Postcards from the asylum

The images in this series were accompanied by poems from a collection of 77 penned by Karen Knight.

Karen’s poems are published in the book Postcards From The Asylum, which is available from Pardalote Press.

These disarming poems were inspired by her experiences as an inmate at the Royal Derwent Hospital at New Norfolk in Tasmania in 1969.

You can read a sample poem and Karen’s personal story below the following slideshow of images.

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All images ⓒ SWS


In the year my father was born
emus roamed free
in the hospital grounds.

Tobacco leaves were harvested
in the hop fields and dried out
for the inmates to smoke.

Drawing Room Entertainment
came with the Shoobridge Family
with plates of bread
and quince jam.

Mongoloids were shown
how to tie their bootlaces
so they wouldn’t trip
on the linoleum roses

and they danced to a hand organ
outside in the courtyard
until their socks grew tired.

Poem ⓒ Karen Knight

Karen’s story

When at the tender age of nineteen a terrified Karen Knight found herself incarcerated in an inner city police lock-up, she had no inkling that the experiences to follow would lead some forty years later to an award-winning collection of insightful poems.

Today the renowned Tasmanian poet lives happily with her husband of twenty years, Julian, in their colourfully renovated cottage in the northern suburbs of Hobart. Shared with three rescue cats – their “fur children”, Dog, Fetch and Greta – together with Soames the cockatiel and Mr Bird the canary, the welcoming warmth of Karen’s home feels far removed from what must have been the cold and frightening reality of that prison cell many years ago.

“I spent the night in gaol and then the next day they shipped me off to the Royal Derwent Psychiatric Hospital. When I was first admitted, I thought I was just there for the day. And then it suddenly hit me. My God, I’m not going home.”

Karen spent the next eleven months within the confines of the Royal Derwent, institutionalised quite simply because her parents did not know what else to do.

“It was the 1960s, a time of powerful social change. I’d been experimenting with soft drugs and wanted to be part of the hippy scene. I wanted to join a commune – that was my dream. Mum and Dad were fairly conservative and I left home without telling them. Back then you weren’t legally allowed to leave home without permission from your parents until you were twenty-one. You had to toe the line.”

Karen says that at that time, admission to a psychiatric hospital was commonly seen as a solution for rebellious teens. “The hospital was a half-way house for misfits, not just for people with mental illness.”

Her days were filled with mundane activities like peg packing and threading elastic into women’s underwear. “Every day was the same. It was so boring. The only stimulating thing to do was group therapy.”

For many years, Karen dealt with feelings of anger and resentment, not understanding why her parents took such drastic action. “The stigma attached to being institutionalised really got to me. I realise now I’m older they did it because they were just really worried about me, and they loved me. They thought they were doing the right thing. I understand completely why they were trying to protect me. But it’s taken a long time to come to that.”

Karen’s experiences at the Royal Derwent inspired her fifth collection of poems, Postcards From The Asylum, made possible by a $25,000 Australia Council grant. The disarming collection has received much critical acclaim and won the Arts ACT 2007 Alec Bolton Award, together with the University of Tasmania Prize 2011 for Best Book by a Tasmanian Publisher.

Karen’s previous awards include three writer’s development grants from Arts Tasmania, and the Dorothy Hewett Flagship Fellowship Award for Poetry, awarded annually to a highly original poet by the Varuna Writer’s Centre and the Eleanor Dark Foundation. As part of her prize, Karen took up a three-week residency in Scotland in 2007 which incorporated two weeks in Edinburgh followed by a week in the Hebrides with the UNESCO City of Literature Exchange Program.

Long in the making and published in 2007 by Pardalote Press, Postcards From The Asylum had respectfully been put on hold until Karen’s parents had passed away. Although she has written poetry regularly since she was fifteen, Karen says she also wanted to allow time to further develop her writing skills.

“I felt I had to establish myself as a well-known writer before I could tackle such a sensitive subject. Also, I really wanted to show my ability as a writer and not just do the normal freestyle words – there’s a sonnet in the book, a villanelle, a pantoum and a paradelle. That I’ve been able to apply structured poetry to the collection has given me confidence.”

Karen believed too that it was important to put some distance between her experiences and the book. “I wanted to approach the writing in a strong way, not from the perspective of ‘woe is me’,” she says.

“In a way, I feel fortunate. A lot of people ask how can I be positive, how can I forgive? But there’s always a positive outcome from anything traumatic that happens in your life. And it wasn’t all bad. The staff was brilliant, very kind. And I met incredible people. It’s given me a greater understanding of people less fortunate than myself. I’m not fearful of the mentally ill anymore.”

She hopes too that others with similar experiences might feel encouraged to write about them. “As a writer, I wanted to create a link between mental health networks and general community groups, to connect them somehow. Because Postcards From The Asylum deals with a subject as common as mental health, it’s gone way beyond the poetry shelves.” Indeed, the book has proved widely popular both in Australia and overseas – particularly in America, and also in India where it has been translated into Tamil.

A prolific writer, Karen’s previous titles include Under The One Granite Roof – poems for Walt Whitman (Pardalote Press, 2004) and the chapbooks Singing In The Grain (Walleah Press, 2001), My Mother Has Become (Picaro Press, 2003) and Doctor Says (Picaro Press, 2006). Together with Sue Moss, Karen is also co-editor of Interior Despots – Running the Border, an anthology of women poets (Pardalote Press, 2001). Meanwhile, her work has also been widely published in overseas and Australian literary journals and anthologies, including Best Australian Poems 2005.

Karen regularly performs readings of her work at festivals, in pubs, on buses and on radio, often in collaboration with her husband, who she describes as “a lovely, vibrant, happy soul with a fantastic outlook on life”. An accomplished percussionist, Julian accompanies her readings with simple yet beautiful sounds produced by an African thumb piano, a thunder tube, a chime or a Tibetan singing bowl, even tiny music boxes.

“Jules enhances my work with soundscapes. For example, when we perform the poem about a catatonic woman, The Deep Maternal, he plays a little Brahms Lullaby music box – it usually makes people cry.”

So how does Karen feel today, now that her experiences at the Royal Derwent have been published in the form of Postcards From The Asylum? “It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s extraordinary what this book has done for me,” Karen says.

Given her positive outlook, it is perhaps not surprising that Karen has no regrets about being hospitalised. “I wouldn’t have had this,” she says smiling, holding her prized book. “This to me is a gift.”

Image & words ⓒ SWS

8 thoughts on “Postcards from the asylum

  1. Asylums are profoundly unhuman places that had their own metronomic rhythm, smells and noises. Some areas carried a strange silence that isn’t found anywhere else. God knows what those walls witnessed, the unimaginable loss of people’s time; their most precious possession.

    I was pleased to be instrumental in closing them down.

    • Hello Phil,
      Yes, I think I might have had a glimpse of what you describe when photographing the remnants of what was once the Royal Derwent… whether visiting, working there or actually finding oneself incarcerated within those walls, it seems the aura of the place stays with you. Thank you for taking the time to share your valued impressions…

thoughts? let me know what you think!

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