2019 Winners' Interviews 

English Category

Find out more about our winning poets and the inspiration behind their writing and works!

Low Kian Seh

Winning Poem: "Skin" (19 And Above, First Prize)

1. What is your philosophy towards your poetry works?

I am not sure if it is a philosophy, but I tend to end up writing stories within the poems. Often, there are embedded narratives and references to human experiences. I generally prefer to keep the language straightforward and simple, and avoid abstract imagery, so as to have the reader resonate with my writing more easily, hopefully. I believe that constraints foster creativity, and am inclined towards structure and form. It is interesting that there are new forms created in Singapore, recently in particular, and I want my writing to possess such Singaporean-ness, if there is such a word.

2. Where do you get your inspirations from?

 

I tend to draw inspiration first from personal experience, and I think that because I grew up fairly poor, I have seen a slice of life quite possibly unique. Life was tough, and unfortunately, pain and challenge do make a decent muse. I happen to have a knack for remembering trivia and details, and many stories I come across whether by hearsay or directly from friends or family tend to remain in my mind.

 

There are also stories which I was part of while I journeyed with certain friends through difficult times. The winning poem I wrote was about what a church kid I mentored had gone through when his mother was fighting skin cancer, and much of the description in the poem was vivid because I was there for and with him in that challenging period of his life.

 

3. Do you have a favourite poet/author? 

 

My personal journey into poetry began with Shakespeare, in fact. I was drawn to the sonnet form after reading some of Shakespeare’s works, and later to other poets who wrote sonnets, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Along the way, I enjoyed Wordsworth, Robert Frost and Philip Larkin. These became my primary influences for some time. I don’t think I have one particular preference among these poets to name a favourite in probably my teenage to young adulthood years.

 

In more recent years though, there is one poet whose writing I enjoy tremendously due to the humour, creativity and style. It is a significant departure from the style of writing of my early influences, but I think Brian Bilston is my current favourite.

 

4. If you could tell your younger writer self anything, what would it be?

 

Stop being a stickler to form. I think because of what I read and loved, my approach and style became constrained to structured meter and rhyme. Without realizing it, I ended up forcing certain concepts into badly fitting pigeonholes. What jolted me out of it was a passing comment from a local poet in the SingPoWriMo poetry group which I was participating in, that made me see that I was not innovating when I wrote, and from that point, I became voracious in trying to understand how modern poetry is written and embraced the new forms that were introduced or created.

 

5. What do you wish to see more in the literary world in Singapore?

 

I think we are seeing a deeply engaged and passionate community that emerged through SingPoWriMo that snowballed into other developments in the poetry scene such as Sing Lit Station. When I was growing up, I was lonely in this particular pursuit because no one I knew in my social circle was trying to write poetry. Of course, it was also difficult to access resources other than through physical libraries. Yes, I am that old to have seen a world before the internet. 

 

Right now, people are so easily connected through such groups over social media, forums, and so on, to share their passion for specific interests. With the internet, access is hardly an issue anymore. In my own journey, that sense of belonging to a like-minded community made all the difference, and I hope that this SingPoWriMo community will continue to grow and be nurtured. More importantly, I wish to see more of such interest groups form, ground-up, and gradually draw in more persons who enjoy writing to write. Correspondingly, I also wish to see more Singaporeans become interested in our local literature, which will hopefully encourage many more creative individuals to involve themselves in the literary scene.  

Iain Lim

Winning Poem: "an image as a study of a man and a fly in the camera lucida" (19 And Above, First Prize)

1. What is your philosophy towards your poetry works?

 

It is difficult for me to say if there is really this coherent discipline towards poetry in my writing. The rigour, routine, ingenuity, creativity and restitutive/destructive power often associated with philosophy are completely antithetical to my haphazard approach towards poetry. I used to think that I wrote bricolages, but it turned out to be a fumbling patchwork of inanity. I used to believe that anything could be poetry, but anything I produced just proved me sanctimonious at best and insincere and hypocritical at worse. 

 

Instead, I am still meditating on the idea that philosophy itself can shed light on how I should approach writing, but putting it simply, I still don't know. And I wish I did. Right now, I would be grateful and happy if I can simply experience things and muster the effort to put the pen on the page to express them.

