Author Interview: Frank Prem #storytelling #poet
About Frank Prem
Frank Prem has been a storytelling poet for forty years. When not writing or reading his poetry to an audience, he fills his time by working as a psychiatric nurse.
He has been published in magazines, e-zines and anthologies, in Australia and in a number of other countries, and has both performed and recorded his work as ‘spoken word’.
Frank has published two collections of free verse poetry – Small Town Kid (2018) and Devil In The Wind (2019).
He and his wife live in the beautiful township of Beechworth in northeast Victoria (Australia).
Good morning Marje, (at least it’s morning over here in Beechworth, the little town where I live in Australia).
Good morning Frank. So lovely to welcome you to my blog…
- Your tagline ‘There are stories all around me’ really appeals to me. I agree with this one hundred percent! With so much inspiration everywhere how do you decide what to write about?
I suspect I may end up being a little indirect in my answer to this, Marje.
I decided a long time ago in my writing development that I should adopt a philosophy along the lines of – no single thing, however great or small, should be discarded from acting as the source of a poem. A story.
As a result, I’ve found myself writing about a snail crawling across the inner forest of a head of broccoli from my garden, about the king of the lizards running around in pursuit of life and death matters on my back veranda. The clouds and the sky.
Literally everything I encounter feels as though it has the potential to captivate, and there are days when I can’t switch that sense off. I see these stories everywhere.
One of the reasons I developed such an affinity for the small, I think, comes from my childhood and adolescence, where I was very conscious of coming from a small town, being a small fish, and yet feeling (of course) as though I was in the very centre of the functioning universe.
I decided that small needed to be celebrated, and I started by purposefully incorporating local place names in my poetry. Little locales of only a handful of people, but a name made real by being included in a poem.
Sometimes that seems enough.
The link below will take you to a poem I wrote about a possible World Tour I might undertake if ever I had a poetry ‘hit’. The idea of appearing and performing to sell-out crowds in these little places that sometimes consisted of nothing more than a hall and some scattered farms amused me enormously at the time. I’m a little gobsmacked, now, by the cheekiness of my then self, given that I’ve begun actively seeking out exactly such places as these to host readings and performances. . .
The poem is called ‘World Tour’ https://wp.me/p7yTr8-1KR
- I’m curious to find out more about you! I know from your blog/blogs that you live with your wife Leanne, in Beechworth north-east Victoria. You are both creative and have collaborated together. That must be so wonderful. Tell me about your collaborations and any plans you have for the future.
It really is wonderful being partner to someone who is a talented and gifted artist and musician in her own right.
The nature of our direct collaborations change as we go along, and new interests and imperatives surface.
In the past we have performed together on stage, created songs together, and put music to poetry to turn poem into song. Leanne has illustrated a poetry collection for me in the past (one of our early attempts to self-publish). That collection – Memoir of a Dog – is no longer in print, but might get another airing in the future.
Leanne has also produced and accompanied some of my poems, transforming them from spoken word into a different realm of work and accomplishment.
I’ll give links to a couple of examples.
One piece – Dog and Mob – that originated as a poem, was transformed into a song, and then given the community music treatment by a choir that Leanne runs in the town. There is a Facebook recording the choir singing it last Spring, here: https://www.facebook.com/springsingbeechworth/videos/203391797215168/
The song starts about 20 seconds in.
There are also examples of accompanied, studio quality poems, where we worked on a number of pieces that were mythologically themed available to be listened to. Leanne accompanied, produced and sometimes added voice to these pieces. Poems include not I at all, the day craft, maketh the man, and a long night to sunrise: https://frankprem.com/studio-quality-accompanied-recordings/. My personal favorite is maketh the man.
In future, we may well tour together presenting a combined puppetry and poetry show, with accompanying workshops.
- What excites and intrigues you most?
I find it difficult to resist new writing challenges, particularly involving imagery.
I’ve come to realise that a lot of my writing involves imagery – either creating pictures out of words, or using picture images as the stimulus for creating a poetic journey that a reader can embark on.
