Queensland killed Georges Perec. It was one of the campus legends we heard as English undergrads at the University of Queensland. The legendary Ouilpian author of Life: A User’s Manual was, improbably, a writer-in-residence for a month in 1981. (For a more thorough, and undoubtedly accurate, account of Perec’s time down under see Peter Salmon’s fantastic article here.) Back then Queensland was still in the thrall of The Joke, the web of systematised police corruption that reached all the way to the Premier Joh Bjekle-Petersen. This was before the transformative troika of the Commonwealth Games, Expo ’88 and the Fitzgerald Inquiry let the sunshine in to the Murky State. Even the Great Court’s classical sandstone columns could elevate this big country town where men wore knee high socks and short shorts and devilled eggs passed for haute cuisine.
It wasn’t that Brisbane had no culture; rather, we produced artists and they left. We were enthusiastically proud of our music scene—the fact its bands played under the jackboot of a quasi-police state lent its punk rock wailings a scruff of authenticity. While they might have been ignored at home, the influence of The Saints and The Go-Betweens was felt across the globe. Nowadays there are prominent inner-city tributes to both bands. A quick jog from the (misnamed) Go-Between Bridge lands you next to a massive mural commemorating the derelict house where The Saints recorded the video for ‘(I’m) Stranded’, arguably the world’s first punk record. Self-exile is an essential part of each band’s mythology, and a key theme in Brisbane’s art. Because we perceive that nothing can happen here, everyone leaves. It was true of Peter Porter and Gwen Harwood, and it has been true for many of my friends. It is even at the heart of Brisbane’s ur-literary text, David Malouf’s Johnno, whose titular character snarls ‘This must be the bloody arsehole of the universe!’ Both Johnno and Dante, the narrator, were compelled to escape. While the narrator returns, the author did not.
Things seemed to be changing in the mid-90s. I was in the middle of my teens and deciding that I wanted to be a writer. Bands I moshed to at sweaty all-ages shows—Powderfinger, Regurgitator, Custard—were building national profiles. Browsing through a QBD bookstore in the CBD looking for something to read on a kind of Catholic schoolboy’s mission-trip to the Philippines, I came across Andrew McGahan’s recently published Praise—a Vogel Prize-winning novel of inner city sex and smack set half-a-dozen suburbs over from where I was raised. It formed part of a kind of trilogy with Nick Earls’ ZigZag Street and John Birmingham’s He Died with a Felafel in His Hand. These books, each in their own way, declared that Brisbane was a place with stories worth telling. But while the latter were amusements, Praise was art. On top of that, its author was only twenty-five, less than a decade older than I was when I read it. It made being a writer seem possible. It would take work—the bio on the inside cover of McGahan’s book noted one unpublished and two abandoned novels—but it could be done here.
I have since learnt that Brisbane culture didn’t begin with Malouf or McGahan or The Go-Betweens. A rich and thoughtful culture flourished here before the invasion, and the settler culture in this town is more complex than I originally took it to be. In The Third Metropolis, William Hatherell outlines a pulsating history torqued by the influx of US soldiers garrisoned in the city during the Second World War, continuing through to the healthy radical community of the 60s. In the last couple of decades I have grown to treasure the contributions of Judith Wright, John Manifold, Jon Molvig, Ray Crooke, the Barjai group, Clem Christensen, Thea Astley, Martin Duwell, Joy Roggenkamp, Ian Fairweather, Dick Roughsey, Denis Walker, Eva and Ted Bacon, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Barbara Blackman and many more. But when I first wanted to be a writer, this history was subterranean. The major survey of Molvig’s paintings, which features work by many of the painters he mentored and championed, currently hanging at the Queensland Art Gallery would suggest things are surfacing, but it remains under appreciated in a town where we think of our culture as Allan Border, Laura Geitz, Mick Fanning and Stephanie Gilmore. And to be honest, I wouldn’t be the fiercely parochial Cane Toad I am if I didn’t love them all dearly.
It was a history still unknown to me when I graduated from uni in 2001. Brisbane still didn’t really seem like a town where things happened. The hype around Brisbane’s music scene dimmed and McGahan, like Malouf and The Go-Betweens before him, felt the pull of exile, this time to Melbourne. It pulled at me too. A poet without PhD prospects but aspirations of being a novelist, I wanted to go somewhere where things happened. You take what you can get though, and instead of Hemingway’s Paris I took a job as an English teacher in one of Seoul’s satellite cities just as the 2002 World Cup kicked off, leaving home with a broken heart after a relationship ended. South Korea’s surprising march to the semi-finals proved a heady distraction, but after the tournament’s euphoria receded I found myself marooned on a sandbank of grief and self-pity. I stayed up till dawn downing tallies of Hite and watching movies on the Armed Forces Network. I taught appallingly and wrote a dozen-or-so poems that I can still stand behind. After five dismal months, and with the promise of a reconciliation upon repatriation, I packed my backpack and fled in the middle of the night. The experience scarred me. For years afterwards, it would come back to me. A certain pitch of sun or the sound of construction could send me into a quiet panic. It made me scared of leaving.
A few years later I moved to London and saw as much of Europe as I could before my Working Holidaymaker Visa expired. When I got home I applied for DFAT’s graduate program. I made it to the final interview but thankfully no further—it was a bullet dodged. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the claustrophobic compound life of a likely Pacific posting would have smothered me. Instead I landed a temp job in the Queensland Police Service’s media unit. Then, a cascade of resignations scored me a job as a Media Advisor to the Police Minister. All of a sudden, I had a career and Brisbane was where I lived. Up until about five years ago I toyed with the idea of moving, particularly after a redundancy suddenly unmoored me, but I don’t anymore.
