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Bones Will Crow: 'A Tour of Firsts'

Posted by James Byrne, 6th December 2012

In Newcastle
In Newcastle

James Byrne, one of the co-editors of Bones Will Crow, reflects on the recent tour...

"The tour of Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets was an incredible experience for all involved, myself included, and I know poets that are still facebooking about it from London to Yangon. I'd contend that the fact these events occurred at all disproves Auden's humbuggish idea that 'poetry makes nothing happen'. This was the first ever tour of poets from Burma to promote the first ever anthology of Burmese poetry published in the West. For me, poetry is always an active thing and - even in the 21st Century - it can be still be pioneering. As Khin Aung Aye pointed out after our opening event at SOAS 'this tour is a tour of firsts'.

The tour began and ended in London, with terrific events at SOAS and the Free Word Centre set a week apart. In between there are so many good memories which I am still trying to parcel out in my brain. But I would like to draw your attention to two events in Edinburgh, one with the Scottish Poetry Library and the other an intimate setting above the Edinburgh Writers' Museum, to a selection of PEN members. Before the SPL event we'd driven up from Newcastle where leading Burmese female poet Eaindra, having never experienced the cold snap of Europe, was beginning to get a little poorly in the car (strangely my attempts to blast some new breakbeats from Mali didn't seem to help!). By the time we got to the outskirts of the city she was suffering all the more. As it transpired, after physically being sick Eaindra gave one of the most outstanding readings that I have ever seen, beginning with her trademark poem about oppressed barwoman 'Lily' and concluding with 'The Day (Before that Day)', a clearly painful love poem for Eaindra to recite, which she did bravely, right through to the astonishing final stanza as tears streamed down her face:

The day before that day
I poisoned the arrowhead
That would shoot me down.

(Ruth Padel read Lily with Eaindra at the SOAS event, recorded here)

The next morning at The Writers' Museum, all three poets read a selection of their own poetry finishing with one piece from another poet in Bones Will Crow. Khin Aung Aye read 'Shall I Plunge into a Big Bummer' by Maung Pyiyt Min. This is an elegy for Maung Chaw Nwe, arguably the most loved and celebrated poet in Burma for decades. Maung Chaw Nwe lived an itinerant life, frequently in poverty, before dying prematurely in 2002. Khin Aung Aye's own poetics are influenced by his friend and 'Seya' and he was one of the poets who was with him around the time he passed away. Ko Pyiyt Min's poem, which is set inside the hospital room of Maung Chaw Nwe could have been written by Khin Aung Aye himself. Again there were tears during the delivery of this poem - not just from Khin Aung Aye, I noticed people in the audience too were wiping at their eyes.

But, I should reassure you, not all the readings ended in tears! Laughter was a daily (often minute-by-minute!) experience. New friendships were built between our poets, their English counterparts and the wider audience, many of whom I'm sure didn't know what to expect from hearing Burmese poetry. Also, important friendships were resumed between all three poets, who consider themselves to be part of a wider 'family' of Burmese poets, those who have collectively struggled and fought for free expression for fifty years since Ne Win's brutal takeover. As members of this family the Burmese community came out in full force. I can only imagine what this must have been like for them to meet poets like Thitsar Ni, having read him whilst in exile, via materials smuggled out of a country under the watchtower of military censorship. During variously pertinent discussions, the poets and myself helped to explain how quickly Burma is changing and warn of the hugely significant political, educational, social and economic challenges that remain.

Crucially, through the expression of all three poets - who are consistently modern and innovative (they had to be to avoid the censorship board) - it appeared Western audiences might have grasped something vital and new about the longstanding cultural importance of Burmese literature. While Burma has been on media agendas for some time now - quite rightly from a human rights perspective - the importance of its national literature has been largely ignored. Perhaps the tour has planted an important seed in this respect. The British, so long the colonial gatekeepers of Burma, might finally be able to understand the country they handed over that led to militaristic terror. Again Mr Auden... plenty happening here because of poetry!

There are many I'd like to thank. But to avoid going on too long, I'll acknowledge just a few. Firstly I thank ko ko thett for working with me on Bones all these years. All anthologies are never straightforward and the groundwork to this project meant for no exception, it being the prototype for Burmese poetry in translation and with few texts already suitably translated. We put everything we could into the translational and editorial work behind this anthology and ko ko translated something like half the canon of modern Burmese poetry, with me checking the English over his shoulder. Unfortunately ko ko couldn't be with us on tour because of teaching commitments, so it was fitting to read his poem, 'the burden of being bama', at our final event at the Free Word Centre in London (and what a finale that night was!)

Thanks also to Sarah Hymas at Arc who, as ever, was a real pleasure to work alongside. Along with Tony Ward and Angela Jarman, Sarah put a lot of time and effort into this anthology. It was she who finally ensured the poets would all be here, then subsequently had enough drive to get behind the wheel of the proverbial bus! As for the anthology itself, Arc should be credited for being one of the few publishers in England who would even turn their heads towards a publication of such local and international significance. I'm very grateful to them in helping to get the anthology over the line, coincidentally at such a delicately precipiced moment for the Burmese themselves.

Finally I thank the poets, all of those in the anthology, but in respect of the tour the three that were able to join us. Six years ago, slowly beginning to get a foothold on Burmese poetry, I could never have even considered that I'd be eating haggis, neeps and tatties with Khin Aung Aye below the castle slopes of Edinburgh, shopping for jewelry with Eaindra in the malls of Newcastle and catching Thitsar Ni strut through Bloomsbury looking like Asia's don of hip-hop! Yes, I have come to know the quality of your poems, which I treasure and continue to learn from, but the readings you gave to this tour were some of the most powerful I have ever witnessed from any poet, in any language. We must do it again sometime..."