#BookReview: Small Town Kid

Frank Prem, Spoken Word Poet

My Review

Frank Prem’s memoir in verse, Small Town Kid, opens with a poem titled “I can hardly wait to show you.” This poem is a direct invitation to the reader to “take my hand in the main street / of this town hewn from honey granite / I will tell you what once stood here and there / and you might help me rediscover what I knew / when I was in the springtime of my life.”

This was an invitation that proved itself irresistible. I walked with the speaker through his early childhood, his world defined by his family and their ethnic heritage–to the dawning of civilization for his small town when outhouses were replaced with sewerage lines–to his schoolboy days of hijinks and lessons learned–to his adolescence and young adulthood when he began to realize that “we were just kids / watching time pass away / in a place where open space / formed the barriers and walls / of nowhere to go.”

Perhaps most striking about this collection of poems is the voice. The speaker’s voice is authentic, accessible, and compelling. This is a voice with stories to tell and truths to impart, a voice I want to listen to. In addition to the voice of the primary speaker, the poet skillfully interweaves other voices, the voices he would have heard growing up.

I also appreciated the touches of wry humor threaded throughout the collection as the adult speaker looks back on the foibles of childhood: the watchers from below of an outhouse user (“halfmoon at the trapdoor”)–a boy’s hatred of the barber who gave him a short-back-and-sides “like a little boy / or an old man” (“hating whitey”)–and a schoolboy’s blaming his poor grade in art on the teacher, his flirting with the girls having had nothing to do with it (“state of the art”).

In terms of craft, the poems are written with short lines, no punctuation, and no capitalization except for the first-person “I,” all of which work well to convey the fluidity of memory and the interplay of past and present. Also noteworthy is the use of concrete sensory imagery: the sights, sounds, and smells of this particular childhood.

Small Town Kid is very much a memoir of place, rural Australia in the late 1960s to early 1970s:

around the base of mount buffalo
between myrtleford and porepunkah on
the low green flats of ovens river
snuggled under the purple
of the uncleared slopes of the mountain
the business was mostly tobacco (from “picnic story”)

. . . watching the kookaburra
silhouetted against the red sky” (from “sunsets are . . . “)

a line of nails
head high on the paling fence
a sharp knife
and fast hands
are the basic requirements
of the rabbit-o (from “rabbit-o”)

At the same time, there was much I recognized from my own childhood growing up in a small town in northern Vermont: the intense rivalry with a neighboring town, the teenage pregnancies, the schoolmates lost to careless driving, the drudgery of dairy farming for a living, even the boy who accidentally set fire to the pasture.

The standout of the collection for me was “a tricky place (the annual fete),” in which the adult speaker returns to the abandoned churchyard where the town’s annual fete was once held. Although the church “seems small now / almost shriveled / lifeless,” every detail of that annual event is still a clear, living memory.

Ultimately, memory itself is the tricky place when a small town kid returns later in life. He mourns for the place that is now gone, yet he had to leave it to become the person he wanted to be. I will definitely be returning to Frank Prem’s poetry again and again.

Small Town Kid Through the Years

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Original Cover

The Small Town

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From the Poet: 

A Disappearing Way of Life

 By the middle of the 1990’s, I had observed new trends emerging in our societal routines. PC computers were landing on desks in workplaces and becoming common in households, and hand-held games were taking over the younger universe.

The roadways outside schools and their parking lots had become traffic jams. We were delivering our children to school and to their friends’ homes, and picking them up again.

The climate was also notably changing in-as-much as we could regularly expect total fire ban days on and around our traditional bonfire nights. Insurance costs for public events such as fetes and Shows were becoming prohibitive and these things which had been a staple of our lives to that point had largely withered away.

The childhood that I had experienced had disappeared to such an extent that my own young children would not believe some of my stories of those times.

Personal Stories as Social History

One reason for writing the poems that became Small Town Kid was to preserve and ‘make real’ my own stories. I didn’t realise that they would amount – in a small way – to a social history of sorts, but where else can you read about the ‘rabbit-o’, or small town gang-fights that happened only at a particular point in time?

