Thursday, October 8, 2015


I have studied Peter Skrzynecki's poetry on numerous occasions throughout my career as an English teacher in Catholic secondary schools in NSW. I never tire of teaching his honest, ambiguous and almost mysterious work. My students (those who take English in their stride and strugglers) find his work rich and engaging. Much thought-provoking discussion follows a reading of one of Peter's poems; I've had students write their own poems in response to some of his. 

Peter has many fans. The launch of his weighty collection Old/New World, in 2007, at Gleebooks' store in Glebe, Sydney, was one of the most well-attended poetry bashes I've  been to. I remember Peter finished his reading with a line about breathing in and breathing out. Is there any greater poem? 

Peter has published twenty books of poetry and prose. He has won several literary prizes including the Captain Cook Bicentenary Award, the Grace Leven Poetry Prize and the Henry Lawson Short Story Award. In 1989 he was awarded the Order of Cultural Merit by the Polish government, and in 2002 he received the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his contribution to multicultural literature. IMMIGRANT CHRONICLE, a book of poetry, was a set text for study on the New South Wales HSC syllabus for many years. His memoir THE SPARROW GARDEN was shortlisted for the National Biography Award. OLD/NEW WORLD: New & Selected Poems was published by UQP in 2007. He is an adjunct associate professor in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University. A new memoir, APPOINTMENT NORTHWEST,  of life in a one-teacher school on the New England Tablelands in the 1960s  was published by Five Senses in 2014. A book of children’s poetry, THE RAINBOW BIRDS, will be published by Five Senses in 2015.

What was there before poetry? 

Maybe nothing, maybe everything. Who really knows? I prefer not to speculate. 

Tell me about your childhood/teenage years.

They were  happy years; I had no brothers or sisters but that never mattered. I had plenty of friends living in Mary Street, Regents Park, and environs. The suburb was all bushland, paperbarks, gum trees and prickly scrub. Our house overlooked a reserve and Duck Creek flowed through  it. Birdlife abounded. Lizards. Snakes.

Best of all I was with my parents. When we came to Australia my father worked in Sydney for the Water Board for two years as a pick-and-shovel man while the cost of transportation from Europe was repaid as a deduction from his paypacket.  My mother and I lived in the migrant hostel in Parkes (1949-51). That was the deal with the government. After two years you had to leave. Buy a house somewhere or buy land and build. There was the knowledge, though barely understood by me, that we had done well by coming to Australia.  We were fortunate. My parents were happy and if they were happy, so was I.  They worked very  hard and had the house paid off in four years.

Share with me a story or two from Europe.  

The first memory is of snow. In my memoir THE SPARROW GARDEN (UQP,  2004), there is a chapter called “Snow is Falling”.  My mother was a single mother and after the war she was sent to a Displaced Persons camp in Lebenstedt where she met Feliks Skrzynecki a farmer from Poland who had been in forced labor for five years. They married and he  became my adopting father. You could not have asked for a better father.

I am kneeling on a chair and looking out at  drifting snow. It is falling gently, softly, so fine and powdery it is like a mist. Directly beneath the window is a wire enclosure with a low wooden structure , like a dog’s kennel, subdivided and lined with straw. This is where my father keeps rabbits. They are not being kept as pets. I am not allowed to play with them. These rabbits are kept for their meat. They are bred, fattened and killed. Food queues in the camp are long. People resort to other means to supplement their diet. We can also sell the meat or trade it. I watch the rabbits . The snow keeps falling, drifting.

The second memory involves walking between railways carriages on the journey from Germany to Italy.  We sailed to Australia from Naples. At one point, walking from one carriage to another I saw the broken fuselage of a plane lying in a forest. The trees were filled with dappled light and the broken plane, painted in camouflage colours, resembled a butterfly. The light remains magical, unearthly, as if it appeared on purpose, just to illuminate one small part of the tragedy of war.

Why have you lived in Sydney for so long?

Sydney is home.  In FLAWS IN THE GLASS Patrick White says that for better or worse Sydney is in  his blood.  I feel like that; it is an ambivalent feeling, with all the highrise  building that’s going on. The traffic, the congestion. I sometimes wish I had settled in New England, perhaps Armidale. My first small school was at Jeogla, 50 km east of Armidale. The central west draws me also – probably because  our first home in Australia was in Parkes, in the migrant hostel on its outskirts. Now I have a home in Sydney, my wife is here, my children and grandchildren. Having reached my three score years and ten, and with   health issues arising in recent times, I have no desire to live elsewhere. I feel I belong here.

What are your feelings toward the much-loved and much-studied Immigrant Chronicle after all these years? 

I am still very fond  of IMMIGRANT CHRONICLE and proud of what it achieved. Originally it had a different title and Angus & Robertson turned it down.  About that time UQP was starting its second Paperback Poets series (the coloured covers). Roger McDonald was publisher and Tom Shapcott was the poetry editor. I sent the ms to them. From memory, Tom  and Roger did the selection. Roger and I came up with the title. Roger said the word “immigrant” should be in the title. I liked the word” chronicle”.  I flew up to Brisbane for the meeting. In retrospect, it all came together naturally, without any angst. Since 1975 it has never been out of print and has gone into twenty-two reprints.

Which period of your work are you most proud of?

Fair to say that I am proud of all periods of my work – but maybe a little more of the early years which  were the hardest when it came to meeting publishers and getting manuscripts accepted; but the need to write and express myself was always there, urgent and unavoidable.  Roland Robinson’s press, Lyrebird Writers published my first two books.  Various other publishers followed. UQP published four of my books and keeps them in print. THE SPARROW GARDEN is coming out as an E-book.

Describe your relationship with the natural world of NSW.

My relationship with the natural world is one of respect and honour. Do it proud, as they say, in what I create out of what it offers. Be it land, sea or sky.

Looking back, the natural world of NSW made me a poet. My eyes were opened up to what  beauty NSW/ Australia holds when we lived in Parkes for those first two years. I quote from THE SPARROW GARDEN...”After a sea voyage of four weeks, Parkes meant open spaces, paddocks, sheep, cattle, gum trees, magpies stalking the ground on frosty mornings and throwing back their heads to sing, Parkes meant hot, dry weather, a bushland that I loved walking through, picking at branches of scrub wattle or encountering the scent of eucalypts for the first time....”  

Last year I published APPOINTMENT NORTHWEST (Five Senses) a memoir of my days at Jeogla. A very different landscape from  the central west but just as inspirational. As I was writing,  it became apparent that this was not only a narrative of my days in a small school but also a tribute to the high country of New England with its mountains, rivers, waterfalls and wildlife.  The people, also.

What does the future hold? 

The future ? What  indeed ? Many years of good health and creativity, I hope. I have a book of children’s poetry due before the end of the year, THE RAINBOW BIRDS (Five Senses) that my son has illustrated . I  also have three more manuscripts in my head and perhaps a last collection of poetry to round it all off.