Interview: Poet Jerrold Yam

With the upcoming release of his mysterious second poetry collection set for this Christmas, Laura Piccirillo chats to UCL’s very own Jerrold Yam and picks his poetic brain.

chasing curtained suns Jerrold Yam poetry

Following the review of the talented Mr.Yam’s first poetry collection ‘Chasing
Curtained Suns’ last week, what better way to understand UCL’s finest than by
chatting to the man himself? From influences to addressing his class in sonnets,
Law student cum world published poet Jerrold Yam takes the time out to answer
a few of The Tab’s burning questions…

L: You’re only 21 now. You must have been quite young when you started
writing to have achieved the success you have today. How did you first get into
writing poetry?

J: I’m Singaporean, so we have to do mandatory National Service for 2 years. It
was during that time when I would have time to myself as well, so I started to
indulge in the passion that I had previously but hadn’t had the time to indulge in,
which was poetry. So I started writing poetry as a hobby when I was 13 or 14,
but it really wasn’t serious for me then. I have definitely grown in the process!

L: I’m curious to know, who are your influences? Do you have a favourite poet
who your work is inspired by?

J: My favourite poets are Sharon Olds and Louise Gluck; Olds is a wonderful
confessional American poet who very imagistically deals with subjects like
divorce and abuse, while Gluck is uncompromisingly austere in her poetry.
I do also think that inspiration comes from within and that
you have to be able to relate to an inspiration whatever it is. Whether it is a tree
you’ve walked by everyday and finally put a meaning to, you have to be ready for
an external manifestation of inspiration.

L: You are clearly very successful in Singapore. How have you been received
there in the poetry world?

J: I think it’s not so much what I write as the novelty of my tender age, though
it has been remarked that I’m like a 60 year old man trapped in the body of a
twenty year old… It’s not about maturity, but to maintain a constant state of
wonder. Once you feel jaded, you stop taking things for granted.

L: Have you found there is a difference between performing your work in
Singapore and how the British public has received your poetry?

J: Platform 65, an arts initiative that promotes Singaporean art in the UK, recently organised a reading
for me. The other readings I’ve done here prove that the English audience is more vocal, inquisitive and participatory. I love readings because I usually learn a lot from the discourse and make new friends too!

L: There has been an increased interest recently in spoken word poetry and
performance. How do you prefer your poetry to be read?

J: I think for my poetry, it should be read silently. For me spoken word poetry
is a totally different genre, it’s like a performance. I don’t write in that kind of
genre; poetry is more intimate for me. I want my readers to just sit down and
contemplate, just relate to the experience that is being illustrated.

L: You must be so busy now studying Law at UCL on top of writing your poetry.
Are you still managing to write poetry at the moment?

J: I still need to find the right balance! The thing is that when I feel like I need to
write, I will need to write. It’s more cathartic- I have no choice. I think my poetry
also becomes more muted and more economical in the sense that I use less
words these days- ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ (Shakespeare). It’s also nice in the
way that every collection and every poem is different and it immortalises what
you were feeling at that point in time. If it sounds the same across 30 years, it’ll
be pretty boring!

L: I like to think that when you speak in your moots for law that you converse in
sonnets…please tell me this is true? Is there anything that you take from poetry
to your course?

J: Ha! My first love has always been language and law primarily deals with
communication and argument. While rationality is extremely important when
you apply legal principles, it’s also important to interpret them in a versatile and
creative manner. I guess poetry has taught me how to be original in a form that
has existed since the beginning of civilisation.

L: Do you see yourself going directly into law then when you finish your degree
at UCL or do you want to make writing poetry your career?

J: I will definitely practice as a lawyer for at least 5 years but then I’ll see where
life takes me. I made a conscious decision not to study English Literature
or Creative Writing because I didn’t want to impose all these unrealistic
expectations on something so unpredictable. I think for males,
especially Singaporean males, it is very important to excel in your career so I
didn’t want to put myself in a position where I need to excel in my writing career
and impose all these artificialities to be published in say, a certain amount of
journals, or to win a number of awards. I don’t think you need to be academically
skilled in writing. That pertains to literary criticism, not creation.

L: What’s your next project? Are you currently working on anything?

J: I am actually, my second poetry collection ‘Scattered Vertebrae’ consisting of
66 poems will be released in Singapore in December so I am quite excited…and a bit scared because of the subject matter. I’d rather not say, but it is definitely
more personal than the previous collection, which was personal in a way that
also comments on Singaporean society. This one was entirely personal- the entire collection is written in the first person so I’m a bit nervous to see what my
parents and friends think of it! The subject matter is controversial, especially in
Singapore.

L: And lastly, do have a poetic thought of the day for us?

J: I think you need to take a backseat in your own life sometimes and be a
visitor, an intruder. The privilege of always being in a new environment is very
important; once you grow used to your linen and curtains, it’s hard to appreciate
what has always been before your eyes.

We at The Tab thank you Jerrold for your precious time and wish you every
success with the release of your second collection, ‘Scattered Vertebrae’, this
Christmas!

Copies of Jerrold Yam’s first poetry collection ‘Chasing Curtained Suns’ are
available online at :
http://www.selectbooks.com.sg/getTitle.aspx?
SBNum=053736

UCL students and staff may purchase the book at a discounted rate of £5 by
emailing the writer at [email protected].

Keep up to date with all Jerrold’s latest news and read more of his work on his
personal blog: jerroldyam.wordpress.com