After a landslide victory in Myanmar’s national elections last year, Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy came to power this February. Among those who took their seats in parliament were eleven poets, many of whom were active during the democracy protests of 1988 and are former political prisoners. Myanmar’s new president is the son of the renowned poet Min Thu Wun. And in a highly publicized trial this year, Maung Saungkha was arrested for defaming the former president in his verses. Circles of poets in traditionalist Mandalay, socialist-realist Pyinmana, cosmopolitan Yangon and elsewhere are debating what it means to write poetry in a time of transition from dictatorship to democracy. Under a state that has abolished censorship, what is the function of a dissident? When the opposition of many years, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has finally become the ruling power, who forms the new civil society?
Recorded in April at a dinner gathering in the apartment of Point editor Rachel Wong, what follows is a conversation with four writers, publishers and translators from Yangon. Also present were American journalist Maddy Crowell and Point founding editor Jon Baskin.
Zeyar Linn is a poet and critic, best known for promoting postmodern and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry in Myanmar. He edits the quarterly Poetry World and contributed to Bones Will Crow, the first English- language anthology of Burmese poetry.
Moe Way co-founded The Eras publishing house and was a finalist for the International Publishers Association’s 2016 Prix Voltaire.
Maung Day co-founded the Beyond Pressure International Performance Art Festival and works in sustainable development. He has translated Charles Bernstein, Václav Havel and Kobayashi Issa, among others, into Burmese.
Thurein Linn teaches at the Myanmar Institute of Theology. Among his translations are works by Charles Simic, Octavio Paz and Frank O’Hara.
Rachel Wong: How would you say your politics relate to your poetry, and vice versa?
Zeyar Lynn: Unlike prose, poetry gives the reader moral strength and makes her believe in a better future. That’s how poets have helped strengthen the people’s resolve against the military regime. In much of Burmese poetry, the content goes straight to political themes. Aesthetic language is merely the vessel.
Take Dagon Taryar, for example, the Ezra Pound of Myanmar. In the 1950s, he founded the New Writing movement, which was the beginning of Burmese leftist poetry and continues to this day. He was influenced by Georg Lukács and Bertolt Brecht, as well as by Soviet writers. What he espoused were the twin prongs of ideology and art, which must always move together. Every poem must be checked according to its ideological content and how it is aesthetically crafted. So in that tradition, poetry is very political. It is almost like any self-respecting poet must have a political consciousness, if not an overt commitment to activism. But I think that poetry and social movements have different goals.
Maung Day: Young poets in our generation are leaning towards more contemporary themes, which are not as black and white. Even the decision to write experimental poetry today, though, is a political decision. The government promotes traditional forms of poetry but not modern ones. When people think of political poetry, they tend to think of heroism, representation, race and nationality. But not getting published, or getting ignored by the establishment, is another form of politics and requires its own persistence. We do not just want to make people read, we want to make them think and get them involved in the interpretive process.
Zeyar Lynn: The current Burmese president is the son of a poet. His father, Min Thu Wun, founded the first Burmese poetry movement of the twentieth century. He was educated at Oxford, at the same time that T. S. Eliot was publishing. But instead of bringing back Eliot, he brought back Robert Browning and those Victorians. He brought back the wrong people. (Laughs.) And then all of Myanmar poetry went on with the wrong people.
Jon Baskin: So did the president have a poetic education?
Thurein Linn: He has degrees in economics and computer science.
Jon: So he didn’t inherit…
Zeyar Lynn: There is always a gene jump. The grandson will get the poetic sensibilities. Our president doesn’t have a child. So maybe it’s gone.
Jon: The poetry has disappeared into politics.
Maung Day: Would you make a poet a president?
Jon: No, I don’t think a poet should be president.
Zeyar Lynn: According to Plato…
Jon: It’s nice to have a president with some poetic ability, but he will use it for a political purpose. Poets usually can’t even manage their own families.
Maung Day: In America, poets can write anything, right? Say a poem can start a situation and it shakes the government. Do you think it’s a good thing?
Jon: Philip Roth said he envied Eastern European writers during the Cold War because the government was always attacking them and that showed how threatening they were. Was there anything like the Eastern European dissident-poet phenomenon in Myanmar during military rule?
Zeyar Lynn: We’ve never had this kind of experience. Poets were never raised to the level of demigods like Soviet poets were. Khit Por, the most dominant opposition poetry movement in Myanmar, started around 1975. Up to now, the government has never accepted it as real poetry. They have ignored it. The national poetry award excludes “modern poetry,” even though this style of poetry has already been around for three decades.
Maung Day: Khit Por poets are devoted to Aung San Suu Kyi. Now that she is in power, it will be interesting to see how they continue their work.
Zeyar Lynn: They are not the opposition anymore. What are they going to write about, now that they’ve succeeded? Their desire for a true people’s republic has come into being, so who’s going to be the enemy?
Maddy Crowell: Does poetry need an enemy?
Zeyar Lynn: Khit Por poetry is heavy. The persona of the poem is always a victim. The “I” in the poem represents the people.
Maung Day: I associate their work with fantasy and romanticism. For that to work, you need something to be depressed about, to be narcissistic about. When they talk about their poetry, they need to talk about oppression. They need the government.
Maddy: Who is the audience for your own work?
