Poetry Parnassus could have gone on all month, and there would still be new poets to discover. As it was, discoveries were random and personal. One of mine was Burmese poet Zeyar Lynn. A poem about owning (or not) one’s own history takes on a different dimension when written by a poet who lives in such repressive circumstances (but see below) and, as he told us, among various definitions of what history means. I can’t quote from that poem without the latest issue of The Wolf.
Here is the beginning of ‘Next Slide’, translated by ko ko thett:
Life is back to normal
In the West it's a different story
Shall we also discuss the issue of the privileged
Impossible, I have said it many times
Maria Seow, Channel News Asia, Beijing
It’s impossible to guess what might come next.. see The Wolf online to find out.
I couldn’t find Zeyar Lynn in the visiting poets’ biographies until I thought of looking under Myanmar, the version of the country’s name adopted by the military dictatorship after they killed thousands of demonstrators in 1988. See here for the politics of naming Burma.
There’s an absorbing piece by Zeyar Lynn in Jacket about the recent history of Burmese poetry, which made me think (a) all such histories are basically the same, not that it will feel like that to people who have lived through them; and (b) it is a mistake to let one’s view of Burma be coloured entirely by the political situation, however shocking this has been for the last 20 years and more, however many artists have been imprisoned. The Jacket piece does refer to politics but only occasionally, and as backdrop – as if to say, we will not let it absorb us and our literary history.
James Byrne has edited a Burmese anthology, Bones that Crow, published by Arc, as well as publishing Zeyar Lynn and others in The Wolf. There’s an interview with Byrne and co-editor and translator ko ko thett here – the latter says sometimes the impossibility of reproducing sounds means a poem written in Burmese just doesn’t work in English. Byrne says that Zeyar Lynn is ‘more interested in “poetry of the brain” than of the heart’. Might that make translation easier, at least with this poet?
Zeyar Lynn has translated poets into Burmese who haven’t been known there before, including John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein and Wisława Szymborska, and has pioneered LANGUAGE poetry and Flarf in Burma, contributing to a move away from traditional Burmese poetry. One of the impacts has been to bring women poets in to a previously male world.
Here (at the end of the link) is an extract from ‘The Ways of the Beards’, translated by ko ko thett:
In the history of chin, beard is the defeated truth
The world burned down at Marilyn’s beard
The mediocrities look elegant in media beards
Honoured with flexible beard awards
The beard of the capital decorated with electric lamps
O...the beard of dreams beyond form
The beard of the desert whirling at the end of my vision
A small red mole (still running) on the beard of social realism
We have emerged from the raincoat of the famous Bluebeard
Beard sobbing over my shoulder
Zeyar Lynn’s translation choices make sense when one reads his poems. There’s a surrealism about them that could take one to Eastern Europe, and a wacky humour that goes with all three poets mentioned above. Burma, New York, Poland – poets from the most and the least repressive places (but see above) – this was the sort of connection that Poetry Parnassus enabled us to make.