Maung Yu Pye (b.1981) was born in the far south of Myanmar, in the town of Myeik on the Andaman Sea. Myeik is a sleepy fishing town on an emerald bay dominated by a giant reclining Buddha. Maung Yu Pye’s “Under the Great Ice Sheet” — a poem about a country frozen in time — inspired us to embark on this project.
What was the inspiration for your poem “Under the Great Ice Sheet”?
My inspiration came from a science fiction film. I wrote the poem so you can get multiple meanings from it. I wanted to talk about a circle of being and ceasing to be, of a race, of a world. Our existence and our multi-racial history are laced with incidents of systematically oppressing one another, one on top of another. At the same time, we are collectively pressed down by a giant ice sheet. And that ice sheet is yet underneath a greater ice sheet. An iceberg is our half-dead existence. The poem made it past the censorboard, because the censors were only concentrating on political jargon and certain key words they had identified as posing a threat to the regime. They probably thought it’s only science fiction.
When did you start writing poetry?
When I was 20 years old, in 2001. After three of my poems were selected by a poetry journal, I thought I had become a professional poet. But five years later I was introduced to Zeyar Linn’s philosophy of poetry and the turn towards modernism. That’s when I realized that I was still a student. And now after coming back from the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa, I am questioning my existence as a “Myanmar poet”, or even whether I am qualified to be a poet at all. I still have a lot to learn.
How do you write?
I rarely write daily. Sometimes, I write three or four days in a row, sometimes maybe just one poem in a month, sometimes maybe just one in a whole year.
For five years, I only experimented with creating a new form of poetry. Since our country is lagging behind in so many things, what we’re doing as new has already happened in the U.S. 20 years ago. But it’s better late than never. So I pursue the creation of new forms. That opened me to many other forms of poetry and showed me ways to create new kind of poems. Now, I am starting to change again. I discarded the overt emphasis on language and form. Instead of creating a new kind of poem, I once again concentrate on creating a real poem. If a poem becomes a real poem, then it’s new.
How do you get inspired?
For me, the seed of poetry comes from a film, a song, a journey, a news story, a family matter, or a new experience. An inspiration is when I experience a readiness to give birth to a poem, with all my senses and nerves ready to begin a creation. When you are in such a magical mood, even a glass or a table can become a poem. It is unbounded by theory. It is hard to imitate. It cannot come into existence just by simply trying. You need that something magical in you in order to create a poem, which makes the poetry very difficult and ever new.
Could you imagine not writing poetry?
Whether I like it or not, I think I am destined to exist as a poet. Everything comes to be because it has to be. The day you realize that poetic soul is riding on top of you for life, whether you like it or not, is the day you become a professional poet even without being aware of it.
Tell me about writing under the past censorship.
During the repressive military regime, when we had no freedom of expression, writing poetry felt much better. Poets then wanted to reflect the bad system. But they had to obliquely use words, symbolism, metaphors to avoid the censor, making their works richer. But still, there were certain words that you could not use at all. As the dictatorship lingered, some magazines and even some poets automatically ended up self-censoring themselves.
Now we can freely write what we want. But the poets whose wings were shackled during the dictatorship are slow to take flight now. I also think that the new generation that enjoys freedom and new technology lacks experience and forgets the techniques of the modernist poets of the past who had to struggle hard just to keep themselves alive.
How do you balance daily life with your art?
As I grow older, family obligation and work challenge my life as a poet. That is what all poets here experience. My environment demands that making money must be my first priority in life. I’ve worked so many jobs since I finished school. I have become a ‘wage slave’. But I have a family now — a wife and two children, so what am I to do?
Only very few people respect and recognize the poet and his work. Although we didn’t become poets to gain recognition, it’s become increasingly hard to live among those who don’t value your art. I find it a little depressing and discouraging.
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