PEN World Voices Festival Dispatch: “Bones will Crow”

By Andrew Seguin

To celebrate the publication of Bones Will Crow, an anthology of Burmese poetry, poets Zeyar Lynn, Khin Aung Aye and James Byrne joined Philip Howze for a conversation and reading at The Public Theater on May 5.

Mr. Lynn and Mr. Aung Aye began by reading from their work in Burmese and English (Mr. Byrne read Mr. Aung Aye’s English versions). They then launched a discussion about the genesis of Bones Will Crow. “I couldn’t accept the idea that the world would want to read Burmese poems,” said Mr. Lynn, recalling first being approached about the project by Mr. Byrne. But Mr. Lynn said that he quickly embraced the idea, and spread the word to as many Burmese poets as he could. Those poets sent work directly to him or to Mr. Byrne, who edited the anthology with Ko Ko Thett.

The anthology contains fifteen Burmese poets, among them Mr. Aung Aye and Mr. Lynn. Mr. Byrne stressed that it is far too few a number of writers to represent the diversity and vibrancy of the Burmese poetry community. Mr. Aung Aye and Mr. Lynn agreed, citing the exciting work being done by their contemporaries, many of whom were not included in the anthology.

But the heart of the discussion was how Burmese poetry has evolved and opened over the last thirty years, moving from traditional forms to incorporating modernism, postmodernism, and Language poetry. Mr. Lynn cited the influence of translation on that process. In the 1970s, a poet translated English-language modernist poets into Burmese, which had a profound effect on many Burmese poets. Later, Mr. Lynn translated Frank O’Hara, Sylvia Plath, John Ashbery and Charles Bernstein into Burmese from English, which introduced those writers to Burmese poets.

Mr. Aung Aye recalled a workshop that Mr. Lynn gave in 2002 for a group of poets, at which Mr. Lynn declared “Modernism is dead.” “We were shocked,” Mr. Aung Aye recalled, because the group had been working in the modernist tradition and had grown comfortable with it—too comfortable, in Mr. Lynn’s opinion, which is why he made the declaration. This was around the time Mr. Lynn began introducing the poets to postmodern poetry.

What was evident from the conversation was that despite Burma’s censorship and oppressive politics, poets such as Mr. Lynn and Mr. Aung Aye strived to encounter new modes of poetic expression and new ideas. They would hold meetings in coffeehouses and bars to read poems and to discuss poetics, and to help Burmese poetry evolve.

Now that Burma’s political climate is warming, Mr. Lynn and Mr. Aung Aye predict there will be even more poetry emerging from Burma as formerly silenced voices are able to be heard. They cited the role of the Internet in providing writers with access to new ideas, stating that many young Burmese poets were aware of the work of the conceptual writer Kenneth Goldsmith, for example, and that his work has been translated into Burmese. Other Burmese poets, Mr. Lynn said, write in hybrid modes or refuse to even label their work as poetry, instead referring to it as “writings.”

The publication of Bones Will Crow will, hopefully, open up new venues for Burmese poets to share their work with a wider world, and in turn, have greater access to that wider world, too.


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