Memory Book: Biographical poetry as a tool for listening to and celebrating older Australians


by Cassandra Atherton and Jessica L. Wilkinson

View Cassandra Atherton's Biography

Cassandra Atherton is a prose poet and Professor of Writing and Literature at Deakin University.

View Jessica L. Wilkinson's Biography

Jessica L. Wilkinson is a poet, editor and academic in Creative Writing at RMIT University.

Memory Book: Biographical poetry as a tool for listening to and celebrating older Australians

Cassandra Atherton and Jessica L. Wilkinson

1. People always turn to poetry

The Memory Book project1 arose from a discussion between the authors of this paper about the value of poetry and its uses outside the academy. As practising poets and scholars working in Australian universities and also in industry, we have extensive experience working with fellow poets and academics. However, for this project, we were interested in engaging members of our local community in the process of writing biographical poems—or poetic portraits of people's lives—to consider what role poetry might play in civic empowerment.

Considerations of the public value of poetry are not new. As Virginia Jackson flagged in her essay 'Who Reads Poetry?', the question is an old one that betrays anxiety about the form's readership, relevance and impact (2008, 181). This anxiety has been fuelled by comments such as those by the poet Adrian Mitchell in the preface to his 1964 volume Poems, that "[m]ost people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people" (O'Donoghue 2019, 97). It's a sentiment that was shared three decades later by Dana Gioia in his infamous article 'Can Poetry Matter?' (1991), where he lamented the "poetry industry" had developed to "serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers" and (quoting poet William Carlos Williams) that "[t]o regain poetry's readership one must begin [...] to find what 'concerns many men [sic],' not simply what concerns poets" (1991). Furthermore, in Australia, the perception that poetry publications are shared and circulated among poets, but infrequently make an impact beyond this readership, is evident from David McCooey's argument that, "Contemporary Australian poetry, like most Anglophone poetry, is not central to literary public culture. Australian poetry, with its small audiences, reliance on small presses and dwindling governmental and university support, is generally seen as endangered" (2007). This perceived insularity has been detrimental to poetry being recognised as a significant force and perceptions have not shifted dramatically in terms of the reception of poetry, despite the concerted efforts of individuals and organisations to increase the visibility of poetry and to generate creative opportunities for a broad spectrum of the community.2 While there have been obvious contexts where poets and/or poems receive unusual public attention—Amanda Gorman's 'The Hill We Climb' at the 2021 Presidential Inauguration and 'Chorus of the Captains' at the 2021 Super Bowl being recent examples—more often than not, poetry is perceived as difficult to read or understand, too simplistically coupled with overflowing emotion, or else "associated with the snooty, the stuffy, and the sequestered" (Gallo-Brown 2020), rather than as capable of reflecting everyday human voices. However, labelling poetry as elitist is often an attempt to discredit a form that has mass appeal, evident in the use of poetry at key events in people's lives and significant historical moments. Indeed, United States poet laureate (2019-2022) Joy Harjo argues,

Poetry tends to hang out at points of transformation ... People may have not much interest in poetry at all or even read it much, but when a death happens in the family, or some other grief event, or marriage, or falling in love, or falling out of love, birth—people always turn to poetry (Weir 2020).

There was an outpouring of poetry after 9/11, for example, and more recently during the Covid-19 pandemic a poetry resurgence was evident from the proliferation of readings and workshops on Zoom that supported people emotionally during lockdown. Furthermore, Ilya Kaminsky's poem, 'We Lived Happily During the War' went viral in support of the Ukraine after Russia's invasion. Perceptions of poetry as irrelevant do not align, it would seem, with the range of contributions that poetry can, and does, bring to public life and human energies. These examples demonstrate that poetry can provide emotional support, encourage resilience and, importantly, be a political tool for resistance. Poetry achieves this in its prioritisation of powerful language to engage an emotional response in the reader. In this way, Jay Parini argues, it locates 'a language adequate to the emotional and intellectual range of our experience' (2008, 132) and, in giving voice to that experience, encourages connection to others through those emotion and intellectual lines.

