Writen and Photo by Amanda Winkler
Poetry is the most popular artistic medium throughout Myanmar history, a tradition not lost on the next generation. There is a large network of young poets who address social issues and the prospect of change through spoken word, specifically ‘slam poetry’.
Myanmar can’t be a democracy if its people do not know how to freely express themselves, says 24-year-old Than Toe Aung, “and slam poetry is a great way to do that.”
Than is a key figure of the slam poetry movement that is seeping its way through the young artist community in Yangon. He and fellow poet, Aung Kaung Myat, organized Slam Express which took place 6 August at Pansuriya restaurant and gallery. Local poets expressed ideas of love, lust, violence, racism, despair, and hope all in one night in front of a crowded and captivated audience. The budding poets hope this will be the first of many poetry readings around the city.
For many of the artists, this was a first time performing their art in front of a crowd.
“We probably could not have done this a few years ago [under the military dictatorship],” says Than.
The purpose of slam poetry is to focus on the message, says Aung. The poet “slams the poem” into the audience’s ear and doesn’t worry about literary devices or making the poem sound pretty. All topics are allowed, especially the ones that are often taboo in daily society. Slam poetry got its start in the 1980s in Chicago and has since spread worldwide.
“But its relatively new to people in Myanmar. We have a lot of social issues in our country and I think [slam poetry] is a great way to express yourself and ideas about society,” says Aung.
Than and Aung performed a poem together that questioned the on-going racism that continues to divide the country. The pair continuously asked “why?” in response to the poem’s questioning of discrimination, particularly when it comes to religion. No one asks to be born into a Buddhists or a Muslim family, the pair declared on stage and urged their listeners to practice acceptance of people who may look, act, or pray differently.
“[Racism] is a touchy subject [to bring up], especially for a minority like me,” says Than, who is of Muslim Indian background. “It’s a challenge but tonight we overcame that.”