“If you need to say something, you will”, says National Poetry Competition winner Eric Yip



PHOTOGRAPHY PROVIDED BY ERIC YIP

Eric Yip is a nineteen-year-old economics student from Hong Kong. Until recently, poetry for Eric was a private hobby, but having become the youngest ever winner of the National Poetry Competition, he has suddenly found himself, and his writing of him, under the national spotlight. This impressive achievement has made national headlines, but has also excited the arts scene on a local scale. His winning poem by him, ‘Fricatives’ is evocative, engaging, and wholly impactful, and available to read with thanks to Eric at the end of this article. I spoke to him about this whirlwind experience, as well as his practice, influences, and his experience of him in Cambridge as an international, multilingual student.

When did you begin writing poetry? Has it been a life-long practice, or something that you’ve picked up recently after starting at Cambridge?

I started writing poetry two to three years ago, and at first I was very bad. Support for creative writing in English was non-existent at my secondary school in Hong Kong, so poetry was a private hobby that I told very few people about. It wasn’t until I began reading contemporary poetry that I saw visible improvement. I keep dozens of notes on my phone where I scribble down images and ideas. Occasionally those ideas coalesce into a poem, and very rarely, a good poem.

What kinds of things do you find yourself drawn to the most in your writing?

I’m quite interested in language and its fraught relationship with us, how we put so much faith in a flawed vessel to hold our deepest feelings. I’m thinking of the quote by Edmond Jabès: “Always in a foreign country, the poet uses poetry as an interpreter.” Themes like family, vulnerability, queerness, and diaspora appear in my writing, but to be honest, I’m not exactly sure why I’m drawn towards these things. I suspect no one really knows why they write what they write, other than the fact that our minds latch on to stories and experiences dear to us, and hence poetry becomes a way of unfurling the sail that carries us towards some semblance of clarity.

In relation to this, how do you think students at Cambridge may react or respond to your poem? Do you think it will resonate with particular groups?

I hope people like it (or at least find it interesting enough to talk about)! I’ve received messages from Cambridge students over the past few days telling me that they resonated with the poem, which makes me very happy. A lot of students at Cambridge, myself included, may feel a bit out of place here. You’re painfully aware of the desire to fit in, and there are artifacts that remind you of the intimidating history of Cambridge (or “elite education” in general) and how you weren’t given a space in that history. The poem does play a bit off those feelings, so I’m glad people found solace in that.

How did you come across the National Poetry Competition? What were your motivations, expectations, and reaction to the outcome?

I had just arrived in the UK and thought of submitting my poems somewhere, so I Googled “UK poetry competitions”, and the NPC was the first one that popped up. I had absolutely zero expectations. I was more motivated by the fact that the judges would read my poems, and I thought that it was cool enough to warrant a submission. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. Receiving the call from The Poetry Society was one of the most bizarre moments of my life, and it took me days for the full weight of it to set in.

As the competition’s youngest ever winner, how do you feel that your age has impacted your perspective, especially as a student here in Cambridge?

To be honest it’s quite daunting! I always feel like I haven’t read enough or know too little, so there’s this constant voice in my head telling me not to make a fool of myself. I think I’m in the stage of my life where I’m forced to think big and take a swing at the perennial questions of life. Nineteen is the age where you start to have this introspective gaze at your childhood (“Did all of that really happen?”). Being in the UK has also brought my attention to issues such as class, colonialism, and sexuality, as well as how those subjects relate to my personal experiences.

How do you find your life in Cambridge intersects with your writing? Have you interacted much with the arts scene here; has any of the university’s history and culture influenced the way you have thought about and written poetry?

Cambridge is a fantastic place for students interested in writing or the arts. The zine scene here is bubbling with life, and it was fun submitting poems to Notes, BAIT Magazine, and The Mays. Cambridge was the first place where I could meet other enjoyers of poetry, and it gave me the confidence necessary to look out for more opportunities. Also the bookstores here are a godsend! On the other hand, I imagine the ghosts of Milton and Byron must be secretly judging the merits of every poet in Cambridge.

What advice or guidance would you give to other young poets, both in Cambridge, and the broader writing community, especially those with a similar background to you?

As someone relatively new to poetry, I don’t think I’m in a position to offer any advice, so I’ll pass down some lessons I’m still trying to learn. One thing I’ve realized is you should never be apologetic about your background. Understand tradition, but don’t buckle under it. For those writing in second languages, your multilingualism is a gift and will provide you with a massive pool of ideas. And reach out to others in the writing community! I only found out about the Young Poets Network recently and regret not having done so earlier. Most of all, you can never read or write enough. Nothing is unimportant. If you need to say something, you will.

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