Poets are often asked to testify to the powers of good poetry: Jane Hirshfield notes that poetry's combination of music, image, story, passion and voice enables it to "approximate the actual flavor of life, in which subjective and objective become one, in which conceptual mind and the inexpressible presence of things become one" (1997, 32). Jay Parini similarly notes that "poetry is a language adequate to our experience" and that "Poetry offers concrete images that draw into their figures a reflection and embodiment of our lives" (2008, 9). While Cole Swensen notes that poetry's complex and bountiful toolkit—including "figurative language, ambiguity, juxtaposition, sound relationships, and rhythmic patterns"—can make room "for those aspects of truth that can't be articulated" (2011, 58). She continues,

the fully complex version [of truth] must incite the imagination of the reader, must get the reader beyond simply absorbing facts and into a responsive engagement with them because that engagement is a crucial part of truth. It's the emotional part, which can't be told; it must be felt, which can be achieved through imagination, but not through idea (58-9).

Here, Swensen, is specifically referring to the genre of documentary poetry, however, her words champion the potential for all forms of poetry to negotiate a more complex reflection—or, perhaps, embodiment—of the world. Hirshfield, Parini and Swensen, among others, variously draw attention to the ways that poems can activate and clarify both thoughts and feelings, intellect and emotion, the cerebral and the sensate. As practicing poets, we entered the debate about the uses of poetry by asking: if poetry can achieve such marvellous things, why do poets have such a diminished role in civic life? How might we bring poetry to the public? How might poetry serve the many? Who might benefit from some poetic attention right now?

We sought tangible ways in which we could direct our writing efforts towards a social purpose, and to include other poets in a collaborative exploration of these possibilities. In what follows we discuss our work on a poetry project with older Australians, called Memory Book, which aims to activate poetry's potential for resilience and resistance and draws attention to experiences of this often-overlooked group in Australian society. Motivated by news reports on the aged care crisis in Australia, and the increasing invisibility of our older generations in arts and culture, we were interested in how we could showcase the lives of older Australians and allow them to be heard, appreciated, and celebrated, while also connecting with them first-hand. We argue that this collaborative poetry project is a form of activist ageing.

2. Rallying against ageism: scholarship and intervention

Significantly, we began writing this in the wake of the final report for the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in Australia, released in March 2021. The Commission was called following rampant reports of neglect and abuse in aged care across the country, both within residential aged care facilities and in home care. The findings of the report provide shocking evidence of "the extent of substandard care" (2021, 73), including widespread use of restrictive practices (physical and pharmacological abuse), inadequate provision of quality food and hydration, inadequate training of staff and understaffing, emotional neglect, and a lack of culturally safe practices (for example, in caring for Aboriginal Elders). The report calls for a new Act that "must focus on the safety, health and wellbeing of older people and put their needs and preferences first" (2021, 78). The human rights issues raised in Australia in relation to aged care is part of a larger global issue relating to ageism. Indeed, the American Psychological Association recently reported "Negative stereotypes of aging (ageism) continue to raise serious problems that lead to discrimination and unfair treatment of older adults" (2020). Furthermore, as neoliberalism has placed greater emphasis on economic growth, productivity, and the individual's capacity to earn, older generations are increasingly subjected to ageist stereotypes and discrimination. The World Health Organisation notes that "[n]egative attitudes and stereotypes about older adults as frail, out of touch, burdensome or dependent are ubiquitous" and that "low respect" for this demographic, particularly in higher income families like Australia, is pervasive (Officer et al 2016, 710). Moreover, Alana Officer et al write that "Unlike other forms of discrimination, including sexism and racism, ageism is socially acceptable, strongly institutionalised, largely undetected and unchallenged" (710). Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a pioneer in age studies, aptly points out that ageism negatively affects entire communities—it is not only "most vicious toward the most vulnerable", but also affects how younger people "anticipate their own life course" (2015, 22). Australia has an ageing population, where 1.3 million people are aged 75 years and older. Life expectancy continues to increase, largely due to better nutrition, safer and cleaner living conditions and advancements in medicine. Listening to and attempting to learn from older Australians would begin the process of changing dismissive attitudes towards this generation of people.

Gerontological studies including those by Sibila Marques et al (2020) and Raqota Berger (2017) have indicated that the most common statements from older people centre on their experiences of irrelevance, isolation and of being silenced. These perspectives are also prevalent in a growing body of research on ageing, outside gerontology studies, and in the media. They frame the importance of our project with older Australians by demonstrating its persistence in a variety of disciplines. In Literary Studies, scholar Elizabeth Barry argues, "The standard observation about age—no less true for its ubiquity—is that our youth-oriented society does not want to look. Ageing is taboo; old people are invisible" (2015, 132). In the media, journalist Clair MacDougall states,

In our culture that is obsessed with youth, beauty, work and economic productivity, old age is a taboo subject. It is seen as something that should be hidden away in the sterile rooms of nursing homes and treated with clinical distance as though the stage of life alone were a medical illness (2020).

