By Marie Starr
In Yangon’s new poetry movement- Slam Express- organized by a small group of youths, poets are encouraged to address sensitive topics. This is a cornerstone in the timeline of Myanmar’s social history where the previous military dictatorship was known to have spies in teashops reporting anyone speaking of controversial topics or against the government, let alone gathering a crowd in a public place to listen to your woes and complaints.
Under Pansuriya’s high ceilings with old paintings on the wall and wicker chairs scattered around a new movement of free expression is starting. The gallery-restaurant on historic Bo Aung Kyaw Street is where Slam Express is now taking place on a monthly basis. Slam poetry is a form of poetry new to Myanmar and usually involving intense expression of emotions and often touching on personal topics and controversial issues.
Slam Express #2 starts hard and fast with organizer Than Toe Aung slamming a poem on his experience of racism as a youth and his peaceful battle with it. He recounts dreams in which he is back with his grandfather who advises him to arm himself with books and words rather than physical retaliation. True to his word, he now stands in front of this dynamic Yangon crowd protesting with words-
“I have been judged by my cover for my whole life
until the skin of my cover got thicker.
I’m the walking book spat upon by racism.
Defaced by nationalism and propaganda.”
On the choice of topics read out at Slam Express, Than Toe Aung says, “The theme is all about free expression. People from marginalized backgrounds are especially encouraged,” he explains.
However, these heated moments and fits of passion and rage may be difficult to swallow for some Myanmar folk where the phrase ah myet go dain chote ba, meaning ‘control your face,’ is often used when a person is showing anger or too much of an emotion. Furthermore, Myanmar people are known for maintaining a cool and collected countenance.
Sex, racism and sexuality were among the topics rarely spoken of in the Myanmar of the past and would have been largely censored out of the media during the repressive years of the former military government. The poetry event is a sure sign that youths are grasping their right to freedom of expression and bringing it to the public bearing opinions, beliefs and experiences for all to see.
‘To Be A Woman’ by Khin Chan Myae Maung, 21, recounts through poetry the difficulties of growing into a woman.
“We live under oppression, to suppress
what society will have us repress,
and some how I came to
inherit hate in its most violent form
for the body I was in.”
Khin Chan Myae Maung was born and raised in Yangon. At 19 years old she moved to the US. This move put her outside her comfort zone. She felt like an outsider and was treated badly. But now back living in Yangon she draws inspiration for her poetry from these difficulties. She writes both fiction and poetry addressing social issues such as sexuality and gender.
“My parents are OK with me being a writer. But they are also scared because Burmese people have this mentality that artists are inherently bad, that they don’t know how to do business and this is why they are artists.”
Despite this, Yangon poetry seems to be in the middle of a cultural revolution. There are no longer people who control what you talk or write about.
“As a kid I was told that you don’t talk about these things, it’s not safe….People aren’t saying that anymore. If you aren’t going to [address these injustices] who is going to? If I see something that I don’t believe should be happening, for me I write it into my fiction and my poetry. I bring it to the table.”
On her motivation for organizing the events, Khin Chan Myae Maung says, “As young people, we are trying to get people to more than appreciate [it]. We want people to be curious about any type of literature, any type of poem…anything that explores social justice, feminism, LGBTQ, religious intolerance- if poetry is the medium you need to put a fire under your ass, that’s what you need.”
Poetry is not by any means new to Myanmar. Poets of the past often used verse to express their beliefs and opinions. Under previous governments and particularly during the years of military dictatorship, many of those bold enough to address political issues or criticize the government often found themselves arrested and imprisoned.
Even as recently as 2015 under Thein Sein’s post-junta government poetry remained largely censored. One high-profile case was that of Songkha, a young poet who posted a poem on Facebook which mentioned having a tattoo of the then president Thein Sein on his penis. After posting it to his Facebook page, it was picked up by a member of the authorities who vowed to take action against the poet. Songkha immediately went into hiding but was found and arrested just three days before the landmark November 8th election. He was only released from prison in June of this year- after six months of imprisonment. More reassuringly however, among the politicians voted into parliament by NLD in the last year, 11 of them are reported to be poets.
Slam Express is a monthly event held in Pansuriya Restaurant and Gallery at no.102 Bogalayzay St. The next event will take place on October 8 at 6:30pm. Information on this saturday’s event click on the link below.