The Tab sits down with the youngest ever winner of the National Poetry Prize
‘Poetry is sort of an escape, it is an escape away from the constraints that we place on ourselves during our daily life, a space where you can be honest with yourself’
Midway through the Easter holidays, The Tab sat down for a Zoom call with Britain’s youngest ever winner of the National Poetry Prize. Eric Yip, an Economics student at Lucy Cavendish College, spoke to The Tab about his poetic process, his prize-winning poem, and how he balances problem sheets with late-night creativity.
How it began
Eric told us how the inciting incident for the creation of his prize-winning poem Fricatives was the memory of his English teacher “telling me you should learn to pronounce three, as in the number, and free, as in freedom, differently. And if you didn’t know how to pronounce these words differently, you didn’t really know how to speak English.”
This memory left him upset, “because I felt like I just couldn’t do it and I still can’t do it to this day”, and gave him a way of entering the poem. Once he landed upon this memory, “The first draft of this poem sort of came very quickly.”
The emotional core of the poem came, he thinks, “from a deep sense of guilt” and functioned as a way of making sense of “this crossing between my home (Hong Kong) and the foreign environment of Cambridge that somehow also seems sort of familiar, because of Hong Kong’s colonial background”.
The audience is dead
Experienced literary critics would be all too familiar with Barthes’ concept of “The Death of the Author”: the idea that, when reading literary works such as poems, the writer’s intentions, background, and thoughts are irrelevant to our appreciation of the text. In essence, to some critics, “the author does not exist”.
Eric turns this decades-old concept on its head. To him, it’s not the author that does not exist, it’s the audience that does not exist. “When I write poetry,” says Eric, “I don’t really think of an audience because I feel like that can poison the poem. Because if you start out the poem thinking of an audience, it sort of constrains what you have to say. When I wrote this poem, I wasn’t really thinking of submitting it.”
As such, Eric does not prescribe any particular way to read his poem: “I wouldn’t want to impose any interpretation on a reader, as I didn’t imagine there would be a reader.” In hindsight, though, he does think that Fricatives could be read as a conversation. “I don’t know necessarily with who,” says Eric, “But it does place a reader in a place where they themselves are being entangled in those fricative sounds.” When he was putting pen to paper, however, Eric’s conversational approach was centred on “throwing” himself into the poem. “I don’t necessarily see it as a conversation with the reader.”
Instead, Eric describes his poetic thinking as more of an introspective experience than self-expression. “[The poetic process] was looking inward for me rather than trying to broadcast my emotions,” said Eric.
The naked truth
To Eric, Fricatives was the creation of “dealing with difficult emotions”. He describes the writing process as a “stream of consciousness of self”; and it is poetry by nature, Eric agreed, that brings out this “stream of consciousness” in the most honest, cathartic way possible.
“The nature of poetry is that you don’t really have any space to hide. In other forms, you might have a bit more wiggle room, like in prose or in essays. You can hide. But poetry is where language is really the most condensed and you basically have to confront your emotions, your ideas and try to express them in an interesting way.”
It is exactly because poetry as a medium is so bare and introspective that Eric prizes emotional authenticity so much. “When I’m writing a poem and it’s not coming from a place of sincerity, it just doesn’t work. It falls flat for me, for readers, and even the judges on a subconscious level.” In essence, “an honest poem”, when compared to a poem designed to ‘wow’ a planned audience with beautiful language or impressive technicality, “has a greater capacity to be good”.
There are difficulties, though, in sharing your “innermost thoughts” with the world. Winning a national competition, Eric confessed, “is definitely a very bizarre way to show your work to the world for the first time”. His remarkable national competition win was compounded by the fact that he had never been published before. Eric described how it is sometimes difficult to share his work, adding “it almost seems like exhibitionism”.
But, he added, it is incredibly comforting to hear from people “telling me that they related to the poem, they resonated with it. That sort of helps me deal with the fact that it’s obviously a very personal poem and I feel like it’s necessary to open oneself up in order for others to be able to connect with you through readership.”
‘Fresh material for writing’
Eric admitted that his record as the youngest ever winner of the National Poetry Prize is a “bit daunting because it does seem like a lot of pressure” but he is trying not to “think about it too much because I feel it’ll sort of affect my writing.”
Instead, he tries to see it as “a way to encourage me to read more, because, admittedly compared with more experienced poets, they have obviously read a lot more and they write a lot more. And with poetry, the way to be better in poetry is quite simple. You just have to read and write a lot more.”
Alongside this, he wanted to tell young poets that although “sometimes it may feel difficult to write poetry because you feel like you haven’t lived enough to write good poetry… I don’t think that’s completely true, because sometimes even the most ordinary things can become interesting poetry. Part of being a good poet is learning how to find connections between the mundane and learning to see the beauty in like, very simple, everyday occurrences.”
Eric named Ocean Vuong as an inspiration because of “his attentiveness to language and the way he sort of plays around and he notices things”, but also because “his poetry made me believe that someone who learnt English as a second language and was also a person of colour could find a place in the poetry world.”
‘The catharsis of the dark hours’
Eric described his poetic process as quite organic: “Sometimes like before I go to sleep I just start typing into my notes […] and most of the time it’s very bad because I’m not fully conscious, but later I just copy it over onto a document where I can edit it.” He admitted that the process is “very disorganised, it’s not glamorous”.
Despite describing his own poetic process as leaning on the hectic side, Eric does find inspiration outside of his room: he finds the Cambridge zine scene “a very helpful way to be able to interact with other students who are interested in poetry” and also a great way to give oneself “an excuse to write”.
Balancing a Cambridge degree with a burgeoning career in poetry seems like a Herculean task, but Eric laughed when asked about it. “I’m doing Economics, which is not even related to poetry in any way. […] I was sort of living like a double-life of Econ problem sheets and night-time notes poetry writing.”
Eric reached for Ocean Vuong’s metaphor of poetry functioning as a fire escape, “Poetry is sort of an escape, it is an escape away from the constraints that we place on ourselves during our daily life, a space where you can be honest with yourself.”
By Eric Yip
To speak English properly, Mrs. Lee said, you must learn
the difference between three and free. Three men
escaped from Alcatraz in a rubber raft and drowned
on their way to Angel Island. Hear the difference? Try
this: you fought your way into existence. Better. Look
at this picture. Fresh yellow grains beaten
till their seeds spill. That’s threshing. That’s
submission. You must learn to submit
before you can learn. You must be given
a voice before you can speak. Nobody wants to listen
to a spectacled boy with a Hong Kong accent.
You will have to leave this city, these dark furrows
stuffed full with ancestral bones. Know
that death is thorough. You will speak of bruised bodies
skinnier than yours, force the pen past batons
and blood, call it fresh material for writing. Now
they’re paying attention. You’re lucky enough
to care about how the tongue moves, the seven types
of fricatives, the articulatory function of teeth
sans survival. You will receive a good education
abroad and make your parents proud. You will take
a stranger’s cock in your mouth in the piss-slick stall
of that dingy Cantonese restaurant you love and taste
where you came from, what you were made of all along.
Put some work into it, he growls. C’mon, give me
some bite. Your mother visits one October, tells you
how everyone speaks differently here, more proper.
You smile, nod, bring her to your favourite restaurant,
order dim sum in English. They’re releasing
the students arrested five years ago. Just a tad more
soy sauce please, thank you. The television replays
yesterday on repeat. The teapots are refilled. You spoon
served rice into your mouth, this perfect rice.
Steamed, perfect, white.
Eric’s work can be found in Varsity and Bait Magazine.
Feature image credits: Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society and Sherwood Cheung