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+65 Convos: Jerrold The Poet

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Hello I’m Jerrold Yam, a final year law undergraduate at University College London, and the author of three poetry collections: Intruder (Ethos Books, 2014), Scattered Vertebrae (Math Paper Press, 2013) and Chasing Curtained Suns (Math Paper Press, 2012). What I do? I feel and listen most of the time, occasionally saying something back.

What got you started doing poetry?

JY: The desire for self-expression, a love for those spindly symbols we call words, generous family and friends, a great mentor, National Service. My first book (incidentally the first full-length poetry collection by Math Paper Press) was released shortly after my ORD.

What inspired you to write your first book?

JY: My first poetry collection, Chasing Curtained Suns, explores the transition from adolescence to adulthood in modern Singapore. Inspirations include celebrity culture, localities like Upper Thomson Road where I frequent, and a wide range of teenage preoccupations, from lamenting grades-oriented success to the taste of first love. Thematically, I analyse the ways in which young people like me seek solace, acceptance and affirmation in the transience of Singaporean life, when growing up also means letting go and leaving behind. Living for the future is coming to terms with the person you want to become, at the expense of who you really are.

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What have you been up to lately?

JY: Thanks to the generosity of fellow poet Desmond Kon, I am one of ten writers commissioned to produce a literary response to art pieces galleried at the National Gallery Singapore, as part of this year’s Singapore Writers Festival.

The National Gallery Singapore is slated to open later this year, and all the pieces produced from the project will be collated into an anthology that will be launched and sold at this year’s Singapore Writers Festival. It’s rare, and important, to have such cross-media dialogue, because all forms of art exist symbiotically. While literature uses the non-visual to create the visual, art uses the visual to create the non-visual. Even though they operate in procedurally countervailing directions, the substantive act of transfiguration from the visual to the non-visual (or vice versa) is the same. We can always learn from each other.

I am also involved in a number of anthologies slated for publication this year. My projects in 2014 included a commission for the 30th anniversary of UK literary journal Wasafiri, a performance at the Southbank Centre’s celebration of eroticism and a poetry reading at London’s Singapore Day, the highlight of which was taking pictures backstage with the indomitable Michelle Chong.

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What is the best part about what you do?

JY: Meeting like-minded people like the ones behind Design Says Hello. Also, I am sincerely touched by readers who go out of their way to express their appreciation. They turn the act of writing into conversation.

Being a writer, how would you describe the “writing” culture/industry in Singapore?

JY: There is always room for improvement, even if you look at the state of British and American literature. Singapore’s literary scene may be described as being past the stage of inchoate burgeoning and into an exciting, vibrant conglomeration of activity involving spoken word, dramatised readings, cross-media collaborations and a constant stream of new work. The question is not whether poetry is ready for Singapore, but the other way around. If Singaporeans don’t read Singaporean literature, who will (or should – I am after all making a normative point)?

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What do you think we need to do as a community to grow our precious industry?

JY: If we recognize intrinsic value in the arts, and not merely its instrumental potential for constructing a façade of non-conformity and diversity, everything else will fall into place.

What would be your dream for our local creative industry?

JY: For Singaporeans to have the courage of their artistic convictions, instead of relying solely on institutionalized stamps of affirmation.

What advise would you give to someone who wants to start writing?

JY: Start reading.

(Photos courtesy of Jerrold Yam)

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