The Empathy Poems project is designed to raise awareness about the plight of asylum seekers and refugees.
It is a response in particular to the situation in Australia, where asylum seekers have been banished offshore and treated in the most inhumane manner, leading to despair, suffering and deprivation. Their treatment is almost unimaginable, coming as it does from a civilised nation.
But the Empathy Poems does indeed ask people to imagine and empathise with this suffering, and to show their support by offering a personal creative response.
The project was also inspired by Ian Syson’s poem, Beach Collection, published in early 2016, which in itself was inspired by Kenneth’s Slessor’s famous poem about human suffering in the second world war, Beach Burial.
The idea behind the Empathy Poems is simple: people choose a poem they have an affinity with and reimagine, rewrite or respond to it in any way, but with the broad themes of refuge and seeking asylum.
Poetry is the perfect form to inspire empathy amongst readers. We all learned poetry when we were very young, in the form of nursery rhymes and songs: poetry was probably our first introduction to literature, it is that fundamental to our culture.
Poetry also has a long tradition of political purpose, and of responding to and offering insight into crises and dramas of a major, national and global nature. Poets as diverse as Adrienne Rich, Langston Hughes, William Blake, William Butler Yeats, and, in Australia, Oodgeroo (Kath Walker), Bruce Dawe, Kate Jennings, and Graham Rowlands — to name a few — have all written political poetry.
And poetry, like all great literature, has a habit of reinventing itself: from Homer’s The Odyssey, through James Joyce’s Ulysses, to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou?, poetry demonstrates its endless capacity for adaptation, for reimagining itself and speaking across the generations, and across the world.