tS Artist of the Week: Ko Ko Thett
Breaking with our conventional approach to this series, we've decided to start expanding the notion of 'Artist'. This week we speak to an incredibly talented Burmese poet called Ko Ko Thett about his new collection of poetry, 'The Burden of Being Burmese'.
My first introduction to the poet Ko Ko Thett was by way of poem that I chanced upon entitled, ‘A Few Ways to Eat a City Raw’.
“...eat it walking like you would a box of noodles/it takes better psychomotor skills than piloting a jet/your fingers have to know your chopsticks/your feet have to know your walk /your mouth has to know your bite/you have to know your way...”
A poet, a researcher, a translator, he says he is a ‘poet by choice and Burmese by chance’. His writing is deeply connected with his own identity and history. Yet, in poems like the aforementioned, he captures the reality of the everyday and highlights the ways we negotiate our own identities and histories as readers. His latest collection is called “The Burden of Being Burmese” and it will release in the US in September 2015. To connect with Ko Ko and follow his work, you can visit his website. Following are excerpts from an email interview.
1) Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What is Ko Ko Thett’s story and how did it result in you becoming a poet?
My story is that of an extremely choleric boy who was schooled in the Socialist
Republic of the Union of Burma in the 1980s. Poetry I learned as a kid was the
poetry permitted in school and the poetry that passed the censorship regime and
appeared in the Burmese magazines. Poetry recitation and rote learning were routine – they are still routine in Myanmar today and I now think learning poetry by heart can’t be too bad. At sixteen, in 1988, when some of the boys and girls my age were literally chesting the bullets in a nationwide uprising, I was grounded by my doting parents. I spent that whole summer reading.
I was reading all sorts of books around me. To repress both my political and
hormonal urges, I especially indulged myself in some wuxia in Burmese translations widely available around that time. The world is black and white in those narratives. To be able to take unexpected blows in such a world, you need to improve your inner strength or qi. To be able to float in such a society, you need to improve your buoyancy or qinggong. I also learned that sometimes exile is not necessarily banishment. You get all bound up and exiled in a faraway glacial cave. But, somehow, you are able to set yourself free from all the bounds, and crawl out of the cave on your naked balls to bump into a one-thousand-year lotus on a frozen lake. You eat it out of starvation or suicidal tendency. All of a sudden you find yourself born again as a superman’s superman [more likely a superwoman’s superman].That kind of stuff.
I was rudely awakened from my martial arts fantasies by the martial music
that blared out of our diode radio on September 18, 1988. The music preluded the
announcement of the military coup that afternoon. I realized I had missed something really important. Something really really important had come, and passed. We were not able to go back to school. All the schools and universities were shut down indefinitely. We were not going back to the quasi-socialist era. Now the world, according to the state radio broadcast, was black and white, or rather, green and red, cosmos versus chaos [the Burmese armed forces versus the anarchists]! That’s how I became a poet!
2) Your impending poetry collection is called ‘‘the burden of being burmese’’ - how does this burden play into the way you negotiate your life and your art? Do you think that in some ways you wouldn’t have been a poet but for this burden?
I wouldn’t have been a human person but for this burden. I stress in the book that the burden is not just mine, it is also yours. The burden refers to the Buddhist notion of dukkha, the universal human burden, any type of suffering or pain – disease, depression, angst, anguish or allergy, the requisites of human existence. Authority of any kind as a burden. Love as a burden. If you are a sensual person like myself, who is very far from the path that the Lord Buddha had taken, the two best ways to undermine a burden is to write a poem about it or to mock at it. I do both – I write, and in doing so, I laugh at the burden to lighten the load.
3) Is there a particular poem or piece of writing that has stuck with you and being influential in your life?
To mention but two: ‘‘Unpopular Chap’’ by legendary Burmese poet Maung Chaw
Nwe, which I have translated for Bones will Crow and ‘the lie of art’ by Charles
Bernstein which has inspired my piece, ‘‘after the lie of art.’’
"I was rudely awakened from my martial arts fantasies by the martial music that blared out of our diode radio on September 18, 1988. The music preluded the announcement of the military coup that afternoon. I realized I had missed something really important. Something really really important had come, and passed."
4) How difficult is life as an artist trying to respond to a complex political situation and regime?
Only ambiguity can cure ambiguity. To make sense of the ambiguity or the
uncertainty of complex political situation and regime, I build a wall of ambiguity
around me. Tell you what, the Burmese military government and the transitional
Myanmar government have been elegantly poetic in terms of ambiguity and
hyperbole. How inspiring!
5) Do you have hopes for a November election in Burma going through smoothly without boycotts?
Having lived in the so-called democratic West for so long, I am not the only one
who has been disillusioned with the electoral process as a motor of change.
Whatever illusion of empowerment an election gives you with one hand, it takes
away with another. It does so by reducing your political options into a ballot box. By bringing political scumbags into your life. These days elections are no more than
neoliberal instruments that safeguard the interests of the state, pro-state elements and market. In Myanmar war and poverty have always disenfranchised millions of the population. Boycotts or not, November election is not going to be an exception.
6) How can we follow your work and what can we expect in the future?
‘‘The Burden of Being Burmese’’ is out in the US in September, but it is already
available in Hong Kong. I am looking forward to leaving ‘‘the burden’’ behind for
another burden. Many thanks.