Maung Day on Avant-Garde Poetry

Host Christopher Merrill talks with Burmese poet Maung Day about defying censorship with performance art and the history of Burmese poetry as well as his translation between Burmese and English of poetry and literature.

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Maung Day Publication Interview Transcript


I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.

Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.

The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Last year, the program celebrated its fiftieth-year anniversary; visit the fiftieth anniversary website at To learn more about the International Writing Program, visit us online at

This episode of Origins features Burmese writer Maung Day.


Maung DAY (poet, artist, translator; Myanmar) has published six poetry books in Burmese and one in English. His poetry has appeared in International Poetry Review, Guernica, The Wolf, The Awl and elsewhere. He translates widely between English and Burmese. His visual work and poetry are exhibited and curated internationally. He participates courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

We are recording from the University of Iowa on Thursday, October 26th, 2017. We had the chance to sit down with Maung Day, who is here as a participant of the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency.

MERRILL: Welcome.

DAY: Thanks, Chris.

MERRILL:  In the Journal of Poetic Research, a literary magazine based in Australia, you published an essay on Burmese poetry as well as some of your translations of poems written by young Burmese poets. And I wonder what can readers expect to discover in this essay and in your translations? Which is a way of saying, what’s going on among Burmese poets these days?

DAY: My essay outlines the history of Burmese poetry, leading up to the contemporary Burmese poetry written today. It discusses the rich and strong tradition of Burmese poetry in the past and the present, also talking about some major poets who had a lot of influences on Burmese poetry and also influential writers today who are influencing the young Burmese poets. And I also talk about the new species of poets rising from this vibrant scene. That’s why I also selected some poems to kind of assemble these kinds of exciting writing that’s being written today. So, I think the reader will find a lot of different aesthetic tendencies and thematically, very diverse. Also, I think for American poetry readers, there will be a lot of entry points in those writings, I think, because a lot of Burmese poets are influenced by American poetry, so much so that there seems to be similar kinds of approaches to the language and the metaphors and imagery. And these poets are millennial poets so I particularly chose them, so I could show that kind of poetry that’s being written today and is exciting.

MERRILL: On my first visit to Rangoon, I met Zeyar Lynn. This would have been about fifteen years ago. I asked him what he was working on and he had just translated John Ashbery’s Some Trees, which was for me, quite a surprise, first because these were in the darkest days of the junta. So, I wondered where he even found a copy of it; it was in the American library. Then I wondered how the book had been received and he said that some people viewed him as the son of Satan and some people viewed him as the son of God, but I think that opened up this connection between American and Burmese poets, is that a fair assessment?

DAY: Yes, it’s a quite fair assessment. And Zeyar Lynn was also right to say that when we do some translations of these experimental avant-garde poetry from around the world, we sometimes are faced with this kind of challenge from the more conservative section of the poets in the community, in the country. I think when we talk about the tradition of Burmese poetry, I think a lot of poets are also very much politically engaged, socially engaged in a way that their poetry has that kind of purpose, to mobilize people and etc. So, they sometimes don’t see the point of writing avant-garde poetry, you know, what is it for? So that kind of question has been raised.

So last year I wrote an article about social engagement found in contemporary experimental writing of young Burmese poets because everything is political and it’s just how you really see it. Even writing experimental poetry itself is an act of resistance to me, subversive to me, because in my country a lot of literary awards go to these poets who write in traditional norms.

MERRILL: So, the more avant-garde approach carries its own width of freedom, if you will?

DAY: Yes, yes.

MERRILL: You have also translated children’s books into Burmese like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlotte’s Web. And I wonder, going from translating avant-garde Burmese poems to translating classical children’s books, why do it, and what do you enjoy about translating the children’s literature? And is it different from translating poetry?

DAY: I always have a soft spot for what people might need. That’s also what drew me to this civic society work, the engagement with NGOs. Even though I like to do things that I really like to do, I also like to do something that might contribute to the needs of the people. So, I grew up reading a lot of great children literature, also Burmese folk tales, Burmese children’s literature, Burmese poetry as well as Aesop’s Fables, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, you know, the Tales of Brothers Grimm, something like that. Then I witnessed the end of the golden days of translation in my country. So, a lot of these generation of translators they went away one by one and you know, they passed away, and then there is a huge gap, especially for children’s literature. Then I talked with my friend who’s also like a mentor to me, he’s older than me and he runs a publishing house and we talked about it and he encouraged me to do translation of children’s book. And then I started to do that because children deserve some decent literature to read and to imagine. Children’s literature has so much imagination. I also feel that for myself, children’s literature shaped who I am today, in some positive ways, in some small ways.

