We asked Maung Day, Burmese poet and writer in residence at Edge Hill University in the UK, about poetry in Burma today, and the influences on his own writing.
What role has poetry played in Burma over the years?
Burma has always had a great poetry tradition. It is an integral part of Burmese society, and something poets have carried with them across generations. In the 1930s, the khitsan poetry movement came out of Yangon University. Khitsan is sometimes translated as ‘testing the times’ and sometimes as ‘renewal of times’. Khitsan poets were involved in the independence struggle during British rule, through their poetry and political activism.
Poets in Burma have often been associated with some form of political activism. So it's no wonder that today, quite a few poets and writers serve in various capacities within the current government. The president himself is the son of a poet, and known for his literary inclinations.
However, poetry transcends politics. Most Burmese people grow up reading poetry from kindergarten until university, both in Burmese and English. A lot of young people dabble in writing poetry, and some continue to do so: a few well-known poets say they started to write poetry after their first loves broke their hearts.
Today, the poetry scene in Burma is thriving. Poets write in various styles and traditions, from khitpor (meaning modern), which emerged in the 1970s, to conceptual forms including Flarf and visual poetry. As the country opens up, the outside world has become curious about Burmese arts and culture. Young Burmese poets are writing experimental poetry about social justice issues, and collaborating with artists and writers from other countries. The poetry anthology Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets, is a good example of this.
What does it mean to be a poet in Burma today?
It used to be really difficult to write poetry without being censored by the previous military regimes. Some poets were incarcerated because they wrote poems that the military government deemed ‘subversive’ or ‘dissenting’. That is all over now. Today, poets enjoy much greater freedom of speech.
As well as collaborating with other international artists, some young poets who read a lot of poetry in English want to publish their work internationally. Be Untexed is a Yangon-based online journal that publishes poetry in English – the first of its kind in Burma. I hear that it is gaining a lot of interest and submissions from poets outside Burma.
Is it difficult to get published as a Burmese poet?
No, I wouldn't say so. The Burmese poetry scene is alive with small independent presses, and many poets publish their work by themselves. There are always poetry readings and seminars around the country. The Irrawaddy Literary Festival has concentrated on Burmese poetry, and PEN Myanmar often invites poets to organise readings and symposiums. These events are important in the sense that they can contribute to discussions and exchanges between Burmese poets and their counterparts from other countries. They influence each other’s work, and their poetry evolves.
What inspired you to become a poet?
I developed an interest in poetry when I was a kid. There wasn’t a writer or poet in my family back then, but books were always around: novels, short stories, travelogues and, of course, poetry. I was familiar with Burmese classical poetry: Min Thu Won, Zaw Gyi, and poets that came before them. I was also fascinated by the poems of A-Chote-Tan Sayar Pe. Among the Burmese classic poets, he wrote with great urgency, strong imagery and straightforward social criticism. Then I discovered Romantic poetry. I was exposed to it when I was a middle school student as part of the school curriculum. We had two English textbooks: one with grammar lessons, essays and stories; the other with English poems, including poems by John Keats, Lord Byron, Christina Rossetti, Alexander Pope, and later, Robert Frost.
I am sure many poets writing today have admired Romantic poets at some point. Htinn Yuu Pin Yeik (The Shade of the Pine Tree, 1968), a collection of translations of Western poetry put out by Burmese scholar and linguist Maung Tha Noe, includes Romantic and modern poetry. This book has influenced many Burmese poets and contributed to the development of khitpor poetry.
Which contemporary poets in Burma do you recommend?
I really like poets such as Aung Cheimt, Phaw Way, Win Myint, Moe Way and Aung Pyi Sone. Aung Cheimt writes with such an admirable precision and care in terms of syntactical structure and sound design. I am also impressed by his use of irony and humour. His poems have a particular kind of swagger; they excite me – all the more so because many of the poems being written today wear a thick coat of dullness, rigid technicality and deal with straightforward political themes.
What kind of poetry do you write?
I have written six books of poetry in Burmese and one in English. My poems are concerned with many different things, from local realities to the personal. References from global pop cultural to local spiritual practices cut across my poems. I want to call my poetry ‘bizarre, associative and contemporary.’
You're going to the UK soon to spend two weeks working with creative writing graduates. What do you hope to get out of the experience?
This is really exciting for me as I look forward to learning more about English poetry and sharing contemporary Burmese poetry in exchange. I know that the creative writing graduates of Edge Hill and I will have a lot to talk about. I am also looking to save some time for writing my own poetry and reflecting on my past work. I am sure this trip will be the first of many more collaborations.
Maung Day is writer in residence at Edge Hill University in England this November.
Find out more about the British Council's work in Burma.