NYC

2nd May, 2013
Burmese poets Khin Aung Aye and Zeyar Lynn have just arrived at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City for some readings and recordings that will later take them through Chicago and Massachusetts. This is the first tour of Burmese poetry in the USA that I’m aware of and we’re here to launch the US edition of Bones Will Crow1, edited by myself and another poet from Burma, ko ko thett. This publication is the first anthology of Burmese poetry to be published in the West. It is a bilingual edition of 267 pages that considers the complex history of Burmese poetry from the embers of the Second World War to the startling voices of a new generation. I received copies of this book on landing yesterday after it was published by the University of Northern Illinois Press just a week ago (the pages are still warm!). Of course anthologists should not pick favourites but it’s fair to say that Khin Aung Aye and Zeyar Lynn are among the most distinguished Burmese poets writing today. They have two readings in New York—at New York University’s Lilian Vernon House, an immaculately plush brownstone on West 10th Street and the hub of the Creative Writing Program, where I myself studied a few years prior to this visit. Two days later, we will be part of the closing night of this years’ PEN World Voices Festival. Tomorrow morning Zeyar Lynn will lead a translation workshop at NYU, then he and I will record a podcast on the 8th May for the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. While in NYC we will also meet Charles Bernstein and record an audio interview to be published on Jacket 2. The tour is set to finish at the Democracy Center, just off Harvard Square in Cambridge, a week from today. This is, in fact, the first tour of Burmese poetry in the USA and it has involved a year in planning. Both the poets and I have talked for some time now about what they imagine the reaction of US audiences might be to a literature that might be seen to have recovered from its past. To some degree Zeyar Lynn sees the poetry written since the regime appeared to move towards a deomocratic system as a transitional literature. Khin Aung Aye hopes that, after these readings, Burmese poetry will be seen in the USA as a progressive form of literature and not merely a collection of visceral portraits from the historical past. He wants the play, humour, folkloric elements and Buddhistic references embedded within the poetics not to be lost on audiences, who might come with expectations that literature, in a country like this, acts as a kind of lightswitch in the dark. Ultimately, both poets agree with a statement from Moe Way, another prominent poet in Bones Will Crow, who states that: ‘the post-modern condition is not just Western, what’s happening here [in Burma] is also post-modern’. The reaction of audiences on this tour, we sense, will hinge on how deeply these connections are made.

Getting the poets to the USA was unnecessarily stressful, in part because of inevitable processing delays in Yangon and Bangkok. There’s always a barrage of interview questions to face for the travelling poets—a legacy of the Orwellian surveillance that writers from Burma had to endure for decades since the military coup of General Ne Win in 1962. Burma remains a country of total surveillance despite its democratic promises to the West. During the first round of visa interviews, Zeyar Lynn was asked by the American Consulate in Yangon to declare the earnings of his father-in-law, a former government official, with whom he seldom speaks. Khin Aung Aye’s real name (almost every Burmese poet deploys a pen name) is Soe Win, the name of Burmese prime minister in the shady years of the most recent military government led by General Than Shwe. For weeks on end Khin Aung Aye, a gentle but nervous man who is nearing 60, tried to convince the Burmese authorities he was not a crony corpse recovered from the grave!

As if this were not enough, these hurdles—quite ‘normal’ for travelling Burmese writers, or so I’ve realised!—threatened to turn into an obstacle course, because of Thingyan, a weeklong Water Festival in Burma for which the country shuts down. And so, in the event, the poets’ visas were hastily-arranged, only confirmed days before their day-night, multi-airport trips. Despite this both Khin Aung Aye and Zeyar Lynn seem resolutely upbeat when I met them at the airport. They were ready to share their own poems, their considerable ideas on Burmese poetics and, enshrouded within this, social and political dimensions of a country that has been, for half a century, almost completely disconnected from the rest of the world.

I say ‘almost’ because the Burmese, like any oppressed and censored people who wish to expand creatively, have relied on a smuggled cargo of information for years. When it comes to poetry at least, international translation has always played a pivotal role in helping contemporary Burmese poets define their post-modern aesthetic and maintain a creative connection with the outside world. This goes back to the work of ‘Seyar’ (teacher) Maung Tha Noe’s translations of Shelley, Browning, Baudelaire, Eliot, Auden, Neruda, Rimbaud and others under the title of Under the Shady Pine Tree, published in 1968. Maung Tha Noe is in his 80s now but still produces translations of khitpor (modern) poets.  Since the beginning of this century Zeyar Lynn has come to be regarded as the main translator of modern, postmodern and what he calls ‘Language-oriented’ poetries from English into Burmese—he has translated the likes of Sylvia Plath, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and Charles Bernstein into his own language. And of course translation influences his own poetry. Zeyar Lynn is regarded as the leading poet writing in Burma today. In fact, his work as a poet and translator has so many tentacles of influence that it is hard to unravel them all—even the self-styled ‘post-88’ generation, who seek to break with tradition are a testament to Zeyar Lynn being a persistent influence and the catalyst for postmodern Burmese poetry.

