Khin Aung Aye is the Ultimate Ambassador for Burmese Poetry

By Petr Lom & Khin Aung Aye 20 November 2017

Khin Aung Aye (b. 1956) is the reason this book and film exists. He became our advisor, helping us navigate through the maze of thousands of poets in Burma – many of whose work is not translated. He is the ultimate ambassador for Burmese poetry: one of the most respected poets of his generation, with a discerning eye that suffers no fools or mediocrity, and a seriousness about his art that borders on the monastic – and which in the end is not surprising, since he lived as a monk for a year.

Tell me about your life.

I was born in Yangon. My family moved to Mawlamyine when I was old enough to register things in my memory: we were all together – father, mother and sister and I. When I was about seven, my parents separated. My sister and I were sent to Myaungmya to live with my aunt. We lived there for two years. After all the paperwork for the divorce was done, and their divorce became official, my mother came to pick us up. She had a small chicken farm in Rakhine State. My mother remarried. I went back to my father because I didn’t want to live with my stepfather. I am saying all these details because my childhood memories are important like an opening scene in a movie in my life as a poet.

So I was in Yangon again. When I became a teenager, I started to have problems at home; I ran away twice. I also developed an interest in girls. I fell for this girl and that girl. They inspired me to write poetry. I also read classic Myanmar poems in textbooks. I liked the way these poems sounded. I wrote some myself imitating their styles.

I met my sister’s friend during the Water Festival. We had feelings for each other, and then we had some issues. I was left with a broken heart. This inspired me to write more poems. Her name was Khin Ni Aye. I adopted the penname – one that I use to this day – Khin Aung Aye by inserting the word ‘Aung’ in the middle of her name. She was my first love and the love of my entire life.

I graduated from high school and enrolled at Yangon University. My friends and I published hand-written chapbooks of poetry. I became more engaged in writing poetry after my cousin showed me his modernist poems, which were very difficult to read. Writing love poems was no longer enough. My cousin also had a lot of poetry books which he shared with me. Under the Shade of Pine Tree, a collection of Western poems translated by Maung Tha Noe opened my eyes to a bigger world of poetry. After that, I developed a strong desire to become a poet.

During my third year at university, my mother divorced for the second time and my father disowned me. I joined art classes on the campus and became a member of the university’s art society. I met many young student artists. We were like brothers and sisters. We painted and wrote poetry together. These were important watershed moments that sent me on the way to becoming a poet.

I got married in 1979, which happened rather unexpectedly. I didn’t do much apart from writing poetry until my wife had our first child. Then came the second. I realized that it was time to look for a job. I had four or five different jobs during the first five years of the marriage. I used to keep a notebook and wrote poetry in it. Those poems were mostly unfinished short scribbles. Sometimes, I went through them and threaded some lines and stanzas together to produce more complete poems.

In 1990, I went broke and decided to go back to Yangon. But things didn’t work out in Yangon, so I left for Mandalay. It was in Mandalay that my poetry took an aesthetic shift. There was a lot of oppression from the military junta then, and there were a lot of restrictions on printing and publication. Even Xeroxing could become a big issue. I secretly published a chapbook called “Poems, 1990” even though I knew this was very dangerous.

In 2000, the poet Maung Pyiyt Min invited me to collaborate on a book. I gave him the poems from this old chapbook. These poems were submitted to the censors who asked me to leave out some lines from one of my long poems. I didn’t want to do that, so I left out the whole poem instead. Only five short poems went into publication. The long poem I left out would later be translated into English and published in Bones Will Crow – the first English language anthology of Burmese poetry. A poem that was written in 1990 got published in a faraway country twenty years later. That’s something, isn’t it?

Between 1990 and 2000, more things happened. I was an employee at a seafood export company owned by a Thai businessman, then a manager, then a director. In 1994, I went to Singapore to work. Once I was also appointed as a corporate representative at a company. In 1996, I became a monk. First I thought it would just be for a short period. But then I wanted to remain in the monkhood for life. However, after one year, I disrobed. My daughters were teenagers, and they needed me at home.

All these ups and downs of life were fuel for my poetry writing.

In 2005, I went to Singapore with an intention to settle there. But it didn’t work out. An old employer from Thailand offered that I start a small business with him in Bangkok. I moved to Bangkok and joined him. Then in 2009 he died from a heart attack. Everything stopped with that, and I became depressed. I turned to poetry as a refuge. At the same time, the Myanmar poetry scene was going through a major change from modern to contemporary. I read translations and writings on contemporary poetry by my friend Zeyar Lynn. I started to experiment with new techniques. In 2010, my writing gained momentum again. I started a blog and connected with new and old readers. Between 2009 and 2013, I had some opportunities to attend poetry festivals in Europe and other countries. That gave me more inspiration and strength to continue writing. With financial support from my daughter based in London, today I can dedicate my life to writing poetry without much worry.

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