Furthermore, psychologist Tamara McClintock Greenberg argues:

Why people are increasingly treated as if they're invisible as they age ... is curious, though perhaps not surprising. We live in a youth-fixated culture where people are afraid to age and to be vulnerable to growing older; where ideals about attractiveness are oriented around those with young, healthy bodies (2009).

Additionally, representations of the elderly in film, fiction and even in marketing are very limited and often negative. Few books of fiction have protagonists aged 75 years and over and, in the media, few products are marketed to the elderly. As Jeff Beer argues:

When was the last time you saw anyone over 55 in a decent ad? The world of oldsvertising is a hellscape full of reverse mortgages, erectile dysfunction pills, and bathtubs that won't kill you (2019).

Even the term 'senior citizen'—a term coined in the 1930s—is pejorative and studies have demonstrated that the elderly find it patronising. The term 'senior' in this context becomes a qualifier of the word 'citizen' and as many seniors have pointed out—we don't say 'junior citizen'. As a term, 'older adults' is the preferred description (MacDougall 2020).

Compounding the indisputable facts of ageism and neglect in elderly care in Australia—which are also global problems—the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 not only increased the isolation of older people through hard lockdown measures but led to further discrimination against them. As statistics revealed that people aged 70 and above were the most at risk of serious illness and death from the coronavirus, S. M. Donnelly argues that the pandemic elicited utilitarian responses to the vulnerability of the elderly, quoting an English newspaper journalist's comment that COVID-19 might prove "mildly beneficial" to the economy by "culling elderly dependents" (2020, 453). By contrast, she notes the address given by Ireland's Prime Minister, focusing on the protective measures—or "cocooning"—for the elderly during the pandemic that would "save many lives, particularly the most vulnerable, the most precious in our society" (453). This divide between approaches that consider efforts to protect and care for the elderly as 'futile' versus those that recognise their vulnerability and the equal worth of all members of society highlights significant ethical and moral challenges regarding our treatment of our older and elderly citizens. A further challenge has been the hard locking down of aged care facilities in which the concept of "cocooning" has largely been re-purposed to justify separating older Australians from their families for long periods. During ongoing periods of isolation, aged care residents are unable to make their own decisions about their perceived vulnerabilities. Professor of Health, Law and Ageing, Joseph Ibrahim stated that for residents in Victorian aged care homes, there is a "need for a humane and proportionate response to lockdown, and the need to reduce the mental and physical harms associated with isolation" (2020). Almost two years after Ibrahim made this statement, there had been no change to hard lockdowns mandated by the government for residents in aged care.

Scholarship across a variety of disciplines (Sport, Medicine, Health, Literary Studies, Communication, Design, and more) is now beginning to embrace the importance of studying the multifarious experiences of ageing. In attempting to understand and prioritise the older adult, E. Percil Stanford makes a case for:

The "older person" ... [being] a symbol of strength and a repository of treasured experiences and wisdom. We can ill afford to not avail ourselves of all that everyone has to offer throughout their life span (2017).

More broadly, activist ageing refers to any work that aims to empower older people by exploring and responding to the experiences of ageing, primarily in Western societies. By focussing on the indelible quality of what older people have experienced and prioritising their life narrative, our project aims to challenge the invisibility of older Australians. Where Officer et al point out the prevalence of ageism globally, they also note that—as with sexism and racism—"changing social norms is possible and can result in more prosperous, equitable and healthier societies" (710). One of the ways in which groups have actively attempted to tackle issues of ageism is through what has become known as "activist ageing", or "ageivism", which Israel Dorn defines as "an ideology which serves as the basis for calls for social action [...] on the protection and promotion of the rights of older persons based on the grounds of political, social and economic principles of identity, dignity and social justice" (2018, 35). Internationally, there are now numerous groups that prioritise activist ageing. Respecting Elders: Communities Against Abuse (RECAA), for example, is a group of Canadian seniors who use theatrical means to non-verbally "[act] out situations from the life of elders in the cultural communities" in order to "stimulate discussion and problem solving" (no date). Raging Grannies is an organisation of peace and social justice 'granny' activists based in Canada and the US; Chazan and Kittmer argue that the older women in this group "mobili[se] grandmotherhood as a political strategy" (2016, 297) and "challeng[e] narratives of frailty, disengagement, and marginality" (306). As well as groups run by older people, there are many projects and initiatives that focus on giving older people visibility and voice. The Age of No Retirement, for instance, is a community interest company, based in Britain, that helps organisations to think beyond generational stereotypes and to be more age-inclusive. In Australia, Longevity by Design is an initiative that brings together people from industry, government and the community to "rethink the future of senior living design ... [for] real-world communities". Further, The Groundswell Project, co-founded in 2010 by playwright Peta Murray and clinical psychologist Kerrie Noonan, is a not-for-profit organisation that enables projects and partnerships that help tackle "the stigma and taboo of death and the impact this discomfort has on our community", many of which are centred around ageing and aged care (Murray n.d).3

