For National Poetry Month: Q&A with James Byrne

James Byrne discusses his efforts to create an anthology of Burmese political poetry as the nation begins to step out of its history of censorship.

By Jerome MurphyApril 25, 2014

    For National Poetry Month: Q&A with James Byrne

    James Byrne, who conceived and edited Bones Will Crow and toured with the poets Zeyar Lynn and Khin Aung Aye, answered the following questions about the project’s conception and its significance in the current literary landscape.


    How did you first become involved with the project and with ko ko thett? This book is a cultural and literary milestone, and I'm wondering about the process of bringing such a project to fruition, including finding a publisher.

    In 2006, I was soliciting for The Wolf magazine and was looking, as I still do, to run a feature on a poetics I didn’t know much about. We first thought of doing something on Pakistani poetry but instead I turned to Burma. I think this was probably because we’d already published a couple of translations of Saw Wai who, at the time, was the most famous Burmese poet in the West. This was principally because of an ekphrastic poem he wrote criticizing the then military leader Than Shwe, for which he received a long prison sentence. Human Rights organizations appealed for Saw Wai’s release and the BBC ran a story (the poem was an acrostic poem, seemingly whimsical and innocent, but if read vertically it said something like ‘power mad General Than Shwe’). But, as I trawled the British Library for more examples of modern Burmese poetry translated into English, nothing came up and there was certainly no anthology to work from. So I wondered if it would be possible to work with a Burmese translator.

    I spoke with Vicky Bowman and Htein Lin and they put me in touch with Zeyar Lynn — a brilliant man and the most well known Burmese poet and translator living today. But he couldn’t do it because he was living in Yangon and is the head of a school, where he employs nine members of staff. Eventually Vicky said that ko ko thett might work with me and, all of a sudden, we were exchanging several translations a week. In fact, the book you’ve seen could easily have been double in size. There was a lot of translated material we couldn’t publish, for one reason or another. And some of the great names of Burmese poetry are not included in Bones Will Crow, like Min Thu Win and Dagon Taya. Leaving names like these out was particularly difficult. However we wanted to include Burmese poets of the 21st century as well as those from the past and we begin Bones with Tin Moe, born in 1938.

    Finding the right publisher took some time. Two quickly expressed interest, but neither wanted to publish a bilingual anthology — something crucial to ko ko thett and I, because we want the book to be read by Burmese living across the world, including in the United States.

    Having been sealed off for so long, were Burmese poets made to "copulate with their own craft" as Ma Ei puts it, in any way that creates a distinctly Burmese voice? For instance, one might say of American verse that the confessional movement and its wide-ranging influence is of a piece with the historically bold, brash voice of American individualism. Can any similar generalizations be made of Burmese poetry, in your view?

    Even a casual reader of poetics from the region would recognize that Burmese poetry appears to be quite different from its bordering countries. I’ve noticed that there is more playfulness, more anaphora (particularly in recent Burmese poetics). This is, in part, because Burmese poetry of recent years has been actively influenced by Zeyar Lynn’s translations of the New York School and Language poetry, but also Nyein Way’s instigation of Conceptual Poetry in Burma. Overall, one can say that American innovative poetries have been a genuine guiding force for Burmese poetry in the 21st Century. John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, and Kenny Goldsmith are well known among leading poets of the new generation in Yangon. Translation has obviously played a remarkable role here. Burma is a country that was heavily censored for near-on fifty years. As Burmese poet Khin Aung Aye once told me: "Translation, during censorship, was like a way we could climb the tree to get at the fruit." And, of course, Burmese poetry wasn’t always ‘copulating’ whilst being shut off from the rest of the world. The world always finds a way to seep in, somehow, and Burmese poets have been incredibly courageous and innovative, it seems to me, in claiming their right to be modern.

    And yet, for all its striving towards (post)modernity, throughout Bones Will Crow you will find poets that adhere to what is a deeply embedded sense of history and tradition within the country, who frequently immingle modern references with Buddhistic terms. Burmese poetry goes back to the 9th Century and derives from Pali-Sanskrit, so there is a great tradition to draw upon.

    Are there any poems in particular that you find especially representative of the aesthetic and political shifts in the Burmese poetic landscape?

    Aung Cheimt’s poems in the anthology are key because they were some of the first poems in Burmese that would rely on a more imagistic building of lines, rather than the khitpor (modern) poetry of the 1970s, which often relied more on a more emotional or sentimental quality in seducing the reader. Aung Cheimt’s vision reflects a more fragmented or subdivided version of the self. This heralded an aesthetic shift, one which is still very much relevant today.

