Ko Ko Thett’s poetic life was discreetly launched when he took it upon himself to edit a samizdat poetry collection at Yangon Institute of Technology in Myanmar in 1994. After he left the country in 1997, Thett began writing in English and has since published in literary journals worldwide, from Griffith Review to Granta. He has won an English PEN translation award for the seminal Bones will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets (ARC, UK), which he co-edited with James Byrne. His collection of poems in English, The Burden of Being Burmese (Zephyr, 2015), is listed on World Literature Today’s Nota Benes. His work has been widely anthologized and translated into several languages including Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese and Finnish. He serves as poetry editor for Mekong Review and country editor for Myanmar at Poetry International [the Netherlands]. After a whirlwind tour of Asia, Europe and North America for two decades, Thett happily resettled in Sagaing in his native Myanmar in 2017 and published poetry books in Burmese. As of 2021 he is most likely to be spotted in Norwich, UK. Thett continues to write in both Burmese and English.
Ming Di: Was there a historical event that changed the landscape of poetry in your country in the last fifty years? Does it still have impact on the current poetry scene there today?
Ko Ko Thett: Not just one, but a number of events. In the 2000s, LP (Language Poetry, launched in the US by Charles Bernstein and friends in the 1980s) came around to Myanmar, thanks to poet Zeyar Lynn. LP was set against the prevailing and hegemonic khitpaw poetry in my country, which is characterized by self-pity, melancholy and vague imagery in the age of censorship. Then the 2010 election and so-called transition to democracy. Easing of internet restrictions happened around the same time. Censorship was also lifted.
In the 1990s words such as “red” were banned in fear of communist connotations. It’s almost impossible to be a poet under such scrutiny. To blog or to publish a book became much easier in the 2010s. That changed the situation of poetry in Burma/Myanmar. Hard-won freedom of expression meant that Myanmar poetry by and large became anti-authoritarian and anti-state overnight—poets could scorn the authorities and the state apparatus, explicitly if they wanted.
And yet poet Maung Saung Kha ended up in prison for six months in late 2015 for writing a short verse about having a portrait of Mr. President tattooed on his penis. From then on, a new generation of poets, exposed to the internet, began to write in a number of styles that they would call their own, including flarf.
Ming: Thank you for the interesting introduction. I remember reading about Maung Saung Kha. What I had in mind with the first question was a political/social event, for instance, the 1989 Student Movement changed the poetry scene in China. You mentioned how American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry changed the Burmese poetry, which is even more interesting, directly poetry-related. Yes I’ve read about it. Zeyar Lynn is amazing, which reminds me of Hu Shi who took the vers libre to China in 1917 and Li Jinfa who took the Symbolist Poetry to China in the 1920s, and that generation of poets completely changed the way poetry was written in China. You also talked about censorship which is still a problem in China but in the opposite way—“red” has never been censored (lol). There is a renaissance of classical Chinese poetry in China. I wonder if there is something similar in Burma/Myanmar?
Ko Ko: A singular political or social event that changed the poetic landscape of Myanmar would be the 2010 general election.
No renaissance of classical Burmese poetry in Myanmar. But most genres of classical Burmese poetry can be set to classical music and traditional dance. Probably that’s the main reason that the Burmese classics have never gone away and remain popular, especially in the upper Burma region and rural areas.
Ming: I love the classical/ancient Burmese folklores that were translated into Chinese. Do poets in Burma/Myanmar use them as a resource for poetry writing at present time?
Ko Ko: Contemporary Burmese poets wouldn’t survive without Burmese folklores, both Buddhist and pre-Buddhist. Burmese poems are full of references and allusions to traditional wisdom. I do that all the time. Most recently American Burmese poet Maw Shein Win came up with “Storage Unit for the Spirit House (2021)” inspired by the nat cult of Myanmar. Even Joseph Woods, my Irish poet chum, who lived in Myanmar in the early 2010s, had a whole poem about nats, in his 2018 collection Monsoon Diaries. It’s hard not to be awed by the presence of nats in Myanmar.
Ming: You answered the question in my mind about the pre-Buddhist period. Now this might be the closest we can get to compare Burmese and Chinese. Either we have the same loan words from Buddhism or our languages are very closely related: we say na when you say nat because the final consonants have been dropped in the northern dialects in China, we say shen (deity) when you say sin as in nat sin, which are very similar in sound.