MERRILL: You mentioned the work with NGOs. What sort of social activism are you involved with?

DAY: Mostly community development. I’m also one of the advocators for food sovereignty movement. I mean, like many other countries we have foreign investment, the influence of corporations, and also land issues; that’s paralyzed the economy and especially the lives of the farmers. So, I’m involved in that kind of work, to working within the community, to plan some kind of resilience, community projects as so on.

MERRILL: Sustainable.

DAY: Sustainable, yes. And also looking after the ecology because even now, more important that we pay attention to the ecology aspect of the society.

MERRILL: And does that have an influence on your own poems, that work with the NGOs?

DAY: Sort of because like I like to use references to the animals and nature in my work, somehow. Addressing these issues but not in a black and white way, but also keeping it playful. I think, yeah, somehow.

MERRILL: So, in something of the same vein, you co-founded Beyond Pressure, a performance art festival, which aims to create space so that, “People in Myanmar can take part in the representation of themselves, thus reaffirming our place in the global community.” And I wonder what you think Myanmar’s place is in the global community and what responsibility, if there is any, do its residents have to uphold that place, especially in light of the problems that are very much in the news these days relating to the Rohingya community?

DAY: I think it was back in 2008, my friend Moe Satt, a performing artist and I, we talked about this because we had at the time a very active performance scene. But most festivals or performances were done very secretly, underground, because we had censors and there was Special Branch and…

MERRILL: Special Branch being the police?

DAY: Police, yes, yes. So it was very risky so people, performers, they were very careful with that. And we talked about it. Come on, man, so why not challenge them? Ask them to censor us. So, we want to see them and ask to come. We already invited international artists. Also, this is the first ever performance art festival on the international level, inviting, you know, bringing international artists. They were very excited. A lot of them, I think, wanted that kind of adventure.

MERRILL: With Special Branch.

DAY: Yeah, so they came and then they said, “How could we censor performance art? It just takes place.” And I said, “No, we will pitch our ideas to you.” So, it was very funny.

MERRILL: You were daring them.

DAY: Yeah, it was a very funny process because they would say they didn’t understand much about that. Let’s say an artist talked about using balloons, they would ask, What color? Is there any red balloon? Are you going to burst them? Things like that. So, it was really interesting, but at least they couldn’t deny us anymore because they were there. So, we continue with this festival. So, Asia Art Pacific, those magazines, they were interested in it, covered it. It kind of put us back on the map and the dialogue on that.

MERRILL: Which in many ways helped to lay the groundwork for the opening to the West that your country would eventually have.

DAY: Yes, and also when you look at the nature of performance art, it can be very explosive, it can be very political. So, they addressed a lot of issues in that too. So that kind of helped, I think. We wanted to be part of the international community, we were kind of isolated for a long time. We didn’t know what’s going on. It was very nice to be back again.

MERRILL: But now with the Rohingya, what’s next? How as artists can you deal with that?

DAY: For me personally, I am very sad and frustrated with the situation, and it’s just too much violence against these people and I don’t really like it. But we are talking about citizenship and other things. There are debates for and against, and I understand that, but at least they are human beings and I feel that they haven’t been treated as human beings. And if you could visit there you could see some sort of signs of concentration camp, things like that, barbed wire zones and zoning, and also they are cut off from education, and economic. It’s structural and it’s perpetuation of violence against this community and there are waves, you know, throughout these past fifty or so decades, there are huge waves and this is one of them. So, I’m not very happy with that. But when we look at the military, they are still very much in control.

MERRILL: Of the country.

DAY: And then we are talking about Au San Suu Kyi and how she could have done better. But I think there are also some positive signs that there was a speech by Au San Suu Kyi and she would say that they would accept the Rohingya back and there would be a process where they can get access to citizenship and food and so, let’s see how it plays out. I also have suspicions, doubts, because how far can she go with these generals?

MERRILL: Without risking a coup.

DAY: Yes, yes.

MERRILL: I admire so much the truly sophisticated way in which you navigate these issues, political and poetic. And in an interview with the Myanmar Times, you said that “Political poems are trapped within themselves… I like to rise above all that to allow my poems to breathe.” And so, I’m wondering how let your poems breathe while simultaneously letting them wrestle with politics? And is there an ideal relationship between poetry and politics?

