Poet, Brian Purcell, was first published in the early eighties and has since had more than fifty poems published in national magazines such as Meanjin and Southerly, and books such as Australian Love Poems and Top Lines.
He has enjoyed appointments across the publishing sphere in his career, including at the Poets Union, the Australian Society of Authors, Talking Books at the Royal Blind Society and as a freelancer for ABC Audio. Brian has also written articles for the Australian Author magazine and is the author of the ASA’s paper Writing for the Poetry Market. He also had the pleasure of acting as co-judge for the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival Poetry Prize with Peter Bishop, and later announcing the winners at the festival. But more recently Brian could be found at Varuna Writers’ House where he programmed the Blue Mountains component of the Sydney Writers Festival.
Brian is also responsible for the establishment the group who were responsible for the establishment of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival, he did this the same year that he established his business, Renaissance Manuscript Service. More recently he was able to persuade the local government in Coffs Harbour to support the establishment of the Coffs Coast Writers Centre.
He proudly comments that while studying for his Master of Writing at Sydney’s UTS under novelist Glenda Adams, he shared his classes with future novelists Nicki Gemmell, Arabella Edge and Belinda Alexandra. Though, he might still be best known as the singer/lyricist for the cult electronic rock band Distant Locust.
Here he shares his journey from unknown word-smith to published poet.
Devouring as much contemporary Australian poetry as I could in my teens helped me appreciate my country’s lingo and culture, and in turn lead me to develop and refine my own voice as a poet. Despite experiencing ‘wrong-headed’ teaching methods in school, I maintained a love of poetry and was intent on discovering how far I could go in terms of developing my talents – I hoped that in time it would eventually lead to some kind of publication of my work.
My first publishing opportunities presented themselves in my early twenties, but I felt that I really hit my stride when I was published in a special ‘Young Poets’ edition of Poetry Australia, in the mid-eighties. The editor, the late Philip Benham, was very encouraging of all the young poets involved and gave me more than five pages in the anthology to exhibit a range of my work.
Then, as now, if you wanted to get a book out with a reputable publisher, you needed many magazine and/or anthology credits. I’d long admired Meanjin magazine, which has been considered to be our leading literary magazine for decades. It seemed to be the reserve of so many well-known poets; an unknown poet would need to submit something pretty amazing to crack that. I’d had an idea for a long poem – it was very complicated – and I recall working on it literally for years off and on, trying to make it work. In 1985 I finally sent in my first submission to Meanjin – and to my surprise, it was accepted: a double page spread of my long poem!
But if you think that publishing credit would make my journey easier, think again. After my initial Meanjin success I continued to send more work to them, but despite finding regular publishing places other magazines and anthologies I wasn’t able to crack the ‘big M’ again.
By 1985 I had turned my attentions to writing lyrics (and offering my vocals) for rock band, Distant Locust. There was definitely more than one occasion that I inwardly groaned that the band was taking up all of my creative powers and my best lyrics – my ‘pure’ poetry writing was suffering.
But what is pure poetry? There was always this tension in my work between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. I ultimately came to enjoy mixing one with the other. Plus, there was a payoff – being in the band meant that I got to travel overseas, where I experienced playing in venues like Roman amphitheatres and converted nuclear bunkers! Who would want to miss that life experience?
Early on I began to think that, although I loved Australian poetry so much, no-one I knew was reading it, and that made me gravitate towards the Poets Union, where I felt I could help get poetry ‘out there’ to be loved and read. At the beginning I was just helping move chairs at the monthly readings, but eventually I was drafted in to be Secretary and later President. Ironically I began to work so hard on this – the band, a job – that there was little time to work on my poetry. But I enjoyed a real buzz opening people’s eyes to the poetry that was being written in this country! Such zeal later led me to start the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival and the Coffs Coast Writers Centre.
After Distant Locust broke up in 1996 I started an MA in Writing at UTS. In 1999 with the novel in full flight, full-time work and two young children, I consciously decided to stop writing poetry; there was just no time to do it justice. I will put it behind me, I thought. To tell the truth, the ‘poetry wars’ between different poets and styles in Australia had me disillusioned. And so my poetry abstinence went on for several years, but then something happened, and I began to scribble down some ideas. Sometimes they were song lyrics, others were more than that. I was no longer involved in the ‘poetry biz’ of high competitiveness and back-biting that for me had lessened my love and enjoyment of the form. But now I was going back to the beginning, just writing for myself, my own enjoyment – and it was wonderful, creating new worlds again.
I paint also, I love the artist Paul Klee’s description of his drawing as ‘taking the imagination for a walk’ and this is what I sometimes love to do in my poetry. My friend John Bennett has a sign off for each email he sends, which is ‘Poetry becomes that conversation we could not otherwise have.’
Anyway, old friends sometimes asked me for poems for a book or magazine and I thought, well, why not? And then I started submitting my poems to magazines again, and, surprisingly, they started to get accepted. They were seeing the light of day in magazines like Plumwood Mountain, new online ventures like Red Room, and anthologies like Australian Love Poems.
And then, in 2013 while stranded without power in North Bellingen during that horrendous flood, while dealing with some emotional issues I began to write some lines that became a poem which – to my delight – Meanjin accepted for publication!
Last year on the day that I found out, I met a quite well-known poet who said ‘I’ve been trying to get published in Meanjin for more than thirty years – and never succeeded’. I admired her frankness and of course thought, ‘oh well, I’ve done ok then I guess!’ My attitude now is – well, Keats only wrote for about five of his friends, and I have a few friends I write for, and that’s enough. Writing poetry is something I do – if it moves one or one thousand people, if it creates something new, reveals something about one’s life, or society, it is worth doing.
You can see Brian’s latest Meanjin submission in their next issue (Issue 4/2015), exactly 29 years after his first submission was published.