Book Review: Bones Will Crow, by ko ko thett and James Byrne

A Poet in Exile in Vienna

Top Stories | Dardis McNamee | November 2012

An interview with the Burmese poet, translator and co-editor, with James Byrne, of the new anthology Bones Will Crow

Poetry tells of place as well as experience, and often, says Burmese poet ko ko thett, a poet in exile becomes a different poet. When you enter another language, you find a different voice, a different sensibility.

In 1997, when thett was 24 he left Burma; he had just spent four months in prison following a student uprising in Rangoon. It was no longer safe to stay. He went to Thailand, and then in 2000 to Finland, where his life in English began. Today he writes almost exclusively in English.

"I began to lose my Burmese poetics," he said. "so I began to write in English." It was a simple statement, matter-of-fact, as if changing a language, and thus a worldview, were the simplest thing in the world. He is a Burmese poet, but no longer a Burmese language poet.  At least not directly.

ko ko thett has come to Vienna to study with Wolfram Schaffar at the Institute for International Development at the University of Vienna. "My plan is to become a researcher," he said. And write poetry.

With British poet James Byrne, he is co-editor and translator of Bones Will Crow, an anthology of Burmese poetry to be presented on 5 November in Vienna at the Alte Schmiede in Schönlaterngasse in the 1st District, a cultural association that houses the Literarisches Quartier dedicated to presenting contemporary Austrian writing and other work with regional sigificance.  The anthology contains the work of 15 Burmese poets presented in a Burmese-English, side-by-side edition from Arc Publications.

The poets include two near-legends of 20th century Burmese poetry, Tin Moe (1933-2007) and Maung Chaw New (1949-2002), and even five women, including Pandora, who made her name as a blogger in Singapore and is now at the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. thett has translated four poems for each of the fifteen poets – none of whom has ever been presented to English speaking readers. A considerable achievement.

"This book is too small for me, really," he said, almost apologetically. "I would like to see another volume." Well, yes. But this is a well-selected first taste, with poems that are graceful and moving, and should be well received.

The overwhelming challenge of such an anthology is, of course, the translation itself, of being true to the meaning, but also the performance of the original. This is often only possible to some extent.

"It is very difficult," thett said. "We can usually carry the sense, but not the sound. The way English sounds, the rhythm, the music of the language, is so different. So here we stressed the readability in the target language – finding expressions that would be understandable for English-speaking people."

The images, backed by their cultural traditions, are at times comically different.

"Look at the name of the book, Bones Will Crow," he went on. "This means ‘the chickens come home to roost’, something like, some day the ghost will come back to haunt you!"

They chose the phrase as the title to give a feel for Burmese idiom, but in the poems, they tried to be sure that everything was explained. "It’s so different sometimes," he said, "Like ‘the heat bearer’. That means the sufferer." Along the lines of "if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen"? I wondered. He laughed.  "Something like that."

There are two schools in Burmese poetry: the traditional poets from Upper Burma, who are both closer to nature but also more ideological, and what he called the "language poets" from Lower Burma, who are "more open to the world" and choose more universal themes.

Poetry, like all art, comes out of experience, out of the lived life and surrounding political and social world of the poet.

"It’s the popular expression of everyday life; it has to be this," thett said. "It’s writing of a very practical nature, poetic allusions to the way we live."  In the Burmese tradition, written poetry grew out of an oral tradition, with Buddhist stories told by the monks and handed down. The Burmese had no script of their own, so borrowed from India. "So their spoken language doesn’t match their written language," he said.

And "everyday life" to thett means politics. ("In Burma I was a protest poet," he said.) Since leaving the country, he has stayed active with other exiles in talking about events at home.  What he sees is discouraging.

"In Burma I see a ‘no-progression draw’," he said, using a term common from the country’s obsession with the game of chess. "No one can eliminate the other so the country cannot progress; there is a little movement but still you cannot capture the king."  It’s a trap, and a dead end.  In his poem "Timely Applause and Toothy Smiles", he ends,

denizens wear nothing but the loincloth

of law, it’s no progression, it’s a draw.

"‘The loin cloth of the law’, this is how it is in Burma "he says. "People are stripped naked by this constitution. In the parliament 25 per cent are military officers. It takes 75 per cent to change the constitution so the state is in a stalemate."

Still there has been change; Burma has opened up, at least to some extent. "They used to have a Black List of 1,000 names under the old regime," he said. He wasn’t on it, as he was too young. But Tin Moe was, as were many foreigners. But all that is over.

So ko ko thett was back to visit recently, and it wasn’t entirely happy.

"I came back [to Vienna] really depressed; maybe I have lived too long in Europe," he said. "The economic institutions there are not really trustworthy, and there is no guarantee of consumer rights. Even when you take a taxi, they will take more passengers without asking your permission."

He told about a scandal with cooking oil imported from China. "It wasn’t even oil," he said, exasperated. "You can buy something on the street and it could be anything at all. I was really disappointed by that. We need to change a lot."

But ko ko thett is a poet, not a politician, not a general or even a philosopher. And he is in exile. What role can he possibly play?

"Poetry doesn’t have any direct influence; but it has the power to affect people who will then change the way they think," he said. "We have a long tradition of poetry in Burma. I think it matters."

Bones Will Crow

by ko ko thett and James Byrne, eds & trans.

Arc Publications, U.K. (2012), pp. 266

Reading: 5 Nov., 2012

Alte Schmiede

1., Schönlaterngasse 9

For more on Burmese poets, see "Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets – review" in The Guardian.

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