ko ko thett

Portrait ko ko thett
© Hartwig Klappert

Poet ko ko thett was born in 1972 in Rangoon (Yangon), the largest city in Myanmar. In 1995, while studying engineering at Yangon Institute of Technology (YIT), his poetic career was discreetly launched with the publications of samizdat poetry collections in Burmese, titled, »The Rugged Gold« and »The Funeral of the Rugged Gold«. In the summer of 1997, he left Myanmar following his release from a 137-day detention for his role in the December 1996 student uprising. He went to Singapore and later to Bangkok, where he worked for the Jesuit Refugee Service for three years. In 2000, he began reading peace and conflict studies at the University of Helsinki and later attended the Institute for International Development at the University of Vienna. In late 2015, he returned to his home city of Rangoon, only to leave for the US again for a fellowship at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2016.

ko ko thett calls himself »a poet by choice and a Burmese by chance«. The texts of his first poetry collection »The Burden of Being Burmese« (2015) explicitly place himself within the new direction of contemporary Burmese poetry, which has parted with the tradition of a standard structure in rhymed quatrains and a focus on themes of nature at the beginning of the 20th century. thett wrote these poems in English and could thus question the possibilities of his own language, for example regarding its ability to portray personal and collective experiences: »how do you write history / in a language that has no / past tense?« The typically paratactic lines oscillate between the personal and the political with reference to different ranges of topics, languages, and geographic places. Furthermore, special meaning is afforded to food, which dissolves the borders between the inner and outside worlds and connects to current themes such as poverty, the fight for survival, consumption, tourism, and cultural identity. His texts exhibit global references from Jean-Paul Sartre and Benedict Anderson, to Bob Dylan and William Blake, as well as the famous local Burmese poet Zeyar Lynn, to whom thett dedicated his poem »Monosodium glutamate«. Naturally, there are also allusions to Buddhism, British colonialism, the junta’s rule, and controversies within the Burmese literature scene.

ko ko thett is country editor for Myanmar at Poetry International and poetry editor at »Mekong Review«. Today, thett lives in Sagaing, on the bank of the River Irrawaddy in central Myanmar. He writes in both Burmese and English.