Epigram Books Blog
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.
It’s time for another instalment of A Day in the Life! Read on to find out from Michelle about marketing efforts and events at Epigram Books.
It’s been six months since I joined the publishing industry as an Editorial and Marketing Assistant for Epigram Books. To date, I’ve worked on or organised seven book events, emceed at four of these events and performed spoken word with a jazz band at our very own ‘Evening of Poetry and Music’ to celebrate the Singapore Pioneer Poets Series featuring the best of Edwin Thumboo, Robert Yeo and Kirpal Singh.
At last count, together with my manager Felicia I’ve launched, promoted and written to the press about our first graphic novels, three children’s titles, two food titles, one photography title, one travel book and one literary non-fiction collection. That’s a total of 29 books I’ve worked to promote in the last six months. Phew. On average that would make about four books a month but in reality, our publishing schedule does not work according to an average each month. Oh, and I’ve also co-produced three book videos to date with Meteor Workshop for our books. That was just too much fun to be called work.
Coming from a background of teaching drama, arts administration and a short stint in journalism and copywriting, a mid-career switch to publishing was a surprise just out-of-the-blue for me. I had just reconnected with my childhood love for comics and graphic novels having discovered Koh Hong Teng and Dave Chua’s Gone Case as well as Sonny Liew’s works. When a school friend with an illustrious career in the books industry called me about a part-time position in the publishing house she had moved to, something in me jumped. Before I knew it, I was tearing joyfully telling my soon-to-be employer why comics trump films any day. Before I knew it, I had my foot in the door of the enigmatic business of publishing. Before I knew it, I was hosting events I organised for books such as the never-before-published Mimi Fan, Singapore’s first English language play by a local, penned in 1962. I had come full circle from treading the hallowed boards as an actor since school days, to teaching students drama, to marketing plays and encouraging people to read Singapore literature and to buy books written by Singaporeans.
Actress Karen Tan, who once played Mimi Fan, at our event
Watching Karen Tan, who played Mimi Fan in a 1990 TheatreWorks production, tearfully express love to the late playwright Lim Chor Pee in the company of his family and friends meant something to me. I felt the same kind of gratitude as she did to him, as someone who also fell in love with the theatre and who never got over it. So did interviewing my local comic artist idols Koh Hong Teng and Sonny Liew who had been supporting me even before I joined Epigram Books at my jazz gigs at The Old Brown Shoe. Still, the most nerve-wracking experience I’ve had to go through apart from speaking in front of the likes of Singapore’s Ambassador-at-large Chan Heng Chee, was performing selected poetry by the likes of Edwin Thumboo, Kirpal Singh and Robert Yeo. It was a great honour to be trusted to present their works musically with my chosen genre of jazz and I will always be deeply humbled by the experience. If you’d like to see it, here is a preview on Epigram Books’ very own YouTube channel.
My best friend recently said to me, “I always see you posting about your work and photos of your events, glam glam all lah…” I related to him the analogy of the pretty-looking Mandarin ducks swimming on the lakes – elegant and calm above water, frenetic paddling below water. If you can see me as a Mandarin duck, that just about sums up this six-month-long Day in the Life of Michelle. This explains too why my blog post reads more like a retrospective than a Day in the Life account. It was six months in the making (or rather writing) as I just could not have written it until today.
For a taste of what the journey has been like for me this past year at Epigram Books, this is what it looks like above the water at least, in the public eye. Watch out for more Epigram Books titles and book events in 2012 and 2013!
With Denise Fletcher, author of Mum's Not Cooking: Favourite Singaporean Recipes for the Near Clueless or Plain Lazy, after a successful event!
We’ve been bringing our readers A Day in the Life of Epigram Books staffers for a while now, so we thought it might be a nice change to give our readers an insight into the minds of our authors!
First up, the brilliant and gentlemanly Robert Yeo, prolific poet and author. A welcome and familiar sight in the office, Mr Yeo has published The Adventures of Holden Heng and The Best of Robert Yeo with Epigram Books.
Without further ado, a very quick Q & A with Robert Yeo on our favourite topic, books!
“His poems are personal poems, reflections on observed reality. They chronicle the developments of an individual consciousness while at the same time they chronicle the developments of Singapore. The parallelism of the poet and the city is unforced but recurrent.”
–– Michael Wilding, novelist and Emeritus Professor of English and Australian Literature, University of Sydney.
What was your favourite book growing up?
There were too many, but if I have to give a favourite, it is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, read when I was probably an adolescent of 14 to 15 years old. I must have been precocious!
What books are currently on your “to-read” list?
What Maisie Knew by Henry James, Confucius by Meher McArthur, Shame by Salman Rushdie, July’s People by Nadine Gordimer.
Who are your top five authors?
Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Michael Wilding (an Australian writer), Ernest Hemingway and Arthur Yap.
Have you ever bought a book just because you thought the cover was beautiful?
If you could pick one book to recommend, which book would it be?
The Analects by Confucius.
