Ko Ko Thett is a poet and translator who has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books under the pen name Jet Ni. We caught up to speak about language and territory, being “bawsi,” elbowing one’s thighs, the politics of language, and where the home resides.
ROBERT WOOD: Can you explain for us how you became interested in poetry? I ask because there can be so many divergent paths we take to be here, and sometimes it involves disappointing our family, praying to ancestors, or going by happenstance rather than cunning. What led you to where you are now?
KO KO THETT: By being lost for words by the destructive and didactic power of language. An innocent language doesn’t aspire to have an armed force. But there’s such no thing as innocent language. Once a people have a language they could call their own those people will want to have a territory for it, and an army that will defend and expand that territory. Extinct languages were smothered at birth. Once a language is reduced to text, it won’t die.
Established languages tend to build nations, states, empires and religions. Languages are established by having a text, a structure, and a grammar that are correctable and correctional. Correct languages are taught at schools at canepoint. At military academies and insurgent outposts at gunpoint. At corporate meetings at PowerPoint. I was raised in all sorts of repressive correctness.
Traditional Burmese verse is full of Buddhist didacticism. When I am enthralled by the musicality of classical Burmese poetry, I am often repulsed by its moralistic content. More recently I have taken issue with didacticism spoken by supranational tribes such as the World Bank, the UN, the INGOs, and the like. Why is it that those competitively-salaried-jet-setting-SUV-driving-mansion-owning technocrats lecturing the underprivileged about income inequality or sustainable development? Why is it that some Hollywood luminaries are appointed “ambassadors” for some humanitarian organizations? Because the language of the dispossessed or the displaced is not refined enough?
Since my samizdat days in Yangon in the early 1990s, my interest in poetry grew out of my itch to stay on top of language. At that time I wanted to stay outside the box of populist and popular poetic language of Burma. Language of poetry appealed to me as it is disinterested — it’s not interested in any of the things established languages do.
In “The Burden of Being Bama” you conclude with the lines “your karma is you / life short / suffering tall / plenty of water / no fish, no fish at all.” The rhyme offers a type of resolution, and the poem as a whole is able to think through the situation in Myanmar with acidity, bite, and warmth. It also has religious allusions, even in these last lines where you invoke karma. What role has Buddhism, the mystical, and the soul played in your writing?
The poem emerged out of my own burden. Quite literally. When I began those lines, in the autumn of 2010, I was feeling the discomfort of the self, the weight of wokeness, what the Buddhists call dukkha. At that time, I was working in Romania for the resettlement of Kachin refugees from Burma. The Kachin are one of the major ethnic groups from northern Burma. Many of them are still at war with the state of Burma-Myanmar. At one point I was hauling loads of second-hand clothing I collected in Brussels, Belgium for the refugees in Galati, Romania. I was working for a behemoth of an organization for refugees, and was very troubled by the thought that my burden representing that organization might be probably akin to Kiplingesque White Man’s Burden.
The poem, like much else in my work, is a case of what we Burmese call elbowing one’s own thighs — elbow your own thighs while sitting in the lotus position. The point is you won’t really hurt yourself, unless you are suicidal. Many lines in the poem are my own renditions of assorted Burmese idioms. I think of Buddhism, the mystical, or the soul — as poetical expedients. As byways and highways.
Byways and highways and rhymes to make roads, I guess we elbow our own thighs to become aware of the pressure of life itself. In poems like “cut” and “the 5000th” you engage with politics, especially commenting on violence, and it opens up ideas of form as well. Can you speak about the intersection of aesthetics and ethics in your poetry?
Aesthetics and ethics do not intersect, except at commercial or political junctions. When the two happen to meet at a runic roundabout, whoever is already negotiating the roundabout has the right of way. I like the original idea of aesthetics as sense. Sense precedes essence. Or, accent? Perhaps my sense of justice has informed the poems, but I am more concerned with the world as it is. Not so much the world as it should be.
“cut” is about all kinds of cuts: austerity measures, circumcisions (both female and male), amputations, censorships, and edits. The four-cut doctrine — cut their food, cut their funds, cut their recruit, cut their intelligence — were said to have been introduced by the British in colonial Burma against local resistance forces. They were later adopted by the Burmese military against ethnic insurgents. “cut” simply imagines a filming location, where the refrain “cut” is barked out by the director. The poem should be performed in the manner of Sergeant Hartman of Full Metal Jacket fame. “the 5000th” is just a tragic list poems of two interwoven lists, one of numbers and the other of months, and it can go on forever, as human-made tragedies would go on forever. Half a score of MFA acting students at University of Iowa performed “the 5000th” in autumn 2016, and they really nailed it.
You mention the MFA students, and, I also get a sense that you are invested in a community that is located yet diasporic. I myself am part of the Indian diaspora, and, my grandparents were born there as colonial subjects prior to Partition. Their move was not necessarily due to the violence of Independence, but it was in the atmosphere and premised on the idea that elsewhere meant a better life. In what way is language home for you then rather than nation or soil?
