Chapbook #1 | February 2008

Power Crazy Senior General Than Shwe

A chapbook edited by A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz and featuring poems by Kelli Russell Agodon, Ivone Alexandre, John Davis, Anne Haines, R. Joyce Heon, Luisa A. Igloria, A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz, Woody Loverude, Nathan McClain, Carolyn Moore, Pamela Johnson Parker, Heidi Sulzdorf, and Saw Wai (translated by Dr. David Law).

Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet”

On January 22, 2008, in the country of Myanmar, a man named Saw Wai was jailed for writing a poem. The eight-line poem, “February 14,” had been published the previous day in the popular Burmese weekly A Chit (or The Love Journal), and is about a man who learns the true meaning of love when his heart is broken by a fashion model. Because “February 14″ looks the part of a saccharine Valentine, Burmese government censors missed its hidden message: when read top-to-bottom, the first word of each line forms the phrase, “Power Crazy Senior General Than Shwe.”

Senior General Than Shwe leads the military junta that has ruled Myanmar for almost twenty years. After seizing control of the Burmese government in 1988, the junta refused to relinquish power in 1990, when a democratic political party led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won a popular election by an enormous margin. Suu Kyi has been in a Burmese prison for twelve of the past eighteen years; Than Shwe has been the country’s dictator for the past fifteen. Saw Wai has been in prison, unable to see his family, for two and a half weeks.

Than Shwe’s junta has long detained critics and dissidents for indefinite periods of time. But their methods do not stop at imprisonment. In September, 2007, Than Shwe’s troops opened fire on a peaceful, pro-democracy demonstration and killed more than thirty people, including several Buddhist monks who were leading the protests. It is unclear what will happen to Saw Wai, but with each day he spends in prison, it becomes clearer that his message is true.

Each of the twelve poets in this collection has attempted to remain faithful to that message, through acrostics, double acrostics, telestitches, and forms of their own invention. Some of their poems are fantastical and funny; some are quiet and personal. More than a few crackle with outrage. But all twelve poets understand, as Saw Wai does, that words are also actions, and that actions are a kind of words.

In the last two lines of “February 14,” Saw Wai asks his readers to take action together: “Millions of people, who know how to love / laugh and clap those gold-gilded hands.” Perhaps this is too much the stuff of sappy love poems. Then again, perhaps laughter and applause are more important to democracy than they seem.

Saw Wai, your message is clear. Our words are our applause.

A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz
Buffalo, NY
February 9, 2008

Steven D. Schroeder writes:

I’m proud to present a project that takes advantage of the fast turnaround time and unique presentation possibilities of the online format, and that stands against something that’s clearly important and worth fighting. I’m only the host for this work, but I’m honored to have that opportunity.

A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz writes:

If you asked me to make a fifty-word statement of what I’m against in poetry, I’d likely just become a mouthpiece for Frederick Douglass (1860): “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason. . . .” Of course, that’s sixty words.

Dr. David Law writes:

Please, by all means, publish your splendid collection of works with my full endorsement and permission. Your letter and your collection brings tears to my eyes that there are fellow poets who do care about one who has been cruelly imprisoned. . .and worse to follow.

We all have the right to breathe, and we live and breathe poetry and Art in all its pain and glory. We have the right to write and let others read our works. If we do not make a stand for ourselves, who will? Poetry is about the courage of expression and Saw Wai bravely and eloquently proved his poem was correct using his body as bait. He knew it would be deciphered and when it did, he would be arrested, broken, and crushed. That was what was most moving about his poem; he was like Jesus awaiting capture in the Garden of Gethsemane, fully knowing his fate and bravely facing his Crucifixion, as do many who have been crushed in Burma, but knowing that by his sacrifice he would once again prove the insanity which is Than Shwe. (Also that his senseless arrest would add to the international backlash against TS.)

Earlier, my nephew from the U. of Arkansas berated me, saying that Saw Wai got jailed for nothing, i.e., something as worthless as a poem and that he did not do anything great. I tried to explain that his poem and his facing of imminent capture was heroic, but the nephew could not see the point. Thus, when I see a host of renowned poets devoting their time and
talents for someone like Saw Wai from the far side of the world, I feel vindicated. Let me thank and wish you the best of everything in your Endeavor.

The Spirit of Art be with you.

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