In May 2011, Byrne called City of Asylum/Pittsburgh writer in residence Khet Mar to discuss the possibility of including some of Burmese female poets’ work in a Burmese poetry anthology that he was compiling with the help of Burmese poet Ko Ko Thett.
Ko Ko Thett, who calls himself a Burmese activist and analyst “by chance,” has lectured, written, and commented extensively on Burma since the late 1990s. He is a poet by choice, and has worked on the anthology with Byrne since January, collecting modern Burmese poetry and translating it into English.
Curious why they were interested in publishing a Burmese anthology in the UK, the United States, and Thailand, Khet Mar interviewed James Byrne and Ko Ko Thett together via skype on August 1st . In their conversation, presented below, they talked about how the idea for the anthology came to Byrne, the hard work behind assembling it, and the way in which languages, when placed side by side, can change each other. The anthology is to be published in 2012.
Why were you interested in publishing an anthology of Burmese poetry, James?
James Byrne: My inital point of contact with Burmese poetry was through a chance reading of Tin Moe—who still seems to be the main Burmese poet promoted outside of Burma during the early 21st Century. As an editor of an internationally-minded poetry magazine I am always wanting to broaden the terrain of The Wolf and it was in 2008 when I heard from my good friend, the Irish poet Niall McDevitt, about Saw Wai. The BBC and English PEN were running a human rights campaign involving Saw Wai back then—he had become a very popular poet because of his imprisonment for writing a love poem entitled February 14th which acrostically read along the lines of: ‘Power Mad General Than Shwe’. Niall organized protests outside the Burmese Embassy where many of the crowd would post Valentine Day cards through the Embassy letterbox asking for Saw Wai’s release (which eventually came). I liked Saw Wai’s poems that Niall was translating (and subsequently published a few in The Wolf), but of course, as I looked beyond the surface, I realized there was a lineage of other political (and non-political) poets that I did not know about. The literary tradition of Burma goes way back to pre-colonial times before the Thibaw. Since then there have been several tectonic shifts within that tradition which, like any, continues to evolve in order to survive.
After publishing Saw Wai, I was sitting in the library and discovered the importance of Burmese poets like Dagon Taya, Zawgyi, and Min Thu Win, and I tried in vain to call up a book that would give me a historical overview of Burmese poetry, ideally up to the present day. No such book was in the catalogue of the British Library, or any other library in England. I soon realized that, outside of Burma, never has an anthology of Burmese poetry been published. I was stunned by this, because even through my initial readings, I realized that the quality of poetry from Burma was high. This book needed to happen, and it seemed unjust to me that it wasn’t already available to readers.
Why is it important to publish a Burmese anthology outside of Burma?
Ko Ko Thett: One of the reasons is that Burma has been considered a very bad country in many respects, but we are not behind in poetry and literature. That is why I would like the world to read our poems. That’s my personal intention.
James Byrne: I totally agree with what Ko Ko said. This is a chance for Burma to be seen differently, hopefully in a positive light, because the poets have been able to prevail despite the country’s political conditions.
What have been the challenges of assembling this anthology?
James Byrne: The early challenge was to have the whole project up and running. I have been working on this steadily for over two years and the early progress was slow because it was hard to reach the poets and translators in Burma, for a number of reasons. Ko Ko Thett and I have been co-editing the anthology since January this year, often involved in everyday dialogue, with daily rounds of emails and frequent translations to check over to improve the quality of the selection. Recently we’ve been fortunate to have two weeks in the same country working on this full-time: now in Helsinki and another week this Summer in London.
Without a doubt the greatest obstacle for me personally is in that I don’t speak (or read) Burmese. Given this, it has been important to discover who are the best people to work with to get the anthology over the line. Naturally, given my non-bilingual impediments, I have endlessly asked Ko Ko ‘what does this mean in Burmese?’ and ‘let’s check the original’ to the point that he must have tinnitus! The dialogue we’ve shared (often over the translatability of a single line) has been extensive and very thorough, and I hope this is reflected in the anthology itself.
That apart, challenges have been various—one is that female Burmese poets are greatly underrepresented. Historically there have been significant women poets in Burma; Kyi Aye (now living in New York) and Ma Ei are obvious examples. But for many years women had been the object of poetry rather than the practitioners. This has of course happened for centuries but, sadly, it is still somewhat the case today in Burma today. We have simply tried to find the best work available, but we have considered at all times to have some kind of proportional gender balance in our selection. Out of the sixteen poets we hope at least four of will be women. Obviously the selection, and having the right ingredients for the book, is a key responsibility as much as a challenge.