Sarah Falcus, scholar in ageing, illness, and care in cultural and literary narratives, promotes literature as a valuable field for developing socio-cultural awareness of ageing and growing old. She notes that:

Stories of age do not provide answers to questions about ageing. They do not illustrate gerontological concepts. They can offer comfort, inspiration and possibility. They may not offer any of those things. Telling and reading stories of age does open up debate and embrace complexity, and may challenge our ways of thinking (2015, 53).

Falcus stresses that literature is capable not only of reflecting the world, but of being "part of and complicit in shaping that social world" (54). Falcus suggests that not only are representations of ageing and older people in literature important, but also multiplicity and variety will help to change the way we think about ageing and consider the "ethical and political questions around ageing and culture" (54).

Australian scholar Evonne Miller is engaged in research poetry in Australian gerontology, "in which words, phrases, and whole sentences from interview transcripts are edited and reframed (by participants and/or researchers) into poetry or poem-like prose" (2019, 20).4 Miller discusses the way "the vast majority [of psychologists] remain resistant to and uncomfortable with creative, expressive and experiential approaches" (2018, 385) and how valuable they can be. With fellow scholars Geraldine Donoghue and Sarah Holland-Batt, Miller showcases poetry research in the article 'You could scream the place down: Five Poems on the experience of Aged care' (2015), which details a study that involved reading transcript data of interviews with aged care residents as part of the Australian Research Council-funded project 'Inside Aged Care'. Extending the work in poetry and gerontology of Miller, Donoghue and Holland-Batt, our Memory Book project sought to broaden the focus beyond experiences within aged care to capture a range of older adults' experiences. As noted in the next section, in addition to preserving and disseminating the narratives, thoughts and wisdom of our participants, we wanted above all to engage methods of listening as an activist intervention in elevating their stories and experiences. Aligned with the scholarship of Leah Bassel, who explores listening as a social and political practice, we considered this process of listening to older adults' life stories as a form of political listening (2017).

3. Memory Book methodology: poems that listen

Thirteen poets were invited to join us on the project, including: Carolyn Abbs, Ali Alizadeh, Stuart Barnes, Lachlan Brown, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Aidan Coleman, Eileen Chong, Paul Hetherington, Siobhan Hodge, Jeanine Leane, Leni Shilton, Ben Walter and Nick Whittock. We chose these poets not only for their range of poetry-writing talents and the breadth of their experiences, but also for their locations. This enabled the project (especially with ongoing and unpredictable COVID-19 travel restrictions in place) to reach older voices from all Australian states and territories. We aimed for, and achieved, a list of participants diverse in background, gender, ethnicity and location, and reached beyond family members to gain access to stories and lives unfamiliar to us. Each poet approached potential interview participants through personal and professional networks, and we also targeted specific seniors networks in local councils such as Healthy Ageing and Brimbank Seniors in Victoria. Wiradjuri poet and academic Jeanine Leane and Yankunytjatjara poet Ali Cobby Eckermann worked with Aboriginal Elders. We mostly approached older Australians who were neither writers nor well-known public figures themselves, providing an avenue for those who were unlikely to pen their own stories, or have their biography captured in words for a public readership. The project also afforded us the opportunity to discuss the value of poetry with new readerships and to demonstrate the way in which the process of composing poetic portraits expresses the personal politics of older Australians and, by extension, lobbies for a change in their lived experiences. It is important to note that we originally set the age bracket at 75 years and older for the subjects we wanted to capture, but, as Cobby Eckermann and Leane pointed out, many Aboriginal people do not live to 75 so we adjusted the age bracket to include younger Aboriginal Elders and leaders.

