A poetic conversation with Frank Prem

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Frank Prem: a storytelling poet. 

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.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

PREM

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.

INTERVIEWER

Has writing always been your first love, or do you have another passion?

PREM

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.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to writing and poetry?

PREM

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.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

PREM

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.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

PREM

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.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

PREM

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.

INTERVIEWER

What research (if any) do you conduct before setting out on a new writing project?

PREM

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.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

PREM

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.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

PREM

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:

  1. Ypres (24): munition wraiths https://wp.me/p7yTr8-76Q
  2. Ypres (16): within the walls (while we lived) https://wp.me/p7yTr8-76s

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

PREM

Robin Hobb – Farseer books

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

PREM

Emmylou Harris – US Country singer.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

PREM

Take your pick. Contemporary seems to be about hype.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

PREM

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.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

PREM

I play ukulele in my wife Leanne’s music classes and like to sing – mainly country songs.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

PREM

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.

INTERVIEWER

What’s something you’re particularly proud of?

PREM

I think I’m most proud of my wife Leanne’s endeavours and achievements in art and other creative endeavours, including music teaching.

INTERVIEWER

One piece of advice for your younger self?

PREM

Don’t be in a hurry. Everything is material, every moment is developmental.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

PREM

I became my mountain, became me.

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The little-known poems of Chinua Achebe

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The Nigerian novelist is rightly regarded as one of the greatest writers of the past century. His debut novel, Things Fall Apart, is still the single most widely read book in African literature, despite being published in 1958.

Yet despite his fame and status, few people are familiar with his lesser-known – though certainly not ‘lesser’ in any other sense – poetry. Indeed, this was something the great man himself was well-aware of: joking in a 1998 lecture at Portland’s Literary Arts event that there was a “conspiracy” theory against his poetry.

Yet his love for poems and poetry dates back to the very dawn of Achebe’s career as a writer. And the very title of his magnum opus is borrowed from a line in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”.

It was only thanks to Professor Wu stumbling upon this edited recording of his nearly two-hour long Literary Arts lecture during his idle trawling through the interwebs that we have discovered this fantastic example of Achebe reading three of his poems, later published in the 2004 anthology ‘Collected Poems’.

Please enjoy:

Complement Achebe’s poetry with some examples of poetry from our own fabulous contributors – or contemplate the role of poets and other creatives within society, and their place in culture.

Storm

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A storm is brewing.

See how the clear sky dims before the advance,

A new wind blows, unheard in a lifetime of years,

One to make the shutters dance;

A storm that plays to people’s fears.

 

A storm is brewing:

One of our own making,

One to shake windows to frost,

Splinter the eaves, unsure the footings,

And leave us lost.

And leave us rueing.

 

A storm is brewing—

Soon to be ensuing—

So why aren’t you waking?

A storm to twist metal like truths and silence tongues

A storm as dense as ignorance—

And here it comes.

~Anonymous

Flepham’s Green and Pleasant Home: The Blake Society successfully buys William Blake’s house for the nation

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After an ambitious crowd-funding campaign, the Blake Society has successfully purchased Blake’s cottage – a quaint, Grade II listed home in Flepham, Sussex. The cottage is where the Great British poet wrote ‘Jerusalem’, and Flepham is where he was arrested for sedition.

The house has been preserved in much the same state as it was when Blake lived there – it even still has the vegetable patch seen in many of the poet’s famous sketches.

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The Blake Society has run an efficient and effective campaign to raise the funds to buy the property. In a statement, the group confirmed that the building would now be “held in trust for the nation in perpetuity.”

Tim Heath, Chair of the Blake Society, said that the idea of placing the home into a trust for all those inspired by Blake was first mentioned 22 years ago, on “a summer’s day in 1993” over tea.

Heath added that he knew “the process of raising over half a million pounds from the Blake community – many of whom eschew money – would never be easy […] but with the individual gifts of many hundreds of donors and the extraordinary generosity of one anonymous trust, the Cottage has been purchased.”

After thanking the Blake community for their excellent fundraising skills, Heath commented upon the Cottage, noting it’s importance:

“The cottage is where Blake wrote the poem ‘And Did Those Feet …’ while he was awaiting his trial for Treason,” Heath explained. “And so there is a special irony in how this radical poem Jerusalem has become a national anthem, a hymn to dissent and a song that challenges both the Singer and the State.

