For Angeline Yap, 59, writing and poetry have always been a part of her life. What began as an avenue for her to while away hours of boredom when she was a child, has now developed into a lifelong interest in crafting poems of great depth – those that deliver greater emotions, and speak about the world around her. Involved in the local poetry scene since the 1980s, Angeline continues giving back to the community today – through mentorships and collaborating with other artists and poets whenever time permits.
Angeline Yap spent most of her childhood with the likes of Dr Seuss and Roald Dahl. As a child, Angeline was an avid reader who passed many Saturday mornings at the old National Library on Stamford Road, when it was still a red-brick building. Her mother used to teach at the nearby school whose building now houses the National Archives of Singapore.
Angeline Yap being interviewed at the NUS Faculty of Law. Photo by Chan Kar Leng
“Sometimes, on Saturdays when [my mother] had to go back to [teach at the] school, I would spend the morning in the children’s section at the library,” Angeline reminisced. “And, of course, I was as happy as a clam, because I grew up in a family of book lovers. We had books in every room, though I think my current home, my own home, has even more books,” she chuckled.
Attributing how she picked up the mechanics of poetry to her love for reading when she was young, Angeline said, “If you think about it, this would mean that I was consciously picking up rhythm, rhyme, plot, storyline. And, of course, Dr Seuss is a master at doing this.”
As the soft-spoken Angeline recounted her early brushes with literature, she shared that, a little later on, she chanced upon a book titled Poetry of the English-speaking World one rainy day at home.
“It had selected poems all the way from, I think, Beowulf, Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Shelley, Blake, Yeats, right up to the moderns,” recalled Angeline. “Now, of course, what an eight-year-old gets out of that is not going to be anywhere near what an adult is going to get out of that.”
“But what I did do was, I was going, ‘Oh! Ok… Some of this is really good stuff.’ Nice stories, too, so I was reading the poems for the stories,” continued Angeline. “And, like any other honest reader, if I understood it and was hooked, I would just read until the end. But if I didn’t understand it and didn’t like it, I’d just turn the page.”
She began writing her own little poems in primary school after her teacher shared with her a book called Creative Writing by Marie Bong, the former principal of Katong Convent. As she became continually enthralled by the pages of poems that the author had assisted her students in writing, her teacher asked her the question that set Angeline’s poetry-writing gears in motion:
“Why don’t you try?”
And, try she did. Angeline began writing short poems, and brought them to her teacher, who then gave Angeline feedback, or even suggestions on how to lengthen them. Later, Angeline joined the Katong Convent Choral Speakers, which gave her the opportunity to recite poetry at venues like the Victoria Theatre. As Angeline approached her upper secondary school years, she began submitting poems for publications and student magazines like Prospect and Saya.
An issue of student publication Saya (April 1978) with Angeline’s poems featured on the front page. Photo courtesy of Angeline Yap
“Then I got a bit braver and started submitting to publications like New Direction and Singa,” said Angeline. “There were readings as well, and that’s how the poems ended up in collections, and even in choirs. One thing leads to another, to another, to another…”
Today, Angeline is the author of Collected Poems (1985) and Closing My Eyes to Listen (2011). She also teaches the course, Legal Analysis, Research and Communication, at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Faculty of Law. A wife and a mother of three, Angeline admitted that it is a struggle to find time to sit down and fully commit to writing poetry the way she used to as a student.
Angeline’s two published bodies of work, Collected Poems and Closing My Eyes to Listen. Photo by Chan Kar Leng
“If you try practising law, running a home and raising a family, all at the same time, I don’t think it’s rocket science to see that there isn’t a lot of extra time after that,” Angeline laughed. “One of my ex-students commented and said, ‘Write during lunchtime!’ And that’s what I ended up doing – writing during the cracks and crevices of the day.”
Angeline credited her continuous involvement in the poetry scene in Singapore to two things: the internet and the Creative Arts Programme (CAP), which is an initiative jointly organised by the Ministry of Education’s Gifted Education Branch and the NUS Department of English Language and Literature to nurture talented young writers.
While the internet allowed her to be in touch with other writers and editors, the CAP opened up another aspect of the poetry world: mentoring, and going out to schools to help in any way that she could, whether it was to give a talk, read her own poetry or judge a competition.
Angeline reading with Pooja Nansi at the 2011 Singapore Writers’ Festival. Photo courtesy of Angeline Yap
Commenting on the development of the poetry scene in Singapore since the early ’70s, she shared that a lot of the works put out by poets then were written in response to a desire to create “Singaporean poetry”. Hence a lot of the poems churned out were about being Singaporean, and what it meant to be one.
In a 2002 commentary on poetry in Singapore published in Fulcrum, an annual international literary and philosophical journal, Angeline remarked: “Singaporean poets use the events and images of their everyday lives as grist for the writing mill. They are acting, reacting, interacting.”
It is a culture, or perhaps a pattern, that Angeline has observed of fellow Singaporean poets, and which she subscribes to as well. She shared that local poetry has progressed to cover the diverse subjects – from parenting, to hurried supermarket shopping, to customs and traditions.
“I still write social poems, but they’re not necessarily Singaporean, or overtly nationalistic Singaporean poems. But they are about my country, and my people, nevertheless,” said Angeline. Giving an example, she continued, “Even if I’m writing about a man who goes to McDonald’s, repeatedly day after day – you see him arriving at McDonald’s at the same time, in his work clothes, getting a coffee and sitting down to read his paper. Some days, you see him just frantically working away at his laptop. And every day he’s turning up and he’s dressed for work, but it’s 10 o’clock and he’s at McDonald’s. What’s happening?”
“Now, I’ve written that poem, and it’s about unemployment, and what people do in response to unemployment,” explained Angeline. “But that’s still about my country and my people, even though you wouldn’t find the word ‘Singapore’ in there.”
As Angeline continues her journey with poetry, she expressed hope to put out another book of poems, but stressed that there is always the challenge of finding time, the obstacle between her and her next publication.
“But, you know, life is the inspiration that gives you the material to write about,” Angeline said, torn at the thought of being busy with life, and being unable to progress with her next collection of poems. But as they say, life always finds a way, and so will opportunity.
Written by: FJ Sai
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