The touring poets are old friends and this is something of a reunion for them, having barely seen each other for seven years. They keep in touch via the internet, a communication regularly sabotaged by power cuts in Burma. Khin Aung Aye is two years older than Zeyar Lynn and he stopped writing for almost a decade after leaving Burma in 2005, first living in Singapore and now, for seven years, in Bangkok. He feels he still cannot go back to Burma—although he was never arrested, too many horrors loom in the recent past. From Bangkok the internet helps Khin Aung Aye preserve and develop his ideas of Burmese literature. In 2009, inspired by the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, Khin Aung Aye began a project called the Burmese Poetry Foundation (www.burmesepoetryfoundation.org). The BPF has a strong Facebook presence too and Khin Aung Aye carefully scans modern classics that have fallen out of print—the early works of Aung Chiemt, Thukhamien Hlaing and Maung Chaw Nwe come to mind—then he blogs or PDFs them online. This is an essential resource for diasporic Burmese poets as well as those still living inside the country, that is, if they are fortunate enough to get a decent internet connection.

Khin Aung Aye’s has described translations by Maung Tha Noe, Zeyar Lynn and others as essential to his growth as a poet. He equates this as being able ‘to climb the tree in order to get at the fruit’. However, it should be mentioned that his poems in Bones Will Crow bear wide-ranging (sometimes untranslatable) references, from Mickey Mouse to Karl Marx! Interestingly Marx was translated during British colonial rule by the group called Nagani (or Red Dragon). Khin Aung Aye’s poem ‘Das Kapital’ relies on his early readings of Marx’s classic text whilst attempting to re-articulate Marxism alongside the social oppression of ‘Myanmar’ citizens. We have decided to read ‘Das Kapital’ on Karl Marx’s birthday, which coincides with our NY Public Theater gig. The poem ends:

and if you’re still unsatisfied go dig a tunnel connecting the East and
the West and if you don’t know how to do it if you find it difficult to
do it go and consult the thing called Das Kapital

May 3rd 2013
If we believe the conservatism of Robert Frost then translation is ultimately a process of impossible recoveries (might we just give up and make our lives easier!) This morning Zeyar Lynn and I are blearily headed to NYU to introduce the students to the luxuries that might be inherent in simply accepting and working beyond the ‘impossibility’ of translation.

I ask Zeyar Lynn about what he thinks of Frost’s ideas about poetry being ‘what is lost in translation’ and he re-articulates: ‘poetry is what passes through translation’. And yet, for all this and perhaps because he also has the instincts of a poet, Zeyar Lynn is interested in the logjam and the marginalia of this seemingly straightforward process of ‘passing through’. For example, during our translation workshop, he discusses Bernstein’s poem ‘A Test of Poetry’ with the students. The poet’s point of inspiration for this collaged poem came via several lines in English checked by a Chinese translator who was working on another of Bernstein’s poems. The translator asks ‘What do you mean by rashes of ash?’ … ‘What is nutflack? and so on. This process of enquiry in ‘A Test of Poetry’ inspired Zeyar Lynn to write an entirely synonymical list-poem. Variously in his own work does he face up to the myriadic process of recovery via language. A trained linguist, he looks into the meanings behind language in his poems in a way that is becoming increasingly influential to the evolving idea of a ‘modern’ Burmese poetry. Consider, for example, a few lines from his poem ‘Slide Show’:

By using traditional technology we continue to
produce successful shrimp pastes

                                    Next slide

The body parts of the hostages have to be
matched with their identity cards

                                    Next slide

Of course, Zeyar Lynn’s approach and his points of inspiration, such as via ‘A Test of Poetry’, might not be what the West (or the world at large) might have thought with what Burmese poetry would be synonymous. But what kind of a poetics did the world expect from Burma? Would they find it sorrowing and nostalgic, longing for a better time? There are poems like this from every country aren’t there? Increasingly, at the beginning of the 21st Century and because of the influence of Zeyar Lynn and a handful of others, Burmese poetry started to outwit the censors’ pen via huge leaps of imagination. Early on in the collation for Bones Will Crow, I was surprised at just how inventive the poetry from Burma has been in recent years while, at the same time, the country is so desperately in need of educational reform. I became fascinated at how Burmese poets became more inventive to avoid the militancy of censorship laws. Burma is a country where, until quite recently, you couldn’t use the colour red in a poem because of its communist associations. During Ne Win’s dictatorship allusions to sunset were banned because his name refers to sunset and, so he thought, (completely irrationally of course, but show me a sane dictator!) that such allusions would be willing his own death.

In Bones Will Crow many poems skillfully avoid censorship by offering a compendium of elaborate images. Image-building was pioneered by the likes of khitpor poets Phaw Way and Aung Chiemt during the 1970s and is still very influential today. Aung Cheimt claims to have been greatly inspired by translation in this respect, which justifies Zeyar Lynn’s re-imagining of Frost’s most miserable ideas about the potency of translation, which he adds seem to be saying that, in writing poetry:

We go through a tunnel.
Light explodes at the mouth.
The scenery, more or less
the same … changes’.

