Suy Vansak, who this month picked up two prizes at the sixth annual Nou Hach Literature Association writing competition, spent five days writing each of his award-winning poems.
As a young child, Suy Vansak would fall asleep to the sound of his grandparents retelling ancient Khmer legends such as Tum Teav and the Rithysen Neang Korngrey. The 29-year-old provincial teacher says hearing such stories instilled in him a lifelong love of literature and inspired him to become a writer.
But years of struggling to make ends meet followed; poetry, while hardly a lucrative profession anywhere, is particularly hard in Cambodia where the revival of a literary scene following the devastation of the Khmer Rouge has been crippled by under-funding, lack of a reading public and rampant piracy.
Vansak’s efforts, however, may have finally paid off. The 6th annual Nou Hach Literature Association writing competition, held in Phnom Penh on June 7, awarded him two poetry prizes. This year, the competition attracted 230 writers submitting some 600 poems.
Vansak, a Kampong Thom native, spoke to the Post’s Nguon Sovan about his prize-winning poems and the contemporary literature scene in Cambodia.
When did you first start writing poetry?
I began to compose poems when I was learning in Kampong Cham regional pedagogical school in 1999, where I studied for two years. I have been fond of poetry since I was a child but I did not know how to write it until I studied at this school. This was where I first studied poetry and where I first had access to lots of poetry books. I learned about the forms for composing poems by reading the works of a Khmer poet called Pich Tom Krovil. I read his poems, studied his forms, and began to write my own poems. I feel quite awestruck at the moment as this is the first time in my life I have won an award for my poems. I have entered the competition three times, but I had never won before.
Do you remember the first poem you read?
I read all the poetry books written by Khmer literature professor Keng Vannsak and Tum Teav, which was composed by Piko Som in 1915. When I see poetry books, I always buy them.
Is poetry a dying art form in Cambodia?
Yes it is, because the young generation today prefers modern, exotic songs to Khmer poems. In my experience as a literature teacher, students are not interested in learning about poems, and they always complain to me that poetry is difficult to understand. Some students do not even know how to read poems correctly. I have started a club at school so students can learn poetry and the art of writing, but only a few students are interested. Even among literature teachers, interest in poetry is very low. Some don’t understand poetry composition at all, as they don’t care about it. The [Nou Hach] prize is important as it encourages writers and authors to write. It gives some momentum to the contemporary literary scene.
Could you tell us a little about writing your winning entries?
Before I began to write the poems for the contest, I tried to understand more modern styles of poetry. At the Nou Hach Literature Association, they focus on a more modern way of writing poems than I am used to. So I bought many poetry books of both modern and ancient Khmer poetry and began to compare the differences between old and new poems. I read those books again and again. I came to understand modern Khmer poetry through the works of Keng Vannsak, and Somros Jivit ( The Beauty of Life) by Kun Sron written in 1974, Kert Jea Monos Nis (Born as a Human Being) by Koi Sarun written in 1972, and Chey Chap, Daen Dey Tirk Pnaek (The Land of Tears) by Yin Lout and so many others.
What are your winning poems about?
I wrote five poems for the contest and two of them were awarded prizes, one which is called The Mind of Youth and the other which is called The Palm Tree. I was inspired to compose The Mind of Youth because when I walk to school I always see disabled soldiers who are struggling to walk and begging for money. I felt great pity for them because my father was also a soldier, but he had the good fortune of avoiding serious injury and disability. I can’t help but think: If he were like the men I see on the street, how different would my family’s fate have been? Today, disabled soldiers receive no attention and they have no choice but to beg for money. This is what I wrote about. The Palm Tree is a poem in praise of the palm tree which is the symbol of Cambodia, anywhere there are palm trees, it is said to be Khmer territory.
How do you write your poems?
Each poem took me five days to compose. Khmer poems are very difficult to compose, as they require many rhymes in a single sentence and rhymes connecting one sentence to another. The trick [to learning how to write poetry] is simple: Read as many Khmer poems as you can. With modern poetry, writers compose mostly for the meaning of the poem, that dictates style, but with older poetry the form and verse were paramount. There are 53 forms in Khmer poetry which are used at different times to express joy, romance or sorrow. When we compose poetry, we comply with the forms to shape verses and find rhythmic words. There are clear forms that are used to compose different styles of poems.
How does Khmer poetry differ from Western poetry?
I can’t read English. I used to read translated version of Swedish poems, but to me they sounded inauthentic, not as harmonious as Khmer poems. We cannot say Khmer poems are better than foreign poems though. It depends on the readers. If they are Khmer, Khmer poetry is good; if they are foreigners, they will say foreign poetry is good.
Do you want to be a poet or will you find a normal job?
In the future, I will continue to write poems. The award has encouraged me to write more poems, but I am going to look for another job, like being a writer for a newspaper, magazine or publication to earn an income, because in my job as teacher I earn just 250,000 riel ($62.50) a month.
Why is poetry important in the modern world?
It is important to keep writing poetry; it is still alive in the modern world – for example, as song lyrics. It is important as it helps to educate the next generation to live in harmony, to have affection for their nation, their culture and their traditions.