When I think of Burma, I think of an almost mysterious country that seems to have been lost in time, punctuated occasionally by news of a military junta and its struggle with the iconic Aung Sun Suu Kyi. Yet there is another side to Burma that we do not realise, one that is invisible to us – the soul of its people, their stories, their words, where the literary culture is a precious part of their life.
Poetry has a powerful way of transcending lines.
Burma/Myanmar has been isolated from the rest of the world for over 50 years and is only now beginning to emerge from decades of strict military censorship. Poetry has always been the most popular form of literature in Burma, going back to the 9th century, and it has consistently been the most censored. Successive military regimes have managed to keep one of the most poetry-rich traditions something of a secret from the world, that is, until recently.
This event will reflect on just how inventive Burmese poetry has had to be over successive generations in order to thrive and what some of the challenges writers in Burma face today.
In a new era of post-censorship, the three key contemporary Burmese poets — all published in Bones Will Crow: 15 Burmese Poets (Arc Publications, 2012) — Zeyar Lynn, Moe Way and Eaindra, will be joined by James Byrne, poet and co-editor of Bones Will Crow — to launch the first anthology of modern Burmese poetry published outside of Burma — and to discuss issues relating to Burmese poetry, past and present, examining how areas such as political censorship and international translation have affected the country’s literary aesthetic over the years. – World Voices presents Burmese Poets, The Arts House, Singapore, August 13, 2013
The genesis of project started in 2006 when James Bryne realised that there was no access to what was being published in Burma, which has operated under a strict regime of military censorship. In that climate, poets had to be highly inventive to avoid censorship. For example, writers couldn’t use words like rose or mother as it alluded to Aung. In 2012, censorship was abolished.
The event gave us a quick introduction to the world of Burmese poetry. From the classical poetry tradition to the various writing movements that emerged under different sets of conditions in Burma.
In the 1930s, a new movement started called Testing the Times. In the 1950s, the New Writing movement emerged , which was very politicized and leftist. In the 1980s, the Modern Poetry movement, free verse, no structure, no rhyme. It was not considered as poetry by the traditional. Then there came new poetic styles like the Post Modern poetry, the Language Poetry movement and the Conceptual Poetry.
What was interesting to me is how the Burmese poets are defining their own genre and poetic movements. Zeyar Lynn is considered to be the father of contemporary poetry. As poets who had to struggle for the words, words which we so often take for granted, they convey a special sense of mutual respect for each other as poets and writers.
Moe Way, who is both a poet and publisher, was born in 1969 in the Irrawady Delta. Fifteen years ago, Moe Way worked as a laborer in Malaysia. When he returned home, he saw a gap in the publishing world for modern Burmese poetry, so he started his own press. Circulation for poems is limited. Famous poets can sell 1,000 books and not so famous ones, 500 books. After publishing 10 poetry books, his money ran out. He had to publish other types of books to supplement his income so that he can continue publishing poetry. Today, the younger generation of poets are coming to him. Expenses could be shared 50/50. He said he will never be able to survive on publishing poetry books but he will go on publishing it anyway.
Eaindra is the youngest poet that evening. Born in 1973 in the Irrawady Delta, she had her first work, As It Were For a Poem, published in 2012. She works as a quantity surveyor in Singapore and is very actively involved in the Aesthetic Life Foundation.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening to hear poetry read lovingly in the Burmese tongue and then hear its translation read with its special nuances captured by James Byrne.