May 4th, 2013
A day off after the reading of yesterday at NYU, which was a full house and we celebrated with a curry in Greenwich Village, attended by the poets and my former ‘Seyar’ at NYU, Yusef Komunyakaa. I was delighted that Bones in the USA was first introduced by Yusef, who gave the opening remarks. Like us, he is also involved with the PEN World Voices Festival this year but I avoided talking to Yusef about my disappointment in the festival organisers (nobody likes a complainer!) However, I’d point out here that my despondency with PEN relates to the way the Burmese poets have been treated over many months—a signed letter from Salman Rushdie (great!) but no response to my enquiry about an honorarium until after the festival and, of course there was the visa debacle where weeks of silences passed and the poets were uncertain about whether they were coming or going. Zeyar Lynn runs a school in Yangon which employs nine members of staff. Every student wants a lesson with him and he usually works 360 days a year. During his prolonged visa application Zeyar Lynn almost had to close the school, which is opposite the biggest mosque in Yangon, because of tensions between Muslim and Burmese, tensions stemming back to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Kachin state. Khin Aung Aye lives in a windowless room in Singapore and had to stump up (as yet unpaid) visa fees running into hundreds of dollars. I asked PEN if they were interested in bringing these poets over about a year ago and I knew that they were our best bet for being able to secure flight and accommodation for the poets (I myself have stayed in deepest Queens during our New York trip and the Poetry Foundation kindly secured my flight). Don’t get me wrong; I have a great amount of respect for PEN and the ethos behind this particular festival. Previously I have contributed to their campaigns to release Zarganar and other political prisoners from Burma. Arc Publications UK edition of Bones won a PEN book award which helped myself and the publisher facilitate a tour involving Thitsar Ni, Khin Aung Aye and Eaindra last year. English PEN have been fantastic to work with and yet I suppose in an ideal world I would continue to support PEN from a distance and look elsewhere to arts and literary organisations that might support Burmese poetry. But the problem is that such organisations don’t exist. I approached the SOROS foundation, the Prince Claus Foundation and others and was told that the book didn’t quite conform with the aspirations of their funding projects. How does one go about recovering a literature with relative editorial freedom while conforming, in a sense, to the international narrative that the world has of a country? In the West any arts funding for Burma would generally need to have a strong tie-in with aspects of human rights, censorship and education. But Bones Will Crow is merely a book of poems, not a book of politics. In fact, of the 15 poets in the book, only one experienced prison. Tin Moe was sent to the notorious Insein prison for four years after six months of house arrest without charge. At times, he was given no writing materials. After release and on the brink of re-arrest Tin Moe managed to cross the Burmese border in 1999 using his real name, the one in his passport, rather than his illustrious pen name. His poems written in exile are more direct, typified by his seminal poem ‘Meeting the Buddha’:

The people are paupers now
the monks are beggars now
the scoundrels are monsters
weapons matter most
weapons are paramount
weapons reign supreme—that’s militarism

Many years ago, with curiosity bordering ignorance, I once asked the Burmese artist and former political prisoner Htein Lin about Burmese political poetry. I wondered if there were potential differences in style between poems written in prison and those by poets who hadn’t been imprisoned. At this time I hadn’t been to Burma and seen for myself the legacy of military oppression in every watchful eye along the potted streets of Yangon. Htein Lin declared emphatically that, until recently, ‘all of Burma was a prison’. To their credit, the people at English PEN understood this idea completely and were engaged with the work all the way through our funding bid.

Tomorrow Zeyar Lynn and I head to Chicago to record for the Poetry Foundation. The resulting podcast will, I imagine, connect thousands of listeners to Burmese poetry for the first time. Zeyar Lynn tells me that he will be speaking for the survivors from a brutal regime and for those who did not survive. This is a new and delicately-precipiced era for Burma where the past hovers. Those who emerge do so amid the slow thaw of a country that has been living—according to Maung Yu Py born in 1981 and the youngest  poet published in Bones—‘under the great ice sheet’:

Under the great ice sheet
A great country has been buried alive.
Under the great country
A great church where God no longer shelters.
Under the great church
The great wars, welded to   gether six feet under.
Under the great wars
A great museum of culture, dilapidated and yellowing.
Under the great museum
Banknotes without currency.
Under the banknotes
Slaves with protruding bones and sunken eyes.
Under the slavery
A Stone Age cave sealed by stones.
Under the Stone Age 
Regressive evolution.
Under the evolution
The ocean—the mother of Mother Earth—who died in labour. 
Under the ocean
A great ice sheet, unanticipated. 
Under the great ice sheet …


Translated from the Burmese by ko ko thett & James Byrne

Note: Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets is published by Northern Illinois Press in the USA and Arc Publications in the UK. It is available at: http://www.niupress.niu.edu/niupress/scripts/book/bookResults.asp?ID=682 or  http://www.arcpublications.co.uk/books/ko-ko-thett-and-james-byrne-bones-will-crow-431   

 

End notes

  • 1. Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets, edited and translated by ko ko thett and James Byrne (Arc Publications, UK:2012). http://www.arcpublications.co.uk/books/ko-ko-thett-and-james-byrne-bones-will-crow-431