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, zines and anthologies, in Australia and in a number of other countries, and has both performed and recorded his work as spoken word poetry.
He and his wife live in the beautiful township of Beechworth in northeast Victoria, Australia.
Nothing in the Rulebook – and particularly Professor Wu – have been fans of Prem’s work for some time, which is available online and via his poetry blog – as well as Youtube. So it was great fun to catch up with him and quickly get down to the bones of what makes a poet tick.
Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle
I Live in a small town in North East Victoria (Australia) called Beechworth. This is the town I grew up in back in the 1960s and 70s, before moving away to the city for my middle adult years. I returned to the town about 10 years ago, and have settled back into rural life.
The town itself is well known, in a small way, for three things. It is a well preserved gold rush town. It has associations with Australia’s most renowned bushrangers (Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang), and it has a tourism favourite in The Beechworth Bakery, which is known far and wide.
Professionally, I am a Psychiatric Nurse, and have worked in or around Psychiatric Services for forty odd years now – almost as long as I’ve been a poet.
My wife and I live a creatively rich life in our small town and, despite putting myself about in interviews like this and in whatever media I can entice to publicise my work, I consider myself quite a private person.
Has writing always been your first love, or do you have another passion?
Terms like ‘first love’ and words like ‘passion’ aren’t quite accurate in defining the relationship I have with my writing. I have always been a word person – whether reading avidly, or writing, but with writing it is not so much a thing that I sought to do, as a thing that was required of me.
I mean that I don’t think there is much in the way of choice available to someone like myself. I simply wouldn’t be who and what I believe myself to be, if it weren’t for writing, and in my case, writing free verse poetry, in particular,
I reserve passion for my football team, or perhaps some aspect of the garden.
Writing is more like the breath I take.
What draws you to writing and poetry?
Going back to when I started writing in a journal as a teenager, I used words and pen as a way to make sense of my world. This continued into my career in Psychiatry, where much of what I encountered was incomprehensible to me, even though I had childhood associations with the institution in which I trained as a nurse through my parents employment, still it was bizarre and inexplicable to me.
Over time, I found that my interest branched out into many different areas, and gradually I arrived at a point where I felt (and still do) that every single thought, idea, sight or sense that I encounter is potentially worthy of being captured in a poem, that in turn, should be able to be made worthy of being read and appreciated.
I felt and believed that all this was in my grasp and power to achieve.
An example, Professor. On a particular occasion, driving a country road, I had that sense of well being that led me to actually say to myself ‘I could write something amazing about the very next thing I see …’
Well, driving around the corner, the thing I saw was a row of dead foxes in various stages of decay, and strung up on a paddock fence.
Not the subject I might have hoped for, but exactly the test of hubris that I deserved.
Did I write something? Yes I did. Was it worthy, in the way I suggested above? Hard to say, but, fortunately, I can let you decide by posting a link to the poem – a conversation with three foxes – here: https://wp.me/p7yTr8-1MC.
I don’t know if I succeeded but I was quite proud of the poem when finished, and I’ve tried to avoid such extravagant thinking since.
Who inspires you?
I have a reasonably clear inspiration for my writing and what I attempt to achieve with it, but the source dates back to a couple of writers born in the 1860s – Henry Lawson and A.B. (the Banjo) Patterson.
My writing is nothing like theirs. They wrote poetry in galloping rhyme, and Lawson wrote many short stories. Lawson was an alcoholic associated mostly with the bush, Patterson was a city lawyer who wrote of the bush.
The reason I find them inspirational is that they wrote at a time when words were not easily accessed by a largely illiterate populace outside the cities, and yet their work was memorised and recited as news and as entertainment.
I have a vision that recurs of one person who could read, holding the Bulletin Magazine in his hand and reading aloud, while a group of men stand around listening, with lips moving as they try to memorise the verse for repetition later. Perhaps asking for the piece to be read aloud again to make sure.
Fanciful? Probably, but that image informs the aims I have for my work. I want it to be able to be read and understood. I want to take complex ideas and present them in a way that lets my next door neighbour, or the greengrocer, or a stranger in the street know exactly what I’m on about and be able to form a response without difficulty.
You may get a sense that I have a few concerns about published contemporary poetry. you’d be right. I have no time for the deliberately obscure. I think it does the reader of poetry (and therefore poetry itself) a grave injustice.
Who were your early teachers?
I’ve deliberately avoided formal instruction in the black arts of writing and of writing poetry.
My first reason is because I’ve always had a belief that only I could write the work of only me. I have been inordinately concerned that reading others and formal instruction would dilute my own voice. When I finally discovered that I had a unique voice (someone pointed it out to me in a poem), it became the most precious thing in my repertoire and I would not risk it.
