Greg Bem: I am here with Maung Day. How’s it going, Maung Day?
Maung Day: Hi Greg. Fine.
G: This is the first of what will hopefully be a variety of writers, luminaries, smart people around the world who are concerned with important things. Hm, where are we right now, Maung Day?
M: We are in Bagan, the old city that was built in 11th or 12th century. It was once a very prosperous Buddhist nation. It’s a destination for a lot of international tourists. It’s famous for its archaeological sites, culture, and food. It’s totally a different landscape from any other parts of the country. It’s located in the dry zone. There are palm trees. It can be really, really hot in the summer, but it’s still worth it. You can have a really good time navigating in the old city, and there’s more than 2,000 stupas and temples.
G: Yeah, we’ve been to maybe a dozen or two dozen in the last two days.
M: And we’ve been to the river, the Irrawaddy, the mother of all rivers.
G: It’s very beautiful.
M: Yes, it is.
G: Right now we’re sitting, drinking palm juice. There are a lot of birds, and it’s kind of near the road, one of the main roads here, so there’s a lot of automobile traffic. They’re making the palm candy and juice and alcohol behind us, about four meters away from us, which is kind of awesome. And this is a hot place. You’re right. It’s difficult being here. But it’s nice taking a moment under the shade. Thanks for being here and hanging out with me, this international tourist.
M: It’s been a blast, the last couple of days. I’ve had a good time with you.
G: So let’s talk about you, your writing, and who you are. I believe it was 2016 when Gasoline was published, a short but beautiful book. It showed me a lot about your interests in poetry, contemporary English writing, and also, obviously, a bit about the life you live here in Myanmar. Can you talk a little about the book, how you wrote it, where you wrote it? Did you write it in one language? Did you do any translation in the process of writing it?
M: I have always wanted to write in English. It was a challenge I wanted to give myself, too. It’s also really difficult to do it. So I’ve started writing in English slowly since 2009. And I’ve showed it to some people, some poets living in the US, asking for their feedback. It’s been very educational, with their comments. I keep reading in English, poetry in English and poetry in translation. I have written a lot in Burmese, I’ve published 8 books of poetry in Burmese, and I thought I’d also try to write in English with the limited language skills I have, so I started writing sporadically over the past 10 years. In Gasoline there are 24 poems, but they were written over five or six years’ time, so I just visited them again. It was difficult, but enjoyable, so much fun. A lot of these poems were conceived in my mind . . . when I talk about the language, they are not translations, they are different versions of some Burmese poems I have written, but not direct translation. So I have this understanding that you cannot translate from one language to another, you cannot carry a lot of things from one language to another. But if you enjoy working with languages, that’s also one challenge you want to take on. When I translate in English, I also try to see my work as being in English, other than what my working is like in Burmese. I’m not trying to be faithful to the originals, but trying to explore new territories, the tropes, the metaphors, and also the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years reading poetry in English. So it’s a combination of many things, and an experiment to me. But I remember I was reading a lot of poetry by Frederick Seidel, Anthony Madrid, and Bob Hicok, so I was reading a lot of poetry by these guys, and I’m really grateful because I’ve learned a lot from them. And they might not have a lot of things in common, but there is clarity when there comes to talking about politics or social commentary. In the case of Anthony Madrid, it’s very weird for me, it’s very surreal, and relies a lot on association, and it carries with it a lot of history of contemporary and experimental poetry to me. And Bob Hicok takes personal issues and relationships very beautifully, a very transcendental and at the same time multifaceted language to me. So I’m trying to steal some elements from them and I’m writing from a place of discontent, anger, and also from a very specific context, and it’s different from what other people are experiencing in their cities or countries. I don’t believe in poetry as an organic process, but rather you are always synthesizing things. I also like the space where I can reflect on myself and reflect on what I think and what’s going around me and my work.
