a letter from a jail cell

K ZA WIN
Translated from Burmese into English by Ko Ko Thett
Printed March 2021

This leaflet (poem from “My Reply to Ramond”, which ko ko thett circulated in January 2021, and kkt’s note) is included with this issue of The Sparkplug.


Dear Father,
the River, whose stomach
was cut open, 
has declared war
on our tiny house on the bank, hasn’t she?
Right in front of the house
you must be looking out for someone
who will help you with
embankment poles
to straighten the river,
to fill her holes with
sandbags.
In the murky water,
which rises like a bamboo lance,
you must be gazing at
the sesame plantation —
laden with fruits
ready for harvest.
You must be thinking
a fistful of rice in your mouth
is about to be fingered out.
Maybe you will find solace
in religion, contemplating
our five foes.
Maybe you will
think of the void
a son’s labour can fill.
One son, two daughters and one son;
The eldest is a poet in prison,
the first daughter, a school teacher,
the second, a graduate in the kitchen,
the youngest, a student.
Your poet son,
is he even employable
as the dah you use to clear weed?
Forgive nothing, Father.
Nothing!
“Son, Pho Chan,
why do I hear noises behind you?”,
you asked on the phone.
“I am at the bus stop
to post a manuscript to a journal,” I lied.
From your liar son in the dock
to thugs who sweeten you
with the tips of their tongues,
“To our benefactor peasants …”,
because they want to have you from behind,
hate them all, Father.
Hate them all.
A thief is
unarmed.
A thug is
armed to the teeth.
If thieves are ungovernable,
if thugs are ungovernable,
what’s the point of government?
Whatever happens to the jungles
whatever happens to the mountains
whatever happens to the rivers
they don’t care.
They love the country
just the way they love to grate a coconut,
from inside out,
for coconut milk.
Plinth by plinth, to make their throne taller,
they will point their guns at the urna
on the Lord Buddha’s forehead. 
Their class is that crass.
To cuss at that class
if your religion forbids you
allow me to lose that religion.
I will turn the air blue
on your behalf.
Maybe you don’t know yet.
your son was
set up
for demanding the so-called police
not to harm ordinary citizens.
Someday
your son, who is not a thief
nor a thug
will become employable,
good as your dah that clears weed.
For now, Father,
keep gazing at the plantation
you’d ploughed with your naked shoulders.
Keep singing
the anthem of
The Peasant Union.

Yours ever,
K Za Win
Cell 1, Section 10
Thayawaddy Prison


“A poet’s death is his life”

Respected poet killed in a protest in Monywa, Myanmar as the country reels from military coup

From an email by poet ko ko thett (March 4, 2021):

Poet K Za Win, whose poems have appeared in Myanmar magazines since 2004, was killed in a protest in Monywa yesterday (3 March, 2021).

K Za Win was born to a peasant family in Latpadaung near Monywa in 1982. Latpadaung is a contentious site where several villages were displaced by Wanbao Copper Mining Ltd. of China. The Myanmar police’ violent repression of Latpadaung villagers’ struggle against the Chinese farm in the 2010s revealed the dark side of “the democratic transition” of Myanmar.

K Za Win was one of the university students who rallied from Mandalay to Yangon in the 2015 campaign, “Long March for Educational Reforms.” Consequently he spent one year and a month in prison, during which he published “My Reply to Ramond”.

K Za Win wrote to tell me how he enjoyed the translation.

I simply replied,

“Take care, bro.”


Just 3 days earlier, ko ko thett had shared a note on social media on K Za Win’s “Cooking Up (Democracy Dishes in My Very Own Kitchen)”:

ko ko thett: The poem is a salve for my uneasy conscience. How the liberal West condemns the 2021 military coup in Myanmar! How familiar their lines are to me since the bloody putsch in 1988 in what was then known as Burma. If they have not done anything to effectively restore human dignity of some of the world’s most repressed ethnic peoples, be they Rohingya or Kachin, would they do anything for the Burmese populace who are complicit in atrocities against the repressed? In my very own kitchen, “today’s special” is yesterday’s leftover.


Recommended reading

Understanding the complicated politics and geopolitics of the coup in Myanmar, Vijay Prashad, Peoples’ Dispatch

Indian historian, journalist and author Vijay Prashad situates the February 1 coup in Myanmar within the continuity of decades of military rule in the country; the military (Tatmadaw) never completely relinquished governmental power, including veto power, to fully civilian rule.

Train a comin’: Poems from the Burmese resistance, Zeyar Lynn, Pandora, K Zar Win, Jacket2

“Even the flags flying at the UN make Myanmar a fucking farce,” writes poet Zeyar Lynn. “As a citizen and as an individual, being a poet is a matter of national freedom. As blood flows to the heart.”

Excerpts from Bones Will Crow (anthology of contemporary Burmese poets) by ko ko thett and James Byrne, Asymptote Journal

Poet Eandra writes:

“In the very first nook of my extending right hand
Cultures are forged…

You have pretended not
To notice my pretensions.

[…]

I will pretend not to notice
Your pretensions.”

Bones Will Crow: Burmese poets Zeyar Lynn & Khin Aung Aye on Close Listening, Jacket2

Audio files of readings and interviews, and commentary on the anthology Bones Will Crow (Ko Ko Thett and James Byrne). The anthology itself is a sharp collection of contemporary Burmese poetry by 15 poets, exploring the edges of experimental and unstructured writing, and often the relationship between Burmese poetry and wider political movements, as well as traditional Burmese literary forms.

As part of a global conversation on experimental literature, the volume also confronts elitist preconceptions, definitions and restrictions on the avant-garde; who, in the end, gets to decide what is or isn’t ‘accessible literature’? Why is the experimental so threatening in the hands of poets outside of established literary circles? Why must ‘the people’s poetry’ conform to particular vocabularies, rhythms or meanings? As Zeyar Lynn writes in the book’s preface:

“A related effect of the Khitpor-Contemporary conflict is that some khitpor poets are deliberately making their poems more accessible to the general readership as a reaction against ‘difficult’, ‘experimental’, ‘theory-based’, ‘intellectual’, ‘elitist’ poems. Ironically, the two chief khitpor poets ‘simplifying’ their poems are Aung Cheimt and Thukhamein Hlain. An example is Aung Cheimt’s ‘Hamburger Eater’, published in ICON magazine in September 2010:

So, you are a hamburger, aren’t you?
So, you are a hamburger, aren’t you?
So, you are a hamburger, aren’t you?
So, you are a hamburger, aren’t you?

If such a poem had been written by anyone of lesser stature, it would surely not be considered poetry at all. But, Aung Cheimt is Aung Cheimt, and if Aung Cheimt wrote it, it must be poetry. Full-stop.”


K Za Win was a celebrated poet whose writing was first published in his school’s magazine at the age of 16. A member of Monywa Poet’s Union, he had previously spent over a year in jail for participating in a student rally that called for educational reforms in Myanmar. While he was imprisoned, he wrote a poem addressed to his father called ‘A letter from a jail cell’. (English biography via PEN International)


ko ko thett is a poet by choice and Burmese by chance. In between he is a poetry editor, literary translator, and anthologist of contemporary Burmese poetry. Selections from his book, the burden of being burmese, have been translated into Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese, Russian and Finnish. thett’s poems are anthologised in Best American Experimental Writing 2016 (BAX 2016), CAPITALS: A Poetry Anthology (2017) and The Borderlands of Asia: Culture, Place, Poetry (2017) among others. thett writes in both Burmese and English.