 

2. What do you wish for people to take away from your poem?

 

I don't wish to be didactic about it so I think as long as they meditate with it, I'll be immensely grateful and happy.

 

3. Do you have a favourite poet/author?

 

Yes, I do. Though I have not completed any poet's oeuvre, I confess to my obsession with John Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. His control of language in that work is astoundingly precise and sublime. As with authors in general, I particularly enjoy the ideas and prose of Gilles Deleuze. His heterodoxy in style and content is refreshing after steeping in the philosophical canon.

 

4. Where do you see yourself in the future in terms of writing and poetry?

 

I am radically uncertain about the future in terms of writing and poetry. I have not written anything since that piece from NPC and I have since shelved my writing projects. I am currently prioritising reading instead. Though, I do hope anything I produce (be it poetry, drama, prose or theory) in the future will be of value to anyone who encounters it.

 

5. Describe what a poem means/is to you.

 

This is possibly the most difficult question you can pose to anyone who has written a poem. I don't think that there is anything essential to "a poem", as its effects and concomitants are too diverse and heterogeneous. I propose to describe what I think poetry is instead. I'm not sure if anyone has said this before or that I've read it somewhere but simply forgot, but the incomplete thesis is that poetry is the best alternative to silence.

See Wern Hao

Winning Poem: "Invisible Particle" (19 And Above, Third Prize)

1. What is your philosophy towards your poetry works?

 

I believe in writing poetry which gives shape to what is unspeakable, be it intense human emotions such as despair or tentative, cautious hope. Subject matter may vary widely from family, relationships, or mental illness. Regardless, I believe that my writing must (1) come from a place of genuine sentiment or thought, and (2) be the product of some form of self-reflexivity. Basically, I must always have some form of an answer to the question "why am I writing this?"

 

2. What do you wish for people to take away from your poem?

 

I am not egotistical enough to believe that the universal or anonymous reader should take anything away from my writing. Insisting that there is a singular or fundamentally "meaning" which the reader must "get" is also, I believe, harmful to one's craft.

 

People will take away what they will from my work. I can only hope that my writing speaks to some part of them.

 

3. If you could tell your younger writer self anything, what would it be?

 

Don't try to strive for Deep. Universal. Truths. Start from your lived experience. It is more important to confront and learn from your ignorances, blindspots, and privilege, rather than pretend that you know everything there is to know about writing and/or life.

 

4. Describe what a poem means/is to you.

 

A poem is an outstretched hand.

 

5. How does a literary success look like to you?

 

I don't feel comfortable defining success by Singaporean-esque KPI markers (e.g. getting a book published). I believe that literary success is finding out that the person who you are after you finish a poem, chapbook or collection is that bit wiser and kinder than the person before.

Eunice Sng

Winning Poem: "Kafkaesque" (15 to 18 Years Old, First Prize)

1. When did you first encounter poetry?

 

As boring as it sounds, I first encountered poetry in secondary school literature lessons. Before that, I was never introduced to poetry and spent my entire childhood only reading novels. I was intrigued by the structures and rhythms inherent in poetry; how each poem is able to deliver meaning succinctly through patterns of imagery and repetitive sounds, so unlike the long, flowing prose I was used to. One of the first few poems I read was those by Edgar Allan Poe. ‘The Bells’ left a particularly deep impression on me. It was strongly onomatopoeic and rhythmical; one could hear the words creating different sounds which determined the mood of the poem as it shifted from merry to morose! The high-pitched sound created by the short vowels in ‘tinkle’ and ‘jingling’, generating a lighthearted atmosphere, gradually gave way to the low-pitched, long, open vowels of ‘tolling’,  ‘moaning and groaning’, emphasising a sense of melancholic dread. It also fascinated me that such a simple object like a bell could evoke a multitude of different feelings and sensations.

