Frank Prem is an Australian poet who has three lovely poetry books available. His books are fairly unique as they all comprise a story told through the forum of poems which are all linked by a common thread and carefully composed to contribute to the definitive book form structure.
Over to Frank
Hello Robbie, and readers. Thanks for me having me as a small adjunct to your marvellous Poetry Readathon.
In thinking about what poem to select that readers might be interested in hearing a little bit about I was drawn to my current obsession, which involves using World War 1 photographs drawn from the Western Front, generally, and particularly the Somme Battlefield. I was struck by a couple of thoughts that I thought might be worth elaborating a little.
A little background to my writing.
I am a writer of free verse poetry, but I really fancy myself as a story-teller, first and foremost. I believe the poetry form I use lends itself to storytelling and that it belongs in the mainstream of reading. Not the poetic periphery.
With that in mind, it is my wish to present work that is written to identifiable themes and with a story arc and progression contained within the text, ready to sweep the reader along as seamlessly as I can manage it from a clear beginning to each poem and to the story as a whole. So, a memoir should run from a beginning in childhood through to an end point at some stage of life, or at a clear narrative conclusion.
It is very convenient that I have adopted this approach as a right and fitting way to write because it suits my obsessive approach to the writing of ideas perfectly, and I am self-aware enough to know that I’m unlikely to be able to change that, even if I wished to.
What do I mean? Well, when I get an idea to write, I often that a subsequent idea will present and be worth writing. Followed by another. For example, a while back I encountered a number of sticks. The existence of the sticks is another story, but suffice to say that I decided one of these sticks looked like it might be the face of a man. Next thing, I was seeing faces in all of them. Needless to say, they subsequently all found voice in a series of poems. One of them is here: https://wp.me/p7yTr8-5PA .
This approach, I find, lends itself to the creation of collections for publication in books, but more importantly explains the way I approach a subject. I simply don’t let it go until I have wrung all I can from it (or from myself – sometimes I become exhausted and have to let the thing go).
This leads me to the poem that I have chosen to discuss today (two in fact), but you can sense, I’m sure, that this will be a little long winded. I hope you don’t mind.
World War 1 and its photographs.
My current obsession with these old photographs started with a picture I first saw used as the cover for an Australian Author’s history of World War 1 (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4751125-the-great-war). The book is about 9cm thick, and I’ve read it from cover to cover several times, but the picture caught my attention and held it.
The photograph showed the charnel of the Somme as an unspeakable, almost featureless swamp of mud and blood and bones with just one overbright highlight – a pure white cross to mark the grave of Captain Ivor Margitts, who hailed from Tasmania.
The sheer lonely beauty and the horror contained within that image stayed with me for a long time, until I was inspired to look for more photographs at the national archive site. I found myself wanting to join with the photographs I found. To channel a story from the photograph and on to my page.
I had the idea that these pictures and stories might make a wonderful book, perhaps two or three volumes of picture and poem. Sadly, high definition copies of the photos cost a lot and my examination of funding possibilities has come to naught, so far, but I have ended up with around 120 poems and pictures.
What to do?
Some readers will be aware, perhaps, that I enjoy reading to live audiences, and that I don’t mind dabbling in simple audio recording – largely simply myself reading into my telephone device, without any ‘finishing’. This is what I decided to do with this project and for a little while now I have been recording my own reading of the poems associated with each picture and posting them on my Author page (which has the capacity to host audio).
I’m going to chat briefly and provide links to two of these audio/pic poems, that speak especially loudly and clearly to me.
The first poem, I have called ‘glutton’ (https://wp.me/saAqWh-glutton )
This photograph is taken looking down at a group of German soldiers and shows their accommodation – essentially holes in the ground, bits of tarpaulin, stray wood and sheets of tin. There is nothing, really to tell us how miserable these men must be living in these conditions for weeks and months on end. Yet . .
And yet I felt I could see inside these man-made caves and holes in the ground, to the mud and the lice and the unspeakable.
The New Asylum: a memoir of psychiatry
This is the third book of poetry I have read by the talented Frank Prem over the past year and that sends a strong message about the quality of his writing.
Each of Frank’s books has been a story told in poetry, with a distinctive beginning, middle and ending. It is a unique and interesting way of approaching poetry writing and it really does work for the subject matters and themes of Frank’s collections.
This third book depicts Frank’s career as a psychiatric nurse for over forty years. The book is divided into sections or chapters, namely, Prologue, Asylum town, student daze, managing: acute observations, hostel life and epilogue. As you can see from these sections, the poetry does read in the same way as a story, albeit, one based on fact.
Frank’s poems are moving and intense and his ability to share deep insight into the specific situations and circumstances of each patient and event features as a poem, is quite amazing. Frank’s parents both worked for the same asylum and so his poetic experiences go right back to when he was a boy, seeing life at this institution through the eyes of his mother and father.
Some short extracts of poems that I found particularly impactful are as follows:
“except for a teardrop
that forms in her eye
when the little boy
with a small voice asks
when I grow up
if I can earn
a hundred dollars a week
do you think my wife
can stay at home
and not have to work every day”
From a hundred dollars every week
talking back to voices
preoccupied and distant
takes my colleague’s hair
in one hand
and drives her head
into the solid wall”
From birdies at mealtime
“and the nurse who cut her down
had already lived this
this was her second one
the same all over again”
From from long black shoelaces