It is impossible to put a person into words, but when I think of Deb Westbury, who passed away on March 11th this year, one of the images that comes to mind is a bird’s nest. Perhaps because when I met her at Varuna, The Writers’ House in Katoomba, she was facilitating a community writing group and passed around a bird’s nest that she had found. We each held it in our hands, and then used the nest as a springboard for a piece of writing. Perhaps, too, because it seems the most apt metaphor for Deb’s mentoring and friendship—that she provided many fledgling poets, such as myself, with astute and generous advice and support. When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in April 2016, I couldn’t imagine continuing to write: she was the reader I had in mind whenever I set pen to paper.
The first of four daughters, Deb Westbury was born in Wollongong in 1954. She completed both a Master of Creative Arts and a teaching degree, and was a fine and accomplished lyric poet. From the 1970s, her poetry was widely published in literary journals, and her first book, Mouth to Mouth, was published in 1990. Four other full-length collections followed: Our Houses are Full of Smoke (1994), Surface Tension (1998), Flying Blind (2002), and The View from Here (2008). Her final chapbook, Winter in Stone Country, was published in 2016. Deb’s poetry was featured on the ABC’s Poetica, and was also on the HSC list for English. She was one of the founding members of Five Islands Press, and helped select and mentor poets in the Five Islands Press New Poets Series.
Deb’s poetry has a fine sense of musicality and rhythm. Her writing is evocative and immediate in its sensuality, while her gift for metaphor moves the poems between the present and the past, real and imagined/remembered landscapes. In ‘Bread’, for example, a “whole chorus of Greek women” is imagined as a
nest of swans,
each in her best black
while ‘Offrenda for Luke’ opens with the delicate image of poppies as
discarding their furcoats by candledraught
The poems explore the urban settings and natural landscapes where she lived: Wollongong, Port Kembla, Kangaroo Valley and the Blue Mountains. Devoid of sentimentality, Deb’s poetry rings clear in its authenticity, and she writes with deep compassion for the homeless, dispossessed and disempowered. She frequently dedicated her readings to refugees.
Deb communicated her passion and knowledge of poetry through her teaching, facilitating creative writing workshops in high schools, universities and community groups. For many years, she was a workshop leader at the Wollongong Poetry Workshops, and after moving to the Blue Mountains in 1998, she formed a strong connection with Varuna, The Writer’s House, where she worked as a consultant, mentor and selector, as well as being their Poet-in-Residence. She settled in Katoomba, where she met and married John Bragg.
One of Deb’s favourite quotations was that “Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense – the creative act” (Kenneth Rexroth). Deb was passionate about many forms of creativity: she was a talented sculptor of clay, making intricate Mexican trees of life, as well as her treasured ‘fat lady’ candlesticks. She taught workshops on the making of small concertina books, and made poetry zines and pamphlets, decorating and illustrating them for special events. She avoided emails and mobile phones, and had an enduring dedication to letter writing. And what better thing to receive in your mailbox than a letter written in Deb’s exquisite handwriting?
Deb had a gift for creating an intimate atmosphere at poetry events—an atmosphere in which there was an intense feeling for writing’s important place in human experience. Her voice was gentle yet clear, and she had great spark and an irreverent sense of humour. Spirited and determined in many ways, she was also fragile and sensitive. Those who knew Deb were aware of the undercurrent of grief that lay beneath her vivacious public personality. The loss of her sixteen-year-old son, Luke, in a tragic train accident at Austinmer towards the close of 1997 was an event she rarely spoke about, but it is palpable in many of her poems:
Memories of you are finite:
one day you just stopped making them,
you just stopped…What began in my heart
comes out like a nail between my shoulders (Offrenda for Luke).
Those who knew Deb will miss her profoundly. I will end with the poem, ‘Ghostbride’, from her most recent collection, Winter in Stone Country:
From a continent
on a body of water
our love comes trailing;
in its ruined wake
bouquets of orange blossom
sediments of ash.
In a cold harbour
I’m still holding on;
like a windsock
in a storm.
Links to a selection of Deb Westbury’s poetry readings:
‘Her Hands’ and ‘White Coffin Notes’ as part of the Writer-a-Day initiative on the Varuna website:
‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘Bone Song’ on the Red Room Company Website: