(This is the fourth and last installment in a short series about the PEN World Voices Festival.)
Every spring, for nine years running, the PEN World Voices Festival brings an astounding array of writers from all over the globe to New York City for a weeklong exchange of ideas and celebration of matters of literary exigence. Next year, even if you can get to only a few of the myriad events scheduled, you’ll get to be part of a remarkable conversation about life and literature that you won’t soon forget.
Burma’s Poetry Scene is active and vibrant. And so is its poetry scene. The former is sanctioned by The State and includes Heroic Verse about the Official History of the Country. It can be studied in schools and can be recited without fear of recrimination. The latter has sometimes been outlawed. It makes a distinction between The Glorious History of the State and personal history, between the sanctioned experience of The Citizens of the State, and the personal experience of the individual people who comprise Burma’s cities and countryside. Burma’s poetry, with a small “p,” glorifies language and learning and openness, and it has often been read and shared in only small teahouses and private homes. In its past it’s been fed carefully and secretively from the few scant volumes of international poetry that have been translated into Burmese from other languages. And though the Official Government does not accept the latter as Burma’s Official Poetry, it is celebrated for its bravery both here in the US and abroad.
On the final day of PEN World Voices, the well-known Burmese poets Zeyer Lynn and Khin Aung Aye joined anthologist James Byrne to present a discussion and reading of modern and contemporary Burmese poetry as it is practiced by this dedicated and thriving community. Byrne, who lives in the UK, is the editor of the international poetry magazine, The Wolf, and he recently helped co-translate and co-edit a book newly available in the US, Bones Will Crow: An Anthology of Burmese Poetry.
The three writers spent the afternoon choosing poems to read in both Burmese and English and discussing the fraught history of poetry in a country shackled by a military dictatorship that has had limited communication and interaction with the outside world and has all but quashed forms of expression not sanctioned by the state. Most notions of the modern world in general and of Modernism in art had to be carefully smuggled back in to Burma by students who studied abroad in the 1930s. Books and ideas were translated and traded clandestinely, while the approved channels of education remained woefully behind the times. As late as 1968, even forward leaning Burmese poets were deliberating the value of poetic devices like free verse and colloquial speech, devices that, while in common use in other poetries around the world, were still little used by contemporary poets of Burma.
The poems read on this day, though, were fresh and contemporary and full of tension and play. Not all the poetry was political, but the background shading of many of the pieces was colored by freedoms denied, experienced, or yearned for, whether the poems were narratives of personal experience, lyrics of flashing beauty, or modern epic inventions. These are poems neither supported by- nor supportive of- the government, and should you be traveling in Burma, you won’t hear them read as part of the annual poetry competition there. But through the efforts of these poets and anthologists, and others like them, the door through which poets and poetry can travel to and from this country has been opened just a little bit wider.