In the late 1990’s I returned very actively to a pursuit of writing poetry.  At the time, one of my pet peeves was the fact that I, having grown up exposed to American culture through TV and movies, knew the names of every tinpot little town that ever received attention from a movie-maker (Laramie, OK Corral, el Paso . . .), but no one knew, or felt it worth knowing, about my tinpot towns and locations (Beechworth, Stanley, Tarrawingee, Leneva). I started rectifying that by specifically referencing my locale in my writing, even though I knew I was the only one likely to notice.

Finding My Voice

On one occasion, I received feedback that a piece I’d written seemed to be told in my ‘voice’. Here is a part of it:

there’s chicken shit
on the boots of the boy
who came to the smoke
from north-east victoria.

After that feedback, there was no stopping me in the pursuit of my own voice. It became free-verse storytelling and is almost exclusively what and how I write to this day.

That poem was ‘From The Sticks’ was the first poem written for the Small Town Kid collection, and I became more and more involved in the telling of those stories from my childhood and youth that no-one else could tell, yet everyone of a certain age had experienced, whether they were born in rural or urban areas, Australia or England or the USA. I had quite a deal of correspondence, as I recall, about ‘long-drop dunnies’ and other unsewered toilet facilities from all around the world.

The experience of listening or reading these reminiscences seems to have the capacity to take a person back to their own equivalent experiences and that knowledge is what drives me still. To tell stories for a reader to make their own.

Purchase Small Town Kid in Print

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131 thoughts on “#BookReview: Small Town Kid

        1. Feedback I’ve had suggests that city kids had the same quality of experience, John. Their boundaries were a few blocks, where their friends lived and their lives took place.

          Small worlds that were jam-packed with our childhoods.

          Liked by 5 people

  1. Liz, this is a superb review of Frank Prem’s book, and the thought of a memoir composed in verse is very intriguing. As always with your reviews, it’s also illuminating to hear the thoughts of the author.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hi Dave, Frank’s writing is superb. I’ve read several of his poetry books and Devil in the Wind is the one that impacted me the most. Perhaps because we’ve had some very destructive and uncontrolled fires here in South Africa too. I highly recommend Frank’s poetry.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. I read Devil in the Wind at the time of the horrendous wildfires Australia was experiencing a few years ago. The book was so painful to read, I couldn’t bring myself to write a review. It’s on my list of things to do, now that some time has passed.

        Liked by 5 people

  2. Yes I love Frank’s style and read this book a while ago, interested as we emigrated to Australia in the sixties. We were in the Perth suburbs, but my more adventurous uncle and his family followed us out and ran a rural roadhouse.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Hi Janet. Thank you. I’m delighted you enjoyed reading the collection. It seems to allow folk to return to their own childhoods whether city or rural or in a different country. I hadn’t expected that to be the case, but it delights me that it is so.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I’m captivated! This sounds like a great read, Liz. Thank you for sharing your review. I might not have known about Small Town Kid otherwise. Congratulations, Frank!!

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Thank you, Liz and Frank. I appreciate this exposure to small-town life in a country that isn’t the US, and I love Frank’s note that what started as personal stories has also become a social history. I think that might be true for a lot of writing, and we sometimes forget it’s a good reason to record our lives.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. You’re most welcome, Ranee! Being a part of the blogging community over the past several years has exposed me to so many places and cultures I know little to nothing about. Books such as Small Town Kid are a big help in that regard.

      Liked by 4 people

    2. Hi Ranee.

      Thank you so much. When I look back at this collection, I’m reminded that I wasn’t really looking for stories about myself, personally, so much as childhood as we experienced it at that time.

      There is perhaps a little of the archetypal childhood in the poems as a result that enables others to visit their own younger days. Not sure.

      Thank you again.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. Most interesting, relating one’s stories and experiences, as I seem to understand, being a sort of letter writing to one’s self and others in the poetic medium. Mind you, as Ranee Tomlin,suggests, of which I concur having just published my 18th book of poetry, most if not all poetry is the expression of self or related to other’s like experiences,

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you, Jacquie! When I was a kid, I really wanted to go to Australia. As an adult, I’m not so keen on the means by which one gets there from the US. I’m happy to visit vicariously through Frank’s poetry!