G: So let’s go back to those writers you mentioned. English-language writers. How did you discover writers not in Myanmar (international voices), and literally where did you find them? And also, what about writers that influence you here, closer to home—how do you have history with them, if you do, and where do you find writing in Myanmar?
M: We don’t have bookshops that sell poetry and novels in English, but you can get a small amount of books—but you might not like to read them. For me, when I started reading in English, I went to the American Center and they have a library. It’s responsible for organizing culture events like poetry readings and movie screenings. I have been close to some of the people working there. They also one time commissioned me to translate The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and I did that work as well. And I have been contributing essays and articles to their bi-monthly magazine or journal. So I am quite familiar with American poets like New York School, the Beat Generation, and L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, because I have come across these books in the library, but I also notice that there’s a lot of stuff beyond that. Because as I read that poetry, which was written in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, I started searching online. Then obviously the first results were Poetry Foundation, Poetry magazine, and I noticed what the magazine publishes is not that interesting—it’s quite mainstream to me, in a way that it contains traditional American poetry elements. But then I discovered more when I came across more journals like Shampoo, The Awl, Guernica, and many others. Then I find a lot of exciting poetry. Of course I started to remember names and some poems I really liked, and I continued searching more. Then I moved to Thailand in 2009. There are bookstores there where I could find more poetry books, so I started buying and reading. Over time, you will know who you like to read, but you will keep exploring, and that’s the poet’s life for me as well. When you talk about local poets, my poetry is very informed by the aesthetics of khitpor poetry. Khitpor poetry I think can be translated as modernist poetry, particularly this poet Phaw Way. I really like his poetry, the way he worked with imagery, the way he worked with political sentiments in his work. It’s visceral, that’s what I really like in his work. I also adopted the way he has written poetry. But he died really young. He was 28 when he died. He was really important to me, and he was really important to many of his contemporaries. He translated Russian poetry, some American poetry. He wrote them down in his notebook and passed the book around.
G: So for folks that are separated in terms of their lives, who died early or lived in a previous generation, you have to encounter their work through printed text or online postings and publishing. What’s the publishing world like here in Myanmar? Is there a lot of work being saved in the Burmese language? Are there a lot of works being published? Are the great works available to read if somebody wanted to go read them?
M: Yeah, there are a couple publishing houses. Seikku Cho Cho is one of them. That publishing house has been reprinting a lot of important stuff and trying to discover what hasn’t been printed yet. So now a lot of great works are available to an audience today. We have another publishing house called Nichalamya, or The Eras. This publishing house is particularly responsible for a lot of poetry. They are putting out a lot of modernist, contemporary, and political poetry, and also what might be interesting to the readers of the new generation even if it was written a long time ago. So I think the books are there. There are a lot of bookshops today that are selling poetry books.
G: Let’s talk about Myanmar writers outside of Myanmar. I personally encountered the anthology Bones Will Crow, which I think is one of the only English language and bilingual anthologies of modern and contemporary, khitpor, and more contemporary writing. And then Ko Ko Thett, who was one of the people involved with that, and I read his book that was published a couple of years ago The Burden of Being Burmese. So those were the two books and maybe a couple smaller books I came across as well in the United States. Are there others? What’s it like to think about Burmese and other Myanmar writers writing and trying to publish internationally?
M: Some years ago Maung Tha Noe was responsible for translating Romanticist and Modernist European poetry into Burmese. I think it was published in 1974 or 1975. Those translations were very instrumental. They paved the way to modernist poetry. A lot of local poets started to borrow and adopt these aesthetics, approaches and techniques of these European poets and writers. Maung Tha Noe has also been doing some translations of khitpor, modernist, poets. Some of these translations have found their way into international magazines and journals in the past. But maybe it wasn’t substantial in terms of the quantity. But more and more people are interested in writing in English. We can’t say it’s a bloom but some people have started doing that. Ko Ko Thett is doing that. But it’s still very little, I think. Most of the local poets don’t really read and write in English. Just some of us do that. And Bones Will Crow is a good thing to have happen because it somehow introduced Myanmar poetry to the international audience. It might not be comprehensive, not as much as we want it to be, but it’s still a very good introduction. James Byrne and Ko Ko Thett worked really hard to put it out. It’s been published in both the United States and England. But there’s been a gap. For me it would be awesome to publish and anthologize the younger generation of poets and it’s not always easy to do that. Translating as well as publishing and finding a publishing house or person who is willing to publish that kind of work. But I think Bones Will Crow is a good start.
