Welcome to our Forward Prizes 2023 ‘How I Did It’ series. This year we asked the poets shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem (Written) to write about the inspiration behind their poem. Here’s Eric Yip on what inspired him to write ‘Frictatives.’
Thinking about a poem after having written it feels like a post-mortem. ‘Fricatives’ was written in the autumn of 2021 when I had just arrived in the UK to begin my university studies. The seed of the poem, however, had been planted many years ago in Hong Kong, in classrooms where fluency in English is seen as a pragmatic necessity and, more implicitly, a conduit for class aspiration.
Throughout the poem, the ‘you’ transforms from an addressee of the teacher’s instructions to a speaker acting of his own accord. I think starting within that non-autonomous ‘you’ gave me courage. It placed me—the writer—in a position of greater control, and I was willing to push the ‘you’ very far. This detachment also made it easier to make the ‘you’ a flawed subject. To confess implies a belief in one’s own wrongdoing. Increasingly, I found it more interesting and more cathartic to write about complicity, weakness, and failure. Yet, there is always an element of artifice and pretence. Ultimately, the poet choses what to reveal and how to reveal it. Henri Cole once said the lyric poem presents ‘an X-ray of the self in a moment of being’. Even if I didn’t know it at the time, this X-ray was what I was attempting to capture: the guilt, homesickness, and irreverent thrill that melded together into an inseparable mass of emotion during my first months in the UK.
‘Fricatives’ is a cinematic poem, in that it has a conventional narrative structure and relies on potent visuals. What I found most challenging, however, was getting the sounds of the poem right. Looking through the version history on Google Docs, I see that I made many changes to each line with several goals in mind. One was to make everything as fricative-dense as possible, to extend the oral exercise beyond the listed pairs of words. Another was to cohere each scene by using its own set of repeating sounds. For example, the restaurant scene oscillates between ‘er’ (mother, October, proper, order, yesterday, served, perfect) and ‘re’ (restaurant, releasing, arrested, replays, repeat, refilled).
It interested me that the word ‘fricatives,’ which has the same etymological origins as ‘friction,’ ‘frottage’ and ‘fray,’ carried a sexual undertone, and that there was something bodily and forceful about the sounds it described. While drafting, it became clear that eroticism could lend another lens to the poem. Queerness in a heteronormative world seemed to parallel the issues of race and accent, though racial stereotypes within the queer community disallow a clean comparison. Instead of showing this right at the start, I wanted the cubicle scene to come as a surprise that still feels at home with the rest of the piece. Sometimes it takes great luck for a poem to work, and I’m glad that I stumbled onto the final line, which in my mind ties everything together and conjures a variety of sensory and semantic connotations.
Though images are often transposable across languages, sound patterns are confined by arbitrary quirks that are too specific to be directly replicated. ‘Fricatives’ is a poem that’s hyperaware of the language it’s written in, in that its entire conceit only makes sense in English. If language is the skeleton of expression, then my writing, like the writing of many others for whom English is not a ‘home language,’ is forever an outsider in its own body. How should one address this? In Hong Kong, fragments of English are embedded in Cantonese through loanwords and code-mixing. Puns between languages are also common in advertisements and daily vernacular. I wanted to reclaim agency for myself by sequestering these puns beneath the English skin of the poem and create a hidden dimension that was only visible through translation.
Looking back two years later, I don’t think present me could write a poem this confrontational and forthright. How the poem begins is already a provocation, a chastisement of the perceived inability to do something ‘properly.’ Having published nothing at the time, I wrote ‘Fricatives’ being sure that it wouldn’t be read by anyone else. Maybe that was an ingredient in its efficacy, or maybe it was something else. Either way, writing about how I wrote this poem feels like laying the thing to rest. As an answer to the privilege of being read, even if it’s just one other person, it’s a writer’s duty to ensure the reader’s time isn’t wasted. I hope this poem suffices in that sense.
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. Look
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 it, he growls. C’mon, give me
some bite. Your mother visits one October, tells you
how everyone speaks differently here, more proper.
You smile, nod, bring her to your favourite restaurant,
order dim sum in English. They’re releasing
the students arrested five years ago. Just a tad more
soy sauce 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.
Eric Yip‘s poems have been published in The Poetry Review, Magma, The Adroit Journal, and Best New Poets. He won the 2021 National Poetry Competition and was shortlisted for the 2023 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem – Written. He has performed his work at venues including St Paul’s Cathedral, The Common Press, and BBC Radio 4. Born and raised in Hong Kong, he is currently based in Cambridge, UK, where he studies.