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The challenges of working on versions of Ma Ei’s poems

8th July 2015


Ma Ei is published in MPT's Summer 2015 issue, 'I WISH...'

Stephanie Norgate is a playwright and poet. She lives in Sussex with her husband and two children, and runs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester. Her most recent collection is The Blue Den (Bloodaxe, 2012)

The layout of the poems in Burmese show that Ma Ei works in very short lines, but more than that I could not tell. The literals supplied by Pandora were already moving and economical. There was also the issue of Burmese cultural references which might be opaque to Anglophone readers. I sent Pandora many cultural questions. Then I strove to incorporate explanations within the poems in order to avoid notes. This changed the direction of the syntax and made for lengthier sentences with multiple clauses, somewhat blunting Ma Ei’s technique of listing intense images snatched from her life as an activist. I returned to the literals and rewrote my versions to allow each snap-shot moment to carry the emotional narrative. The reader acts as a detective putting together clues from the evidence and gradually realising why the basket of flowers, Das Kapital or the stethoscope are important. I realised that the filmic nature of these images is crucial to Ma Ei’s dramatisation of poverty and imprisonment, which positions the reader as witness.

In other lyric poems, I was gripped by Ma Ei’s engagement with her charged history, evoked through metaphors of rivers, birds, hunting, fires and travel. It was a pleasure to work with this energetic elemental imagery, which conveys a spirit driven forward in the face of danger and passion. Here, syntactical linking and the slippage of one metaphor into another were more important than image lists. 

Some frustrations remain which perhaps typify the challenges of such a commission. I couldn’t discover the botanical names of the wild flowers mentioned in The Little Bell with the Cracked Voice, though I contacted Kew Gardens, the Burmese Embassy and searched internet sources on Burmese funerals and flowers. The names or appearance of the flowers may be significant, though, in the absence of specific knowledge, what remains is the emotional power of the simple offering the children make to honour their dead friend.

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