Ko Ko: I should have thought of that. The Burmese syntax is similar to Chinese, the language being part of the Sino-Tibetan family. I’m not surprised nat is na in Chinese. I read somewhere the legend of this nat comes from Yunnan.
Ming: Yunnan borders with Myanmar and is the region with the most diversified ethnicities in China. I became fascinated with Yunnan and Burma when I interviewed a veteran who talked about flying over that region—there was no borderline… Ok back to poetry, are there any important and influential poets in your country that are hardly known internationally? If so, why? Please briefly introduce them.
Ko Ko: Too many important Myanmar poets are unheard of outside the country, mainly because I am the only dedicated translator and I can’t translate them all into English. There are dedicated poetry translators inside the country but their books don’t go beyond the local book market. The lack of English editors means that even some of their English book titles may be incorrect.
To name but two, Ko Than Tun, for instance, is a great poet. He was a prisoner of conscience in Monywa, Mandalay and Insein prisons. He writes poems, and manages a teahouse in Monywa. In 2019, he received National Literary Award (Poetry) for his collection, The Night’s Storyteller. Another name is Lynn Mar O, whom I discovered this winter. I like his poems a lot but I don’t know much about him. When he passed away a few years ago, and he must have been still in his early 30s.
Ming: Thanks for introducing the poet who died young and the poet who was a prisoner of conscience. Is the National Literary Award governmental or underground/independent? I just don’t understand how a political prisoner got a national award? Is there a division between institutionalized poets and independent poets in Burma/Myanmar?
Ko Ko: Myanmar National Literary Award is a government award, given out by the Ministry of Information. Before the censorship was eased, only propaganda writers or writers of books that the Ministry considered entirely harmless to “law and order” would win such an award. Poets who wrote in a traditional style of rhymes and meters with a nationalist theme used to receive the National Literary Award routinely. Moralist or conformist poetry was a favorite of the Ministry. After 2010, this changed—dissident writers and former political prisoners began to receive the award.
Us-or-them politics divide Myanmar poets. There is a legendary disdain for institutionalized poets (nationalist, moralist types) by independent ones. Even within the independent camp, there are poets who have solid dissident background, usually older generation, and there are others who became protest poets overnight when it was safe to dissent after 2010. Then again the 2021 military coup and subsequent repression are likely to make poetic divides less wide. Only the regional or local poetic divides may remain.
Ming: Very insightful and timely information. I read about you being in jail too and then in exile. Were you arrested due to participation in the 1996 Student Movement or due to your poetry writing?
Ko Ko: I was politicized because I was poeticized. The kind of postmodern poetry we were after could only be published in samizdat format on our campus due to censorship in Myanmar in the 1990s. That irked me very much. Some members of the poetry circle I was in were from dissident families. As a result I got my place in the 1996 Student Movement in Yangon and was detained at a military base outside Yangon for three months or so. I never faced trial or went to jail.
Ming: How did you get out of your country in 1997? (I know you went back in 2015 and went to the Iowa International Writing Program in 2016.) What’s your life like moving from one country to another?
Ko Ko: I flew out of the country with a passport, to Singapore. I didn’t get to flee the country across the borders like thousands of others did. I simply told the authorities that I didn’t want to continue my studies and would leave the country during my interrogation. What I had in mind is to go to Thailand to take up arms against the regime. But that’s another story.
My childhood is largely a memory of discomfort of travels and disorientation in new places in Myanmar! Like a jellyfish moving along with the current! Most of my adult life remained the same. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. And yet I would become a nomad again if I were alone, I guess.
Ming: How many diaspora poets are there from Burma/Myanmar? What do the poets inside the country think of you and other poets in exile or living abroad?
Ko Ko: I don’t have the exact number. In California there is a Burmese online literary journal called Moemaka (moemaka.com). Most diaspora poets, such as Maung Swan Yi and Aung Way, and some poets from Myanmar contribute to that journal. There may be four or five scores of diaspora poets on that website alone, most of them work at other jobs instead of being full time poets.
Ming: Likewise, there are many Chinese writers communities in the US and Europe, same as diaspora writers from other countries. Where do you live at the present time? And what kind of poetry are you writing?