DAY: I think I consider a lot of my poems political to some extent. But at the same time, I don’t want to be seen as a political poet. But it’s difficult because when I go to visit another country, there’s always the preoccupation that I came from this country and whatever I write will be about that. For me, my poetry is so much about imagery and free associations among the imagery and disjunctive nature among the sentences and the stories and the landscape in it. Of course, the politics of place and identity also play a very important role in my work, but at the same time, I’m also addressing a lot of other things. Line-by-line there are a lot of different references, a lot of things going on in the poem. Because that happens in my country to a lot of poets, that allusion of heroism is attached to poem, so they feel that they are delegated to do that kind of thing. And then sometimes I think poetry doesn’t really develop as much as we would have wanted with that kind of mindset, I think.

MERRILL: You’ve described yourself as a “street poet,” or someone not formally trained to be a poet, and I wonder if your self-education and bringing in influences from avant-garde poets from around the world has given you a different understanding of the poet’s role in society?

DAY: Can you say a bit more about that?

MERRILL: I’m thinking about when you talked about writing in an associational fashion, from line-to-line and not taking on that large poet’s responsibility to speak for the country, is that a function of your self-education as a poet, as you describe yourself as a “street poet?”

DAY: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I am also interested in local realities, you know, what’s going on. But I cannot have too much control over a lot of things, even with my own poems, so that’s what’s exciting about poetry writing, I think.

MERRILL: The surprise of each line.

DAY: Yes, sometimes I go to sit down at the table. I have some ideas, you know, I want to touch on that, touch on this, but when I start really writing, I’m dealing with the language. The imagery, the metaphors, a lot of exciting things, a lot of things happen.

MERRILL: It makes me think of a line in another interview, where you say that, “When you read poetry, it is not giving you information, it absorbs you.” And I think the act of writing must also absorb you, is that fair?

DAY: Yes, and I was also referring to the expectation of the reader, that there should be something pre-packed, ready-made for them, but I’m talking more about writerly approach about reading poetry. So, I think for my kind of poetry, I want to bring them to the small landscapes and stories that I develop in my work and I want them to come into that, walk around, do something about it, and also come up with some interpretation as they will. So, I want that kind of engagement.

MERRILL: I see, okay. Is that a similar design when you work as a visual or performance artist? Is it the same idea of the viewer being absorbed by the experience?

DAY: Yeah, I think I have this shared aesthetic tendency between my visual work and writing. I like sense of shape-shifting and fluid dynamic aspect of writing and the images and the stories and that’s how it is reflected in the society and myself. And I like reading works of the imagists and also surrealists and yeah. So, I also kind of borrow similar techniques. And I like to create some bizarre imagery and the same time keeping contemporary and also imagistic, so that kind of combination.

MERRILL: So, do the poetry, the performance pieces, and the art all come from the same place, or do they all come from different places in your imagination?

DAY: I think they all come from the same place, a place of pessimism, I would say, rage, and skepticism, also love.

MERRILL: And listeners might be surprised to know that you have a degree in engineering, which I suppose in the popular imagination would suggest clean lines between this and that, but your work seems to go in so many different directions. Can you see any influences of your engineering education on your creative work?

DAY: In my visual works, yes because we were required to do a lot of drawings and I have transferred some of these engineer drawings into my visual work, so that’s being done. I also incorporate my drawings into my poetry books; I have done two books with drawings and texts. So yeah, there’s been some interconnections.

MERRILL: Fruitful interchange. So, before we wrap up our conversation, could you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now, and also what you’re reading and if you have any recommendations for our listeners?

DAY: Right now, I am sketching some ideas for my solo exhibition that I want to have in my country next year, so I like to show installations, drawings, and paintings. So yes, I’m working on that at the moment, working on the ideas. But at the same time, my time here has been very productive. You know, I finished these translation projects for this Journal of Poetics Research and I have also been writing like twelve to fifteen poems. So, I think I’m also onto something with the poetry so I’m thinking of putting together forty to fifty poems for a possible poetry book. So that’s what I’ve been doing.

And for reading, I am reading Matthew Dickman’s Flies and Green Migraine. I like his work very much, it brings me to into interior of American communities, you know drugs and the inside of the family, you know the family dynamics, and yeah, loss, longing, and it’s very surprising because it’s rich in imagery and very thought provoking. So yes, I think I would recommend everyone to try Matthew Dickman’s work.

MERRILL: A wonderful surprise with which to end this terrifically interesting interview. Thank you so much.

DAY: Thank you, Chris, for having me.

The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at


Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with research and editing by Ashley Chong, design by Donna Brooks, and production by Todd Johnson; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available July 15, 2018 on ApplePodcasts and SoundCloud where I talk with German writer Esther Dischereit.

Additional Information

Maung Day
June 15, 2018

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