Is there a book that changed your life?
What is your favourite line from a book?
The first line from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
What book would you want to read again for the first time?
A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
What book or book character would you want to be real?
Rejoice! It's the latest of instalment of A Day In The Life. Sok Wan talks about her life of Editing and spills the beans on our top-secret upcoming launches.
One of the perks of my job is that I often get to meet and work with some very interesting people, with fascinating stories and backgrounds. Tomorrow I will be meeting Ernest Goh, the photographer behind The Fish Book, to discuss on future marketing plans for the book, and he will also be showing us samples shots from his new project! His photographs have never failed to amuse and amaze me and I very much look forward to seeing what he’s been up to after wrapping up The Fish Book. (Felicia and I couldn’t help bursting out in laughter when Edmund shared with us the subject for this new project. It’s unheard of and Edmund even came up with a hilarious title for the project. I’d love to share, but I have to keep mum for now to protect Ernest’s interest!) Later this week, I’ll be meeting a famous local comic artist to discuss on publishing his comics, and also a local celebrity chef to have a follow-up meeting on publishing his cookbook. Plus many more meetings with poets, artists, photographers and chefs in the following weeks.
Besides these prospective projects, here’re the statuses of the ongoing projects I’ve been working on for the week…
1.Uncle Lau’s Teochew Recipes by Lau Chiap Khai and Lau Lee Leng.
This book was supposed to go to print like…two weeks ago? But that didn’t happen because we had to make some last minute changes to the illustrations. Last week, Lee Leng requested that we use illustrations done by her late husband (renowned local architect Mr Jack Tan). It’s quite problematic as our publication deadline will need to be pushed back for at least a month and our ongoing promotion and publicity plans halted. However, after seeing the illustrations, I believe the delay will be well worth it. Mr Jack Tan’s food illustrations––stunningly intricate and lovely––are perfect accompaniment to the delicate and refreshing Teochew recipes in the book! But don’t take my word for it, grab a copy of the book when we launch it late April and see for yourself!
This landmark poetry series will showcase the best works by Singapore’s Pioneer Poets. To ensure that the poems included in the collection are indeed the ‘best of’ their works, the poets have been working hard, and I have been working closely with them to re-re-re-revise their selection. Mr Robert Yeo dropped by in the afternoon to pass me his revised poetry selection, which was all hand-written. I spend about an hour typing it out, but, I quote my managing editor, “For you, Robert, anything!” (see A Day In the Life Of: Ruth) But, seriously, Mr Yeo is a very nice person to work with and I’m really grateful that he has been dutifully keeping to the timeline of the project. And today, I finally manage to confirm a date for the book launch event! Given the busy schedules of the poets, finding a suitable date for the launch is no easy task—it took about 20 emails back and forth and frantic flipping of the calendar to confirm a date that is three months in advance! Yes, the series will be launched in July!
3. Graphic novel series (or comics series, but calling it graphic novels does make it sound more ‘atas’ and serious, because we are a serious publisher!)––Epigram Books’ new imprint!!
I’m real excited and looking forward to this project. Who knows? This could just be Singapore’s first successful graphic novel series that breaks into the international market! We have big plans to sell rights of the series to the US where the comics industry is burgeoning. Details of the graphic novels or identities of the comic artists that we are working with will be announced via our blog and Facebook. So hurry and ‘Like’ our Facebook page right now! And stay tuned!
What is it really like to work at Epigram Books? How is a manuscript or an idea scribbled on an NTUC receipt turned into a finished book that you hold in your hands?
Now, with our new series A Day In the Life, you can find out! First off is our managing editor Ruth, who recaps a typical day. We hope you enjoy this glimpse into the wild, weary and wonderful reality of literary publishing.
I fumble for keys as I walk towards the locked doors of the office. First to arrive. Again. Have just dropped my son off at his primary school––school starts way too early, and I’ve nothing to do after bidding him goodbye, so that’s why I’m always the first one in. After staring at my computer for a while, I begin work.
First task of the day: sieve through the 100 emails I have received. Indian company advertising its book cover design services. Hotel in Frankfurt advertising cheap hotel rates. “Book now for the Frankfurt Book Fair in October (or risk disappointment!)”. I also get other emails: a potential author griping the advanced royalties we offered him is way too low (“how to feed family?”), a colleague who sends a funny quote she read on how to write well, and another cold call from a wannabe writer with a tome of a manuscript for me to assess. I make hot tea while contemplating the trajectory of my day. Oooom.
Ding, dong! We receive a surprise visit from Robert Yeo! How I love that man––such an easy person to work with, always a gentleman, so dapper. We republished his book The Adventures of Holden Heng last year. Robert is stopping in to drop off his introduction to a play we’re hoping to publish in April––Mimi Fan by Lim Chor Pee. I look at the introduction––it is handwritten! How cool is that! I spend the next hour typing it out. For you, Robert, anything!