The Memory Book publication is a book of biographical poems. It is framed as a series of "poetic portraits"—snapshots of a range of lives, rather than 'complete' life stories in poetry. The process involved poets interviewing participants and then choosing aspects of their life stories to compose a poem or suite of poems. Through direct engagement in face-to-face interviews, we explored the ways in which poetry could capture their voices and characters. It provided an opportunity for our participants to have a lasting remembrance of their life experience preserved for their families and communities to cherish, and to disseminate their experiences, nationally. Participants were chosen for their willingness to share their life stories, or aspects of their life story and experiences, their availability for a conversation with one of the poets on our team and their agreement to have their personal narrative represented in a poem for publication. With funding support from Creative Victoria and Australia Council for the Arts (now Creative Australia), we were, importantly, able to provide every participant an honorarium for telling us their stories. This allowed the older Australians to have a physical expression of the value of their stories and also of their time with us as interview subjects. While the methodology was simple, it was effective. The poet-interviewers asked questions about family and careers, good times and bad times, and so on; interviews were recorded so that both interviewer and interviewee could relax as much as possible into conversation rather than fuss with making and checking notes. In many cases, interviewers asked few questions but were regaled with humble stories of adventure, love and living. Our primary task was to listen to each participant's story and voice, through both live interview and again through recording, and honour these through transmuting them to poetic portrait.

Many of the poems preserve direct quotations from the interviews, promoting an ethic of listening to the older Australian's own voice and manner of expression. As Aunty Jennifer Kemarre Martiniello is quoted by poet Jeanine Leane in the poem 'Weaving Glass', "listen to the spirit within—to let it grow you into what you will become..." (2021, 121). Poet Ben Walter notes that, in his interviews with Stephanie Schulz, some of her assertions about her life belied what he identified as her significant courage, and that the extended conversation they had as part of this project's process revealed to him that she had indeed lived a very brave life in all kinds of ways. In a post-project reflection with us, Walter noted the following:

When you're writing a poem, you're looking to structure simplicity upon a disparate set of data... It's in that practice of finding what it is that holds the piece together that ... that element of revelation about that person is brought to light. ... To me, in terms of our conversation, [Stephanie] was somebody who was... regularly in the interview, wanting to minimise her courage... it felt to me that, as we reflected on aspects of her life story, that contradicted her assertions to a significant extent. (personal communication, 12 August, 2021)

Walter goes on to mention his use of a refrain, "Sometimes I am brave", which is a direct quote from Stephanie's interview, as a way for him "to reflect on that particular modesty of hers that involved significant courage". This quote begins the first line of the first three stanzas of his poem for Stephanie, 'Sometimes', and is repeated once more at the conclusion of the poem. The poet augments the subject's bravery through the subtle irony enabled by repetition; this poetic device provides the poet with the means "to structure simplicity upon a disparate set of data", and to draw forth the revelation of Stephanie Schulz's character.

Anaphora is employed to different effect in Jeanine Leane's poetic portrait of Aunty Elaine Lomas, where the repetition of "Aunty Elaine, / Wiradjuri Yinaa of the Kalari" begins each prose poem stanza; these stanzas then unfurl a long list of Aunty Elaine's accomplishments, and the poet's regular use of slash marks (/) enhances the sense of Elaine's significant community contributions, which have accrued over time. Repetition of her name and belonging on Country conveys the sense that this poetic portrait is a song and a tribute for Aunty Elaine.

In another example, interviewee Barbara Palmer conveyed to poet Jessica L. Wilkinson her lifetime engagement with books, libraries, special collections and card catalogues, leading Wilkinson to shape Barbara's life story as a series of catalogue cards documenting key information in her life. Wilkinson also decided to match the "catalogue" presentation with a matter-of-fact, reportorial tone of voice intended to reflect Barbara's keen memory for facts and details, as demonstrated during their interview:


4 - 5_catalogue_cards.jpg

Excerpt from '5 Catalogue Cards for Barbara' by Jessica L. Wilkinson (with Barbara Palmer), Memory Book, p. 184.


Visual play was also important to poet Nick Whittock's rendering of a poetic portrait of Ruth Young, as seen in the below excerpt:


1 - Whittock.jpg

Excerpt from 'Overlays' by Nick Whittock (with Ruth Young), Memory Book, p. 106.


As Whittock noted in his post-project reflection:

I wanted the decisions to be made by the process itself ... The only thing I knew about Ruth before I interviewed her was that she enjoyed playing Scrabble; so, I was thinking it might be possible to write in the format of a Scrabble game or a series of Scrabble games. ... The idea of shared words and shared letters came back through the interview with Ruth, where many of her stories had a key word that was repeated, or parts of words, like the 'fire shelter' and the 'fire bunker', and lots of references to tomatoes... they were choosing themselves to be the key words... The form of the poem was completely decided by where the repetitions were... so that the lines could share the words; the paths were decided by the key words and where they fell in the stories (personal communication, 8 August 2021).

