By Bob Percival
As I stand in the middle of darkened 20th Street, in the heart of Chinatown. Aung Cheimt comes into view, walking towards me, arm in arm with his daughter. I had been told he was an angry and tough man, that I would have to be very careful with him. He welcomes me with a warm embracing smile. The feeling between us is mutual. We almost hug. We are close to the same age and both writers. I feel privileged to be in his company. Maybe a better word is humbled.
Aung Cheimt is a great person and a great poet. He and three others – Thu Kha Mein Hlaing, Phaw Wai and Maung Chaw Nwe – were at the vanguard of the revolutionary poets who took Burmese poetry from the traditional to the modern. They wanted to transcend the traditional rhyme and subject matter of those poets that came before them. They lived in different times and there needed to be a new language to express their feelings and discontent.
Two translators, Brian Aye Min Tun and Aung Pyae, have been arranged for the interview. The five of us sit quietly inside the modern confines of BII0 bar looking out through the plate-glass onto 20th Street, now bustling with locals returning home. We settle down with cold beers and a fruit juice for Cheimt’s seventeen-year-old daughter. It is obvious she adores her father.
Cheimt, who is 67, tells us that when he was a young student he would come down to Chinatown, but of course in those days there were very few foreigners. It was the time of the military regime. Bars were very expensive, as were hotels. Instead he would go to the tea shops with friends. This was in his early twenties. They would sit there all day just drinking cups of tea. At nighttime they would go to a small pub, drinking local white liquor (3Ks a bottle), which was all they could afford in the time of the socialist partty. One bottle would get two people drunk. He has many good memories of these experiences with his friends. Their favourite tea shops were Wa Zi, Shwe Kyi Aye, Aung Café, and the Oo Chit Café at Yangon University. There they would talk about politics and poetry. In the 1970s they were known as the Moe Wai group as they would contribute their poems to Moe Wai magazine. They talked about how politics and poetry could not be separated, that “their’s was a revolution”. They were also called the “revolutionary poets”.
In 1968 there had been a calculated campaign by the Ne Win military regime to arrest those related to this revolution. One hundred poets were arrested. It was known then as the Spring Suppression. The arrests were “to stop the Underground Poets.” Cheimt defines revolution as, “when the artists stand on the peoples’ side.”
Cheimt was not arrested at this time, but before this, in 1965, for fifteen months in the notorious Insein jail. He spent three months in a solitary confinement cell. He was allowed a letter once a month.
It was during his solitary confinement that Cheimt started composing poetry in his mind. He would, “pick off pieces of lime mortar between the bricks of the wall.” He started writing his poetry on the floor. He would commit the poems to his mind, before they disintegrated into white dust. He would then turn up his mattress and on the floor underneath, “would very gently write his poem with a nail so it was so faint you could only see it by its sideways reflection.” Again he learnt the poems by heart. Then when released from his solitary cell, went back to the prison hall with the other prisoners, where he could write his poems down properly. “This is the only thing that gave me the power to live on,” he relates to the translators.
Cheimt first became interested in poetry when he was sixteen. Before that he was supposed to be interested in painting. He had thought of himself as an artist but it was not him. It was only when he was in jail that poetry came to him. “It struck me. It picked me. From that time poetry became my life. Poetry is my daily life. Myself and poetry can never be separated,” he says with a quiet determination.
When he was a primary school student he had been taught the poems of Saya Min Thu Wun but did not know there was such a thing as Khit San style poetry, Saya Min Thu Wun being the leading exponent. Khit San had the meaning of ‘testing times’ or ‘experiment with a new age’. It’s content was not of the Royal Court, like the poetry which preceded it. It focused more on daily life, philosophy and romance. It still held an internal rhyme, and was not overtly political.
When in jail Cheimt had the chance to read from four magazines – Ngwe Tar Yee, Thwe Thauk, Shuma Wa and Myawaddy. It was from these magazines that he first read Khit San poets. He still did not know they were Khit San but he liked them very much. It was only after he was released that he learnt of their history, and of Saya Dagon Taya, the Literary Revolution and Literaryism.
I ask Cheimt, how and why he made this change to modern ‘rhymeless’ poetry. He explains that, “before Khit San poetry there had also been a very traditional school of poetry led by Thakkin Kodane Hmine. I had learnt both this and Khit San. At the time I was a young student, I was trying to push into changing my style. I was trying to express what I was feeling. I was not aware that I was trying to make a new trend. I was just following my feeling. It had nothing to do with the education that I had been given.”
Cheimt and his contemporary revolutionary poets had read Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem ‘A Cloud in Trousers’, translated by Maung Tha Noe, who was a great influence on these poets, especially through his landmark, In The Shade Of A Pine Tree, which contained Burmese translations of such modern poets as T.S. Eliot, and was published in 1968. This book was Cheimt’s “guiding star”.