G: You mentioned local writers in Myanmar maybe not writing or reading things in English. That made me think about the priorities of thinking beyond one’s country. Is it important, would you say, generalizing of course, for writers to look beyond the borders and geography of Myanmar? Or, based on the current political situation and social circumstances, is it important to stay focused on the center, on the heart of Myanmar? Do you want to look outwards, or do you want to look inwards? Why would writers intentionally not go out into the English language or other languages, and just continue focusing on Myanmar?
M: We also have to talk about the language. We also have to be careful with that sometimes. Is it enough to write in one language? This is something I ask myself a lot. I meet some poets who are interested in writing in English, and I know it’s a huge challenge to do that. I don’t want it to become a huge burden for poets. Writing poetry can sometimes be really difficult, and it has its own values in itself. For me it’s enough if you want to write in your own language. But, of course, boundaries are getting broad and now we’re talking to neighboring countries. We have built networks in Southeast Asia. There are literary festivals taking place (like in Singapore), and we’ve been invited to them. There’s a sense of solidarity, sharing, and exchanging ideas, and of course cross-learning. All of this are parts of these new exciting times . . . and in Singapore a lot of people speak English. It’s about education. Here a lot of people go to school and everything is taught in Burmese and it makes sense that a lot of people don’t speak or write in English. They might speak a little but not enough to write in English. But the young generation of poets are really interested in what’s going on internationally. A lot of young poets have internet exposure. Young poets, Han Lynn and Mae Yway (who has attended Rotterdam Poetry Festival). Han Lynn has been there as well. Han Lynn has been in Germany for a writer’s residency. So there are people who are interested in going out, learning different things, new things. In a large section of the literary scene, people don’t have the capacity or support to do that.
G: One of the ways that you participated beyond the borders was two summers ago in Iowa’s International Writing Program. What exactly did you experience there?
M: We had like thirty-something writers and poets from all over the world. It was a very unique experience because every day we got to talk to different writers and they all come from different backgrounds ethnically, nationally, and they’re doing really exciting stuff in their country. It was good to talk about what’s going on in each country, and reading their writings has been really exciting for me, eye-opening. We hung out and had panel discussions, readings, and time to mingle and talk. That was a really good experience, and those few months were really enjoyable. I got to see American poets who I have an affinity with aesthetically, like Nathan Hoks, for instance. So for me I also like to explore American poetry and what’s going on with that. I spent a lot of time in bookshops buying a bunch of American poetry books.
G: Did you think that the American bookstores were able to provide something more than the bookstores that you have access to in Myanmar?
M: Definitely. Also, the university library had a lot of poetry books. Not just written by American poets, but written by poets from all over the world. Hundreds of them, so it was heaven for me. I spent a lot of time reading them, and scanning the pages.
G: You got to travel a lot too, including to Seattle which is where we met originally. What were your travels like during your time in America and did you gain any insight into the country?