After sending off the introduction to my intrepid designer, Boon, for layout, I buckle down to look at the emails that really matter. Imaginary Friends Studios has just sent in the draft illustrations for the new Archibald book, out in May. Eeks! Why does Archibald look like a Japanese manga character? It’s ok, it’s ok––still early days, and I’m very confident they’ll get it right because Darren Tan of IFS is DA BOMB.
Have a quick discussion with Stefany regarding the draft cover. We also spend time choosing eight portions of the book to illustrate––these will be spot illustrations, more like sketches. Should we illustrate the twist at the end of the book? Hmm. Would it give the story away if someone accidentally flips to that picture at the end? Double hmm. Should we illustrate the evil villain? Hmm. Hmm. Hmm. Or leave it to the readers’ imagination? Got budget? What is best for reader? Decisions, decisions, decisions. And oh yes, Stef and I both agree this Archibald book is even better than the first one. Go SherMay!
Hunger check. Do I want to snag a biscuit from the pantry…or work?
Think I’ll continue working while I figure out the answer.
Receive an email from Lim Chor Pee’s family. They are the ones signing contract with us as Lim Chor Pee has passed away. The daughter, Claudine, explains she is from a family of lawyers. I understand the reason for her explanation as I read her email––she is requesting to include, among other things, the following clause in our contract:
The illegality, invalidity or unenforceability of any provision of this Agreement shall not affect the legality, validity or enforceability of any other provision of this Agreement.
Wha wha what?
I call Claudine and she is extremely friendly and approachable. In essence, the terms and terminology and phrasing and phraseability of the aforementioned contractual agreeity are rectified, clarified and demystified in, but not in exclusivity of, and not limited to but in consideration of the following ways: colloquial banter, jokes, plainspeak and much humour and discreet laughing. In short, we sorted it out!
Contract settled (I think! I hope!). It’s time to…call some celebrities! Yes, celebrities! Wait, let me check my breath. My nail polish. My hair. JUST kidding. First on the list: Woffles Wu. Yes, we are doing a book project with Woffles and he is lovely to talk to over the phone. Next I call Mr Brown. I hope to convince him to do a book project with us. I call, and call, and call. Then email. He replies to email, “Ah, that was you? Sorry, having flu.” I tell him I will call him later. It’s off to lunch then. Lunch is porridge, colleagues, talk of board games, Munchkin, Ticket to Ride, Hwa Chong students, doing wushu as CCA and studying in America.
Start chatting with Felicia, our marketing manager about marketing ideas for our Gurkha Book and our Teochew Recipes Book. Unlike our fiction titles, these non-fiction titles rarely receive sponsorship or grants. =( How do we ensure they make money for us? How do we ensure people buy our beautifully-designed cookbooks and photo books? We think of a few ideas which Feli will follow up on. Suddenly, I get a call from SherMay––she was supposed to drop by to discuss marketing for Archibald. “Sorry, Ruth, I have flu. On the way to doctor’s. Postpone to next week?” Is there a flu epidemic today? Hee. No matter, I start to type out my discussion points with her over email, since our meeting has been postponed. Don’t want to lose a week because of flu!
Off to a meeting with Edmund which will take the whole day. But before that, I note down my key tasks for tomorrow: a) Proofread Mimi Fan in layout b) Call Mr Brown c) Send new short story to Dr Howard Goldblatt who is helping us translate some Cultural Medallion Chinese novels, including You Jin’s, for publication in October this year c) Chase Tan Tarn How for the revised manuscript of Fear of Writing (yes we’re hoping to publish that in Apr!) and d) Send email IFS to discuss our comments for the book cover (make Archibald less manga!) and spot illustrations.
I switch off my computer, grab my bag and speed off behind Edmund while he harrumphs and harranghs about our celebrity book project, his latest culinary find ODP and how we should rename a poetry book we’re putting out soon. That’s all, in the day of a life of an Editor, for you!
If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about Singapore’s literary heritage, this is the event for you! The Singapore Classics book launch is part of the featured Singapore Writers Festival event, “Revisiting Singapore’s Literary Heritage”. This talk features Dr Philip Holden as moderator and distinguished guests, Robert Yeo and Andrew Koh. They will be discussing all five books in the SG Classics series among other topics.
Date: Saturday, 29th October 2011
Time: 1.30 to 3pm (Book sale & signing from 1.30pm, talk from 2pm)
Venue: The Salon, 1st floor, National Museum of Singapore, 93 Stamford Road Singapore 178897
RSVP: An informal RSVP is requested to email@example.com.
As this is a featured event of SWF, a Festival Pass ($15) must be purchased via SISTIC or at the Festival Pavilion to attend.
During the event, you’ll also get a chance to take home these iconic novels. Books and limited edition book sets will be sold at the special launch prices of $16 and $78 respectively.
Only 200 box sets total are available for sale (100 sets at the special launch price) and they are individually numbered. To order your box set for pick up at the book launch, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Box sets are also available in major bookstores for $79.90 each. As you can see from the photos below, the set will make a dashing addition to any library.