To Cheimt, In The Shade Of A Pine Tree, was his survival guide. Aung loved Eliot, Mayakovsky, as well as Goethe’s Ethics. He especially loved the imagery of Goethe. “There was an image that Goethe wrote of a grilled dove flying into the mouth of a man. The man says no to eating it though, as it has not been prepared in pieces. I had wished that I could be so lazy”, Cheimt explains, then laughs.
His favourite Eliot poem was the ‘Love Song of J. P. Prufrock’. He had also loved the title of ‘The Waste Land’ when he first saw it. It made him laugh, but he was depressed once he read the poem. “I thought Eliot too feminine, not a real man. His voice was not tough enough. Mayakovsky was much stronger. He used ‘I’, not ‘we’,” he explains.
I asked him whether he thought that Yangon was also a wasteland. “Yes the whole country is a wasteland,” he says. “When I was young I was with my poet friends. I wanted to be happy, but with the military regime everything got turned upside-down. My friends were also not happy. We found happiness at the tea shop, and at pubs in the evening talking poetry and politics. Young people spent more and more time in places where they could talk and gather ideas. Only the government employees had jobs.”
Cheimt is very aware of the young poets, today. Two of them are translating for him. He thinks that these poets are strong and very hard working people.
He sees the poets as different from those writing prose, that the poet is more related to politics and is very emotional about issues.
“Poetry can still be relevant. Revolution is necessary in poetry, otherwise it is not meaningful. Nowadays you can write poetry that is relevant without having to go to jail. You have to learn the right words to use. This makes for a better poetry,” he explains. Downtown he see the fantastic bright colours, but there are also the poor. It is this contrast that he wants to examine in his poetry
Cheimt wrote poems even when under pressure in regards to words he could use. “Now, when I write there is no pressure,” he says. “I know how to compose poetry without being seen as revolutionary.”
For Cheimt, poetry is still an essential part of his life – it his daily life. “I wrote a poem yesterday, I wrote a poem today, and I will write a poem tomorrow, because writing poetry is my life,” he says with an assured smile. He is increasingly sure of this as he gets older. “In this country when a government employee is sixty years old, he has to ‘take his pension’. I do not feel that I am old enough to take a pension,” he says, then laughs again.
Cheimt has always been portrayed as one of the only poets able to make a living from his poetry through selling his poems to numerous magazines and through sales of his own numerous books of poetry. Cheimt smiles at this constructed image of himself.
“I live in a humble house,” he says. “My life is not opulent. This is not possible. It is a struggle in life just to write poems and have no other jobs. I am happy to have led this life.” He doesn’t feel as though he has made the wrong decision, that money cannot in anyway bring the satisfaction that poetry has given him. There have been sacrifices however, especially in regards to family.
“My family have had to lead a simple life because of this. My wife loves me, but she has been frustrated with my choice of life. The life of poet can be very hard here, and I have had to follow my passion.”
He is now writing more and more, and feels he now has more appreciation from his readers. He has published over twenty books, though in relatively small numbers.
Cheimt believes that it is his karma that has chosen him to be a poet and he has to accept this. “It depends on the individual on how to treat this fate that has been given to me. I want the to be a poet in next life as well. I was also a poet in my previous life. I often wonder why this has happened.”
The last part of the interview takes place at Cheimt’s house in North Dagon. I finally have an opportunity to meet Cheimt’s wife. His daughter is also present. On a wooden beam next to where I’m sitting is written the word ‘struggle’ in chalk. The house is decorated with numerous paintings, posters and writer’s paraphernalia. It is homely and artistic.
Cheimt and his wife have been married since 1977, and have lived in their house for thirty years. The streets outside are quite. When he first bought the house the streets were dirt, now they are newly concreted. The local traffic is still mainly bicycles with very few cars. The birds can still be heard singing.
Cheimt stands there smiling, looking content with what he has. I ask Cheimt whether he is in love. “Yes, I am in love,” he says. I have my wife Daw Nyunt Nyunt Thein and my two daughters. We all live together in this house. Our memories are here forever. We are still in love.”
poem not worth reading
age when singing is an obsession
out of the drawers it forced itself out jumping
I learnt riding a bicycle
shouted in Thingyan
wrote poems tremendously
read lots of books
apples are sweet
bitter gourds are sweet too
the great sky’s beautiful
walked on earth
peace, leftist, rightist, life
‘course I read, ‘course I learnt
mother and mother-like old sister indulged me
I like tea and drank tea
sat, everything else forgotten
the age of “my poetry, my religion
what I want to tell is not these
I too am no longer that I
friend, don’t read this poem
is this poem worth reading?
Young lady, throughout my life’s history
as if coming out of a cave, carrying a torch
history is slow at times
and quick at other times
like one waiting for the train at the station
“will she be on it?
will she not?”
This article was previously published in MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine, InDepth #13, November 2015.