A 19-year-old economics student from the University of Cambridge has become the youngest person to ever win the National Poetry Competition.
Eric Yip, who is from Hong Kong, won for his poem Fricatives, which plays with ideas about language to also comment on colonialism, race, migration, belonging and the guilt of leaving one’s home behind.
“It was such a complete shock for me [to have won],” Yip told the Guardian. “Poetry is definitely one of the arts where you get better with age because you have more lived experiences and you read more and you write more.
“Being 19, I try to think of it as I still have a lot more poetry to write and a lot more poetry to read. I see this win as a beginning, an encouragement for me to keep writing and to keep improving.”
Yip’s work was chosen by judges Fiona Benson, David Constantine and Rachel Long, who read all the entries anonymously.
The title, fricatives, comes from the term given to a type of consonant made by the friction of breath in a narrow opening, producing a turbulent air flow, including the sounds “f” or “th”, such as in “free” or “three”.
Benson said: “Fricatives is an immensely ambitious and beautifully achieved poem. It puts its reader into the position of a student of English as a second language, the fricative consonants tangling our mouths as we speak the poem, and intriguing us with the alternate meanings that rest precariously on the pronunciation. ‘Proper’ achievements – the correct pronunciation, the good education abroad, and the proud parents – are countered by an underworld of political prisoners and risky, grim sex.”
She added: “This is an incredibly powerful, vulnerable story of an uneasy assimilation, and of government surveillance… It’s a poem of poise and counterpoise, and is personal, political and acutely musical. What a tensile, high-wire reckoning.”
Yip, who cites Ocean Vuong as a writer who made him realize he “had a right” to be heard, speaks Cantonese and Mandarin, but writes poetry in English.
“You almost feel a little bit guilty because when you’re writing in English and when you write about Hong Kong, your home, your own culture, you’re actively engaging in translation,” he said. “That’s something I’m very conscious about and it’s one of the themes I wanted to explore.”
Yip won £5,000 for the first prize. The National Poetry Competition also named nine other winners, including 92-year-old MR Peacocke for her poem Out of School.
All 10 poems will be published on the Poetry Society’s website, with Yip’s poem and the second and third placed works – I Picture Him Driving by Jed Myers and Emma Purshouse’s poem Catherine Eddowes’ Tin Box As a Key Witness – also published in the spring 2022 issue of the Poetry Review.
Past winners of the competition, which began in 1978, include Sinéad Morrissey, Ruth Padel, James Berry, Carol Ann Duffy, Jo Shapcott and Tony Harrison.
Fricatives 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. looks
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 itI growls. C’mon, give me
some bite. Your mother visits one October, tells you
how everyone speaks differently here, more properly.
You smile, nod, bring her to your favorite restaurant,
order dim sum in English. They’re releasing
the students arrested five years ago. Just a tad more
I’m willow 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.