Moe Way (b. 1969) was born in a small village in the Irrawaddy Delta and now lives in Yangon. He lives in a high-rise apartment piled high with boxes of books. Moe Way is both a poet as well as Myanmar’s most prominent publisher of poetry.
How did you discover poetry?
I was born in a village in Ayeyawaddy Division. My father was village chief. He had some law books, because he needed to study a bit of law for his work. I loved reading since I was small, but there were no other books to read except for these law books. They were easy to understand because they had examples of cases, written like stories. These were the first books I read.
Then I went to middle school in a small town and stayed at a monastery. Some young novices there had translated kung fu novels. I then started reading romance novels. I also started getting interested in poetry that I had to study in textbooks. I still remember the pen name of one of the poets I read: “Ancient Anonymous”. What a romantic name. Not a lot of kids were into poetry. But I was. I started writing poems in seventh grade.
Then we moved to Yangon, and I had access to magazines and read lots of short stories. Back then, I merely read poems casually. But some of my friends were already really into it. Through them, I got to appreciate poetry as a separate art form in itself, reflecting what’s going on around you, how you’re feeling. Then I started writing poems as well as experimenting with short stories. I did not have any expectations yet even then. Then by the mid 90’s, I met a poet and fell in love with poetry. I got married in 1991 after failing tenth grade twice. The schools were closed frequently due to unrest. I set up a furniture shop as well as a teashop in my neighborhood. Then I ran a pharmacy.
And how did you start publishing books?
I often went to bookstores and found that nobody was publishing books of poetry. I wanted to publish them. I started out with some borrowed money. For a while, I was juggling between my pharmacy and book publishing. Then I gave up the pharmacy completely to concentrate on publishing to this day.
How do you write? Do you have a specific time of day for writing?
I don’t work like that. Whenever I read good poetry by others, I get inspiration for myself. I don’t need a special place or time for writing. All I need is a pen and a paper.
Do you want to comment on your writing style?
Some people think the modern poems we write are easy to create because they don’t adhere to rhyme and other stringent rules. But it is not that easy. It has its own system that we studied and practiced for years and years.
We must know when reading a poem that this poem is similar to that poem which in turn came from this and that kind of poem. This poet breaks the rules and conventions of that poet before him, and turns the poem into something of his own – we must recognize that. If not, an outsider might think something is a poem but we know it is not.
Can you tell us your position on post-modernism?
When people here first heard about post-modern, everyone started talking about it. They were very influenced by western post-modernism, and wanted to come up with criteria of what it meant. But to me, post-modernism is already here in Myanmar even without anyone knowing it. Post-modernism was already in our everyday life. A cell phone here would cost about $1500, a price you wouldn’t find anywhere else in the world. That’s to me a kind of post-modernism.
I’ve become older and more mature. Nowadays, I don’t have any “ism” in me. I just want to write pure poetry. I want to write about clear water, sky, and flowers, anything that inspires me. I no longer hold on to any “ism”.
How are the changes in Myanmar — its “democratization” — affecting the way poets write?
The way I write poems never really changes. Finding raw material and inspiration still remains the same. They don’t change just because the political situation changes. We’ve always used symbolism when needed. It is true that sometimes you had to use symbolism to get around the censor. But many poems reflect the truth without resorting to such measures. Only those with an overtly political statement had to rely on symbolism to get away with it.
I should emphasize that writing is not just concerned with politics. True poets are not thinking about politics all the time. We are also creating apolitical art as well. But poems about politics seem to get all the attention — for example Saung Kha’s recent Mr. President poem [a poem he wrote about getting a tattoo of the President’s face on his penis, for which he was sentenced to prison.]
Tell me about working under censorship.
We had to give the censor’s office three copies of the manuscripts for inspection. They were particularly difficult about poetry. They’d take at least four to six months to approve a poetry book. Sometimes you had to bribe them just to speed up the process a little — all the way up the ladder — from the clerk to their supervisor, to the inspector’s clerk, to the inspector. They also fined us 10 cents for each misspelling they found.
And they had their own definition of symbolism. For example, they thought ‘rose’ refers to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The writer may not even mean her. But the censors prohibited the word.
Some poets didn’t let them touch their poems. So we had to remove the poem from the publication. Some poems got some stanzas and lines censored. There were so many hardships back then. But that’s how we had been working all our lives and we didn’t think of it as so difficult. It was just one of those things we had to do. Now, there are no such hassles anymore.
What is it like to publish now?
You no longer have to wait many months to pass the censor — you can publish right away. Films don’t enjoy that kind of freedom yet. Only books. But if you publish something that might offend someone, you might face legal action. But as for publishing, you can do whatever you want now. It is easy to publish a book now.
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