As a teenager in Kandal province, Yeng Chheangly could not access any modern education as yet during the last 15 years. Back to the past, the way to improve his knowledge in Khmer literature besides schooling was to study in a pagoda where Chheangly started out on his journey as a student of poetry.
He remembers it was the time he left the comfort zone of his hometown to pursue further education and a career in the city. It was a passage of trials and tribulations. Chheangly turned his loneliness into sheer poetry in motion that endeared him as an iconic poet among the people.
Last year, he contemplated on the collection of poems written by 10 poets from Asean countries. The collection was translated to Khmer language entitled “Struggling for the Nation” – an anthology of poems depicting problems that abound in each Asean country.
Life’s journey is far from over for Chheangly. His poems were printed in many books and also translated into English language. Now, he still writes and develops his poetry writing every day, not for income and also as a diary of his daily life. Barring a busy job, Chheangly still spends time contributing to keep poetry alive. Along with his persistence, his work in poetry takes him on travels to many countries in recent years to discover the value of the genre. Youth Today engages with him on his perspective of the local poetry scene.
What does a poem mean to you?
I was curious on what a poem means. When I just started learning about poetry, I thought the poem means a writing that needs to have rhyme. But the moment I became deeply involved in poetry writing, I learned the other way, to translate the definition and functionality of the poem differently. To me, a poem means the nature around us. The nature of human, animal and things. Despite the happiness that we see in them, they may carry tragedy where they cannot speak out. And this is when poetry comes to work. I always use poems to describe the painfulness of everything. It makes us feel relief to speak out, on what it is very hard to describe through normal conversation. And I sometimes value a poem as the magic medicine that could cure the inner pain of humans.
Who are your mentors?
When I was young, I went to study at a pagoda with the Venerable Chin Meas who is also a famous writer since then and now. He is the one who taught me the foundation to poetry and short story writing. His writing style is to educate people indirectly which is what I really like. He always shares with me the awarded poems to read and learn. I still remember one of his poems used to make me feel relief and hopeful. Another idol of mine is Master Yin Luoth who is a poet and Khmer lecturer living in the United States. I met him in person when he presented modern poetry organised by Nou Hach Literary Association in Cambodia in 2013. Even though he is not in Cambodia, he still helps me share his knowledge in writing as much as he can. Whenever I have doubts in writing, I can always approach him through electronic mail.
You used to write poems without rhyme which is not Khmer-style poetry. Tell us more about it
I used to attend workshops about modern poetry. It was about how to write poem without rhyme. The trend is actually not coming from Cambodia. The free rhyme poem originates in Western countries. It was that time, I learned that there are many ways to write a poem. The poet of modern poetry focuses more on describing their imaginary situation into poem. In terms of modern poetry, poets have more freedom of words to use when it comes to describe their feeling. However, to write the poem with or without rhyme has different difficulties depending on each poet and the situation that the poet wants to describe. We don’t disvalue our Khmer style poetry because each style has different history and difficulty. To me, I still try my best to write Khmer style poem but at the same time I also practise the modern poem.
How does poetry impact society?
Back to the past, some of old Khmer literature such as Reamker (an epic adapted from India’s Ramayana), Tum Teav, Ka Key and more were written in the platform of poem. It is very important that poetry has become the tool to educate people in society and to teach them how to judge good and bad. It is a showcase that poem plays a very important role in society back then. Now, because of the development of technology, it forced us to stray from poetry in society. Poem’s role to educate society has faded especially in the present time. But I believe that when any problem occurs in society, poems will emerge to cure the sadness of a nation. I believe poem has a value for society not only in Cambodia but every country because its power of healing the inner pain.
How to attract young people to pay attention to poetry?
Poets have to inspire people to read poems. They can use social media platform to expose their works to the public in order to attract readers to read poetry. Then we need cooperation with the government to make such events a consistent event so that poets can show their writings to the public to reach out to audiences in downtown and the countryside. Moreover, both the private and public sectors could join hands by sponsoring the programme, providing a venue and invite master poets from Asean countries, for instance, to share their knowledge with young people. This would also enable local writers to listen to diverse voices of poetry. I believe there are many students studying Khmer literature in the country; and if the learning and sharing programme takes place, I’m sure that they will be encouraged to attend.