Barbara Orlowska-Westwood grew up in Poland through WWII, experiencing German occupation and life under communism. Completing her medical degree and working as a Physician both in Poland and later in Australia, Barbara is now retired and lives in Port Macquarie. A prolific writer, many of Barbara’s life experiences can be viewed through her emotive poetry …
Share a little of your background with us … What was your childhood like, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Poland; my childhood occurred during the Second World War. My father fought in 1939; he was captured by the Germans (when I was five). He escaped while being transported to the Katyn Forest (Russia), so he escaped the Katyn Massacre, and was later involved with the Resistance in Poland.
This was a difficult and unpredictable time, as life revolved around politics, and you lived with fear – not having rights as a person … But, we lived our lives trying to be happy with the little things, enjoying family, celebrating birthdays and occasions.
What led you to study medicine?
I was brought up in later years by my stepfather, who was a doctor. My mother told me I filled a questionnaire in at school when I was 10, and I said then that I wanted to be a doctor! I suppose I was stubborn enough to go on to do this … I completed my schooling and graduated from university with a medical degree. I worked as a Physician and came to Australia in 1979.
What brought you to Australia?
I married an Australian man. I was divorced at the time; we met in Stockholm. I was at a conference and he was on business in Europe.
We actually met in 1972, and we married in 1977. When I came to Australia in 1979, I came with my son from my first marriage – he was 12 at the time.
My husband was from Melbourne, so we lived there for a number of years, then for the 10 years after I retired, we lived on the coast – still in Victoria.
We moved to Port Macquarie in 2013 because our close friends lived here – and also for the better climate and the beauty of the place. We love living here, and we’ve found the people very friendly and helpful.
How did you become interested in poetry – and what led you to write your own?
I was brought up with it; my family loved poetry. At school and university we read not only Polish poets, but the work of poets translated from all over the world. There is truly some beautiful poetry in the world.
When I semi-retired in 1996, I started to write poetry and I studied part-time Professional Writing and Editing at TAFE Box Hill. I love writing in English and continued my study at Deakin Uni in Melbourne.
I now belong to Port Writers; we meet once a month. I’m a member of U3A writing group, which meets once a week, and I’m also an online member of Deakin Literary Society, Melbourne.
Who are some of your favourite poets?
Some of my favourite books of poetry are: The Poetry of our World, ed by J. Paine and Against Forgetting, Twentieth-century Poetry of Witness, ed. by Carolyn Forche – this is poetry by over 145 poets, translated from 30 languages.
I love contemporary poetry by Australian, American and European poets. I like poets who can express an idea clearly. Some poetry is not accessible to everyone.
Describe the type of poetry you like to pen … What topics most interest you, and how would you describe your narrative style?
I write free verse. Poetry gives me the freedom to say what I want. I can’t forget the war, so this comes to me very often as a subject. Also, human emotions, love – the most powerful emotion. I also write about the environment and nature, and medical topics – because this is my experience.
Which of your poems would you describe as personal favourites (and why)?
I think the poem I like most is the one that I wrote first – and was also published first – Lazarus. This poem is about my father and his capture [and escape] in 1939. We had no idea he’d survived, so this poem is very important to me.
What’s the creative process behind writing your poetry?
When I write a poem, it has to be about something that really moves me. Whether it’s negative or positive, there needs to be something that triggers a response in me, and I need to feel strongly about it.
It can take quite a long time from when the idea first comes to my head to create the skeleton of a poem … I quite often write the first draft by hand, and after further thinking I go to the computer and work with lines, stanzas and so forth. I have to first see in my mind how it’s going to work …
Now we live at St Agnes Village, we have a reserve at the rear and a water view, so I like to sit there to write. I also like writing in cafés over my latte. It can be very busy there, but I feel comfortable writing like this.
Where has your poetry been published?
Most of my poems have been published in different anthologies and literary magazines or online in Australia, the USA and Poland.
My poem Nature of Things won the 2002 DUSA Poetry Award and was published in the journal Verandah.
My chapbook, called Firing Neurons, can be bought through www.presspress.com.au
On the home page, go to “chapbooks to buy” and look for my name. The names are in alphabetical order.
I also write short stories, and I’m currently working on a bigger collection of my poetry, and editing my memoirs.
Interview by Jo Atkins.