Similar to Whittock's emphasis on key words, prose poet Cassandra Atherton's approach to transforming the interview material into poetic portraits was to listen carefully to the interviewee's stories so as to identify certain emphases. Atherton was interested in deploying the prose poem form for its interplay between the white space of the page and the 'box' of text and how the unassuming quotidian nature of the prose poem box is undercut by the unfurling of metaphors and images. We see this, for example, in Atherton's poetic portrait of Margaret Bird, 'Music Box'; Margaret was a collector of music boxes, and these appear within the poem both in the literal sense, but also as an extended metaphor for Margaret's life story.

She tells her story for others; coaxing memories from long hesitations. For her, family trees are like music boxes with lost tunes; a stave with unfinished notes. As she urges them to play, her words become a tiny crank handle converting stories to music; filling the silence with bright melodies (153).

As can be seen from the above examples, the poetic portraits became a kind of co-creation practice where a portrait was shaped in dialogue with the participant. Importantly, draft poems were also shared with the participants for their editing and approval. In post-project conversations with the poets, many expressed that they felt some nervousness and anxiety in showing the draft poems to those older Australians they interviewed. Nevertheless, the poem-approval was an important stage in the project and it also gave insights into what mattered most to our participants when approving their poetic portraits for publication. Many of the poets noted, for example, that the older Australians they worked with, did not comment much on the formal decisions made on the page and seemed very open to poetic and experimental approaches. However, there was concern for the facts and details, especially when they had been transmuted through poetic license. This required some careful craftwork by the poets as we negotiated the interplay between poetry and documentary. One participant requested that her experience of the Holocaust be deemphasised in the final poetic portrait; she wanted the details on her parents and other parts of her life to be the focus of the poem, as she felt that her early life experience had overshadowed public conversations about her life to date.

By responding to the feedback received on drafts from our older adult participants, the final poetic portraits individually represent a coming together of poet and older Australian. The poems emerged through each poet's responsiveness not only to the participant's life story, but to the ways in which they conveyed that story via tone, repetition, emphasis, contradiction, and so on. In using poetry's tools, the poets offer to readers a unique way to experience these life stories, beyond the delivery of facts and information. As readers are encouraged to negotiate and interpret the rhythms, repetitions, visual maps, metaphors and more, the poetic portraits present and perform a series of embodied, living portraits of a generation of older Australians.

To accompany the poetic portraits, photographs of participants were sent to artist Sierra McManus, who reproduced these images as watercolour portraits. The initial photographs, taken by the poet-interviewer in most cases, allowed the participant to be 'seen' as well as 'heard' in and through the book and added a further layer of portraiture to the publication. Many participants chose to be depicted holding or close to a beloved artefact, item or memento that was mentioned in the poem itself (as with Kevin Foley holding a humorous family crest or Hashem Etminan, who was a geological surveyor, perusing a map, as seen in the below images); in some cases, a pre-existing photograph of which the participant was fond was supplied to us from their own collections. In each case, McManus' watercolour renderings add additional colour to the publication and help readers to connect with the individual voices and personalities represented within the book. McManus stated that she built the watercolours up in layers over time to express the older Australians' experiences. The transparency and luminescence of the paint also provides fluid impressions of the subjects that match the "living portraiture" of the poetry.


2 - Kevin.jpg


3 - Hashem.jpg

Watercolour Images by Sierra McManus, Memory Book, p. 16 and p. 58.


4. Towards a conclusion: The unique voices of poetic portraits

The poems in Memory Book provide insights into the varied and diverse experiences of forty-five older Australians. As an intervention against ageism, the project recognises the power of art to influence community attitudes and combat discrimination. It does this through listening to and centring the stories of older people, and by restoring value and dignity in part by providing a platform for their stories and their voices. Listening was a key part of the process; in this way, our project aligned with Kristin Ferstad and Linda Rykkie's argument that 'Listening to a person's life story is a powerful way to show that they are valued as human beings' and specifically, 'Knowledge of human life and stories makes older people's situations easier to understand' (2023). We also see the book as a form of resistance against dominant nonfiction publishing trends, which typically elevate and showcase the life stories of celebrities and public figures, or else the memoirs of those who have the necessary skills and training to craft their life narrative into an interesting commercial product. Memory Book captures the stories of a range of people with long life experience, highlighting the remarkable but often similar triumphs and challenges faced by everyday Australians. Where Adrian Mitchell (quoted earlier in this essay) notes that "most poetry ignores most people", Memory Book resists this tendency by using poetry to capture and share everyday Australian life stories. We also hope that it might encourage readers to consider how poetry can be a useful tool for connecting—and connecting with—an expansive community or generation of Australians.

