Interview with Robert Yeo
This week, local literary giant Robert Yeo shares some thoughts on his work and his process of writing. At this juncture, Mr. Yeo has published The Adventures of Holden Heng and The Best of Robert Yeo with Epigram Books.
You write in many different genres: poetry, plays, fiction, memoir, libretti. Why have you explored so many different genres of writing over the course of your long writing career, rather than sticking to just one? Do you, for example, find yourself writing in different genres at different points in your life? And do you feel more comfortable in one genre over another?
I enjoy writing in a variety of genres because each genre poses challenges. Sometimes I go into another because of neglect for instance my plays, and then some one asks me to write a libretto, and I jump at the opportunity. Leow Siak Fah , founder of the Singapore Lyric Opera, asked me and John Sharpley to jointly write an opera sometime in 2003/04, and I welcomed it as I felt it provided me with the chance to combine the skills of poetry and drama. We co-wrote the opera Fences which was staged in August 2013.
Writing in several genres often overlap. I do not favour one genre over another, although poetry is a sentimental favourite because it is the first, whilst plays and opera are exciting because they get performed. Fiction, because it is now a dominant form, travels the best, I think. Memoirs represent another challenge, of selective remembering and also because, with exceptions, most autobiographies in Singapore are not well written.
There’s always been a performative aspect to your writing –playwriting, librettos. Was this an accident, or has there been a conscious decision on your part to explore writing for performance?
My interest in the performative aspects of writing was triggered by listening to the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg read in the Roundhouse in London in the late sixties. Ginsberg took reading out of the book, made it hip, spouting words to be performed rather than read between covers. I was thrilled, and after that my poems became freer, conversational, more aware of a live audience.
When I went on to write plays, and my first play was staged in 1974, it meant writing dialogue and being aware of the immediate impact of words as spoken.
I’m often struck by the links between poetry and music, or between poetry and spoken word and even rap music, in that poets, even more so than prose writers, have to pay a lot of attention to rhythm. What do you perceive are the links between poetry and music, or poetry and libretti, for example?
I learnt, early in writing poetry, of the importance of writing regular, employing the metres of English poetry. Writing free verse was a late development. Using regular feet in poetry imparted to lines a pronounced cadence, a musical quality approximating to music.
In writing libretti, especially arias, I used the various feet of traditional verse consciously. As an example, when I wrote my second libretto called Kannagi, performed in 2009, I combined the anapaestic and iambic feet in a line like this: “In the flush of first love when days were honey”.
There’s a very romantic, and even sensual aspect to many of the poems in your Best of collection. You mentioned in a recent interview that two subjects important to young men growing up are “love and death”, and that your first collection of poems was very concerned with these themes, but that one also has to be conscious of the fusion of the personal and the public or social. Do you think writers or poets have a responsibility to their readers to get outside of themselves? To engage with larger issues or reach wider audiences?
I will address the items posed in the last two questions in your long question. Yes, I think writers ought to address societal issues: by that I mean going beyond self, family, to nation and the world. The current word for this view is ‘global’. Thus my poems reflect my growing up in Singapore, residencies in England, Thailand, travel in Europe, America, Australia, engaging in international issues like the Vietnam War etc…In my case, it has all to do with fusing private and public concerns and thus investing my writings with concerns beyond the individual. I have spoken of this before often.
How many years have you been writing? What inspires you to keep at it, year after year after year?
I have been seriously writing since I graduated in 1962. Through the sixties and seventies, I had poems published in Singapore, Malaysia, US, New Zealand and India, and my first book, poems entitled Coming Home, Baby, was published in 1971 by Federal Publications. So, if you date my writing career from tht year, then I have been writing for just over four decades.
What inspires me to keep on going? Enjoyment, including the lonely moments of struggle with words. Keeping boredom at bay. A little vanity, I suppose.