A second reason though, (and I apologise in advance to any who may feel offended) is that I have not trusted the teachers of creative writing programs to know what they were doing. Harsh, yes, but it seemed to me that what I saw as product of such instruction was largely shallow cleverness dressed up in fashionable and exclusive attire. Very little uniqueness that was capable of communicating to everyday folk, who I saw and see as the proper main audience for poetry.
Having said that, I was strongly encouraged by an English teacher in my Year 9 many moons ago who marked my poem higher than neighbouring essays. I haven’t looked back.
What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?
Professor, this is an excellent question, I think. I now understand that , in my own case, I have been a writer forever. That is, a person who creates works – whether they be fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose – by writing.
I have drawers full of manuscripts created while I was a writer.
So. If you write, you are a writer.
However, being a writer is actually the easy part of the writing pursuit.
When you create a book, you become an author. Wherever you may appear, you are representing your book as its author. Being a writer is a mere prelude to being your book.
Becoming a publisher (my Wild Arancini Press is a single author publisher) is another step again. Followed by becoming a promotor of the book you are author of. These are work tasks that go with being a professional in the industry of writing.
The simple creativity of just being a writer becomes a bit of a nostalgic dream, if we’re not careful.
What research (if any) do you conduct before setting out on a new writing project?
I have two answers, Professor. One is a little more boring than the other and both might seem a little shallow.
My first three collections (two published, the third starting now) are written in a memoir style. My research has been to live the events that I relate and turn them into a form that is readable and attractive to readers and listeners.
- With Small Town Kid, I walked the town again, and went out of my way to have some conversations with folk who could inform and correct my views before I made an ass of myself with them.
- Devil In The Wind came from direct experience on the periphery of the fires, conversation with fire fighters, news (TV, radio, papers), and finally the Royal Commission we held to Inquire into the circumstances of the fires. Plus all the empathy I could muster.
- The New Asylum will be the third collection, dealing with my lifetime involvement with psychiatry from a child through to the present day. Primarily the material in this collection will be direct experience.
The second part of the answer relates more to my more fictional work, which is yet to see the light of day. This work includes simply hundreds of poems directly inspired from reading the French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard who died in the 1960s. I can’t begin to tell the influence reading this mans translated works has had on me as a writer.
I also have a speculative fiction manuscript that is perhaps more surreal in nature. That came from a given theme, sustained by a piece of music playing in my head throughout the writing.
So, true answer on research? Not much, I’m afraid.
Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?
Ethics in my own writing is not something I think about a lot, but I believe it is a valid question.
I put great store in my writing having recognisable qualities, so that there is little likelihood of mistaking mine for someone else’s. That includes content, however, and I feel a responsibility to give my reader not, necessarily, what they expect, but to challenge them within some nebulous parameters that are clearly consistent with me, the writer they thought they were getting
I feel the need to shape any controversy in such a way that it represents, rather than dictates or argues.
Without shying away from a topic, I don’t want to be in the position where I am running a partisan or shallow line on a controversial subject.
I am most comfortable, I think, in representing and interpreting ideas and philosophies poetically than in arguing a position.
Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?
My current work in progress has a working title ‘stories of the somme’. I am taking photographs from World War 1 – Australian Soldiers at the Somme and the Western Front, and using what empathy I have to allow each picture to tell me a story.
I hope to publish these in due course, providing I can raise the cash to purchase high quality photographic prints. They are not cheap.
I have been amazed by the capacity of these 100 year old images to move me, and of the poems and pictures together to affect readers emotionally.
Here are links to two of the sample poems posted on my blog page:
- Ypres (24): munition wraiths https://wp.me/p7yTr8-76Q
- Ypres (16): within the walls (while we lived) https://wp.me/p7yTr8-76s
Quick fire round!
Robin Hobb – Farseer books
Most underrated artist?
Emmylou Harris – US Country singer.
Most overrated artist?
Take your pick. Contemporary seems to be about hype.
Who is someone you think more people should know about?
It’s going back a bit, but H.E. Bates (Darling Buds of May etc) and Damon Runyan (Guys and Dolls) shouldn’t be forgotten.
Do you have any hidden talents?
I play ukulele in my wife Leanne’s music classes and like to sing – mainly country songs.
Most embarrassing moment?
Early on. I was meant to say thank you, but I actually gave a rambling speech full of nonsense. Had to get dragged away from the podium. Have never forgotten, never repeated.
What’s something you’re particularly proud of?
I think I’m most proud of my wife Leanne’s endeavours and achievements in art and other creative endeavours, including music teaching.
One piece of advice for your younger self?
Don’t be in a hurry. Everything is material, every moment is developmental.
Could you write us a story in 6 words?
I became my mountain, became me.