The success of the Memory Book project has led us to continue working with other vulnerable members of our communities. We recently undertook a partnership with Frankston local council5, to run a pilot program that uses poetry as a way to connect with, and convey, the experiences of women impacted by mental health and other challenges to wellbeing and belonging. Funding from Creative Australia has allowed us to roll out this program across an additional four Victorian councils during 2023-2024. We look forward to continuing our work with poetry in the community.

Works cited

American Psychological Association, "APA Resolution on Ageism", APA, August 2020.

Atherton, Cassandra. (with Margaret Bird). "Music Box", Memory Book: Portraits of Older Australians in Poetry and Watercolours, Jessica L. Wilkinson and Cassandra Atherton, eds., Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets, St Lucia, QLD, 2021, pp. 153-154.

Barry, Elizabeth. "The Ageing Body", in The Cambridge Companion to the Body in Literature. David Hillman and Ulrika Maude, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 132-148.

Bassel, Leah. The Politics of Listening: Possibilities and Challenges for Democratic Life. Camden: Palgrave, 2017.

Beer, Jeff. "The New Business of Growing Old: Why Marketing to Seniors is so Terrible", Fast Company, June 5, 2019.

Berger, Raqota. "Aging in America: Ageism and General Attitudes toward Growing Old and the Elderly", Open Journal of Social Sciences, Vol.5 No.8, August 2017.

Chazan, May and Kittmer, Stephanie. "Defying, producing and overlooking stereotypes? The complexities of mobilizing 'grandmotherhood' as political strategy", in Journal of Women and Aging, 28 (4), 2016: 297-308.

Donnelly, S.M. "The Elderly and COVID-19: Cocooning or Culling: - the choice is ours" QJM: Monthly Journal of the Association of Physicians, 113 (7), April 2020. DOI:10.1093/qjmed/hcaa145

Dorn, Israel, "Re-Thinking Old Age: Time for Ageivism," Human Rights Defender 27 (1), April 2018: 33-35.

Falcus, Sarah. "Literature and ageing", J. Twigg and W. Martin (eds) The Routledge Handbook of Cultural Gerontology, London: Routledge, 2015, pp. 53-60.]

Faulkner, Sandra L. Poetic Inquiry: Craft, Method and Practice. 2nd ed. New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2020.

Ferstad, Kristin and Linda Rykkje. "Understanding the Significance of Listening to Older People's Life Stories in Whole Person Care—An Interview Study of Nurses in Gerontology", Sage Open Nursing Jan-December, 2023. doi: 10.1177/23779608231164077

Gallo-Brown, Alex. "Can Poetry Be a Vehicle for Social Change?", Poetry Northwest, April 1, 2020,

Galvin, KT and Prendergast, M 2016, 'Introduction', in KT Galvin and M Prendergast (eds.), Poetic inquiry II – seeing, caring, understanding. Using poetry as and for inquiry, Sense Publishers, Rotterdam, pp. xi–xvii.

Gioia, Dana. "Can Poetry Matter?", The Atlantic, May 1991,

Gullette, Margaret Morganroth, "Aged by culture", Routledge Handbook of Cultural Gerontology, London: Routledge, 2015, pp. 21-28].

Hirshfield, Jane. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

Ibrahim, Joseph, "Older Australians deserve more than the aged care royal commission's COVID-19 report delivers", The Conversation, October 2, 2020.

Jackson, Virginia. "Who Reads Poetry?", PMLA, 123 (1), January 2008: 181-187.

Leane, Jeanine. (with Aunty Elaine Lomas). "Your Smile is a River", Memory Book: Portraits of Older Australians in Poetry and Watercolours, Jessica L. Wilkinson and Cassandra Atherton, eds., Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets, St Lucia, QLD, 2021, pp. 81-83.

Leane, Jeanine. (with Aunty Jennifer Kemarre Martiniello), "Weaving Glass", Memory Book: Portraits of Older Australians in Poetry and Watercolours, Jessica L. Wilkinson and Cassandra Atherton, eds., Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets, St Lucia, QLD, 2021, pp. 121-123.