Ko Ko: I live in Norwich, UK. I’ve just created a new folder, named 2021, for my 2021 poems. I’ve been very much disturbed by the military coup in Myanmar and its consequences. Hopefully the poetry I’m writing in 2021 won’t be too much affected by those emotions. Negative feelings are not necessarily good for poetry, though you can’t avoid them. I’d rather write love poems in 2021. Or rice cooker poems.
At the same time, I’m working with my publisher Zephyr Press on my forthcoming prose poetry collection, “bamboophobia” that was brewing over the past ten years or so. The book should be out by the summer of 2022.
Ming: Rice cooker poetry sounds like fun. Now back to Burmese poetry in your native country. Is there a tension or conflict between different camps of poets in your home country besides political reasons? Is it due to aesthetic difference or social issues such as indigenous or “minority” groups vs mainstream, or language/dialect issues? Or what’s the fiercest debate right now if any?
Ko Ko: When Zeyar Lynn imported LP into Myanmar poetry, there were wars and bar brawls between language poets and khitpaw poets. There used to be anti-colonial nationalist poets who were respected universally in the colonial times, before 1948. That generation died out. So did their nationalist style with heavy rhymes.
These days Burmese poets tend to gather around their local leader, local style and local dialect. We speak of poetic gangs. For instance, In Monywa, Ko Than Tun is the head honcho. Zeyar Lynn is popular amongst Yangon and the poets in the lower Myanmar region. There is a local gang in almost every city in Myanmar. The fiercest debate remains to center around the age-old theme of “authenticity” of voice or style, I would say.
Ming: That’s very interesting. You call them gangs. I like the word “gang”. In China, many poets like to create a style or school that they hope would become internationally popular or recognized one day. Poets from different groups fight all the time but they re-group constantly to get rid of the leader, a kind of Oedipus complex, which makes poetry lively. Are the most interesting poets in your country being translated into English or other languages? Please introduce a few titles of recent anthologies or single author books in English or in English translation. If none, what’s the best website to find them?
Ko Ko: I’m afraid I can’t name any recent anthology because there hasn’t been any that’s available outside Myanmar.
I might have done a pretty decent job with “Bones will Crow: Fifteen Contemporary Burmese Poets” (ARC, 2011 & NIUP, 2012), coedited with James Byrne.
I’m working on a follow-up anthology. I have also contributed to Poetry International (PI Web) Burma archive with what I think are the most exciting and challenging poets from Myanmar.
Ming: Yes that’s a pioneer anthology of contemporary poetry from Myanmar and I’m so glad you are making a sequel. What’s the most challenging part in translating poetry from Burmese to English? Burmese looks fascinating to me. Can you present a short poem of yours with three versions, the Burmese original, literal translation and poetic translation?
Ko Ko: Alas I don’t have short poems. When I write in Burmese I usually come up with an English version, not a translation. The following is part of a recent salve, “Cooking up [democracy dishes in my own kitchen]”. The lines “Please help yourself to Brussels sprouts and/ Liberty Fries” do not appear in the Burmese original. The phrase “dark and dirty longyi rags” means clichés—with repeated use without washing, rags have become dark and dirty.
ပလိုင်းပေါက်နဲ့ ဖားကောက်၊ ဖွတ်ကျောပြာစု
with a perforated bamboo basket, frogs picked up, a monitor lizard’s back, ash is attracted to
from behind he is having you, burglar it is
dark and dirty longyi rags I will serve[...]
You happened to be harvesting frogs in a
holey basket. The idiot lizard’s ashen jacket will
collect nothing but ash. Don’t take the burglar
creeping up on you from behind for your husband.
Please help yourself to Brussels sprouts and
Liberty Fries. Now let me serve up more bromides,
as soiled as my oily rags.[...]
Ming: Oh that’s witty. But not a good example for translation. I understand you are writing two poems or two versions, not translating from one to another. But it’s nice to see the gorgeous Burmese script I’ve always adored. Can you talk about the most challenging part of translating someone else’s poetry in Burmese into English?
Ko Ko: That segment in the original is a list of Burmese sayings. In English it is a rather loyal translation of those Burmese sayings. The only thing that’s missing in Burmese is the line with Brussels sprouts and Liberty Fries, which allude to the EU and the US concerns for democracy.
The biggest challenge for me in translating someone else’s Burmese poetry into English is to sound Burmese in English. I want to give my English reader an authentic flavor of Burmese poetry. Since I can’t replicate the Burmese sound in English, I have to use other techniques such as loan translation or calque that may “sound” Burmese to the English ears.