Myanmar poet speaks out at festival
HE read alongside Singaporean poets Anne Lee Tzu Pheng and Alfian Sa’at, Japanese poet Ryoichi Wago, Icelandic poet Gerður Kristný, Taiwanese poet Wu Huai-Chen, German Ghanaian poet Mamle Kabu and Tamil Sri Lankan poet and novelist Shobasakthi – who spoke on behalf of Tamil Sri Lankan refugees ahead of his reading.
But only Maung Day could recount the true story of two lovers who found and defiantly loved each other in spite of a military crackdown on dissidents in a not-too-distant Myanmar during the Epic International Reading Night on Love at the 2016 Singapore Writers Festival.
The Myanmar-born and Thailandeducated poet read poems and spoke on three panels during the SWF opening weekend including the Epic International Reading Night on Love, Poetry as a Force for Change and Creating Art in Different Mediums.
After the success of the 2015 Epic International Poetry Night, the festival organisers decided to have not one but two Epic International readings to fit into the festival’s theme of sayang – a Malay term of endearment meaning both love and loss. The second week of the festival will feature the second reading, the Epic International Reading Night on Loss on November 12.
During the Poetry as a Force for Change panel, Maung Day sat alongside Singaporean spoken word poet Jennifer Anne Champion and South African poet and professor, Sabata-mpho Mokae, speaking about the danger poetry poses to authoritarian regimes in times of political and artistic suppression.
An underlying question throughout the panel was on the role of the poet, especially in countries like Myanmar where freedom of expression, while not as policed and criminalised as it was under the military junta, remains an important issue for all writers throughout the country.
The moderator asked if the poets wrote with change in mind, to which Maung Day responded, “When I sit down and think about it – I am also reading newspapers and might have some feelings that make it into the poem – it is not the backbone of the poem. I try to make space for deeper meaning, to go against previously fixed notions.”
The theme of grating against the mainstream political narratives seemed to be a salient one for the three panelists, all of whom, whether intentionally or not, work to shift the common perspective in their poetry.
“I try to be a historian of feelings. In South Africa, the personal pain has become everyone’s pain,” said Sabata-mpho Mokae. “I am hoping for an Africa that tells a different story, that is not a victim but peaceful. I would like to see the end of racism and I am lending a hand through poetry.”
It is not just through words, however, that the festival’s multidisciplinary writers, artists and musicians engage with sayang. The last of the Maung Day’s panels, Creating Art in Different Mediums on November 6, spoke exactly to what the title suggests.
Together Singaporean text and visual artists Tania de Rozaria and Shubigi Rao joined Maung Day to explore both the challenges and creative freedoms that come with working with and between a variety of mediums.
Though known primarily in Myanmar for his poetry, Maung Day is also a visual artist as well as an occasional performance artist, helping to cofound Myanmar’s only international performance art festival, Beyond Pressure in 2008, with performance artist veteran Moe Satt.
The third Myanmar poet to be featured at the Singapore Writers Festival, Maung Day is helping to bring some of the nuanced, inventive, and compelling poetry out of a country that has previously been closed off to the world.
“Actually I think that even choosing to write experimental poetry is political,” he commented in an interview with The Myanmar Times a few weeks prior the festival. “It is resistance against the establishment … because there is always power when poets are established … There is always an invisible wall they have to go up against.”
Maung Day is just one in what will become a healthy stream of Myanmar writers and poets, becoming recognised internationally and as an integral part of the Southeast Asian literary canon.
Maung De represents Myanmar at the 2016 Singapore Writer’s Festival.