On a quite different plane, the creation of collections in published book form is an exhausting exhilaration. I often speak of having had a 40 year apprenticeship learning my craft. One outcome of that is that I have 40 years of manuscripts that demand I do something with them. The collections published to date were first written more than a decade ago, and mostly resemble memoir.
My more recent work, though, has much more of a speculative fiction feel to it – for example, what happens when an astronaut is trapped, alone, on a spaceship that travels at light speed away from earth. How does he live? What keeps him going? Does he go mad? I know the answer, now.
I wake up each morning expecting that I will write something new, that someone far away from where I am, physically, and who I haven’t yet met, will enjoy reading.
I love that need in me and the wonderful feeling of achieving it.
- I’d love to find out more about your experience as a psychiatric nurse. What attracted you to this particular profession?
I became a psychiatric nurse because it was fated for me, I think, Marje.
Mine was an immigrant family who lobbed in Australia in 1957. Secure work was a priority for the adults, and working for the government was as secure as work could be, in that time.
The Mental Asylum at that time was a government run institution that utilised a core of untrained staff who were able to learn on the job, and over time, almost my entire family obtained jobs there – mother, father, sister, aunty, grandfather.
I swore they’d never get me!
I started psychiatric nursing when I was twenty, already with a young family. I enquired for a job as a cleaner, and was offered a place as a Student Nurse.
Fortunately, I turned out to be better at the job than some and no worse than most, so the work suited me well enough and I ended having a highly varied career in the public mental health services of Victoria.
I am still employed as a psychiatric nurse on a part time basis. You just can’t beat government work!
- What is your opinion on the millennials? The youth of today seem to be suffering from so many mental health issues. What do you think is the source of their predilection to suffer in this way?
I admit to feeling a little isolated away from the millennial generation, if I’m being honest with myself. The nature of the social world we live in has changed so very dramatically, and in such a short period of time that I sometimes feel I have no valid reference points, and am in danger of becoming someone who can only relate to the ‘good old days’ of my own youth.
With regard to mental health issues, my work is in the public system, and so it is almost always associated with application of the current Mental Health Act and the application of treatment against the individual’s consent. Increasingly this is because of illicit drug use triggering a psychotic (or related) reaction. This is at the extreme end of mental illness, and not necessarily typical.
It can be dangerous and frightening for all concerned and I no longer work in acute units because I have largely lost my capacity for empathy for a clientele that repeatedly and knowingly places itself and myself in the way of harm.
Without empathy, I can’t perform my work in the way I know I should. It Is not work that an ageing old fart such as myself can keep pace with any longer, I’m afraid.
- In certain circumstances do you believe that poetry can express more than prose can? Please explain your thoughts with examples from your poetic work to date.
This is a question that plays directly to my biases. Naturally I think poetry can express more, much more. However, I’m not sure that it often does so.
I have only started to contemplate prose and what I expect of it since beginning my own journey toward publishing my own work. Some of the things I see are difficult for me to assess well. For instance, contemporary prose seems to come – to be directed toward – groups of three or more, a little like Macbeth’s witches.
There is a generation of writers that is learning that the way to produce new work is to plot and plan in terms of prequels and sequels and spin-offs. This is all driven by marketing strategy in this modern age, of course, though for most I suspect there is no living to be made from the effort.
In addition, contemporary prose seems driven to fit within badged genre categories – the badge being the genre-characteristic cover, which has to identify all crucial aspects for a readership that is presumably not willing to test the contents unless correctly directed.
So, while prose can express much, and I like nothing better than a good book in my hands and some thoughtful stimulation, it is rare for me to encounter it without deliberate research or divine intervention of a random nature.
With regard to poetry, of course I believe it can express more. It is the medium of ‘show, don’t tell’. The medium of complete journeys packaged up in readings that require no more than a minute or a minute and a half to take the reader away, and to return.
In my own case, a collection of 8,000 – 9,000 words will contain as many as 50 such journeys, and tell a complete overarching story on the way.
Having said that, though, I am actually pessimistic about the state of published contemporary poetry. I am thinking here particularly of poetry published in literary journals that are, presumably, the benchmark for contemporary standards.
