machine works well as a creative activity for staff members. Even small doses of creativity in your day have been shown to make people feel better. During the pandemic, it’s been great to bring people together when they’re socially distanced, from team writing workshops to family poetry parties.”

Image credit: Amanda Thomas

Beth’s work has taken her to universities, a natural fit given The Poetry Machine began in the setting, and she has visited Leeds as a workshop facilitator. She has even worked on placemaking projects – a form of public consultation that takes a people-centred approach to change – inviting people to express their thoughts and feelings about what matters to them in their local area.

But it is the impact in hospitals that is perhaps most striking. As a result of her work in health and wellbeing settings, Beth was appointed as Poet in Residence at UHBW NHS Foundation Trust. “Patients might be feeling anxious or isolated. I support them to express their experiences – or whatever they wish to share – through poetry. Sometimes patients ask for a poem to show their gratitude towards carers to give gratitude to carers when they don’t know how. It’s an honour to be able to help them through poetry.

“I’ve been working remotely during the pandemic, and earlier in the year I wrote a poem for the Intensive Care Unit to give to patients and relatives when they couldn’t visit one another. That was very well received.”

Appearances on BBC Radio 5 Live and making the finals of the Bristol Arts Awards are testimony to the fact that Beth’s reputation is on the rise. But equally satisfying for her is the fact she is introducing the world of poetry to people who might otherwise have let it pass by.

“Someone took part in The Poetry Machine in Bristol, and said: ‘I don’t like poetry, but my curiosity got the better of me.’ That meant so much to me. That’s what I’m trying to do, to show people poetry can be for them.

“It feels like lots of people are writing and reading poetry during the pandemic. Poetry is a way to express how we’re feeling and to realise that other people resonate with that. At a time when we're distanced, it is a powerful connector.”

In December, Beth releases her first book: Brave Faces and Other Smiles. Alumni can find out more on Beth's website, or attend the launch event on 2 December. 

Below, watch as Beth performs one of the poems from the book: Clifftops.