News / Culture

MAN OF LETTERS FINDS POETRY IN BRUNSWICK STREETS


Brunswick’s Kevin Brophy has been honoured with an Order of Australia for his life’s work teaching and championing poetry and writing

Mark Phillips
Friday, June 25, 2021

Kevin Brophy in Sydney Road, June 2021.

K

EVIN Brophy is the closest thing Brunswick has to its own poet laureate. A lifelong resident of the inner northern suburbs and a key figure in Australia’s literary scene for more than four decades, Brophy has regularly drawn on his local environment for inspiration.

Whether it’s anonymous streets and laneways near his house, the changing rooms at the Brunswick Baths, the statue of Father John Brosnan in Dawson Street, the Sydney Road shopping strip, or a neo-Nazi demonstration at the town hall, Brunswick has found its way into Brophy’s writing again and again.

And it was in rundown terrace houses in Brunswick and Coburg that the first editions of the renowned literary journal Going Down Swinging were produced in the late-1970s by Brophy and co-founder Myron Lysenko.

Brophy’s devotion to writing, teaching and championing Australian literature was recognised earlier this month with a Member of the Order of Australia award in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours.

The official citation is for “significant service to tertiary education, and to creative writing” — but that is an understatement of a long career which continues into Brophy’s eighth decade.

The award was “out of the blue”, Brophy tells Brunswick Voice over a coffee at one of his favourite local haunts, Wide Open Road in Barkly Street after arriving for the interview on his trusty yellow pushbike.

“There’s a whole mix of feelings, but it feels fantastic to have that recognition for poetry,” he says.

“It rarely happens to poets and it’s a great thing for the creative writing program at Melbourne University to have the honour attached to it, and a deep personal satisfaction too that the kinds of community work, voluntary publishing work and editing work and mentoring work I’ve been doing for decades has been recognised.”

Childhood memories

Brophy was born in Moreland Road and then spent the first decade of his life on the Coburg end of Sydney Road. He was the second of nine children to “aspiring working class” parents, neither of whom completed high school.

A love of reading, along with a strong education ethic, was encouraged in the household. Brophy was the first in the family to go to university and is one of three siblings to have gained PhDs.

Brophy knew he wanted to be a writer by the age of 14, and his fondest childhood memories are of devouring books from the Coburg library, which was then located beside the town hall in Bell Street.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Brophy and his siblings would explore the narrow laneways near their home and hone their skills throwing stones at rats at the municipal tip in Sydney Road while they waited to catch a tram to school each morning.

“I loved the territory of my childhood in Coburg,” Brophy says.

“I loved the lanes, the back of warehouses and factories where we could have adventures.

“I loved the idea that Sydney Road went all the way to Sydney, an almost unimaginable place, unimaginably far away. I loved the trams … In retrospect it looks like possibly a grubby kind of childhood, but it has lots of nostalgia and charm in my memories.”

The family later moved to Watsonia, but Brophy returned to his old neighbourhood when he began at Melbourne University, spending his first year living with his grandmother across the road from Pentridge Prison in O’Hea Street.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing. All I knew was I wanted to write from my heart and into the heart of the reader.”

While still at university, Brophy and a friend opened a coffee house in Sydney Road near Moreland Road which became a beacon for live music and socialising. During this period he immersed himself in the creative communities of Carlton and Fitzroy when the Pram Factory and La Mama theatres were in their heyday.

Brophy wrote throughout his 20s, but it was not until after he had published his first novel, Getting Away With It, in 1982 that he considered himself a proper writer. He freely admits he took several “false paths”, studying both social work and psychology before dedicating himself to the written word.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing. All I knew was I wanted to write from my heart and into the heart of the reader,” he says.

“The thing about writing a novel is it’s a bit like taking up a drug. I had developed a habit by then [his first novel] and my life didn’t make sense any longer without having a few hours a day for writing, thinking about writing, pushing some writing project along.”

He has had 19 books of his own writing published, including 10 collections of poetry, and is currently working on a new short story collection for release next year. While Brophy has also written essays and non-fiction along with fiction, it is poetry that remains his first love.

Going Down Swinging

In 1979, Brophy and fellow poet Myron Lysenko founded Going Down Swinging to give under-represented young writers like themselves a new place to be published. The first editions were made by hand in their homes in Coburg and Brunswick.

“Because we were young unpublished writers … and we were being regularly rejected by those bigger magazines [like] Meanjin and Overland we thought let’s open up an avenue for young writers by publishing a little journal which might last for a year or six months or only one issue, we don’t know.

“So we both put in several hundred dollars each and tested the waters and that testing of the waters lasted for 15 years.”

Over the years, the journal has helped give countless writers a start, although Brophy still rues rejecting a submission by a young Western Australian writer called Tim Winton.

Going Down Swinging is going strong, although Brophy handed over the reins in 1994. But he renewed his involvement in publishing in 2007 when , along with Lyn Hatherly, he took over the specialist poetry imprint Five Islands Press from its founder, Ron Pretty. They published 44 books up until last year, when they decided to call it a day.

Now emeritus professor of creative writing at Melbourne University, Brophy has taught and supervised hundreds of writers over the years.

“Of course, Brunswick’s become a very different place now, it’s transformed and I’m an interested observer of the transformation.”

Brunswick again forms the backdrop in some of Brophy’s newest writing, the result of a lifelong fascination with the suburb.

“I’m walking around my past often when I’m in Brunswick,” he says.

“When I first moved back to Brunswick … it was a dying suburb in the early 80s, the population was falling, houses were falling to pieces, but one of the things I liked about it was that there was such a mix here of nationalities and a mix of housing and small industry.

“It was fascinating to me that there was so much manufacturing going on and so much small business happening around these domestic streets.

“Of course, Brunswick’s become a very different place now. It’s transformed and I’m an interested observer of the transformation.

“Of course, Brunswick’s become a very different place now. It’s transformed and I’m an interested observer of the transformation.

“I love that Brunswick is a place for the arts because the arts is a part of my life.

“I love it that young people are interested in living in Brunswick. As a uni student, I loved Carlton and Fitzroy, that was a revelation to me, what was happening culturally at that time was so exciting. And Brunswick’s had a similar journey I think.

“I hope it remains that way for as long as possible.”

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