For the first time, a poet has been appointed the Judy Harris Writer in Residence at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney.
Dr Sarah Holland-Batt, a leading Australian poet, editor, critic, and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at QUT, will commence the residency in the latter half of this year.
“I’m honoured and delighted to have the opportunity to be part of the research community at the Charles Perkins Centre, and to bring literary perspectives to health issues through poetry,” Dr Holland-Batt said.
“One of the most exciting aspects of the Judy Harris residency is the prospect of pursuing a literary work while engaging and conversing with leading researchers in health disciplines—I am excited to see where these exchanges take my writing.”
During the residency, she intends to complete her fourth book of poetry and a book of personal essays. Deep brain treatment, the unknown side of Parkinson’s disease, ageing and mortality are among the subjects she explores.
Poetry can help foster empathy and understanding towards older people. A poem can let a listener or reader into a charged moment, they can feel as though they’re hearing someone’s intimate thoughts or experiences
Her current body of work is inspired by her father’s tragic experiences in the aged care system. A “brilliant man”, he developed Parkinson’s in his early 60s and ultimately entered aged care. There, a series of shocking events occurred, culminating in Dr Holland-Batt testifying on his behalf at the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. “The aged care system is broken, and it won’t magically be fixed without community and political will,” she said.
She explained the nexus between her advocacy and her writing: “Poetry can help foster empathy and understanding towards older people,” she said. “A poem can let a listener or reader into a charged moment, they can feel as though they’re hearing someone’s intimate thoughts or experiences.”
Despite ageing featuring more prominently in the popular consciousness, she believes stigma remains. “Most people are moved by stories such as my father’s, yet they still can’t conceive that it could happen to them,” she said. Through her lyrical verse, she hopes to help bridge this divide. “A poem is something you can read in one sitting – and it’s an immersive experience,” she said. “A poem can provide a moment of calm contemplation, a little escape. And it can bring you into closer contact with the lives of others—including those whose experiences may initially seem distant from your own.”
Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre, Professor Stephen Simpson, who conceived of the residency, said: “Our donor and Patron Judy Harris’s generosity has enabled us to host another writer in 2021. The program, which commenced in 2016, has been transformational, both for the writers and for the Charles Perkins Centre community.
“We thank the applicants for this year’s residency. It was another extraordinarily strong field of applicants, which made the task of the selection board both challenging and exhilarating.”
Dr Holland-Batt grew up in the US and became drawn to writing poetry in high school, when she studied T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Her poetic works have earned her a series of accolades, including the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry and a Fulbright Scholarship.
Made possible by University alumna and donor Judy Harris, the residency – now in its fifth year – includes a $100,000 grant and access to resources and staff at the Charles Perkins Centre. It is offered annually to a distinguished Australian writer who proposes a new major work that explores themes of relevance to the mission of the centre.
Writers shortlisted for the 2021 residency include Angela Betzien, Luke Carman, Kate Cole-Adams, Jennifer Down, and Suzie Miller.
The Centre’s research focuses on systems approaches to easing the burden of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and related conditions.
Hero image: Professor Stephen Simpson and Dr Sarah Holland-Batt in the Charles Perkins Centre.