 

2. Who or what inspired you to start writing your own poems?

 

The first poem that I wrote was not really inspired by anyone or anything; in fact, I was ‘forced’ to do it! In secondary one, my school made everyone write their own slam poems as part of its literature assessment. At that time, I was reading a lot of young adult fiction involving romance, so naturally, I wrote a melodramatic poem about heartbreak that was filled with more cliches than substance. When I performed it on stage, I think I caused more laughter than actual sympathy. It was an embarrassing start, yes, but I slowly learnt how to write better poems. As I attended the Creative Arts Programme (CAP) seminar and Singapore Writers Festival, I discovered the world of Singaporean literature. I was thoroughly captivated by it; growing up, most of the work I read was by European and American authors, not people I was familiar with. However, it was comforting to know that there were so many local writers like myself as well, and I was inspired by them to write poems situated in a Singaporean context since issues that directly affected me would carry more verisimilitude. The first collection of local poems I read was One Fierce Hour by Alfian Sa’at, and the places and experiences described were so acutely familiar that I could imagine and feel everything Alfian was trying to convey! (Especially ‘Singapore You Are Not My Country’) His poems deeply affected me and inspired me to write poems providing social criticism.

3. What is the process of you coming up with a poem?

 

I only write poems when I feel inspired and have something meaningful to talk about. Whenever that happens, I will first list down the main ideas and metaphors that I wish to convey on a piece of paper. Subsequently, I will brainstorm different words that I can use, then proceed to start writing the poem by stringing them together. It takes a lot of trial and error to successfully write the poem in the most eloquent and appropriate way possible; you need to try a certain combination of words to get your ideas down first, then constantly keep going back to edit it until you are satisfied. For my award-winning poem ‘Kafkaesque’, it took me an entire day to write the first draft. After that, I asked for feedback from friends and people around me. I took their opinions and suggestions, tweaked the poem again, then eventually submitted it. 

 

4. What excites you when you write a poem?

 

A few things excite me when I write a poem. Primarily, I think it is the knowledge that I have come up with a fresh, unique way of expressing a particular idea. I also love seeing how my words slowly come together to form a complete whole; with the rhyme, rhythm and form playing a big part in making the poem what it is.  

5. Do your friends like poetry as well? If not, what would you say to encourage them to start reading/writing poetry?

 

I have friends who like poetry, and some who are not interested in it. For those who are not, what I can say is; you do not need to be put off by the language. Yes, it is different from prose and takes some getting used to, but try looking at the big picture first; the issues, the themes that many of us should be able to relate to. After all, writers are humans too, and they experience things like love, grief and discrimination just like anyone else. Then, you can start appreciating the finer details in language that the poet deliberately chooses to convey these experiences. Perhaps, try reading Singaporean poems first, as may be easier to relate to. 

Lai Keng Yu

Winning Poem: "Swan Song" (15 to 18 Years Old, Third Prize)

1. When did you first encounter poetry?

 

I think poetry exists everywhere around us. However, my first proper encounter with poetry was actually during Language Arts lessons when I was a Year 1 student in Temasek Junior College’s Integrated Programme. The lessons were really engaging and exciting, and left a deep impression on me.

 

2. Who or what inspired you to start writing your own poems?

 

I often draw inspiration from other writers, such as from Tania De Rozario and from my daily life. My teachers though, have been the biggest inspirations and motivators for me to write my own poetry. They have all been very patient and supportive, often going the extra mile to look through my work and sharing about poems they like. When I encounter a writer’s block, it is usually my tutors who get me out of it through various prompts and fun challenges. I am very grateful and thankful for them, especially for my Literature tutor, Ms Goh Wee Suan, whose encouragement and belief in me has allowed me to pursue my interests in poetry boldly. 

 

3. What is the process of you coming up with a poem?

 

“I hope you continue writing with your heart.” This is what one of my Literature tutors told me, and is something that summarises the process for me when I come up with a poem. I write about things I feel strongly about, and write about what I think or feel. These range from topics that I feel strongly about like how abhorrent animal abuse is to small observations about daily life. I do free writing and only engage in editing my work the following day.

 

4. What excites you when you write a poem?

 

The process of writing excites me the most. I love slowly finding out how the poems unfold as I usually write about whatever comes to mind and there is no definite idea of how the poem will look like when I begin. In a way, it is a journey and adventure of sorts, which allows me to look at things and people from very different lenses. Poems are kaleidoscopes, and there are so many different permutations, but each one is beautiful in their own way. I can never really expect or predict how the poem will turn out to be, and that is what makes writing poetry the most exciting thing for me.

 

5. Do you see yourself writing stories/poems in the future?

 

I love writing, and it has become a constant in my life. My writing continues to evolve as my style or interests change. It is also something that is incredibly cathartic and I will definitely continue writing creatively in future.