M: I don’t take things for granted. I try not to see all things in black and white, but still I receive information of the United States through the news or the books that I read, so it doesn’t encompass everything that’s happening there, and the local realities might be missing. So I have a bleak picture of the country, of the people, of course the politics. And it’s true to some extent. But when I went there I saw a lot of young people who have a lot of energy and vision in what they want to do and in creating the future that they want, and I saw a lot of people writing exciting stuff, and many people are open-minded. So for me, it opened my eyes to the new things taking place in United States. And a lot of other difficult things, like gentrification. I was particularly drawn to the works of Claudia Rankine. Also Trump was president at the time (still is), and there are some expats in the society who are feeling pretty helpless. But I came from Burma, you know, come on, a country with a long history of dictatorship, oppression. Somehow I also met these young poets and writers and we started to feel like “Wow, we’re in the same situations.” And we talked about discrimination against minorities—such things have been going on in my country for a long time, including discrimination against ethnic minorities and religious minorities. I was born to an Indian-Burmese family, so I have been subjected to discrimination at school and at society at large. So it’s sad that these things continue to happen in many parts of the world, but I also see hope in it because a lot of people are starting to say “no” to these things. A lot of people are not turning a blind eye to these things anymore, and they really want to take action and do something about it, write about it. So now maybe things are not a bed of roses, but there are people I want to continue to work with, and there’s hope.
G: So do you feel your own writing and your own sense of being a writer is directly aligned with those values? Are you a writer of political and social justice or other terms?
M: I don’t believe in “political poetry” or the “political poem.” But everything’s political at the same time. The problem with political poems is that you’re always second-guessing the contents. These poems are drowning, sinking into the ocean. Reading a political poem feels like diving into water, staying there. Whereas when you have an experimental aspect to your poetry, playfulness around it, you are coming up to the surface of the water and breathing. I do use lines with political references in my poems and I believe whatever you write will have some sort of political implication—it’s something I do in my poetry. I also want to keep my poetry interesting, and playful. I have used a lot of political references in my work, and I have an aversion for Burmese politicians, and what’s been going on with this country, and the structural violence they have established in this society through education, health care, housing . . . many aspects of the country. I try to deal with these things in my work, but I like to think these are also the nuances in my work.
G: We are back and now at the Taste of Myanmar restaurant [in Bagan]. I am sitting here with Maung Day over a nearly-completed dish of hot and sour potatoes—emphasis on the hot—and they are delicious! Hi Maung Day.
M: Hi Greg.
G: We were talking about a lot back at the palm sugar store, and we still have some more to chat about. You mentioned a little bit about values and interests you have in exploring race and identity in your own poetry. Did you want to expand on any of that?
M: I think a lot of writers and poets here are really concerned with what is going on in politics, and of course they live through this horrible experience of life in a military dictatorship. And a lot of them experience watching their works get banned or censored, and some of them even need to change their pen names because their pen names get banned. I understand there’s a lot of anger. Also psychologically, because we are in a transition, it’s hard to write about that, talk about that. But what’s largely missing in the conversation is anything about ethnic minorities. When it comes to politics, there are a lot of kinds of oppression, and people experience it differently. For example, I have a lot of friends, writers and poets, who are much older than me, and they sometimes assume that I have had a similar life as them. But no, actually. I was born as Indian-Burmese and had a totally different experience than them. They had no problem getting an ID. They had no problem enrolling in the university. They had no problem getting a job. But I only got my ID when I turned 25. I applied a couple of times before that and I was denied on account of looking Indian. But my ancestors came to this country in the 11th Century. And my parents have Burmese national registration cards, but they still denied me. Other forms of horrible experience occurred at school. Being bullied because I look different, because I wouldn’t join in prayer. My friends [today] wouldn’t know that. They always took it for granted, that I’m okay. Sometimes that’s really difficult, because it’s missing from our conversation. We always talk about politics in terms of party politics, the ongoing democratization process, students’ movements, but what about all these adversities? What about all these sub-groups, marginalized communities, in this country—who’s going to talk about them? So, that sort of thing really annoys me. And I really try to bring up that conversation in my work, or the conversation at the tea shop, or at the bar. I also try to engage with women. I try to work with different types of people. Our society is really male-dominated. There are a lot of women poets, but their works don’t get published often. A lot of men come up and say “They don’t write good poetry.” This sort of thing has to be stopped, for me. People ignore this. It’s a huge elephant in the room. I think it’s really important to talk about these things. I wrote a poem, “Gasoline,” the title poem from the book, about 23 people who were burned to death in Rakhine State, by the Buddhist fundamentalists, these monks. Some people really welcomed that poem, but I heard that later, in Mandalay, the poem started up some controversy, and a few monks were unhappy with me. For me, I don’t think we have any option but to say these kinds of things. I’m working through art. I’m not demonizing anybody. I‘m merely trying to reflect on that terror, and letting people know what I think, and how I work through that kind of experience in poetry. I think it’s really important.
