Photograph by John Bragg at the Red Point Arts Centre cafe in Port Kembla, 2013.
Deb Westbury, who passed away in 2018, was a poet, a mentor, a teacher and a workshop leader. For many years she also worked as a sculptor. Born in Wollongong, she lived there, Port Kembla and Kangaroo Valley until she settled in Katoomba.
From the 1970s onwards, her poetry was featured in many literary journals, and was featured in the ABC’s Poetica. She published five full-length books of poetry. Her first, Mouth to Mouth (1990) was published by Five Islands Press, which she helped to establish, and the book was then taken up by Hodder and Stoughton, after which for a number of years, her poetry was featured on the HSC list for English.
Her later books were 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 by Hope Street Press in 2016.
She also edited several collections of poetry, some of them produced as a result of workshops she ran. Deb was highly respected as a teacher in schools, universities and community groups, and as a mentor of individual poets.
For many years she was a workshop leader at the Wollongong Poetry Workshops and helped select and mentor poets in Five Islands Press’ New Poets Series. Many significant writers got their starts in that program, including Peter Boyle, James Bradley, Cate Kennedy, Judy Johnson, Andy Kissane, David Musgrave and many other writers still working successfully today.
Later Deb Westbury worked at Varuna Writers’ Centre for many years as an editor, selector and mentor. People who worked with her were drawn to her voice: the gentle deliberation with which she pronounced each word of a poem, her generosity of spirit and her irreverent sense of humour. Her association with Varuna had begun in 1993 when she was one of the first writers to assume a Writer-in-Residence post there. Since that time, she was involved with Varuna on many levels. As a consultant and mentor, she assisted many poets with their writing careers; she also facilitated workshops and was instrumental in many of the poetry events included in the Varuna branch of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Her early poetry explored the scenes, the industry and the immigrants of the Illawarra in a flowing free verse that illustrated her empathy with the people of struggle street. Her poems then and later provide an appraisal of Australian life, especially as it impacts on the less privileged, and particularly on immigrants. There’s a sensuousness to these poems that doesn’t conceal the passion beneath the surface. Sometimes, then and later, there’s also a sharp satirical edge.
Her own life, too, was a struggle. Estranged from members of her prominent Wollongong family, for many years money was a problem for her. Like many Australian poets, she struggled for the recognition she deserved. While in Wollongong she married Robert Hood but they later separated and she went to live in Port Kembla with Tina Bain. They too separated, and after the tragic death of her son Luke in a railway accident at Austinmer station, she moved to Katoomba in 1998, where she met and married John Bragg.
Her later poetry was tighter, pared back, lyrical. As Elizabeth Webby said, she was a poet of the senses. There are, in her poetry, many lyrical celebrations of the natural world, as well as satire and continuing social comment. There are many beautifully observed scenes from rural Australia, as well as people and places in the Blue Mountains. The last poem in her collection Flying Blind (Brandl & Schlesinger) is one of a number of poems for her son:
I’m looking at the label on his glasses case.
He wrote it himself –
the first name written bold,
the first syllable of his surname also
but dwindling towards the end,
almost to a dot,
as if it was a name he didn’t expect,
to live all the way into.
Deb Westbury had a great gift of friendship. Her letters and her gifts will be long remembered by her friends. She died after a long battle with cancer on March 11, 2018, at her home in Katoomba. Deb is survived by her husband, John Bragg.
Written by Ron Pretty.
when I was born
they planted a cactus
at my window
after thirty-three years
it dresses itself up
for the first time
like a bride
the white blooms adorning
its towering green limbs
all turned to face the street lights
in the nightsky
a rainbow forms around the moon
and the comet, heralding the birth
of avatars and kings,
carries in its blazing wake
a billion weary souls
praying for deliverance
disguised as light
you come to me
the darkness of my passage
with you late-blossoming love