Apr 28, 2023

Literary Professor’s wins from raw poems about her father’s death

sarah holland-batt
Sarah Holland-Batt. [Source: The Stella Prize]

Queensland Professor, poet and outspoken aged care reform advocate, Sarah Holland-Batt, has won the $60,000 Stella Prize for her poetry collection The Jaguar which features poems about watching her father die from Parkinson’s disease and experienced elder abuse in aged care.

After watching her father decline over two decades, once he passed in March 2020, Ms Holland-Batt began writing her winning collection of poems, receiving praise from Stella Prize Chair, Alice Pung.

“This is a book that cuts through to the core of what it means to descend into frailty, old age, and death. It unflinchingly observes the complex emotions of caring for loved ones, contending with our own mortality and above all – continuing to live,” Pung wrote in her judge’s statement. 

In a statement responding to her win, Holland-Batt said: “I wrote this book during an intensely challenging period, as my father was dying, and just after. 

“It was the friendship, generosity, and camaraderie of women that not only saw me through this difficult time, but that has been the sustaining armature of my writing life.”

As his condition progressed, Ms Holland-Batt’s father was placed into aged care where he experienced elder abuse.

Poem, The Gift, describes her father holding the “gift” of death in his lap.

We sit as if mother and son on Christmas Eve
waiting for midnight to tick over, anticipating
the moment we can open his present together –
first my father holding it up to his ear and shaking it,
then me helping him peel back the paper,
the weight of his death knocking

As a result of her father’s illness, the Creative Writing and Literary Studies Professor became an outspoken advocate for aged care reform, even giving evidence at the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, detailing the neglect and abuse her father suffered in a Queensland nursing home.

“I’m interested in contemplating the things that are difficult to look at: decline, death, violence, grief, sadness, ageing. Holding the gaze when the gaze is hard seems to me to be the essential task of the poet,” she said.

“I hope I’ve said something of the truth about my father’s suffering in these poems, and resisted platitude. I hope the poems are, in their own way, honest.”

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  1. What a wonderful thing for the Professor to write and how most definitely she is deserving of winning this award.

    I have not had a chance to read this book but I will. Instead of some of the questionable books that our school children are forced to read, I think a book of this type should be made compulsory for three reasons

    (a) it shows love, compassion and empathy;
    (b)it shows that older people should be valued; and
    (c) it shows how cruelty and unkindness can flourish when it remains unpunished and ignored

    all of those things highlight what is important and what needs to change. Where better to start this education than in the schools where it can be taught to all of our future adult citizens. Hopefully, that new generation will not turn a wilful blind eye, as has a large number of the past and present adults in positions of power who could have brought about the necessary change. At some point in time, the canker that permeates throughout the aged care and guardianship system in this country needs to be eradicated once and for all.

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