Saturday, December 02, 2006



Paintings, Poetry and Refugees.

I’ve had a busy week.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, I was at The American University Refugee Conference, where I showed the more political of my art works, small pieces that can be displayed on a table. One is a simplified portrait of Burmese human rights defender Daw Su Su Nway, who sued the Burmese government and was imprisoned for it. She looks like a naive teenager. I painted the oil on canvas with as few colors and lines as I could manage.

As Paul Klee wrote in Berlin as the Nazis came into power "The paintings look back at you." Su Su Nway looks back at us with clear, open eyes. I imagine her saying "I did this and was punished for this. But you can do what your own conscience tells you to."

In a private email exchange a few days ago, another Burmese woman charmingly calls her conscience, her "conscious." There is not much difference between the 2 words.

People who don't have a conscience are hardly conscious.

At A.U., Hatim Eltayeb Mohamed Ali Elmaki also showed his paintings, naïve and colorful, and a friend of mine, Khin May Zaw showed her slides taken at a Burmese refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border.

My art work featured collages, some made from old business cards “woven” into irregular edged pieces that remind me of the split bamboo matting used as thin walls in poor people’s huts and houses in Burma. I flung acrylic paint in a betel nut red onto the pieces. (When I made them in my studio, not at the Conference). It looks like the betel spit which is ubiquitous on Burmese roads, maybe not in Rangoon now, where there are fines for spitting.

I found betel nut paraphernalia – such as small scissors to shave the small hard betel nuts into chewable wafer thin slices, fan-shaped receptacles for betel leaves (which come from a different plant, a vine) and small lidded tubes for holding the quick lime which is dabbed on a betel leaf, before the leaf is folded up and chewed, in markets in S.E. Asia – such as the Chiangmai Night Bazaar. Some are made of finely wrought silver or neillo ware, inlaid with black. I've put a betel chewing set into my short story The Rider of Crocodiles, written in July after a visit to Thailand.

There is really much that is similar in Burmese and Thai culture.

A video/DVD called “Tongues Don’t Have Bones” which uses my poetry illustrated by images – and made by Lisa DiLillo, was shown both on the 27th and the 28th of November at A.U. The title is from a line in one of my poems and is based on a old Burmese saying.

I am surprised and gratified that this piece has had such a long shelf life. Using footage that any tourist could have shot, DiLillo made this enduring piece of art. She has a wonderful sense of the movements in the film, and the cadences of Burmese speech and gesture. I told my A.U audience that the durability of this testifies to the staying power of truth. Lisa DiLillo and I were only its vehicles, working separately before we even met each other.

It shows that truth is the same, whoever is called to witness it, just by turning his or her eyes towards what is happening, and not away.

Some of the poetry I wrote myself, several were translated from poetry, hard to find, by other Burmese poets. One, Naing Win Swe, was a well known communist who converted to democracy and died in the jungle fighting for freedom. His poem depicts "the drowning punishment" used in the jungle. Sometimes the freedom fighters and groups ape the heirarchical structure and harsh extra-legal methods of the military junta.

I reflect on how poetry has a visceral meaning in Burma – as it has in Chile and Russia. There you don’t go to classes to write poetry, in fact you cannot.

You live life and a lot of poetry is written by the oppressed and disposed, some of them in the Burmese gulag.

I want poetry to have the strength and meaning it has over there, where often your life depends on it, literally.

This same week, Sarah Browning of D.C. Poets Against War, read poetry both at A.U at the beginning of the week, and at my salon, Dr. Kaung’s Salon, in Silver Spring, MD, where she also spoke about how D.C. Poets Against War was revived, in the period close to the start of the second Iraq War in 2003.

I had a nice dinner afterwards with Sarah and another poet, Judith McComb.

In this week of activism, poetry and friendship, I feel like a plant that has found the right pot to live in, has just been watered.

Thanks to Michelle Quinteros and Tim Renner, at American University and other student volunteers for the Refugee Conference. My apologies to David Fogel, and the high school students I was scheduled to meet on Tuesday at Gateway Heliport Gallery where the art of 4 refugee artists (including mine and Hatim's has been displayed in the show Freedom since October: I overschedule myself and was unable to make the open mike reading.

I hope this update in some way makes up for my not being able to get there.

Kyi May Kaung