Jerrold Yam: Secrets from a Poet

By Fu Xuanwen

Being one of the ‘bookstore elves’ as my boss likes to call us at BooksActually, I have had the privilege to attend a talk by Jerrold Yam at Anglican High School (AHS) sometime back in September. He had titled the talk ‘Secrets from a Poet’, indicating the objective of his talk and the direction it was to follow. Yam was going to share with the students of AHS his ‘secret’ to becoming a published poet in Singapore.

He began by introducing himself, just as I will now start off with a brief introduction of the young poet. Jerrold Yam is a law undergraduate at University College London, and at the age of 23, has already published three poetry collections: Chasing Curtained Suns (2012), Scattered Vertebrae (2013) and Intruder (2014). He has won many prizes and at the age of twenty, became the youngest Singaporean to be nominated for the Pushcart Prize in America. He has also been featured in numerous literary festivals and has spoken at several educational institutions, including NUS. In 2014, he was listed by the National Arts Council as one of the “New Voices of Singapore” – according to Khor Kok Wah, this puts Yam amongst “some of the youngest and most promising writers in Singapore”. You can find out more about him at his website: jerroldyam.com.

After briefly introducing his three poetry collections, Yam went on to talk about the compatibility of school and writing. Having published all of his poetry collections while schooling, Yam was the right person for providing advice to students on writing. He shared with us how he manages to find time to write in spite of the hectic schedule of a student. These were his ‘secrets’:
1. Time management
2. Making a list of his inspirations – he shares that during times when he finds inspiration but lacks the time to develop the idea, he will simply jot down the inspirations and return to them again when he has time
3. Setting goals for himself
4. His conviction that “writing is a process, not a destination”
I found his last point especially striking. The idea that writing is a process and not a “destination” to be aimed for suggests that anyone can begin writing. This is encouraging to any aspiring young writers who may be afraid to write for fear of inadequacy – such inhibition being the result of viewing writing as a destination, an enterprise for the elite. This is especially relevant to our society today as emphasis is often placed on results. Singapore’s pragmatic and competitive culture sees its people being too focused on success and achievements. Yam’s statement then reminds us not to view writing as yet another certificate to be attained. Instead, he encourages us to write as long as one feels compelled to, for writing is a process—to be enjoyed, to learn from—and not an end in itself.

Yam then discussed the concept of “Inspiration”, describing it as the “external manifestation of an internal state of mind”. In other words, the inspiration one gets from perceiving an object manifests the person’s internal state of mind. I thought this was a very interesting way of viewing and describing inspiration, as it highlights the importance and prominence of the poet’s “state of mind” in his poetry.

He used two poems, “Visitor” and “Inheritance”, from his poetry collection, Chasing Curtained Suns, to demonstrate the presence of such an “internal state of mind” in his works, and how it surfaces in his poems. For example, in both poems, you can get a sense of his skepticism, which translates into his uncertainties and fears of growing up. This surfaces in “Visitor” through his consideration of the possibility of being “too long in love”, such that the death of a lover becomes something only “heard not seen”. This reflects the poet’s skepticism of love’s ability to withstand the test of time. This overarching sense of skepticism is also evident in “Inheritance”, as the speaker refers to “happiness” as a “strange liability”. Happiness then becomes a burden that the poet seems not to be able to fully comprehend. Thus, we can see one out of the many aspects of the poet’s “internal state of mind” within his poems.

What Yam hopes to achieve out of this discussion on inspiration and the “internal state of mind” is perhaps, once again, to shed light on his process of writing. Yam’s ideas are especially relevant in a hectic and progress-driven Singapore, where the government and citizens alike are so focused on success and achievements. It is heartening to see how poets like Yam can reach out to the youth, encouraging them to write in spite of the competitive environment of school. In this way, Yam is also encouraging the emergence of a new generation of writers in Singapore and the growth of Singapore literature. Oh, such exciting times for our local literary scene!