PLUME INTERVIEWS: PANDORA

Pandora is one of Myanmar’s most revered poets and literary bloggers. In 2012, she compiled and published the first-ever anthology of Myanmar women poets titled Tuning, followed by a second edition in 2016. Her translation of the poem “A Glass of Summer, Neat” by Nge Nge (Kyaukse), co-translated with Olivia McCannon, was a recent spotlight on this blog. In this exclusive interview, she reflects on her work, the conditions for poets in Myanmar today compared to those under military dictatorship before 2011, and her views on poetry in translation.

When did you start writing poetry and what led to you to devote your life to it?

I started writing verses with rhymes in primary school. My dad is a poet who never got a chance to professionally pursue his interest in literature. My parents ran a book rental shop when I was young and this is where my hobby of writing was derived from. Then [during my undergrad at Rangoon University], some of my poems and short stories were published in campus magazines. I took a halt from writing when I went to Singapore in 2001 for further studies.

I returned to the literary scene in early 2007 as literary blogger Pandora. One of the reasons why I decided to write online was due to the tight censorship [by the state]. Writing online gave me more freedom. Then, eventually, I sent my work to some local magazines and nowadays many of my works have been published in print media and translations of my work in English are also being published in some international literary magazines and journals. My poems were also anthologised. 

I feel happy when I write poems. That’s a simple thing that leads me to write more poems.

A translated poem is a new poem. We lost in translation as well as we found in translation. Often I find that the original poem and the translated one are equally beautiful in different ways. 

As a vocal and leading member of the poetry community in Myanmar, how would you evaluate the environment poets are working in today? What kind of conditions do poets face compared to before the end of the military dictatorship in 2011?

We had times [during the military dictatorship before 2011] where poets were considered highly political, heavily censored, and facing the risk of being imprisoned at any time. The environment poets are working in today seems to offer more freedom in terms of censorship and accessibility to the internet, however, we still have certain laws that restrict the voice of poets. I would like to quote blogger Nay Phone Latt’s words: “We are free now. But we are still not safe.”  

Many poets seem to be practicing self-censorship whereas several young poets are experimenting with many new forms of poetry even without avoiding political, social, and religious taboos. It’s a personal choice. To me, my poems are not that controversial in social and religious issues. I am not interested in unnecessarily touching these issues and going extreme, as is also reflected by my simple and normal life.

In my opinion, totally getting rid of restricted laws is not easy for now as I see a lot of people abusing freedom of expression with spreading hate speech, cyberbullying, and committing cybercrimes. The country is at its infancy in the advanced cyber world. Our government seems to be very cautious about amending the laws and maybe they are waiting for a mature and right timing. I think the government needs to immediately run more effective internet education programs while regulations and enforcement actions are still active.

The environment poets are working in today seems to offer more freedom in terms of censorship and accessibility to the internet, however, we still have certain laws that restrict the voice of poets. I would like to quote blogger Nay Phone Latt’s words: “We are free now. But we are still not safe.”  

You have published the first anthology of women poets in Myanmar, Tuning, in 2012, followed by a second edition in 2016. What can you tell me about the history of women poets?

We definitely have more female poets than before. Female poets in the modern age are bold, innovative and more expressive. But the problem is that among the female poets that I featured in the anthologies, only about a quarter of them, or maybe even less, remain active and prolific in the poetry field. 

I posted a survey question on Facebook about the challenges faced by female poets and the answers vary, such as: no longer in poetry mood, busy with family, busy with work, commitment to social matters, etc. As compared to man, for myself, my commitment to family and being a working mother are some factors that restrict my time in writing poetry and pursuing other hobbies.

ပန္ဒိုရာ – ရဲ႕ ကဗ်ာစာအုပ္ (“Pandora – Book of Poems”) published byနှစ်ကာလမျာ စာအုပ်တိုက် – The Eras, 2019

You have said your poems are “more about the inner self [these days]”. I’m intrigued to know what’s behind this reflection and why, or how, you see your poetry is turning inwards.

The political arena in Myanmar nowadays is more complicated.  It can be said that we had a common target under the rigid regime [that ruled from 1962 to 2011]. At that time, every true artist, not only poets, reflected their voices and cries in their works in search of freedom and to [overthrow] the dictatorship. With the [current] elected government led by our national hero [Aung San Suu Kyi], our new target looks like just shifting towards the democratization process, however, politics is not that simple and easy.

We still have invisible shadows disturbing our pathway. We are confused. The outside world is highly political and opaque. Whatever we encounter in our everyday life and our opinions on the administration are also still political and controversial. Several people are dividing [us] while walking along the same path. Perhaps that’s one reason for me to look more at the inner self in search of peace and clarity in mind at the moment.

I posted a survey question on Facebook about the challenges faced by female poets and the answers vary, such as: no longer in a poetry mood, busy with family, busy with work, commitment to social matters, etc. As compared to a man, for myself, my commitment to family and being a working mother are some factors that restrict my time in writing poetry and pursuing other hobbies.

What is it that you appreciate about a translation of your own work, if there is such a criteria?

I usually give much freedom to the translator. I appreciate it when the translator tries to consult with me. Where possible, I prefer translation done by myself as the first cut and then let the translator do the touch-up. I am happy with almost all translations of my poems. 

What are some of your favourite translations* of your own poems into English?

I would like to share [a poem of mine translated by a senior poet Maung Tha Noe (yet unpublished in print] and another translation done by Ko Ko Thett (featured in Bones Will Crow):

Ball Plays
No end, no beginning
It’s called life
Rolling
Turning around
The tone and texture may differ
Yet it flows from the higher to the lower
When it is dropped at a great speed/when it drops
It bounces back once or twice
At certain places
Everyone scrambles to possess the ball
At certain places
It is passed from one to another
At certain places
You smash it, you make sure you smash it
But you prevent others from smashing it
At certain places
It is kicked inside a goal
At certain places
Between two goalposts, on the line
In the net, over the net
In the basket, in the hole
Aboveground, underwater
Inside the lines of rules, outside
Backhand smashes at full swing
Affectionate pushes and punches
Tosses and dribbles
Tackles of twists and turns forward
By a racket, by hand
By legs, by head, by shoulder
By the whole body
How to salvage it from the crisis
How to weigh it up towards your destiny
Just one ball or many balls
Are the balls supposed to be brushing one another, aren’t they
Is there a substitute when my ball is gone
Now…you may score
With just one soft touch
I have rolled myself down to my best.
— by Pandora / Translated from the Burmese by Ko Ko Thett | from Bones Will Crow

You have also spent time in the United States participating in the University of Iowa Writing Program (IWP). Did you experiment with writing poetry in English during your time there, or do you also write in other languages aside from Burmese?

I usually do not write in other languages aside from Burmese. Well, in fact, my second or third language proficiency is not enough. But I experimented with writing poetry in English during my time in IWP in the US. It was for a project – a poetry collaboration project with Battery Dance Company.  It was a good experience and people seemed to enjoy the performance. 

You have also translated poetry as, for example, the poem featured on this blog, “A Glass of Summer Neat” by Nge Nge (Kyaukse) co-translated from the Burmese with Olivia McCannon. As a poet yourself, how do you approach the art of translating a poem?

I prefer co-translating with a native speaker where possible. To be honest, I have never intended to become a translator myself. Co-translating occasionally, to me, is just one learning approach to reading and writing poetry more effectively.

What is your view on poetry in translation?

A translated poem is a new poem. We lost in translation as well as we found in translation. Often I find that the original poem and the translated one are equally beautiful in different ways. 

→ Follow Pandora on her blog or Facebook page

 Interview by Salwa Benaissa 

 

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