With Yangon’s first literary festival still fresh in our collective minds and the press censorship board officially disbanded at the end of January, it seems like as good a time as any to examine the changing face of poetry in Myanmar, which several writers say is taking a turn toward the international and the avant-garde.
“Poetry in Myanmar is very much alive,” said U Zeyar Lynn, a poet and translator based in Yangon.
“In the past 20 years or so, we only had two kind of poems: the traditional kind and the modern kind. Now we have a lot poems written in new styles and new forms. ... We have prose poems, conceptual; our current poetry scene is very vibrant and diverse.”
U Zeyar Lynn is well known in Myanmar’s poetry circles for proselytising in support of these more experimental forms of poetry, through his work as both a poet and a translator. In addition to his half-dozen books of poetry, he has translated the work of Western authors such as Sylvia Plath, Donald Justice and Charles Bernstein.
Fellow poet Ko Ko Thett described U Zeyar Lynn as “a master of the doggerel”, which the dictionary defines as “a comic verse composed at an irregular rhythm”.
Speaking to The Myanmar Times at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival at the beginning of this month, U Zeyar Lynn said experimental poetry was the best way to entice new readers who might be wary of poetry.
“Poetry is always a limited art, compared to movies or music. Not everyone likes poetry, especially when they read [traditional] poems that are difficult to understand, but I think young people are the most interested in poetry,” he said.
Ko Ko Thett, who last year co-edited an anthology of Myanmar poetry translated into English titled Bones Will Crow and Other Works, agreed with U Zeyar Lynn’s assessment.
Recalling his own introduction to poetry in the early 1980s, he said: “We only learned poetry that supported quasi-socialist propaganda.” He added that it was rare to read a poem that was not about General Aung San or some tale of fine socialist youth.
As with so many Myanmar thinkers, 1988 was a pivotal year for Ko Ko Thett: “In the university I really learned the freedom of poetry. ... On campus we began experimenting with alternative types of poetry, and that’s when I began to find it particularly fascinating.”
Intense censorship compelled him and his friends to conduct their work in secret, but more recently, interest in alternative poetry, especially poetry associated with political activism, has become more pronounced as Myanmar has opened up to the world.
“Things have changed since my campus days. Many aspiring writers are inspired to experiment with new forms of poetics,” he said.
While there are very few contemporary poets who enjoy much in the way of compensation for their work, U Zeyar Lynn and Ko Ko Thett agreed that the problem is especially apparent in Myanmar.
“We have an expression in our language that translates into ‘famous but famished’. That’s what most Burmese poets are,” said Ko Ko Thett.
Both poets also said they saw the literary festival and translated texts such Bones Will Crow as means of boosting the prominence of Myanmar’s poetic community. Speaking at the festival, U Zeyar Lynn repeatedly mentioned his belief in the power of translation to build bridges with the international community and to empower the writers of Myanmar.
“From these other writers, Burmese poets learn that if they are committed to their craft they don’t need to be famous but famished,” Ko Ko Thett said.
U Zeyar Lynn and Ko Ko Thett also emphasised the freedom of poetry, no matter what country it comes from.
This idea is nicely summed up by U Zeyar Lynn in his work “Telephone”: “Poetry is not by the language, not via the language from the language, not with the language without the language. It is written, made, composed, constructed, read and felt in the language. Of course, sometimes it is not.”