Aung Cheimt Brokers No Compromise in His Art

By Petr Lom & Khin Aung Aye 17 November 2017

Aung Cheimt (b. 1948) is acknowledged as the greatest living poet in Myanmar today. Along with Thukhamein Hlaing, and several others, he was at the vanguard of modern poetry in Myanmar, moving it from its traditional fixed rhyme to something much more free. This freedom is palpable in Aung Cheimt. He is the ultimate artistic free spirit, who brokers no compromise in his art, to which everything else must be subservient. He is the Marlon Brando and James Dean of Burmese poetry – though the comparisons are inaccurate because his aesthetic rebellion is always a moral one too: his fierce poetry brokers no compromise with either dishonesty or cowardice. He is the poet that all poets in Myanmar would like to emulate. And if you’d met him, you’d immediately understand why.

How did you begin to write poetry?

I was arrested and held for fifteen months, three of which were in solitary confinement. It was during this solitary confinement that I started to compose poems just in my mind. This is what helped me survive. Writing poetry was a way of distracting the mind; a way to keep sane.

We wrote with whatever we could get our hands on, and then memorized the poem. We’d get a nail and scratch on the sleeping mat. Sometimes the etchings were so faint that you could only see when the light hit it. Or pick small pieces of lime mortar stuck between the bricks and use that to write a poem on the floor. That’s how I began to write.

When I was released, I would lock myself up in a room full of books and writing materials.

Now it’s a habit. I have never stopped writing since, though these days are long passed.

Your activism landed you in jail for a year and a half when you were only sixteen.

When your roof is leaking in the rain, the rain comes in from everywhere. There are so many things that I endured. There are things that you don’t like to write about.

Did you continue to study after your release?

I have never been interested in formal education. To this day, I don’t even have a graduation certificate. I started reading outside literature and found poetry. I also got interested in politics. Before the military government in 1962, students could form unions easily. I spent most of my times in these activities. I transferred to various schools, too. I would be absent from class twenty days out of a month. So were my friends. I wanted to taste the world even when I was young. I didn’t have much money. But with the little money I had, I would take trains to the outskirts of town and see life around me. I wanted to be happy, but with the military regime everything got turned upside-down. My friends were also not happy. We found happiness in teashops, and in pubs talking poetry and politics late into the night. We had no work. Only government employees had jobs.

And writing under censorship?

Living through the dictatorship, through such a bad era itself was a poem. We illegally published our poetry back then.

You became a better poet by thinking about how to get around the censor. Many of us were good enough, clever enough, witty enough to outsmart the censor.

It was not possible to just follow the government and write what they wanted you to say. That is not a way to create anything of value.

My definition of political activism is standing by the side of the oppressed and disadvantaged, not with the government, whoever they are.

What is it like to write now that censorship has been abolished?

It is so free now. Protest is nothing. Nothing is new anymore. You can now create anything you want. It is so open that you don’t know when and how to control your art. Everyone thinks he can be a poet just by scribbling three or four lines. Nowadays, in the so-called time of transition, writing has become much more free, but you also bear a greater responsibility as a result. You now have a duty to improve your poetry.

How do you write?

In my advanced age, I write everyday. You can’t set a specific time to write poetry. Once something comes into my mind, I write it down immediately. I’m always in an auto-on mode: always ready to write a poem.

I re-read my poems before I send them to a publisher. You may find your technique during this process. You can’t devise a poetry writing technique. You can only find it through writing.

You have made a living solely as a poet.

I can’t live without poetry. Poetry is a part of me, just like breathing, drinking water, eating. I don’t deliberately try hard to write. Poetic expressions just naturally come into my head for no reason at any time. I don’t know if it’s a gift or bad luck. I think it is my fate. I was a poet in my previous life. And I want to be a poet in my next life as well.

What do you want to tell the new generation of poets today?

Your poems must improve every day. Don’t be pleased or satisfied with what you already have. You must know there is something better, something unachieved, behind what you have just created. Try to improve yourself after each and every poem.

Authors’ Note: These interviews are excerpted from Burma Storybook, a poetry and photography book inspired by the documentary film of the same name, produced by Corinne van Egeraat and directed by Petr Lom. 

The English language hardcover edition of the book is for sale at Hla Day, Innwa Bookstore, Myanmar Book Center and the Strand Hotel.

 A Burmese language-only paperback edition of the book is for sale through Yangon Book Plaza.

There will be a Free Open Air Screening of the Burma Storybook documentary film (82 min.) in Mahabandoola Park in Yangon on November 25 at 6 p.m. From Nov. 25 to Dec. 4, you can visit the interactive Burma Storybook Photo Exhibit at the Tourism Burma Building.

For more information: www.burmastorybook.com