Zeyar Lynn: Our generation wants more art and less politics. We often talk about the two Ps: politics and poetry. Which one will you write as a capital, which one as a small letter? For us, the capital letter is poetry. It doesn’t mean we are against politics, because that’s simply impossible—even the air we breathe is political. But what we want to focus on is the poetic nature of a given work of art. The problem is that people are so used to going straight for the content and getting the message out of a poem. When we use aesthetic devices, they find it difficult. They say this is difficult poetry, it’s not for the masses. But I say poetry is never for the masses. There is, of course, message-oriented, revolutionary, black-and-white poetry: “The government is bad, the people are good.” But that’s not poetry.
Maung Day: This is why I am drawn to American poets. I wanted something fresh that transcended this rigid way of political thinking. Language poets like Charles Bernstein have done a great job pulling apart these discourses and bringing in new theory. I like to describe my poetry as associative, bizarre, experimental, rich in imagery and playful. I pay attention to each line, rather than to stanzas or even the poem as a whole.
Jon: There are also American poets who have aspired to write for the masses, though. Walt Whitman, for example.
Maung Day: It is true that Whitman wrote in a very traditional way—he is musical, political and easy to read. But John Ashbery said he was influenced by him. Whitman, to me, is complex, his way of dealing with “I” and the ego. Maybe there are different ways of reading him.
Rachel: Last fall, the Burmese poet Maung Saungkha was arrested for publishing a poem about having a tattoo of the president on his penis. Although he didn’t mention names, readers knew that it was a veiled jab at the former president Thein Sein. That made him one of the first political activists to be charged for defamation since February, when Aung San Suu Kyi came to power. What do you make of his arrest?
Zeyar Lynn: When this happened I asked a friend what he would do if someone wrote a similar poem, except instead of the president, he tattooed Daw Suu [Aung San Suu Kyi] onto his organ. My friend said he would kill whoever wrote such a thing. So this is as much about social norms as it is about censorship. We know that Thein Sein was a puppet for the regime, but we have such complete trust in Daw Suu. Any poet who defames her would not be in jail, he would be dead.
Moe Way: After the censorship laws were abolished in 2012, I published a poem about taking the president on a bus ride. In it, the president witnesses all the things that are wrong with Yangon. The seats on the buses are falling off, the streets are unsafe. The president makes promises to make things better, but by the time he gets off the bus, he has forgotten everything. At the time I knew that Thein Sein was a figurehead, but others were excited about his election. I wanted to mock him and reveal the truth behind mainstream politics.
Rachel: Would you take Aung San Suu Kyi on the bus?
Moe Way: Of course I would.
Zeyar Lynn: But it’s not the same. It’s one thing to take Thein Sein on the bus—it forces him to open his eyes to the everyday life of Burmese people. It’s another thing entirely to take somebody we respect, honor and love like Daw Suu. Burmese people love her so much that they would want to protect her from the experience of a bus ride. People wouldn’t understand the point of a poem like that.
Maddy: Are poems censored in any way today?
Moe Way: Censorship was abolished in 2012.
Maung Day: The Ma Ba Tha [a radical nationalist Buddhist group] is active, though. You can’t criticize Buddhism. They won’t censor your book, they will just come and kill you. What would you do against a hundred monks?
Jon: The monks will kill you?
Maung Day: Yes, they kill people. They are pseudo-monks. Muslim shops are regularly raided because young people are organizing on the streets. But Burmese Buddhists have also criticized the violence. There’s a dialogue going on.
Zeyar Lynn: Our venerable abbots are against them. These so-called monks are part of a faction nurtured by the military regime. The leader of this faction, U Wirathu, is a former political prisoner. They have appropriated the slogan that university students used in the 1920s to rally for independence: race (or amyotha), language (or batha) and religion (or thadana). Amyotha, batha, thadana together make up the name Ma Ba Tha. This was once used as a galvanizing force against colonialism, but now it’s being used against the people. If you are against them, you are against your race, your religion and your language. So you automatically become an enemy of your roots.
Rachel: How did you deal with censors before the law was repealed?
Zeyar Lynn: Censors were always my first audience. But they were like the authorities at Auschwitz who turned people into statistics. They were so hardened that if you killed their kids, they would say, “If the state condones it, I accept.” At the same time, it is interesting to think about how censors lived. They spent their days with their books in beer stations, drinking and reading all day. They were the real political poets. If they wanted, they could have written better poetry than we could.
Maung Day: Modernist poets from the generation before us got around the censors with ingenious metaphors. So the censors came up with a long list of prohibited words: “star,” “red,” “dawn,” “sun,” even the word “she” [which could refer to Aung San Suu Kyi]. When we organized a performance art festival in 2008, the censors refused. “We’ve never heard of performance art,” they said. “So how can we censor it?” After some persuasion, six censors agreed to visit our studio, where one by one, our artists pitched them their ideas. One performance involved waving balloons and bursting them. The censors asked, “What color are the balloons?” “Various colors,” we said. “Don’t use red,” they said. “And don’t burst them. That’s anger, so we don’t want it.” I wish I had videotaped the entire exchange. It was unreal.
Rachel: Now that there are no censors, what about self-censorship?
Zeyar Lynn: Regardless of where you are, self-censorship is always about the intermingling of language, cognitive science and sociology. It’s about Freud and Jung.
Maung Day: Social norms are important, too. I know that I have crazy dreams—inappropriate, taboo dreams that would scandalize society if I shared them. But as poets, we are choosing at every moment to write this and not this, to publish this and not this, to write one poem and not another. So I think it’s about finding the wholeness of the message, allowing the details to interconnect, and then asking: “What am I trying to do here?” That’s why it’s so difficult.
* This discussion has been condensed and edited.
Art credit: Eddy Milfort (CC BY/Flickr)