Koon Wei Pheng

Winning Poem: "Once Upon a Mid-Autumn’s Night" (10 to 14 Years Old, First Prize)

1. When did you first encounter poetry?

 

I first encountered poetry in Secondary 2, through an English Language and Literature module on poetry. In the course of the module, I was exposed to a diverse range of poems, including timeless classics like Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and Singaporean literature like “Ulysses by the Merlion”. Through the many exposures, I started to appreciate the many forms a poem can take, and hence began on my journey of crafting poems. 

 

2. Who or what inspired you to start writing your own poems?

 

As with when I first encountered poetry, it was my Secondary 2 English Language teacher who inspired me to pick up the pen. Writing my first few poems was not easy, but it was my teacher who continuously supported me and my endeavour in writing. Giving me critical yet constructive feedback, I started to see how a good piece of writing takes shape. I am very thankful that she was my first reader. Growing, it was also the competitions that I took part in which pushed me towards better expression and form.

3. What is the process of you coming up with a poem?

 

The process is always one of telling a good story. For me, a poem begins with picking out details in life. It is always about filtering the everyday life, and extracting not the best things, but rather the most sincere and true aspects of my life. Moving on to writing, I will then piece out the aspects I would like to describe and hence determine the sequence of the poem. I will always imagine what I see and project it into my writing. Personally, I like to play with form, and will always make an effort to infuse my words with a fitting form.

 

4. Do you see yourself writing stories/poems in the future?

 

No, I don’t expect myself to be writing poems professionally in the future. However, of course, writing will continue to be a constant in my life. I will continue to write for myself and for the people around me. I will continue to live out those stories that I capture in my words. I will continue to appreciate the magical nature of literature all around me. For, the best way to salute such a wonderful form of art is to breathe it in and sincerely digest it with my heart.

 

5. Do your friends like poetry as well? If not, what would you say to encourage them to start reading/writing poetry?

Honestly, most of my friends are not interested in poetry. To all those who might not like poetry, I would like to say: “Poetry is a form of art that defines how we live and what we live for. Poetry captures what daily life we live; it captures anger gently and happiness gratefully. Open your hearts, feel the words, and write. For you can never write joy if no exuberance resides, you can never express sincerity if no heart beats.”

 

Joy Huang

Winning Poem: "The Play of Life (Un)changing" (10 to 14 Years Old, Third Prize)

1. When did you first encounter poetry?

 

I think I first encountered poetry in primary school, when my English teacher introduced it to us after the Primary 5 year-end examinations. She explained a bit about poetry to us, like its general structure and what people wrote about, then had us write a poem each, on any genre or topic of our choice.

 

2. Who or what inspired you to start writing your own poems?

 

Although my first encounter with poetry was in primary school, I only really delved into it in Secondary 1, when we started analysing poetry in Language Arts. Going through the different poems in the package assigned to us and trying to figure out the poets’ intentions were incredibly fun and I guess that was what drove my love for writingーthat one day, I could be like them too. 

 

3. What is the process of you coming up with a poem?

 

I start by getting inspiration. Most of the time, I wait for inspiration to strike before I begin jotting down the rough draft of my poem. I don’t typically plan out my poem, if that makes sense, it’s more like I try to just let the idea guide my writing, throwing in some rhymes, alliteration, and a bunch of literary easter eggs along the way. After that, I take a step back and read through what I have before me and thereafter spend some time editing it to make it flow better and have a little more structure. What I like to do is think about how well I’ve conveyed a certain idea or emotion through the words I’ve penned down thus far, and make changes accordingly. One thing that helps me a lot with writing is to ask for others’ opinions after reading it, whether they could identify the main theme I was going for and if the flow of the poem was good.

 

4. Do you see yourself writing stories/poems in the future?

 

Yes, of course! I really love writing and I doubt I’d stop writing even 30 years into the future.

 

5. Do your friends like poetry as well? If not, what would you say to encourage them to start reading/writing poetry?

 

I actually have a fair number of friends who enjoy both reading and writing poetry. However, what I’d say to encourage those who aren’t exactly keen on doing either would likely be to just give it a try. It doesn’t have to start from wracking your brain for poetry ideas or forcing yourself to study poetry, it could start from just attending an introductory poetry course or going to watch spoken-word poetry with a friend. You never know what could light that flame in you, as cheesy as it sounds.

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