    "Meeting the Buddha" by Tin Moe is an example of a poem that he couldn’t have written in his homeland. Tin Moe lived in exile in Belgium and the United States after being imprisoned in Burma. Every Burmese poet tends to use a pseudonym, even in the post-censorship era, and Tin Moe was so famous under his name that — with the threat of further imprisonment looming — he eventually escaped by using the actual name on his passport (nobody knew him by his real name). And it was in exile that Tin Moe produced some of the most openly reactionary and freest work.

    More recently poems like "The City Siege of the Daft" by Pandora offer an exciting tectonic shift, in the sense that they mention Princess Diana, Tiger Woods, and Michael Jackson whilst the poem is also a veiled attack on the "daft" powers that be. Pandora has also, like Ma Ei before her, paved the way for women in Burma to be the makers of poems and not just the objects of a male gaze. In 2012, Pandora edited the first anthology of women’s poetry in the history of the country. 

    It was fascinating to hear Zeyar Lynn discuss strategies for eluding censorship. Do you have a sense of how important the poetry of witness is to the life-and-death urgency of the political protests in Burma? If poetry is the most common literary form in Burma, it would seem to function in a vastly different way than poetry in other places — to meet quite different and more urgent needs.

    Since the censorship laws have been removed, Burmese writers exist in what must be a strange kind of freedom. There are poems about Syria being written now which would have been banned only a few years ago when the war there started. If anything the potentiality of Burmese poetry is as great as at any time in the history of the country. Burmese literature, much like its political situation, is very delicately balanced right now. 

    Within the country there are still massive obstacles for writers, unimaginable to us in the West. The country desperately needs nationwide educational reform. And there are still some strange things going on for writers in the post-censorship era. For example, poets are supposed to have a "license" (yes, a new meaning to the phrase "poetic license") and poetry magazines are still not officially allowed to exist (the editors just publish them as "books" instead of journals anyway). Still, in the recent past, things were much worse. Activist-poets were often sent to jail (though often for their activism more than for their poetry), and there were several bizarre no-no’s. For example: you couldn’t use the word "red" in a poem because of its associations with communism.  And General Ne Win (who staged a military coup in 1962 and ruled with an iron fist for decades) banned allusions to sunsets in poems because his name roughly translated as "sunrise." Paranoid to the hilt and deeply superstitious, Ne Win thought that such references would be like an assassination attempt through literature. Can you believe this? Of course these are just well worn anecdotes that have been told to me. There are far worse stories I’ve heard about solitary confinement and torture for Burmese artists and activists, which I won’t go in to here.

    The link to "poetry of witness" is interesting isn’t it? When Carolyn Forché anthologized the term and when we were selecting for Bones I did think about how inventive Burmese poets have had to be in order to avoid successive eras of military censorship and its consequences. Forché talked about how we in the West don’t have “nominal restrictions on state censorship; our citizens are not sent into exile” (or routinely arrested). Burmese poets were for decades. And yet now, if they choose, they can, post-censorship, give more actualized perceptions of what they have seen, or how they might have lived. So I’m reiterating that Burmese literature — like all national literatures to some degree — is a literature in transition. And I’m sure, as part of this transitional process, that there are questions poets are asking of each other in Burma today, such as: does the literal appropriation of witness make for better art?

    In your opinion, what might English-speaking and -writing poets learn from these poets, culturally or aesthetically?

    Much could be learnt culturally, because the West knows so little about Burma beyond its ongoing political, economic, and social problems and, of course, the prominence of Aung San Suu Kyi.

    I’ve learnt that Burmese poetry helps me to understand poetry as being a parable of survival. It’s not that Burmese art has been used as a candle in the dark, or anything like that, but more that the poetics of Burma is one of high stakes amid (or because of) extreme government scrutiny. And yet Burmese poetry has, rather extraordinarily over the years, been able to point the surveillance camera back on the Burmese authorities, without them even noticing. Of course this is incredibly dexterous and takes immense skill with language to accomplish.


    Jerome Murphy received an MFA from New York University, where he currently acts as Program Administrator at The Creative Writing Program.

    LARB Contributor

    Jerome Murphy received an MFA from New York University, where he currently acts as Program Administrator at The Creative Writing Program. He assisted Diane Middlebrook in researching Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, a Marriage. His reviews have appeared in the column Outwords, which he authored for Next Magazine from 2010-2011, and in The Brooklyn Rail. You can read more critical writing at:


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