Ko Ko Thett: As James said, the most difficult challenge in assembling this anthology may be the selection. I have had to read a lot of Burmese poems and then think which poems translate best. So translatability is very important. Some poems read really great in Burmese, but when we translate them into English, they don’t really translate well. It’s the selection process that’s killing me.
I think is very difficult to translate from Burmese to English. Ko Ko, What do you think?
Ko Ko Thett: Definitely. Sometimes we can carry the sense, but we cannot carry the sound. That’s the most challenging part of poetry translation. Take Maung Chaw News’s “Music” for example. In its brevity, simplicity and philosophy, it’s as compact as a haiku. It reads really well and sounds very poignant in Burmese. But when it is translated into English, it’s a different read.
Whenever possible I try to reach the poets I’m translating by email, Skype and so on, to nail the meanings behind their lines and to get their opinion on my translation. I’ve been in contact with Khin Aung Aye, Zeyar Lin, Moe Way, Pandora, Eaindra, Maung Yu Py for example. In the case of the late Maung Chaw Nwe, I just had to invite his ghost to possess me while working on his poems. My effort has put me back into contact with the Burmese poetic world I have been out of touch for almost fifteen years. Very rewarding indeed.
What was it like for you to work on a Burmese anthology with a British poet and editor?
Ko Ko Thett: Well, I now write my poems in English, so I learned a lot of poetics from a British poet. That’s one thing. Another thing is we share very similar tastes in poetry. If we didn’t, I don’t think we could really click this much.
How did you find each other?
James Byrne: Vicky Bowman, who is the former ambassador to Burma, and Htein Lin who is her husband, a famous Burmese painter, were very helpful to the project right from the beginning. They put me in touch with Ko Ko, and I’m very grateful to them for that.
James, in an interview with Valerio Cruciani you said “Any very good poet should not only be interested in extending their own creative practice, but extending the traditions of poetry.” But after the censorship, persecution, and diaspora they must face, can we still ask this of Burmese poets?
James Byrne: Essentially I was saying that if you can’t extend the literary tradition (how many poets are truly capable of doing this?), then perhaps(you should) try to honor the literary tradition in some way.
I think that despite what’s happening in Burma, and has happened for many years and continues to happen, progress is evident in the looking at developments in recent Burmese poetry. As poets, we’re dealing with language which (by its very definition) allows writers to redefine language. And I think that’s happening in Burmese poetry right now too. So yeah, I think it is possible despite extraordinary circumstances and it’s frequently said that during political oppression writers redefine the literary tradition. Certainly poets are constantly pushing language forward, despite politically turbulent times. One only has to go over the last decade to find examples of this in the work of poets like Mahmoud Darwish in Palestine, Bei Dao in China or, further back in time, with Mayakovsky in Russia, Lorca in Spain or Dagon Taya in Burma.
Would you agree with me if I said that poetry is a window to understanding the situation of the country a poet comes from?
Ko Ko Thett: Yes, definitely! When we select poems, we try to choose pieces that are reflective of Burma as well as those which are reflective of the current global situation. It’s a window into the world of the poets; not only into their country, but also into their hearts as well.
What about the window of language? Will the English speaker reader have the chance to discover some Burmese words?
James Byrne: In the book we’re going to include a glossary of terms which are key, in certain cases, to understanding the poems. The word dukkha, for example, is cropping up in many poems. Actually, some of these words are actually getting into the English dictionary now. Like metta (a person’s love for friends and family) for example.
Ko Ko Thett: Padauk (the flower associated with Burmese new year) and pongyi (Buddhist monk) are now English words too. What we are trying to do is to also retain Burmese words that deserve to be in the English lexicon. Some words like dukkha don’t really translate well. I mean, dukkha has a number of meanings: misery, suffering, angst, anger, or anguish, but it isn’t just one of them, it’s all of them. I think dukkha deserves to be entered into the English lexicon.
Ko Ko, you have lectured, written poetry, and commented extensively on Burma around Europe since the late 1990s. You have also translated into English the work of Burmese writers who often cannot write what they want because of the restrictive censorship in Burma. What does “freedom of speech” mean to you?
Ko Ko Thett: Freedom of expression is everything. It is democracy’s litmus test. It is tyranny’s most-feared weapon. It’s an artist’s blank canvas, a prisoner’s walls, a woman’s voice, a womb, a cross to bear.