Ko Pye (b. 1965) lives and breathes poetry. In fact, he does nothing else – alongside Aung Cheimt the only full-time professional poet in this collection. Typical of many Burmese poets who disavow that their writing is political, above all because of a desire to not let art deteriorate into propaganda, his writing is scathingly critical of political reality, despite his protests to the contrary.
When did you start writing poetry?
I started when I quit mechanical engineering school in 1987. It was a dark period of political tumult. My family suffered much hardship. I did not have enough to eat and carried bags and cargo in the port for a living. During the 1988 uprising, a friend of mine got shot and died. I think these were the factors that drove me to become a poet. I was only 22 then.
When did you realize you wanted to become a professional poet?
I am like a billiard ball that doesn’t know where it will be hit next. There have been years of darkness when I couldn’t see. I was a man who was gradually losing everything bit by bit. In the end I had nothing except my heart. I even lost my guitar. I stopped singing, became silent
I didn’t know it was a poem. It took me some time to realize that.
How do you write?
There is not a day I don’t write poetry since about the year 2000. In my town where people are storing up gold like pirates, I am storing up poetry. Some of those who accidentally stumble upon my booty throw it away, others treasure it.
Sometimes I write four to five poems at a time, I never think they are worthless or no good. It’s just like grapes that grow in a cluster from a single branch.
The poets who come into the field named “poetry” are like the visitors to a club. They may want to dance, drink, and have a good time. Although their intentions are the same, the reasons they have come to the club may differ.
In my case, society is constantly urging me on to write. A word, a situation, anything can become a poem. Especially, when it hurts me or makes me happy. I only need excitement from a word, a circumstance, a body gesture, or a sound. And then, I just have to ll the blank page before me.
Myanmar is changing, how does this affect your writing?
In our country a word like “President” is still very politicized. It is not yet easy to transform that word into a poem or a film. We are not that free yet. There are some people who wrote using that word. Some got into trouble. Some did not.
Poetry always strives to understand politics. But politics always tries to influence and use poetry. Some of us have become strong political poets. But freedom is more necessary in order to publish and exhibit work, not for the process of creating the work. I’ve always written what I want to write. The changing nature of politics gives my mind a little bit more freedom.
Now under our democratic government, I have freedom of expression. But in reality, this is something that does not exist. During the censorship era, once they give your writings a pass, that was it. There were no repercussions after that. Now, you can write freely but they can arrest you for what you write.
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