Maung Pyiyt Minn (b. 1953) lives in a middle-class house in a Yangon suburb. His living room is stacked high with boxes of pharmaceutical supplies from the small business he runs. In his garage, the bumper sticker on his car reads “Proud to be a poet.”
When did you start writing poems?
I have been writing poems since high school. When I started out, we wrote in a style called ‘four syllables.’ We composed segments made up of four syllables each. We’d then submit to magazines. The magazines would pick the ‘safe’ ones that would pass censorship. The magazines took poetry seriously and didn’t neglect young writers. These old-time editors were very respectable people who knew literature. If they selected your work, it meant your work was good.
What do you do for a living?
I’ve had a lot of different jobs. I’ve been a fruit vendor, merchant, taxi driver, a black market dealer, a traditional medicine pharmacist. I’ve dealt with so many kinds of people. They affect your poems. The way people talk and behave affects your work. They may not be necessarily inspirational. But they give you raw material.
You have said that “poetry is the noblest profession” – why?
You cannot make a living by writing poetry in Burma. Impossible. We write poems out of sheer love, without any material expectation. According to Eastern philosophy, if you devote yourself to something out of love alone, without any other expectations, your mind will be serene, free of jealousy or greed. Our mind becomes pure in this way, without sin. Therefore, a Burmese poet’s mind is like a saint’s mind when he is writing poetry. That is why I think poetry is the noblest profession.
How do you get your inspiration?
Our country is a strange one. When we were starting out as poets, people were under repressive dictatorship. We felt what are bad habits, what is unfair, what is bullying. So we sympathized with the oppressed. And we developed a habit to take the point of view of the oppressed when we wrote. As I became older, I became even more aware that injustice and oppression are everywhere in the world. With this newfound knowledge, even if I am not getting any inspiration, that profound sympathy with the oppressed urges me to write.
In any art form, as the artist becomes more mature and more knowledgeable, his creative power becomes stronger. You always start out by imitating others. Later, you try to outdo others by thinking of better words and expressions. That is how your creative power becomes stronger.
How about craftsmanship?
When I write, I want to put voices, colors, and views that are not used by others. In attempting that, I may end up using some expressions, dictions, tones that have not been seen by others. In Burmese poems, diction is the key. The poet must decide where the sentence will end, where the sentence will pause, etc. You must devise a system in which you decide with which word the sentence should end or make a transition to another sentence. The stronger your creative power is, the better you will get at this.
Your editing technique?
When we were young, we just wanted to send our poems to a magazine right away. Later you realize that yours will be compared to the others. That’s when I paid more attention to editing. I no longer wanted to rush it. It’s like a cat catching a mouse. Instead of getting done with it straight away, it has fun by tossing the mouse around, pouncing on it again and again. For poets, that process is a joyous process. We have fun by switching around words, adding or subtracting here and there. To get a good poem, editing is vital.
Do you have any foreign influences in your poetry?
When we moved from traditional rhyming poetry to a modern style that did not require rhyme, our bible was Pine Shadow, a thick anthology of poetry, with poetry by Shelly, Goethe and others. It was compiled and translated by our famous translator Maung Tha Noe. It included not just translated poems, but also analyses of them and biographies of the poets as well. For us who were fed up with four-syllable rhymes, which was the orthodoxy of Burmese poetry at the time, that fat book became our bible.
You had to live through censorship under the dictatorship. And now?
Dictators were not our elected leaders. There was so much unhappiness. It showed in our poetry. The readers, too, feel these things. Even if my poem is not that good, if they find the discontented voice, people will like it because it reflects their feelings. So a poet just had to express these feelings and his poems would already be half-successful among the people.
Now, in this liberalized time, many of these poets don’t know what, and how, to write. They will need time to adjust to the changing sentiment. Even younger generation poets now write totally differently from what we write. I think we will get something really new very soon in our poetry.
Can you tell us about the censorship?
To avoid the censor, we had to write obliquely. You developed skills to write things that would outsmart and outwit the censor. The censor was so paranoid that they would even ban the words ‘mother’ and ‘red’.
What did ‘mother’ and ‘red’ mean?
The censors generally assumed these words stood for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Similarly, expressions like “dark, gloomy sky” and “nebulous course/path” were not allowed. At first, you merely had to cover the censored lines with ink. Later, they demanded that all the censored materials must not be on the page at all, covered or not. So the magazines had to rip out the offending pages. If a reader found a missing page, they would automatically realize what had happened. That made the poets even more skillful.
How does this time of transition affect the poet?
You must write what you feel is right. We may not have to write obliquely. But you write the way you feel. Even without political motivation, a good poem will be a good poem. A beautiful poem describing the rain has no political motivation. It’s about rain and it’s just simply beautiful. If a poem reaches inside people’s minds and resonates with them, with or without politics, it’s a successful and good poem.
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