Brisbane suits me as a poet and as a person. My current job, as the national media manager for a health NGO, gives me the opportunity to help people tell their stories to change public policy for the better. My mum is here. My mates are here. My futsal team, for whom I’ve played almost 600 games, is here. I am involved with some of the city’s cultural institutions. I love the limited size and scale of the place—big enough to have most of what I want, small enough to not be gridlocked by people. I can drive to almost a dozen cinemas in twenty minutes and, in my opinion, the Australia Cinematheque is the best revival house in Australia. I love the way the city looks. I have come to grasp at its ancient history as Meanjin. Its endless hills reveal new vistas every journey. I love Maiwar and the fact that at least once a week I get to run along its banks, underneath the Kangaroo Point cliffs, and look at the lights of the office buildings reflected on the water. I love the creeks trailing through our suburbs, though in many cases they are as mistreated, neglected and ignored as the life before occupation that they provide glimpses of. I love its architecture, the tin and timber houses propped ingeniously on stilts on the sides of vertiginous hills. Some of the world’s best beaches are within a couple of hours’ drive. I am renewed time and again by the verdancy of Bundjalung country and the silent hollows of Yugambeh land. I married an academic from Ohio, and though she could probably entice me away for an extended stint, I think I’d always come home.
I have come to understand that writing isn’t about living in a particular place. Anywhere is worth writing about. Everything can be interesting. And, anyway, writing is a solitary pursuit that takes time and demands the minimisation of distractions. On top of that, place isn’t central to my poetry even if it is frequently seasoned by this town, its rhythms and its weather. More often my poetry is about the language of the internet, the way people express values through entertainments and politics, how and why art works and what its limits are. I can do that wherever I’ve got a broadband connection.
All of this isn’t to say that Brisbane is flawless. While writing might be solitary, poetry needs a community in the way that novels or essays arguably don’t. Poems need audiences to hear their aural qualities while conversations about poetics, the fundamental decisions and assumptions upon which a poem is constructed, are important to the continued development of poems and poets. From time-to-time I look enviously at Melbourne and Sydney. Both cities have healthy poetry scenes with public readings, reading groups and opportunities for conversations with poets. To get a fraction of what people in the southern cities enjoy, I started my own reading series, which hardly compares—mostly because there are simply more poets, both established and emerging, in those cities. I try to visit them both regularly to talk poetics and hear the latest gossip. People always ask me, particularly in Melbourne, if I’d consider relocating. I usually say I prefer the cinemas up here, but the reality is that diversity, of gender, of background, of perspective and yes, of geography, is important. We need more poets who are offering perspectives outside of the Melbourne-Sydney axis. This is as true of Brisbane poets as it is of Toowoomba poets as it is of Wagga Wagga poets as it is of Perth poets.
Technology, and social media in particular, has been a great boon for poets. Just as it has deleteriously allowed people to retreat into ever narrower slivers of political comfort, it has also allowed the adherents and proponents of fringe activities, like poetry, to build broad and enduring communities. I can, and regularly do, connect with poets from Gerringong to Takarazuka via Messenger or Twitter. Instantaneous communication is easy. In fact, I find my lack of academic poetry qualifications more dislocating than geography. Poetry has been swallowed verse and volta by the university and almost every poet I know has some kind of higher degree in the subject. There is a kind of academic language of work that I simply don’t speak and that is far more difficult to bridge than sliding into someone’s DMs.
For much of Johnno, Dante and Johnno shuffle through Brisbane’s pubs in a kind of torpor, maligning the city and longing for somewhere else. ‘Brisbane was nothing,’ Dante sneers at one point, ‘a city that blew neither hot nor cold, a place where nothing happened, and where nothing ever would happen, because it had no soul.’ But Dante was wrong. Malouf knew that when he wrote his novel memorialising a ramshackle Brisbane that was, by the time of its publication in 1975, long gone. And on top of that, people have lived in and told stories about this place for tens of thousands of years. This place matters because all places matter. Our lives, our small culture, are as worthy of depiction as anything else. The myth of exile, the idea that art happens elsewhere, persist because we, Brisbane artists, perpetuate it.
Obviously, the question of staying or going isn’t that simple, and as I write this, I can’t escape thinking of my two oldest friends in writing, both Brisbane-born and now in exile. Both have made undeniably substantial contributions to the fabric of this town’s literature. If there is anything that bugs me about their absence, it’s the proximity of their friendship, not where they do their writing. But I feel that I have a small opportunity to contribute to ending the myth just by staying and writing. It’s easy enough, because I love it here and I’m by no means alone. There are plenty of fine poets, and new ones emerge every year. Our literary scene might be small but it exists, and every line we write is a smaller rejoinder to the forlorn declaration of Dante and Johnno in the Criterion Bar, that this is ‘a place where poetry could never occur.’
Liam Ferney’s most recent collection is Hot Take (Hunter Publishing). It follows on from Content (Hunter Publishing) which was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and the Judith Wright Calanthe Award and Boom (Grande Parade Poets) which was shortlisted for Judith Wright Calanthe Aware and the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry. He is a media manager, poet and aspiring left-back living in Brisbane.
*Editor’s note: Meanjin Quarterly acknowledges the irony of publishing a piece about staying in Brisbane when this publication itself moved to Melbourne from Brisbane in 1945.