Beauty of age, connection

Poets Dawn Donkin, Thea Macguire, Paul Whitby, Denise Shakespeare and Paul Stoney at the launch of Poetic Portraits on Thursday 28 September. Pictures: STEWART CHAMBERS. 362361_01

By Mikayla Van Loon

The culmination of 17 wordsmiths’ work has been unveiled in a new exhibition, combining the two artforms of poetry and photography.

Poetic Portraits brought together individuals from all over the Yarra Ranges, both professional writers and amateurs, who were 50 or older to delve into their stories of relationships, ageing and connection to both themselves and their landscape.

Launched Thursday 28 September at the Lilydale Civic Centre, it also celebrated the beginning of the Over 50s Festival.

Participants were invited to explore the meaning of an object or story and form a poem around this, many taking the opportunity to speak of their family history.

For Fotoula Reynolds, drawing on her Greek heritage to inspire the writing led her to an object quite special to her, a coffee pot, which has deep ties with the women in her life.

“I know the story. I’ve lived it with my mum and my godmother. I’ve never written about that kind of thing before, but I just drew on their experience as two young women travelling abroad and what they came home with, which is now mine,” she said.

Excited by the topic of ageism and being able to meet other passionate poets and storytellers, Fotoula said speaking about age carried a sense of pride.

“A lot of people do find coming into their senior years the challenges confronting, but I certainly have not felt that, I’ve been very excited actually. I was pleased to be part of it.”

Making a pledge to herself, Denise Shakespeare said being part of Poetic Portraits was her first step in gaining the confidence to show her work publicly.

“I’ve been writing poetry for a long time and this year I made a vow to myself because I felt confident for probably the first time in my life and I thought okay, this will be like a springboard for me to go further and it has. It’s been a terrific experience,” Denise said.

Choosing an item at random to bring with her to the workshop, Denise selected five ducks and at first thought “how can I write a poem about ducks?”

“As it turned out, two had a connection to one person, two had a connection to another person close to me and the last one to a third person,” she said.

“It was wonderful. So I honoured three people, my father, my mother and my father’s sister.”

Honouring a family member in her poem was also inspiration for fellow participant Dawn Donkin, who wrote about her mother.

“The workshop was actually on Mother’s Day weekend and we had to bring something, an object we could write about and I thought, because it was Mother’s Day weekend, I would take a photo with me of my mother and write about her. That was my inspiration,” Dawn said.

“It really honoured her memory and what she meant to our family.”

Recognising strong women in families seemed to be a common theme, with Thea Macguire also focusing her poem on her grandmother.

“I bought my locket which my grandmother had given to me and inside it is a picture of her mother who I never knew and it’s a beautiful locket in itself, but really, it was the connection that was special because we just had a beautiful relationship,” Thea said.

“You can have a difficult relationship with your mother, but a grandmother being a generation above is another story, and she always lived in the Netherlands so we didn’t get to see each other after the family emigrated but we had so many lovely memories.”

Like Denise, Thea said the workshops gave her the ability to follow her passion of writing, having been withheld from it throughout her working life as an English teacher.

“The workshop was really important for me in getting that permission to start writing again,” she said.

For Paul Whitby his poem looked at the construct of time and how even though the body ages, you can still feel as young as you were years before.

“I have a feeling it’s the same for other people, in the poem I wrote over and over the line, ‘just as time speeds up, it slows down’,” he said.

“As time gets away from you, you realise you’re 30 years older really quickly…I was exactly the same person I was before, nothing’s changed from all those years ago. So it speeds up and up, but I slow down. It’s like I take more time just being in the moment.”

Enjoying the process of learning from others and hearing different ideas and perspectives, Paul said the workshop challenged him in reworking his poem to get it right.

Paul Stoney’s approach to his poems weren’t necessarily about ageing itself, and said it was more of a love letter to his partner, but thought the concept of bringing ageism to the forefront was incredibly important.

“Very few things address it, of all of the isms, it’s probably the most human and in a way, probably the biggest. Ageism is so hidden,” he said.

Both Thea and Paul said they hope young people and just more communities could visit an exhibition of this kind, to help break down those barriers about ageing and show how beautiful it can be.

Poetic Portraits Yarra Ranges was one of five council areas to take part in the research project, led by RMIT’s Jessica L Wilkinson and Cassandra Atherton.

It will be on display at the Lilydale Civic Centre until 31 January and is accessible Monday to Friday.