G: I’m interested in how information gets shared, and how you spread your ideas, whether through poetry or otherwise. How peoples’ voices can be included in the conversation, or excluded. In Myanmar in general, on a broad level, I think it’s important to think about how ideas and words get shared. How do your words and ideas get shared and how in general are other poets and fighters for equity and inclusivity getting their words and ideas shared?
M: First of all, I wouldn’t consider myself at the forefront of this movement. I’ve contributed a little. We have to start with the writers and poets and digest these issues. Sometimes they might not be really aware of what they’re doing, what they would choose to write and why, what they wouldn’t choose to write and why. For me it’s not calling them names and labeling them as evil. A lot of things have been automatically excluded from consciousness because people might have gone through traumatic experiences. On a daily basis we should talk about these things. In the literary scene here, people meet all the time. People meet just to talk. These things come up all the time and a lot of other things come up. I organize workshops and poetry readings. I try to include as many diverse people as possible. I make sure it’s not about whether their poetry is good and bad, but about creating a space where people can show up and come together and read their poems. I’ve worked with some people who would always complain, always talking about the quality of the work all the time. The biases are always there. They are cherry-picking people who are like-minded, who they have an affinity with aesthetically. But that’s not the point. This way we’re marginalizing people I think. Events, forums, workshops are for a lot of people. These should be the platforms for people of different backgrounds, different aesthetics. We have PEN Myanmar, which has been promoting freedom of expression, and they’ve been organizing creative writing workshops where they touch on issues like that. It’s good that this is happening. It might not be enough but it’s something. Also, choosing works to publish. This is a big issue. I’ve been working with some of the women poets here because they don’t really get published, and whenever there is an invitation for a residency or literary festival, it’s just men all the time. We have to start raising questions about these things. Also the nomination process.
G: Do you have any female poets in your head right now that you could recommend to the world to read? Who are your favorites in Myanmar?
M: I really like Mae Yway’s work. She writes very innovative poems. The way she works with the language is really interesting. She’s a queer poet and she’s been writing stuff about her experience, and she’s been working through the perspective of the experience of a gay person who has been discriminated against. But it’s not always about a political agenda in her work. It’s very exciting. It has a lot of guts in it. The way she works with the language, she focuses on the fragmentary nature of human memories and emotions, and opacity of language in message sharing. I’ve translated some of her poems. Once she went to participate in the Rotterdam Poetry Festival and I translated her poems for that. She has published a couple of books, and one book has English translations in it, and you might be able to find that book in one of the bookshops in Yangon. So she’s one. And I also like Khine Pyae Sone’s work. She’s another young female poet who also has a lot of things going on in her creative life. For her, I think she had some bad experience with her father and the experience is reflected in her work. These issues are not new, but they are new here and haven’t been expressed here before. This is Burma. A very conventional society. Raising women under all the traditional values the same as 100 years ago. And social norms here are scary for women. And I’m talking about in that context. For these women writers, they are still discriminated by people. It’s really important these poets are heard and their works get published and also I recommend them because they write good poetry.
G: Thank you for sharing. You mentioned expression and expressing ideas. Having hung out with you for a few days now, it’s clear that you like to think about a lot of different ideas and different types of experiences in the many realities that we have. I’m curious what you’re working on now and what expressions you haven’t yet put into poetry that you’re think about doing.
