Cambridge student from Hong Kong becomes the youngest ever winner of the National Poetry Competition

  • Eric Yip, a first year student studying economics, won the grand prize for his poem ‘Fricatives,’ which navigates the issues of race and migration
  • Run by the UK-based Poetry Society, the competition is an annual event that began in 1978 and is open to poets around the world
Kelly Fung |

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A Cambridge student from Hong Kong became the youngest winner of the National Poetry Competition, one of the world’s most prestigious prizes for poetry. Photo: Shutterstock

A 19-year-old Cambridge undergraduate student from Hong Kong became the youngest winner of the National Poetry Competition, one of the world’s most prestigious prizes for poetry.

Eric Yip, a first year student studying economics at the University of Cambridge, won the prize for his poem Fricatives, which navigates race, migration, oppression and the struggles of those leaving their homes behind to start anew in a foreign country.

“It’s possibly the most surprising thing to ever happen to me. I’ve never had anything published before in a journal, let alone win any competition,” Yip said in a statement released by the Poetry Society. “I’m also honoured to contribute a small part to the growing literary space of Hong Kong poetry, which was carved out piece by piece through the wondrous efforts of many Hong Kong poets I admire.”

Yip’s poem was chosen from 16,729 poems submitted by 7,012 poets in 100 countries. Photo: Poetry Society

The title of the poem, Fricatives, refers to a consonant sound that generates audible friction, such as the sounds “f” and “th” in “free” or “three”. It describes the challenges many migrants face when speaking English as they seek a sense of belonging.

“You almost feel a little bit guilty because when you’re writing in English and when you write about Hong Kong, your home, your own culture, you’re actively engaging in translation,” he told Guardian. “That’s something I’m very conscious about and it’s one of the themes I wanted to explore.”

Yip said he was always interested in the colonial nature of English and how it can be used to “divide and oppress”.

“I also wanted to examine the transformation of my city, as well as accompanying sentiments of anger, frustration, and diasporic guilt,” he said.

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The young poet’s work was selected by judges Fiona Benson, David Constantine and Rachel Long, who chose the piece from 16,729 poems submitted by 7,012 poets in 100 countries. Each poem was read anonymously by the judges.

As described by the panel, Frigatives sails “through the murky and treacherous waters of language, race, migration, and of being heard when ‘Nobody wants to listen/ to a spectacled boy with a Hong Kong accent.’”

Benson considered the poem “immensely ambitious and beautifully achieved,” saying it allows readers to put themselves in the shoes of a student who speaks English as a second language. She added that it is “a poem of poise and counterpoise, and is personal, political and acutely musical”.

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Yip received £5,000 (HKD 51,461) for the first prize. Nine other poets also claimed awards, including 92-year-old M.R. Peacocke for her poem Out of School. All 10 poems can be found on the Poetry Society’s website.

Run by the Poetry Society, the National Poetry Competition is an annual poetry prize that began in 1978 in Britain. The competition is open to poets worldwide aged 18 or above. Individuals can submit unpublished poems of up to 40 lines long. Past winners include T.S. Eliot Prize winner Sinéad Morrissey, former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Jamaican poet James Berry.

Fricatives by Eric Yip

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.

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