Poetic Portraits of Australian Elders

Poetic Portraits of Australian Elders

A new project to capture the lives and memories of Australian elders and seniors through poetry is set to restore some balance to an increasingly youth-focused arts sector.

Funded jointly by the Australia Council for the Arts and Creative Victoria, RMIT poet and creative writing lecturer Jessica Wilkinson (pictured above) will work with writers from Deakin, Monash and Melbourne Universities to develop a series of long poetic portraits based on the experience of elderly Australians from diverse backgrounds and different states.

The project aims to engage with and appreciate the lives of Australian elders and seniors by providing enduring snapshots of their memories through poetry.

Wilkinson said targeting younger audiences and participants is a current trend with literary and cultural events and activities.

“We want to capture and celebrate the value that seniors and elders bring to our communities, she said.

“This project will showcase individual life stories and recognise the vital connection elderly members of the community make between past and future generations.”

Cassandra Atherton from Deakin University said she felt honoured to be entrusted with the stories of older Australians.

“At a time when the elderly have expressed growing concerns that they are becoming an invisible generation, this project demonstrates why we should be learning from their stories,” Atherton said.

Other collaborators in the project include Gomeroi poet, life writer and essayist, Alison Whittaker, award-winning Wiradjuri writer and academic Jeanine Leane (Melbourne University) and Yankunytjatjara poet and writer Ali Cobby Eckermann.

Gomeroi poet, life writer and essayist, Alison Whittaker Gomeroi poet, life writer and essayist, Alison Whittaker

Whittaker’s Lemons in the Chicken Wire and Blakwork (Magabala Books) established her as a powerful new voice in poetry with Blakwork shortlisted for the 2019 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards Indigenous Writing Prize.

Eckermann’s first collection, little bit long time, was written in the desert and launched her literary career in 2009. In 2017 she received a Windham Campbell Award for Poetry from Yale University USA and she has also taken part in RMIT’s WrICE and Visiting Poets Program.

Leane described our elders as our greatest undervalued treasure. 

“Every 'ism' that people describe themselves as today - activism, feminism etc has been achieved on the backs of the previous generation.  

“In an age where newspapers and magazines are all too prepared to write 'black writing is young and edgy' this project offers the opportunity to redefine what really is 'edgy' and deep; and to challenge current shallow perceptions of activism beyond the quick fix and cheap talk of social media through a series of poetic biographies of the elderly and ageing within our communities,” Leane said.

A wide call out will engage elderly participants of diverse backgrounds and from different Australian states. Five poets will separately interview the individuals selected, and then write a series of long poetic portraits that showcase the experiences of their subjects, or perhaps a moment in their lives. 

The poems will eventually appear in a book published by student-led publishing house, Bowen Street Press, and will be accompanied by watercolour portraits by visual artist Sierra McManus.

Tracy O’Shaughnessy, Publisher of Bowen Street Press said "the published book will provide a unique, lasting remembrance of participants, and a celebration of their life stories. This is not only valuable to the participants themselves and their families, but to a broader community of readers.”

A podcast is also planned, featuring readings of some of the poems along with interview snippets and comments from the various artists about their processes. The podcast will be produced by RMIT Creative Writing alumnus Benjamin Solah.

Associate Dean Writing and Publishing, Francesca Rendle-short said the life stories of older Australians provide a rich and vital source for story and poetic nonfiction life narratives.

“This project is a fantastic example of applied creative writing and will make a significant contribution by enabling writers to engage with voices that are not often publicly represented,” Rendle-Short said.

Ali Alizadeh (Monash University) said that most people would agree that poetry has some sort of cultural value. "But what exactly is that value?" he asks. "With this project we want to put poetry at the service of a section of the community."

The book and podcast will be launched at a public event in July 2020, featuring readings of the poems, a Q&A with the writers, and some of the elderly participants.



Story: Alison Barker


  • Alumni
  • Media & Communication
  • Indigenous
  • Arts and culture
  • PEG
  • Indigenous Australia

Related News

aboriginal flag
torres strait flag

Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.