Professor Wu says:

“This is a great day for lovers of history, literature, poetry and culture. Blake lived in nine houses all his life, all rented. The building is the last of two remaining – with the others all now demolished. This illustrates just how important it is that the Blake Society have been successful in securing this cottage for future generations. I would tip my cap to them, if I weren’t a giant Chinese salamander floating in a tank here in London Zoo.”

5 top writing tips for writers, from Rishi Dastidar

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In a series of posts, we here at Nothing in the Rulebook have been asking writers to share their top tips and advice on writing. Today, it is our pleasure to bring you the top writing tips from journalist, copywriter and poet, Rishi Dastidar.

Whether you enjoy writing simply for the pleasure it gives you, or if you are looking to develop and improve, these great little pieces of advice will set you on your way!

Rishi Dastidar’s top five writing tips:

  1. Always carry a notebook and a writing implement: I mean a phone is OK, but there’s nothing quite like dashing something off in a cursive script that only you can decipher.
  2. Read more, and then read more than that again: Other people’s words are your fuel. What you do is compress, re-interpret, play, dance with them to make your new things. If you don’t read, you won’t write.
  3. Find your place and time to write: and the trick is that it doesn’t have to be a long time. 15, 20 minutes every day starts to mount up very quickly. The habit of doing so soon becomes addictive, and you’ll find that the time constraint gets good stuff out of you – fast.
  4. The blank page is scary. So don’t leave it blank before you start. Make some form of mark. Try writing 1 to 10 down the side – then you only have ten lines to write. And you’ll find you blow past that fast enough. Or pick a word from the nearest newspaper or magazine, and write that at the top of the page, then start scribbling.
  5. Because ultimately you’re writing for you, it doesn’t really matter if another souls reads what you write. So be bold and brave when you start – there’s no one else you need to please.

About the author

Rishi Dastidar has worked as a journalist, copywriter and poet. He has written for a wide variety of brands in different sectors during his career, while his poetry has been published by the Financial Times, Tate Modern and the Southbank Centre amongst many others. His work was most recently in Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe, 2014). A winner of And Other Stories short story prize in 2012, he has also had reviews published in the Times Literary Supplement. He was part of the 2014-15 Rialto / Poetry School editorial development programme, and also serves as a trustee of Spread The Word. Rishi was recently featured in our Creatives in profile interview series.

London-based poet? There’s a job for you

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Young, poetically-inclined Londoners should take note here – fears that “there’s no money in poetry anymore [sic: or at all]” are wholly misguided. In fact, there looks to be a truly fantastic opportunity for aspiring young poets living in the Capital, as London Laureates announces applications are open for the next Young Poet Laureate for London.

Acting as a voice for young Londoners, the winner will provide reflections on current events across the capital throughout the coming year, as well as working with communities and London based organisations to inspire and inform through poetry. The Young Poet Laureate is a Spread the Word programme, supported by the Foundation for FutureLondon.

This terrific opportunity supports and develops some of London’s most talented young poets, generating income possibilities, creating work opportunities and elevating the profile of the successful poets, accelerating their careers as creative professionals.

Part of the role will include the opportunity to carry out five two-week writing residencies in different community settings – all while encouraging people to get involved through writing and performing poetry with workshops, ad-hoc interactions and planned performances or readings.

With a fee of £1500 paid for each residency, the total value of the contract for the Young Poet Laureate for London is £7500, plus any additional commissions that arise as a result of holding the title.

If that wasn’t enough to entice you to apply, our very own Professor Wu issued the following endorsement of the programme: “The opportunity here for aspiring young poets in London is not one to miss. This is a thoroughly brilliant initiative and one which I endorse wholeheartedly.”

“From my tank here in London Zoo, I am fortunate enough to meet a wide range of visitors to our city; and have noticed to my chagrin the lack of poets and, indeed, laureates – especially among the younger population. We therefore need such programmes – not just to inspire others, but to help lay the foundations of culture in this most vibrant of cities. More than banks and skyscrapers and new airport runways, this city needs poetry. We all need poetry. Because poetry, more than anything, is about love and about life,” Professor Wu adds.

The deadline for applications here is fast approaching, so make sure you apply now, while there’s still time! Spread the word poets! Spread the word!