Longevity by Design, (n.d.).

MacDougall, Clair. "Life is Elsewhere: Attitudes to Ageing", ABC News, updated 6 February 2020.

McClintock Greenberg, Tamara. "The Invisible Years: Thoughts on Why the Elderly Become Invisible", Psychology Today, August 11, 2009.

McCooey, David, "The New Lyricism: Surviving Australian Poetry", Poetry International, 2007 (2005).

Marques Sibila, João Mariano, Joana Mendonça, Wouter De Tavernier, Moritz Hess, Laura Naegele, Filomena Peixeiro, and Daniel Martins, "Determinants of Ageism against Older Adults: A Systematic Review", International Journal of Environmental Research Public Health, 2020 Apr; 17(7): 2560.

Miller, Evonne, Geraldine Donoghue, Sarah Holland-Batt, "You could scream the place down: Five Poems on the experience of Aged care", Qualitative Inquiry, 21 (5), 2015, pp. 410-17.

Miller, Evonne, "Breaking research boundaries: a poetic representation of life in an aged care facility", Qualitative Research in Psychology, 15 (2-3), 2018: 381-394, DOI: 10.1080/14780887.2018.1430733

Miller, Evonne, "Creating research poetry: A nursing home example". In Humble, A and Radina, E (Eds.) How qualitative data analysis happens: Moving beyond 'themes emerged'. Routledge, United States of America, pp. 18-33.

Murray, Peta. "Our Founders", The Groundswell Project Australia, (n.d.).

Murray, Peta. "Essayesque Dismemoir: W/Rites of Elder-Flowering." RMIT University, 2017.

O'Donoghue, Bernard. Poetry: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2019.

Officer, Alana and Schneiders, Mira and Wu, Diane and Nash, Paul and Jotheeswaran, AT and Beard, John. (2016). "Valuing older people: time for a global campaign to combat ageism". Bulletin of the World Health Organization. 94. 710-710A. doi: 10.2471/BLT.16.184960.

Parini, Jay. Why Poetry Matters, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008.

Respecting Elders Communities against Abuse (Ressources Ethnoculturelles Contre l'Abus envers les Aîné(e)s), "About Us".

Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, "Final Report: Care, Dignity and Respect Volume 1, Summary and recommendations", Commonwealth of Australia, 2021.

Stanford, E. Percil. "Let's Start Humanizing and Valuing Older People", Forbes, 25 January, 2017.

Swensen, Cole. Noise that Stays Noise: Essays, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2011.

Walter, Ben (with Stephanie Schulz). "Sometimes", Memory Book: Portraits of Older Australians in Poetry and Watercolours, Jessica L. Wilkinson and Cassandra Atherton, eds., Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets, St Lucia, QLD, 2021, pp. 93-94.

Weir, Keziah. "Why Poetry Is Having a Moment Amid the Global Quarantine?", Vanity Fair, April 30, 2020.

Whittock, Nick. (with Ruth Young). "Overlays", Memory Book: Portraits of Older Australians in Poetry and Watercolours, Jessica L. Wilkinson and Cassandra Atherton, eds., Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets, St Lucia, QLD, 2021, pp. 105-109.

Wilkinson, Jessica L. (with Barbara Palmer). "5 Catalogue Cards for Barbara", Memory Book: Portraits of Older Australians in Poetry and Watercolours, Jessica L. Wilkinson and Cassandra Atherton, eds., Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets, St Lucia, QLD, 2021, pp. 183-187.


1 Full title: Memory Book: Portraits of Older Australians in Poetry and Watercolours (Hunter Publishers, 2021). This project was assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council (now Creative Australia), its arts funding and advisory body, and by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria. 


2 Red Room Poetry in Australia, for instance, have instigated numerous initiatives over 20 years to bring poetry to public spaces (trams, Botanical Gardens, public walls) and people (schools, communities, prisons).


3 Peta Murray's creative works frequently use arts-based methods for inquiry and activism on ageing and old age. See, for instance, Essayesque Dismemoir: w/rites of elder-flowering (RMIT University, 2017) and her recent collaborative work-in-progress with writer David Carlin, How to Dress for Old Age.


4 See also other poetic research methodologies, such as 'Poetic Inquiry', as explored and discussed by scholars including Galvin and Prendergast (2016) or Sandra Faulkner (2017).


5 Frankston is an outer suburb of Melbourne.