Thanks to my fellow poet YENG Chheangly, I have learned to admire CHIN Meas. I invited him to our Khmer Literature Festival in 2017 and he has returned for the following years. Both his life and his personhood deserve our attention. Many of his poems have a Buddhist resonance and serve as cautionary tales about our tragic flaws. He embraces the impermanence of life and hauntingly leaves his readers pondering multiple layers of meaning.
Chin Meas lives in Siem Reap with his wife and two young children. He survives by selling fried noodles every night in Siem Reap. I fondly call him ‘The Fried Noodle Poet’. He writes from the heart and exposes society. Although he is unable to make a living from his writing his work he challenges all poets to ask ‘What does poetry mean? And, as a poet, which value do I stand for? – Phina So
Chin Meas’s family is poor. He was born in 1980, one year after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime which the war didn’t go to a complete stop until the late 90s to some areas. His home village, Batheay district in Kampong Cham province, is one of the strategic areas where both
the government and the remaining Khmer Rouge soldiers fought for it.
Meas told me “I believe we were caught in between. As a boy, I was curious to find out what happens after each fight. Some morning I saw Khmer Rouge soldiers. Some mornings I saw the government soldiers. Some morning I saw trucks with a full pack of Vietnamese soldiers, on their way to the fight with the KR soldiers. I saw corpses of the soldiers laying down on the street.”
Like millions of Cambodians, life after the genocide was hard. There were no schools nor hospitals. They were struggling to make ends meet while having to run almost every day due to the continuity of the fighting. Though starting school very late, he had to drop school after he passed his secondary school exam. Only two kids including him passed the exam in the whole village. With the request from his parents, he had to stop going to school.
Like many Cambodian poor families, sending sons to monkhood means that their children are given free education and foods, and plus also moral education from Buddhist monks. Meas told me that during that time there were not many books available besides there were old Satra about Buddhism. Most Satra is in poetic verse. That’s where he learns from it. Later he thought that was not enough. He came to Phnom Penh to enroll in a writing course with the Khmer Writers Association in Phnom Penh. Upon returning back to his pagoda, he opened a subbranch of the Khmer Writers Association where he started teaching students writing novels and poetry. The award-winning poet Chheangly is one of his students.
An award-winning poet
His poems are critical and rich in metaphor. Since censorship is quite strong in Cambodia, being able to write poetry using deep and universal metaphors is a great talent.
I experienced the power of Mea’s poetry in a very public way. In early 2019, Meas, Chheangly, Chanphal, and I were invited to attend the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in Guwahati, Assam Northern State of India. We were speakers at one panel ‘New Literature of Cambodia’. The four of us took turns to talk about our work and what we think about the current literary development in our country. With a mixture of optimism and pessimism, we shared as much as we could.
At one point, Chheangly chose to read Meas’s poem for the audience. Here is the selection:
Raining in the Wrong Place
Poet Chin Meas, Second Place Award
Translated by Teri Yamada and Chath Piersath
The entire sky is filled with smoke
The sun attempts to shine through
There is no rain anywhere
The grass and the trees are nearly dead.
Everything is trying to survive without water
Waiting for a better time
Hoping for the rain to come
And make everything better
But when the rain comes
It falls somewhere else
The wind arises
And claws the rain to the sea.
It is raining all the time on the ocean
But the field and forest are dying too soon
The wild wind blows the rain from the land
Taking it to the sea.
There is never any water for the land
No rain from the clouds
The sky keeps silent
Nothing gets better.
Cheanggly became emotional when he read it. Silly, I thought. How could one get emotional over a poem? Why?
Unexpectantly, Chheangly handed over the poem and asked me to read in English. The audience responded enthusiastically, so I began. Soon I suddenly started to tremble. I was almost in tears. I was so emotional that I had to stop reading the poem. I looked at Chheangly as if I say ‘Sorry I judged you too soon!’ After a few moments, I continued to read with difficulty.
After I finished reading, a gentleman who sat in the front row asked “Please tell us why did the poem make you both emotional?”
To me, it is about hope.
The rain represents hope. We were expecting another rain to come to our thirsty land. When the rain was approaching, we were so happy. However, the rain didn’t stop for us, it goes further to the ocean which has plenty of water already.
The poem can also be interpreted as unequal wealth distribution. The land is dry, the rain moves past it. It only rains in the ocean. The poem highlights the inequality of our life without having to speak directly to these issues.
We were the people that had lost hope. We were expecting hope and then losing hope again.
After I shared my answer, the audience stood up and clapped for us. One of them said ‘Well, I believe Cambodia is well in your hand.’
Good writing allows readers to feel the universality in the personal.
On the surface, Meas writes a poem about a family issue where children greedily divide the inherited house among themselves. In the end, they don’t have a roof. Likewise, in Meas’s own word, the inherited house is the mother earth. Humans fail to see the beauty and connection of their home planet
and act in greed. They exploit all the resources on earth and do not share
the bounty fairly. Global warming, wars, destruction of nature – all build to the eventual destruction of Mother Earth.
The Inherited House
Chin Meas, second place award
Translated by Teri Yamada
There are five children in a family
Supported by their mother and father
They live together in the countryside
With no problem for many years.
Their house has strong pillars
And a tile roof that keeps them cool
The sturdy walls won’t blow over
With lattice made from bamboo.
The steps are made of stone
And the strong front door of sturdy wood
The windows open to the outside
And there’s lots of furniture within.
There are flowers in the front yard
Blooming so flagrantly
As nice as a city house
It is bordered with a hedge.
The family is so happy
Everyone is charming
They have no conflicted and
Share food among themselves.
But when the children get married
They become secretive and selfish
Each claims he has inherited the house
They end their relationship and sue.
Some want the same thing
Some want more
Some plot to kill the others
Each claims he should be the one
To get the inherited house.
They pull the house apart to divide it
Some take the columns
Another takes the roof
They divide up everything in the house.
They divide the roof tile, tables, chairs
Lattices, walls and gates, windows and doors
They divide everything
And then sell the land.
The house that has once given them
So much peace is now destroyed
The children have pulled it
Down to divide it.
They divide up the inherited house
That had once given them peace
They can never live together again.
Daring to write free verse in a very conservative poetry environment is a brave move. Cambodia has vast poetic forms that are expected to be followed by its traditional rules. Many young poets who break the rules are often publicly criticized and shamed. Meas dares to write in free form.
When he began writing he produced a strong capital of traditional Khmer poetry. Although he has won many awards he still sought new ways to express his thoughts.
He observes that those who declare their love Khmer traditional poetry seldom finish a poem. Some who read traditional poetry often do not feel not fully interested or understand its form. Some poets that follow traditional rules are not willing to think critically.
Meas believes that the world is changing rapidly and Khmer poetry needs to cope with the changes. He appreciates free verse poetry for its freedom and ability to express his feelings and emotions. He reminded me that people might find something new strange – but that does not mean that they don’t accept it. As the public is exposed to contemporary forms the more the people will accept and value it equally to the traditional poems.
I see life experience as the poem itself. That’s my life. I told you. All the pictures of the lives I have seen and experienced were so much about suffering, poverty, struggles, and changes. Later in life, I realized my life experience is a poem in itself. That is a strong reason that keeps me strong on my journey as a poet and now is finding and building my identity as a poet.