Kocan was born Peter Raymond Douglas in Newcastle, New South Wales, and raised in Melbourne. His father, an engineer, was killed in a car accident three months before his birth. Kocan's mother moved to Melbourne and remarried, but the marriage failed so Peter, his mother and younger brother moved to Sydney. Kocan left school at fourteen to work in New South Wales as a labourer and station-hand, before returning to Sydney, where he gained work as a factory-hand in a dye factory.
On the evening of 21 June 1966, while campaigning for the 1966 federal election, Arthur Calwell addressed an anti-conscription rally at Mosman Town Hall in Sydney. After Calwell left the meeting, just as his car was about to drive off, Kocan approached the passenger side of the vehicle, aimed a sawn-off rifle at Calwell's head and fired at point-blank range. The closed window deflected the bullet, which lodged harmlessly in Calwell's coat lapel. Calwell sustained only minor facial injuries from broken glass.
Kocan was tried and found guilty of attempted murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and was detained first at Long Bay jail in Sydney. In late December 1966, Kocan was transferred to Ward 6 for the Criminally Insane in Morisset Mental Hospital, at Morisset, south of Newcastle. Calwell visited Kocan there, and forgave him for the incident.
During his years in prison and hospital, Kocan immersed himself in history, literature and poetry after a chance remark by another inmate led him to discover the writing of Rupert Brooke. Between 1967 and 1969, the poet Michael Dransfield corresponded and exchanged poems with Kocan. These letters, which comprise drafts of poems by Dransfield, quotes of poems by other poets, and recommendations for books Kocan should read, are now held in the collection of the Academy Library of the University of New South Wales.
Kocan began to write poetry in 1967. Two selected works of poetry, Ceremonies for the Lost (1974) and The Other Side of the Fence (1975), were published while he was at Morisset. He was released on license from Morisset in August 1976, and began to write about his experiences. Two autobiographical novellas, The Treatment (1980) and The Cure (1983), told of his life in the asylum. The Cure won the 1983 NSW Premier's Literary Award for Fiction. His other works include the poetry volumes Freedom to Breathe (1985), Standing with Friends (1992) and Fighting in the Shade (2000), the joint collection Primary Loyalties (1999), and the science-fiction novel Flies of a Summer (1988). The novel Fresh Fields (2004), is a fictionalised account of his youth. His most recent novel, The Fable of All Our Lives (2010), is based on his life after his release from Morisset.
Kocan lived for many years on the Central Coast of New South Wales, teaching, acting, and writing drama, poetry and fiction. He gained public recognition for his work, receiving regular support from the Literary Board of the Australia Council, and has won various literary prizes. He graduated from the University of Newcastle in 1998 with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours), and obtained a master's degree. He moved to Brisbane in 2003.
Awards and nominations
- 1977: Commonwealth Institute of London Prize for The Other Side of the Fence (poetry collection)
- 1982: Mattara Poetry Prize for From the private poems of Governor Caulfield
- 1983: New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, Christina Stead Prize for fiction for The Cure
- 2005: New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, shortlisted for Christina Stead Prize for fiction Fresh Fields (semi-autobiographical novel)
- 2005: Queensland Premier's Literary Awards, shortlisted for Best Fiction Prize for Fresh Fields
- 2010: Australia Council Writer's Emeritus Award