      Liked by 4 people

      1. It is 21 hours from SA to New Zealand, Liz and there is a stop over. When we went in 2016 I knew I would never make the journey again. The jet lag is also so bad as there is a 10 hour time difference. Mind you, it is a 9 hour time difference to Phoenix and also Vancouver. Jet lag is such a killer even if you take sleeping pills.

        Liked by 4 people

    2. Hi Jacquie. Thank you.

      I wonder if it’s the bucket list of childhood lost, rather than Australia in particular. This place has changed beyond recognition, or . . . it might be that it is myself that has changed?

      YOu better come over for a visit and see for yourself, I reckon!

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi GP.

      Thank you. I hope it is. I recall stopping harried housewives in a mall where I was selling, just before Christmas that if they read one of the poems after Christmas lunch there would be no sleeping and no arguments, just an afternoon filled with personal reminiscences.

      Not sure if that was right, but worth a shot!

      Liked by 4 people

  6. Hi Liz, how wonderful to see Frank here. He is a very talented poet. I have read this book and a few others of his poetry books as well as all his picture books. I enjoyed this insightful discussion too, nice to know why Frank wanted to write about his local environment.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you so much Robbie.

      I re-read the discussion and review just before starting to respond to comments and I had a further thought – perhaps an insight, I think that one of the factors that helped forge my own particular poetic ‘voice’ was the use of my own locale and place names. I think the two – place and voice – are associated and wonder if that isn’t a thing to be mindful of in future.

      Worth musing over, anyway.

      Thank you again.

      Liked by 4 people

  7. Reblogged this on Frank Prem Poetry and commented:
    I’m extending my thanks and great appreciation today to Liz Gauffreau for her in-depth review and showcasing of my Small Town Kid poetry collection on her Blog.

    Liz has included some thoughts from me about how the collection came about and what I hoped to achieve with a memoir in free-verse poetry form.

    Along the way I dug up some photographs of the young Frank, and the area of and around Beechworth, where the meoir is set.

    I think she has done a wondersul job and I’m delighted to encourage visitors to her Blog to read the review and take a look around.

    Thank you, Liz!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Lovely review, Liz. I’m a big fan of Frank Prem’s voice, and also highly recommend his poetry to your readers. The poems in this collection are delightful and poignant. Also like you, I’ve read “Devil In The Wind” but haven’t yet completed a review for the reasons you mention, although I hasten to add that it should be required reading for all our politicians at Cop26.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. When I think of Americana (though it could be anywhere in the world), I think of small towns. Life is slower, simpler, and people take the time to say hello and get to know their neighbors. Much luck to Frank with Small Town Kid.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you so much, Chris. I’ll try to get to doing some more audio work soon. My new writing retreat is nearly finished ( a reasonably soundproofed little studio that we are building). I hope to get into more reading then.

      Liked by 3 people

  10. Also just purchased this book and ‘Devil in the Wind’. Didn’t immediately realize (from your posting) Frank was in Australia but am now very interested in reading more or his many publications. Thanks for introducing me to him, Liz. Stay safe.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Wonderful review, Liz ~ you capture me with this introduction, growing up in a small town this captures a lot of my imagination. Takes me back and will have to check this out. Cheers to a great weekend ~

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’ve found the verse approach allows me to write both episodically and chronologically in a way that keeps the sense of story moving forward. Not sure I can write creatively in any other form, now.

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

      Liked by 3 people

  12. Liz, a superlative review of ‘Small Town Kid’ and I’m in awe how you manage to weave some of Prem’s poetry into the review whilst writing with such eloquence about the history of the collection, the poetic techniques, the voice. This sounds like a book I would enjoy very much and noting it down. It was also interesting to read about Frank’s reasons for writing the book, his experience and the photos are a terrific extra touch. Cowboy Frank looks like he had a lot of fun!

    Liked by 3 people

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