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"Beyond the Sensible Mind": An Interview with Poet and Artist Maung Day


Book cover of Death in Summer by Maung Day

Coming this fall, Death in Summer is Burmese poet Maung Day’s ninth book of poems and his first full-length collection written in English: a haunting, surreal series of prose poems and original ink drawings that deliver defiant social commentary on the atrocities of Myanmar’s past and its turbulent current events. From the introduction by Greg Bem:"These poems emphasize public voice and collective spirit, through suffering and triumph, and yet at the core is Maung Day: his voice, his experience, his self."





Chin Music Press: Maung, congratulations on Death in Summer! It's a gorgeous and startling collection of poems and artwork. Tell us a little about the inspiration for this project. Maung Day: In 2019, I wrote a series of prose poems in Burmese and some of them were the earlier incarnations of the poems in Death in Summer. (These poems were written during the course of three years, and several of them were first published in The Margins, the online publication of Asian American Writers Workshop.) There is a tradition of tale telling running in my family. My grandmother who will be 97 this year told me and her other grandchildren numerous tales when we were young. I was always fascinated by her tales. They were strange and wonderful. In fact, a lot of those stories were about my great grandparents, their life experiences and the times they lived in. Then there was my father who passed away five years ago. He was a schoolteacher as well as a teller of tales. So, you can say I grew up listening to a lot of stories. I believed in most of those stories and still remember many of them.



"There is a tradition of tale telling running in my family."


This is a collection of prose poems and artwork. What was it about the form of prose poetry that interested you? I have always wanted to write a book of prose poems drawing on the history of my family and my own childhood experiences. There are a few books of poetry that taught me how to work with the autobiographical, the mythological, and the political in a poem: Venus Khoury-Ghata’s Alphabets of Sand, Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End, Valzhyna Mort’s Collected Body, and Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa. Then there’s the great Russell Edson whose work showed me how to ply fable-making, surrealist imagery, and absurdity in poetry. Prose poetry makes it possible for me to bring into the work all of these elements including the tale-telling tradition of my family.



Pen and ink drawing. Four children hold hands and circle a tree. One child leans against a many-faced creature playing a flute. There are mountains in the distance and a black sun.
Maung Day, "Lost Children 1," 2022. Pen on paper, 27.4 × 27.4 cm

What surprised you during the creation of this project? The biggest surprise has been the response of my body and conscious/unconscious mind during the process of writing these poems. I felt like I was writing something very, very close to me, something I knew and could still feel very much, but at the same time, I felt very free and was ready to go beyond the sensible mind and explore what my imagination and unconscious mind could mine from themselves or from my memories. It was an enjoyable process.



"I felt like I was writing something very, very close to me, something I knew and could still feel very much, but at the same time, I was ready to go beyond the sensible mind ... It was an enjoyable process."



Did anything surprise you about the finished version of this project? This project has been a combined effort and most effort came from the editorial team and the publicity department of Chin Music. I am very grateful for their support. I am so happy to see my poems and my art published side by side. The images seem to speak to or weave themselves into the words quite well and quite interestingly, I think. These images were made over the past ten years with a lot of discontent, criticalness, and hope.



Two children blow bubbles with gum. They have short dark hair and each has a snail-like creature attached to them, one on their heart and one on their cheek. They are surrounded by tree stumps. In the distance, a many-faced creature plays a flute while standing waist-deep in a puddle. Far in the distance is a house and a single tree.
Maung Day, "Lost Children 4," 2022. Pen on paper, 27.4 × 27.4 cm.

What’s next for you? I haven’t been able to write poetry since the coup d’état. But I have been writing a bit of prose and making a bit of art. I want to write poetry again. This project has given me new energy and excitement. I intend to start writing poetry again soon and see what happens.



"I haven't been able to write poetry since the coup d'état ... [But] this project has given me new energy and excitement."



Thanks so much for chatting, Maung, and congratulations on the collection. It really is a special thing. Last question: What's something that you've read/watched/seen/listened to lately that you're loving? I have been reading a book of poems called Waitress in Fall by Kristin Omarsdottir. It’s such a daring work, such beautiful sensuality, such playfulness. It will change the way you think about poetry and life. I am also reading The White Book by Han Kang. A slow, meditative, and gorgeous writing about grief.



Death in Summer is available for pre-order on our website, or wherever you get your books!

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