M: That’s a really good question for me. I have published eight books of poetry, but each time I always work with a specific conceptual and experimental approach. I have combined text and drawings together for one book, for example. I’ve also done a lot of poetry that reflects the upbringing and social life I have had in this country and a book in which poetic language and form dialogue with those of films. This time I’m working on a book of prose poems dealing with the memory of childhood and memory of my family, my father, my parents, and going back to when we were together, living through difficulties. I’m borrowing elements of folklore, diaries and journal writing, different forms of literature and reporting. So I’m working on that and it’s exciting.
G: That’s awesome. Is it something that feels like it’s involving risk?
M: Yes. I’ve never done prose poems before. This is definitely a risk. I really am enjoying doing it. I don’t know what people will think, and I couldn’t care less. First of all, we’re dealing with ourselves in our work. Sometimes I have ideas—I want to do that, I want to do this—but when I really sit at the table, I’m working with the language, the memory, a lot of different things. I’m thinking about what I’ve absorbed poetically. There are many things, many factors in each poem. Other things take the back seat. I like this process.
G: Is that the type of approach you to take to your visual work as well?
M: Yes, that’s true. I think I like dialogism—I like my poems and visual work to have a dialogue with a certain political narrative and certain historic narrative, and I like them to be cross-genre.
G: What are some of your visual works in the past, for those who are exposed to you for the first time? Can you describe them in words?
M: I do a lot of drawings. They are very simple. They are made of very thin lines. There’s a lot of elements I borrow from Buddhist mythologies and the imagery of Buddhist art—the kind of thing you’d see on the murals in Bagan. In a lot of the visual work I’m doing, including film and installation, I’m deconstructing old mythologies and constructing new ones by using investigative, disruptive and non-linear narration. These mythologies shape how we think today, especially for people living in rural areas, and they are the largest population in this country. It is apparent that these mythologies shape how we think consciously and unconsciously.
G: When we were walking here, you talked about your childhood briefly and what it was like to become a poet. When you think about asking a question through your art, where does that come from? Why ask a question? How did you learn how to ask the questions that you’re asking?
M: I think we’re always told what to do, and what to say, and to keep silent all our lives. That’s how education works in this country even today. That’s how family life works. How social spheres are functioning today. Even politics, of course. I worked early on because I was lucky to have a father who introduced me to poetry early on, who introduced me to paintings, not just to look at them, not just to read them, but to close-read them and to work with them somehow and to think about them and to talk about them. When you start talking about something, you start to think about it. You start to notice what’s missing in the conversation, and you start to notice what’s bullshit, and that you’re being manipulated. And a lot of things are constructed and don’t reflect the realities of what people might desire. That’s how I started to question things. Also my experience at school being bullied. There’s this thing the kids have together and it’s imposed on them by society. “You have to be the larger group.” That type of mentality is always there. And for me to respond to that, it’s to think about the thing, and pose questions to respond to that.
G: And that becomes a piece of your writing, something that can be put into your writing and your art, and that can become a gift to other people, a tool people can use when they encounter your art and writing.
M: Yeah. A lot of people come and ask me about my visual works. I notice a lot of people don’t even want to think for themselves but rather they just go and ask the artist. I don’t mind talking, but one thing is that I try not to just say what it means. But I try to come up with what I was thinking when I was creating the art. That way I start to create a conversation with them, to communicate what they experience and have witnessed and seen. I draw the viewer into the conversation to see what they’ve experienced in their own life.
G: Any final thoughts on poetry and art for this interview?
M: Poetry is really important, because I think poetry gives us the kind of language that has the capacity to challenge the way people think, to unsettle the status quo of society, and it’s the language—everybody uses language—and poetry can reconfigure language in a way that it can provoke people to think. And it can transcend the rationality and touch your gut feeling and touch your beyond and what you’re always afraid to think. It’s a language, distorted, that can reflect what is a close truth. Writing poetry is important.
G: And there’s a place for it in today’s society.
G: Thank you Maung Day for chatting.
M: Thank you Greg!
Welcome to Yellow Rabbits. Thanks for visiting.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
Yellow Rabbits Reviews
Archives by Month