Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A New Future for Poetry in Post-Censorship Burma

Poetry Foundation has a great article by Harriet Staff on "A New Future for Poetry in Post-Censorship Burma" taking particular note of James Bynre's piece for The Dissident. Byrne noted "I came to realise that the poets were essentially working undercover. They were survivors (those that had survived) and the poetry was extraordinarily rich in imagery, playfulness and dense in metaphor."

This was an environment where for the better part of the 20th and 21st century words became liabilities. We find out in the article that words like "red," "sunset," even "mother" became forbidden. A book that will be of extreme interest to those of us working on similar issues is Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets, which is the first anthology of Burmese poetry to be printed in Europe and the Americas.

As I begin to transition into doing my work with Sahtu Press, I'm particularly struck by Byrne's remarks: "If you probe deeper and talk to many of the writers inside the country suspicion of the government and Western cultural organisations remains. In fact, several poets in Mandalay boycotted the Irrawaddy Festival this year because of apparent shoddy treatment by the (mostly British) organisers. Last year during the festival I became aware that many key Burmese writers were disappointed by their low-level of involvement in the festival. Clearly there is a need for the Burmese to decide how best to celebrate their own literature. This could take the form of an independently-run festival organised by the Burmese themselves."

It suggests to me that my work on the National Lao American Writers Summit is and remains an important effort. We'll find out later this week if we have been greenlit to convene the next National Lao American Writers Summit for August, or if it must wait until 2015, five years later.

It is my hope that Burmese, particularly Karen in Minnesota are able to build the critical mass they need, too, to rebuild their literary traditions. This will be one of the pressing questions of the Minnesota Legacy funds- if they will be willing to aid the newest Minnesotans, however brief their time among us has been.

I empathize deeply with their situation, and there are many other Lao who can appreciate this journey very concretely. Time will tell if we can rise up to the occasion or if we will all become cultures whom history rolls over, another story between the cracks filled with "what might have beens."

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