I am not at home in both Burmese and English. I do not subscribe to mother tongue communities. I am neither here nor there. My mother tongue is Burmese and both my parents are monolingual Burmese but, owing to my adolescent years in Shan State of eastern Burma, my Burmese is not quite Burmese, nor Shan-Burmese. A strange accent won’t be able to get you an ambulance service in most countries. The busy lady at the other end of the line will simply say, “I don’t understand a word you are saying.” Since I am tongue-tied in all the languages I speak I don’t feel home in any language.
The Burmese language has just one word for both house and home. It has no equivalence for the English notion of “home” as a family or social unit. Home in English language often is an abstract idea, but we Burmese tend to think of home in rather concrete terms. In the Burmese sense of home, I have no home to go back to in Burma. Only in the English sense of home I have a home in Burma. There was a time when I was living by Salman Rushdie’s dictum: “Exile is the dream of return.” Today I would add, “Exile is the dream of return — to a daymare.” Diaspora is ideal home for exiles. Going home? You are bound to be disappointed.
Recently I was talking to artist Patricia Kelly who has lived in San Francisco and elsewhere for decades and returned to her native UK recently. We share this dreadful experience of not being able to locate home in our native lands or anywhere else. “Home is where the heart was.” says Charles Bernstein who has always lived in New York City. Gone with the sense of home is the sense of national identity and national pride and the like. That sort of transnational experience can shake an individual to the core. Neither English nor Burmese. Anguish, me languish?
Your avatar Jet Ni is somewhat of an everyman from Myanmar yet also a wry and astute comment on the contemporary situation there. Talk us through how you created Jet Ni, their voice, and how it allows you to create a prose critique of Myanmar itself. Who is this character and why do they exist?
Christmas round robins are a British middle-classy thing. I have had a couple of friends who would post Christmas cards enclosed with a couple of pages of updates about their life every December. To quote Michael Hogan, “the content of the average round robin letter is narrow in scope yet big on smugness, they often read like a blend of faux-casual bragging about holidays, home improvements, academic achievements and career success, seasoned with tedious minutiae involving pets, petty neighborly disputes and physical ailments.” Tragic news, such as passings of relatives or friends are understated in a very typical British manner, while resilience is stressed.
I imagine what it would be like if a Third-Worlder is doing an update every new year. Jet Ni is a fictional character, but events surrounding his life are real, as I cull them from Burmese news outlets. Jet Ni, again, is a case of suicidal elbowing of my own thigh. It gives me no pleasure to pen Jet Ni. Jet Ni came into existence in 2012 because, when Myanmar’s political transition began in 2010, the world by and large was very worked up as if Myanmar had turned into the land of milk and honey overnight. In reality sudden marketization of the society that came with political transition is making most of the populace feel more deprived than they actually are.
In Perth recently, our local PEN chapter hosted a “Spotlight on Burma,” which was led by local Burmese intellectual Christopher Lin. We read some of your poems, but our Empty Chair for the evening was Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone. They have since been released, but there are ongoing concerns about responsible freedom of expression there. What do you make of Myanmar’s current situation?
Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone’s release was part of the mass amnesties that happened over the Burmese new year in April. The two journalists were jailed for their efforts to unearth the Burmese army’s summary execution of ten Rohinja in western Burma. Former military personnel who were serving time for their role in that massacre were included in the mass amnesties too!
“Responsible freedom of expression” comprises three loaded terms, “responsible,” “freedom,” and “expression,” none of which belongs to Burmese philosophical tradition. Just like human rights, the notion of freedom of expression (responsible or not) will remain alien to much of the population of Myanmar. In terms of artistic or poetic expression I am very much encouraged by the current situation. Today any artist or poet can do or say anything they please as long as they don’t cross the line of verbally abusing the most important people, namely Aung San Suu Kyi or commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing.
You also work as a translator, and, you and I met that way. Talk me through your process of translation, and, why it is important to engage and resist the hegemony of English?
To get back to correctable and correctional languages, English is just one among many others. Burmese is a hegemonic language in its own right. English as an imperial language is one thing. There are also numerous English dialects and creolized varieties of English that exist to resist the correctness of standard Englishes. I have always been interested in what the Burmese calls fish-paste English, as opposed to cheddar English. I am into what Ted Hughes condescendingly calls “odd English” and odd Burmese.
My translation is informed by the need to Burmese my English and to English my Burmese. “Why don’t you Finnish both your Burmese and English?”, a friend of mine who knows I had lived in Finland for several long dark winters suggests. I love contemporary Burmese slangs such as bawsi for boss. Bawsi alludes to balls or testicles. The way to resist hegemony of any language is to come up with your own. Aren’t poets poets to invent their own language?
Finally, what new poems are you working on, and, how do they return to themes of identity, corporeality, and the subject while moving towards new interests of yours?
I have so many poems in progress, but I haven’t finished any poem in a while. On the other hand I have completed a new collection of prose poems in English called “bamboophobia.” In that book my interests remain bamboo and phobia.