I feel that the art and gift of storytelling through poetry has been largely lost or relinquished in favour of the complexity of poetics and explorations of shape and form, rather than delivery of comprehension and greater understanding to a reader.
By way of an example, from my own work, of the breadth that can be encompassed by a poem I’ve recollected a poem written back in 2015 and looking at a number of different facets, different ways of considering a single concept – in this case Time. I think Time is a massive and complex concept to get my head around, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t try, and it doesn’t mean that my reader won’t be able to grasp it (and likely add examples of his/her own to take the ideas further).
Complexity doesn’t need to be inaccessible, and poetry is a wonderful medium to achieve that accessibility. Here is the poem ‘six ways to measure time . . .’ : https://wp.me/p7yTr8-3ag
- I’m looking forward to your new release The New Asylum – a memoir of psychiatry. Is this a combination of research/your own experiences as a psychiatric nurse? Due to the sensitive nature of this collection what are the steps that you take to ensure this is presented in a sensitive way?
I’m getting quite excited about this collection graduating to book form. I think it is an important reflection and a kind of expose of public psychiatry, as experienced by myself in various guises, but also reflecting the perspective of clients of the service and their carers.
I have done virtually no particular research for the collection. The collection is my lived experience, drawing of course on knowledge acquired as a child, a student, a nurse, a manager and always as a human being operating within strange and strained parameters.
Most of the poems in this collection are sensitive in their nature. Highly confronting, in many cases, as well, with electro-shock therapy, seclusion and involuntary treatment, suicide and despair all featuring in different places.
These are difficult subjects, but they are increasingly a feature of daily life that none of us can avoid. Mental illness was once a secret thing, a taboo and a stigmatised shame to be kept locked away and out of sight. That is no longer possible, in my opinion, because extremes of mental illness are now residing in the back bedroom of our homes, over the neighbours fence, or on the street where the deals are being done, and in all of our hospital emergency departments.
Children can no longer complete their primary education without having acquired a better working knowledge of illicit substances in the district than their parents can ever hope to have.
I hope what comes through in the poetry collection is a sense of compassion and empathy for participants in the system – clients, carers and staff, but either way, it’s time for these things to be part of our everyday conversation.
- What attracts you to the free verse form of poetry?
My, possibly too often repeated, personal mantra is this: Rhyme should be invisible. Free verse should be sung.
What I mean by that, is that the use of rhyme, when done well, is a subtle and nuanced thing. There should be no rhyme-clang at the end of every other line. I apologise to all rhymers for this comment, and I’m not meaning to suggest that rhyme isn’t just as valid now as it has always been, but in my own case, I largely stopped writing rhymed poetry when I realised just how hard it is to execute well.
I recall working on one poem for fully a day and a half to try to get right. Twelve hours and more, for a single poem. That is not like me and not acceptable to me. I persisted with the poem because I had a special purpose in mind, but I really haven’t bothered since, apart from occasional lapses that sneak up on me.
The poem, by the way, was titled ‘The Hat That Won The Cup’ and is here: https://wp.me/p7yTr8-2Ux.
I like free verse as a form because I believe that there is music in our spoken language, and it is my job to find the music in whatever I write. I can’t do that if I’m fettered by the requirements of a rhyme scheme.
In coming weeks I’ll be leading a community education course (for the first time) over a six week period, in which I hope to explore exactly this – the music in speech – as a theme. I’m very much looking forward to it (though with some trepidation).
- It’s clear that you write from your experiences in a poetic memoir form. For Devil in The Wind (which I enjoyed enormously,) an account of the horrendous Black Saturday bush fires, how much research did you do? And how many people did you interview? From this particular collection do you have a favourite poem that you would like to share?
I’m delighted you enjoyed Devil In The Wind, which I think of as another quite ‘difficult’ collection, given what it deals with.
Again, in terms of actual research, I did very little, and it was largely confined to ensuring that I had place names and particular fires (there were hundreds burning at the same time) correctly identified.
The poems in that collection were written as the fires were happening. As I experienced an event, I wrote it. As I heard a particular story reported on the news, I wrote it. As the Commission of Enquiry conducted its work, I wrote the stories.
