Myat (b. 1970) is a prominent journalist and the co-founder of the Human Rights and Human Dignity Film Festival – the first of its kind in Myanmar. She is currently writing a book about Myanmar’s recent political history. She sees a tension between journalism and poetry: while journalism is the realm of facts, it cannot reveal the truth in the same way that poetry can.
When did you start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry when I was ten years old because of my parents. They taught me how to write traditional rhyming poetry. I still remember when I was the youngest of all the poets during a poetry contest in my hometown. That was before 1980. My first poem was published in 1989 in a literary magazine.
Tell me about writing.
We have a saying that “poetry is property of the wise.” Words are the most powerful tool in a poem. Choice of words is more important than the words following rhyme to make a traditional poem. The words used in a poem can show a poet’s creativity. We see the taste of a poem through each and every word he or she puts in that piece. They can be very poetic words or common language of ordinary people.
Creativity is also in the structure of a poem. In our time, we have started to abandon rhyme. We break all traditional methods of poetry writing. Instead we play with words. We play with metaphors. We play with common language or slam words. We try to structure a poem with words and metaphors. Each poem has a unique structure and a unique style of a poet but we follow no form or no specific style.
I always follow my heart when I write a poem. I have never written a poem without a specific mood. For me creativity doesn’t come alone, it always comes together with emotion. It comes sometimes in the middle of doing something – like traveling on the bus or reading a book or seeing scenery. When I get a phrase or word in mind, I need to write it down in a notebook or in my mobile’s notepad, not to wash that word away with other things I am doing.
My life without poetry would be like curry without salt.
Is writing easy?
Poetry doesn’t come quickly. It forms in the heart of a poet for certain period of time. I was once in a place where I found the miracle of a beautiful stream and forest in a late full moon night. That beauty of nature stayed with me for a long time though I tried many times to write it down to make a poem of that magnificent night. A year later, in summer in my hometown, I wrote a poem about that night while I was struggling with the horrible heat of the dry season. I could still feel the breeze of that night on my sweaty forehead when I finished the poem.
And what about craftsmanship, the discipline of writing?
I hate the word discipline. I rather want to use “ethics.” When I started my career as a journalist, I always had to deal with ethics. Then I found two different truths: visible truth and invisible truth. As a journalist, I need to seek the truth with visible evidence but many times I found the invisible truth hiding in people’s minds which is sometimes much more painful than the visible truth. Because I need to follow the ethic of a journalist, I couldn’t put how I felt in my writing. I began self-censoring myself after I became a journalist. I tried not to put any emotion in my writing. That’s how I lost the creativity of a poet. That’s how I ended up as a journalist and write less and less poetry since 2004. And it’s why I’m stopping pure journalism now, and becoming more of a freelance author. So I will write more poetry.
How was your writing affected by living in an unfree society where freedom of speech was not permitted?
Living in an unfree society pushed us to use many metaphors in poetry. That’s how we could get away with censorship. But the more we hide what we want to say under metaphors, the less people read poems. The room of poetry and literary works became restricted to a smaller and smaller group of people. That led to a decline in literary life in Myanmar.
Now we have less restriction on freedom of speech. Many poets come up online and set up their own page on social media. We have freedom to write. We don’t need to hide any word behind complex metaphors. Still we are trying to structure poem with strong and poetic words. We have more freedom than ever.
What can you say about being a woman and a poet?
I don’t want to write issue-based poetry. I think poetry and women are two separate things. When I write a piece of literary writing, whether poetry, short story or novel, I don’t want to think about any single issue. I just want to follow where my pen leads me. I want to break all boundaries. Many times, I have felt my pen lead me on a journey to finish a piece – especially when writing poetry. I think that is art, not me or my pen.
Of course, I personally don’t like any form of discrimination against women. I also don’t want to be given more favors because I’m a woman. I don’t agree with a quota system favoring women in parliament because I disagree with the military quota system in our constitution [twenty-five percent of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military]. We want to have freedom to elect people who should lead the country without any gender-based interference.
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