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Walking West, Talking East

Posted by Arc, 22nd October 2012

On Wednesday 24 Oct, the Burmese leg of our Ventures Tour kicks off at the London School of Oriental and African Studies with Eaindra, Thitsar Ni and James Byrne (details here). To introduce the tour and some of the issues and problems that our Burmese poets engage with on a daily basis, Eaindra, one of our 15 contemporary Burmese poets in Bones Will Crow, talks to us about her approach to poetry and to the tour.

On the Verge of Bones will Crow UK Book Tour

My opening shot has to be 'kyay zu tin ba de', Burmese for thank you. Before Bones will Crow: Fifteen Contemporary Burmese Poets, contemporary Burmese poems in their English incarnations had not reached the international bookshelves. Burmese-English poetry translation inside Myanmar is usually meant for local readership. As such, I would like to thank Arc Publications for bringing out the first ever anthology of contemporary Burmese poetry in the West, and especially to editors and translators ko ko thett and James Byrne for their tough grind and commitment for the book. In a time when you can find poetries from almost all of Southeast Asian nations, Bones will Crow has opened a new page in the history of Burmese poetry.

The fact that almost every aspect of development in Myanmar has been stagnant as the country has been rolling in the mire of military misrule for decades is no news to the world, nor to us, the Burmese people. Now I can say with pride and proof that, in the creative art of poetry, we are not lagging behind others. There are only fifteen contemporary poets in Bones will Crow. The works of many other heavyweights have yet to be seen. This anthology should be the first in the series on contemporary Burmese poetry. A sequel is justifiably hoped for.

I would like to thank Arc for organizing the UK book tour that will expose us to British poets and to our readers. Senior poet and critic Thitsar Ni and poet Khin Aung Aye are well placed to discuss Burmese poetry with the British audience. As a woman poet, I feel very privileged to represent my generation. I also feel like I have been trusted to bridge between Burmese women poetry and the world. I trust that the Western audience will be interested in hearing Burmese poetry and I am determined to do my best as a cultural link. This book is historic as this is the very first step to opening up the world to Burmese poetry and vice versa.

The effort and dedication of translators need a special mention. Poet and translator ko ko thett has selected and translated no less than 15 poems of mine. After each translation, he got back to me to make sure he nailed my message right in English. In 'Lullaby for a Night', his over-translation "sexy and brassy" pleases me very much. 'Molly Whose Tank has been Emptied' for the literal 'A Fish Whose Tank Has Been Emptied' shows his research into the subject of the poem, as well as his poetic imagination in English. In 'The Day before That Day', however, he went off the rails when he initially translated muso as widow. We have just one word musoma for both widow and huntress in Burmese. In literary translation, therefore, there must be room for overtranslation or undertranslation if that achieves the beauty of both the sense and the sound in the target language. To avoid uncreative misunderstanding, as opposed to 'creative misunderstanding' (Charles Bernstein), it's best translators work together with the poets whenever they can. ko ko thett and James Byrne have done just that.

I will not delve into the contested notion of contemporary Burmese poetry here. One can read in Bones will Crow an introduction on the subject by Myanmar's foremost scholar of contemporary poetics, Zeyar Lynn. On these pages I simply want to tell you about the hardships that Burmese poets have been through in my country. Myanmar is notorious for censorship under the consecutive military juntas. Every piece that wanted to see the light of day in Burmese publications had to go through the scrutiny of the censor board, aka the literary kampetai, named after the much loathed and feared Kampetai, the wartime Japanese military police. Naturally Burmese poets, just like poets in other repressive societies, have had to invent roundabout ways in pieces, reflecting on their contemporary life. "Censorship is the mother of metaphor", as the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges has it. Out of all the Burmese masters of allegorical writings, Hla Than (1963-2011), who truly deserves the title of revolutionary poet, is my favourite.

Many of my poems did not survive the literary kampetai. Some of my poems have appeared in magazines mutilated - some lines have been compromised or simply missing. 'Lilly' and 'Molly whose Tank has been Emptied' had been among those rejected several times by the authorities. There are countless high quality poems by other poets which did not end up in magazines as they were deemed either too intense to the extent of undermining national security or too vague to the extent that you can read it in any way you want. Some new forms are simply forbidden. Now that censorship in Myanmar is set to enter the landfill of history, we should look forward to reading stronger, sharper and more powerful poems as they are meant by their authors. Less restrictions to poetry movements, performances and gatherings mean that Burmese poetry will be reclaiming the place it deserves in the international poetry scene in no time.

Other predicaments for Burmese poets are scarcity of resources, digital and language divides. Foreign books of any literary values, theory or criticism remain hard to come by. We still do not have institutions that specialize in contemporary literary criticism. Contemporary poetry is not part of school curricula. As such we Burmese poets tend to write poems out of the materials we have gathered around our own life. Whoever we came across, read and liked tend to be our influence. Most poets are on the lower side of the digital divide, as only the affluent have internet access at home in Myanmar. There also exists a language divide in Burmese literary world, between those who know English and those who don't. Burmese poets by and large cannot reach out to international literature through the language barrier. Traditionally the poets beneath the language divide have benefited from the translations by 'sayars' such as Maung Tha Noe, Mya Zin, Thitsar Ni and Zeyar Lynn. In short, life in Myanmar remains the main factor that prevents most Burmese poets to stay abreast with the fads and trends of contemporary world literature.

Arguably the language divide has also caused a chasm in Burmese poetry. Naturally the poets who do not read English or those whose styles have been too established to be bothered with outside influences tend to hold onto their own brand of Burmese, pure and untainted. The poets who read English are naturally influenced by emerging poetics in the Anglo-American world, language poetry, conceptual poetry and even 'flarf' of late. Of course there are exceptions. There are poets who read English but who keep on drawing their inspiration from their chest and from dramatic monologues. On the other hand, there are an increasing number of youth poets who have been enchanted by Zeyar Lynn's books on new American poetics and start experimenting in new forms.

What of women poets? Traditions still forbid most Burmese women poets from writing in shockingly confessional fashion as Sylvia Plath did. Ma Ei is an exceptionally fearless poet who does not give a fig to taboos. I myself remain in the habit of weighing up the pen whenever I want to get down to my most personal feelings. In general, poetry by Burmese women poets cannot match that of their male peers when it comes to the dare, sharpness or bluntness, even though no male poet has been able to outdo us in mystique.

Now let's get a little personal. I write poems to express what I see in life and what I feel about life. My poems usually tell a story or give a message. I do enjoy reading experimental poems, but I do not fancy switching to a new style as I would not fancy a foreign dress that I deem too much for my body. Perhaps I am Burmese to the bones. I made my debut in a Burmese magazine in 1996, but ever since I learned to write, the Burmese masters of different schools, from Dagon Taryar and Tin Moe to Aung Cheimt, Ma Ei and Maung Chaw Nwe, to name but a few, have been my influences. I am not what you may call 'a full time poet'. I make a living as a civil engineer in Singapore and I write poems and short stories whenever my life permits me. Writing to me is not a recreational activity but a compulsive disorder.

I have read on several occasions in Myanmar as well as in Singapore. I like it when a poem is read out loud, when a poet pours the content of his or her heart out to the audience. I also enjoy performing my own poems. I am aware that British poetry scene is one of the most vibrant and the British audience one of the most responsive in the world. I can't wait to see you all.

translated from the Burmese by ko ko thett