‘Poetry Gives the Reader Moral Strength’

By Petr Lom & Khin Aung Aye 20 November 2017

Zeyar Lynn (b. 1959) has very long hair. And an interesting story to go with it. While teaching at Yangon University his boss called him into his office one day and ordered him to cut his hair. He refused and quit instead. Since then, he has run a successful English language school in downtown Yangon. He is famous in Myanmar for introducing postmodern poetry and language poetry in the country.

When did you start writing poetry?

I started writing poems in Grade Nine. Love poems, naturally.

And when did you think of becoming a professional poet?

When I was in my early thirties and some of my poems had already appeared in literary magazines, I felt I had built up enough confidence to call myself a poet, and what more, a professional poet.

How do you write?

I try to write everyday. Not always complete poems but drafts, notes, snippets of overheard conversation, striking images, thoughts, and so on, which I go through on Friday, and if, fortunately, I sense a spark, I follow it through to the end.

I also read other people’s poems too, both Burmese and international, to catch that source of energy that will build up in me leading me to a quick jotting down of the poem/draft line by line.

I hardly ever start with a theme or a subject, but rather I let the theme or subject(s) form itself/themselves through the process of writing the poem. I have to keep my rationalizing part of the mind in check and let another (the ‘other’) part take over. When that energy runs out, it is also the end of the poem. Creativity to me is open, free, play, jouissance.

What is the role of the poet in society?

Unlike prose, poetry gives the reader moral strength and makes her believe in a better future. That’s how poets have helped strengthen the people’s resolve against the military regime.

But now, I have shed the ambiguous/ambivalent role of the poet as ‘an unacknowledged legislator’ of society.

I am beginning to feel that my subjectivity is equally as important and real as society and social critique.

How did the sixty years of dictatorship affect poetry in Myanmar?

Our years of isolation under the dictatorship led to a certain degree of impoverishment in poetry. And certainly in terms of the art and craft of poetry-making, Burmese poets are not as sophisticated as say, the former East European poets, to cite a comparison, because of similarities in the social-political systems. However, in terms of wielding influence, some poets have become icons in the Burmese poetry world for their poetic voice that rings with strong political sentiments. Think of Hla Than, for instance. The lack of creative writing programs in the education system is partly to blame for the majority of readers wanting ‘clear’, ‘straightforward’, ‘message-carrying’, and other mediocrity in poems.

How is poetry now changing in Myanmar?

With the quasi-victory (the military still wields a lot of power) of the NLD party [the National League for Democracy] there has been a fresh sense of freedom of expression. For example, I notice the younger generation women poets taking on the themes of gender, feminism, and sexuality, breaking down social-sexual taboos along the way. I personally know two women poets in their early twenties who openly admit to being bisexual in their poems. This is quite extraordinary in our society that is very traditional and conservative.

And so, the ethical/moral responsibility you ask about has not faded because of our new political freedom. Instead, it has widened to include issues of land use and abuse, minority rights, gay rights, race and religion, environmentalism, global terrorism, and so on.

And when it comes to how these changes are affecting contemporary poetry in Myanmar, I think we have greater opportunity to learn more and experiment more, so that contemporary poetry is becoming more complex. And more poetic and less rhetorical and polemical.

Our generation wants more art and less politics. We often talk about the two Ps: politics and poetry. Which one will you write as a capital, which one as a small letter? For us, the capital letter is poetry. It doesn’t mean we are against politics – that’s impossible of course – even the air we breathe is political. But what we want to focus on is the poetic nature of a given work of art.

 You introduced contemporary “language” poetry in Myanmar.

Yes. Language poetry was an avant-garde group or tendency that emerged in the late 1960’s in the US that saw a poem as a construction in and of language itself. It is an example of poetic postmodernism.

I still encounter resistance to it. Many poets still see language as merely a vehicle to carry their thoughts and feelings, which are ‘the stuff of poetry’. Language is usually relegated to second place after thoughts, feelings, theme or message. I have been told off several times that the reason I emphasize language is that I have no lofty thoughts or feelings like them so I just play with language games. They don’t know Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein, and Charles Bernstein, the three Steins in my poetry life.

Tell me about your poem “The Chicken/Duck Market”.

That poem started with the smell of stench, chicken shit and duck shit, and stale blood as I was going past the main Chicken and Duck Slaughterhouse in Yangon. The walls, I noticed, were whitewashed as if the whiteness (innocence, purity) could hide the slaughter going on behind the walls. What an irony. When I wrote that poem, the censor board had already been abolished. I believe I wrote that poem just as a poem rather than a statement against injustice.

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