I think some of the urgency and anxiety and despair we all experienced at the time might have been captured in the poems because they were written at the time the events were happening.
When I’m reading to an audience, I think my ‘go to’ poem from Devil In The Wind is a piece called ‘strength of a truckie’. This is one of four poems from the collection that I was able to have video recorded and uploaded on my very own YouTube channel (which is something I never expected to have happen in my lifetime!).
The link to this particular poem is here: https://youtu.be/O8-uWaqj72o
I hope to do some videos for The New Asylum before it is released, as well.
- From your body of work which book are you most proud of and why?
The very first book that I self-published was called ‘The Book of Evenings’. It is currently out of print, though I think a re-publication is in order at some point. That is the book that I think I am most proud of. Not only was I ‘on fire’ as an emerging writer, but it represented something intangible for myself and my identity – belonging to a class of poets, of authors. Validation of my own secret self, now revealed.
It so happens, I have a couple of poems from that collection in audio-recorded form, here: https://frankprem.com/random-readings-from-the-archives/
There are a number of recorded poems on this page and readers are welcome to listen to any and all of them, but the titles from The Book of Evenings are: carmen and cisco, learning to twirl, and tuesday night at emile’s.
Frank Prem Contacts and Social Media
Author Page (Newsletter sign up): https://FrankPrem.com
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/frankprem2
Twitter: Frank PremAmazon: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B07L61HNZ4
Small Town Kid blurb
Small Town Kid is a poetry anthology that illuminates the experience of regional life as a child, in an insular town during the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, remote from the more worldly places where life really happens, in a time before the internet and the online existence of social media.
It is a time when a small town boy can walk a mile to school and back every day, and hunt rabbits with his dog in the hours of freedom before sundown. He can hoard crackers for bonfire night and blow up the deputy school master’s mailbox in an act of joyous rebellion.
It is a time when a small town teenager will ride fourteen miles on a bicycle for his first experience of girls, and of love. A time when migrating from a foreign country to a small town means his family will always feel that they are strangers, while visitors to the town are treated like an invading host.
It is also the remembrance of tragedy for inexperienced friends driving on narrow country roads.
This collection of poems and stories shares the type of childhood that has mostly disappeared in contemporary times. Come and revisit it here, in the pages of a Small Town Kid.
Devil In The Wind blurb
Devil In The Wind is an account of catastrophic fire and its immediate aftermath.
In this 21st century, the whole world seems to be on fire. America burns. Europe burns. Greece is reeling after its own tragedy of fire.
And Australia burns, as it has always done, but now so much more fiercely.
In February 2009, wildfires burnt through entire communities, taking 173 lives and injuring hundreds, while destroying thousands of houses and other buildings. Up to 400 fires destroyed 450,000 hectares of forest, native fauna and habitat, livestock and farmland.
In the aftermath of the fires, the voices of people who had lived through the experience — victims, rescuers, and observers — were spoken and were heard.
Devil In The Wind is Frank Prem’s poetic anthology of the personal, and very human, accounts of those who themselves experienced and survived Black Saturday. Poetry writing that interacts directly with readers emotions.
The New Asylum (draft) blurb
The New Asylum is the third volume in a series of free-verse poetry anthologies and personal memoirs from Australian author Frank Prem (Small Town Kid, Devil In The Wind).
This collection is an exposé of life in the public psychiatric system, spanning five decades and describing sometimes graphically, sometimes ironically, often poignantly, and always honestly, a search for meaning in extraordinary and often incomprehensible circumstances.
The journey begins with childhood experiences of watching immigrant parents earn their living in the Mayday Hills Mental Asylum… progresses through the oddities and antics of psychiatric nurse training in the 1970s… on to the high-pressure coalface of managing regional centres facing an inundation of modern urban challenges… and finally, settles into the generally calmer waters of a small town residential facility.
Join Frank Prem on his New Asylum journey, and discover what it means to become that particular ‘mental health creature’ that is a psychiatric nurse.
I think you will agree that this is a fascinating interview with Frank.
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