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Poetry in Indonesia

Malkan Junaidi
Malkan Junaidi

The poetry world feels like it’s an over-inflated balloon about to burst after the number of scandals that have emerged – award-winning poets Christian Ward and David R. Morgan recently apologized for plagiarizing poems. Small publishers such as Salt have stopped publishing poetry because of poor sales and some critics have even attacked modern poetry, calling it bad and obscure.

Yet poetry jams are surging in popularity and the recent increase in online poetry magazines has made things easier for artists to reach out to a reader’s heart with their voice. So what’s really going on? Is poetry only being bought and read by poets? And are things any different in Indonesia? That’s what I wanted to find out. I first met poet Malkan Junaidi in 2012 at a talk and debate with Youth Poet Laureate Hagar Peeters from The Netherlands, and South African poet and actress Mbali Bloom in Malang, during the What is Poetry? International festival in Indonesia. At the festival, poets from across the world and Indonesia read their poems and encouraged students to reconnect with poetry.

As an expat with an interest in poetry, I was keen to ask Malkan Junaidi about the scene in Indonesia. Malkan, born and bred in the paddy-farming village of Blitar in East Java, was not always a poet and stopped writing after the death of his father. “I wanted to live a simpler life, which involved more muscles than brains – I inherited from my father a profession as a farmer. My symbolic divorce with poetry involved burning all the poems I’d ever written. But being a poet seems to have been my destiny. In 2005 I wrote again.” After 15 years of writing, his collection of 99 poems, called Lidah Bulan (Tongue of the Moon) was recently published.

The Indonesian publishing scene has also benefitted from the Internet and many writers are turning to independent publishers or self-publishing, yet Malkan has fair concerns. “Due to the easiness of publishing a book through independent publishers (money is key), a lot of friends do image-raising politics by quoting testimonials and endorsements of books they published.”

So, I wondered, with so many books flooding the market, where was the best place to start reading some good Indonesian poetry?

“I think Indonesia with its young modern literary history has produced a lot of poets whose works are worth reading,” Malkan explains. “I will mention a few names, not because I like them, but because in general (and I agree) they had a significant effect on their own and next generation.” Here are eight of Malkan’s recommendations.

Chairil Anwar
Chairil Anwar

1. Chairil Anwar is number one on the list. Although born in 1922, his legendary name still continues to be talked about. Breaking away from tradition, “He refused to write pantun, gurindam, seloka and other literary forms from his ancestors and replaced it with other forms – crossbreeding with Western influences such as W. H Auden.”

2. Goenawan Mohamad, founder and Editor of Tempo magazine, “Is a central axis figure in the Jakarta literature movement.”

3. W. S. Rendra’s “Poetry is more popular than Goenawan Mohamad’s, and he was also a very charismatic figure.” He even founded a new type of performance art theatre –Bengkel Teater – which was managed by his third wife Ken Zuraida, after his death.

4. Sutardji Calzoum Bachri, “Ambitiously wanted to free poetry from conventional devices and return it to its mantra form.” As a result, some of his poems adopt an imagist style.

5. Afrizal Malna, “An Indonesian postmodernist, who juxtaposed non-connected objects together, is a highly influential figure in the last 20 years.” His poetry translates well into English, perhaps because of its reliance on images and objects rather than other poetic devices, which are harder to translate. Malna actively attends workshops and poetry readings – he recently read at Salihara in Jakarta.

6. Dorothea Rosa Herliany, born in 1963, is one of very few Indonesian female poets. She has produced over 20 prose and poem works and recently contributed at the What is Poetry? Festival.

7. Toeti Heraty, born in 1933, was a feminist thinker and leading Indonesian poet.

8. Finally, Joko Pinurbo, who “Explores the side that is not touched by many of his predecessors – the comical side. His poetry is simple, intriguing, as well as contemplative.”

WS Rendra's "Perkemahan Kaum Urakan"
WS Rendra’s “Perkemahan Kaum Urakan” – Photo by Ruedi Hoffman, 1971
WS Rendra's "Perkemahan Kaum Urakan"
WS Rendra’s “Perkemahan Kaum Urakan” – Photo by Ruedi Hoffman, 1971

Poetry talks are a good way to find out more about contemporary poetry and poet Widhyanto Muttaqien has hosted various poetry and blues music events – his coffee and bookshop, Kedai Sinau, will be opening next month in Bintaro, Jakarta, where he hopes to host again. Poetry camps are also frequently held across Java – Rumah Seni Eloprogo, owned by artist Sony Santosa, recently hosted an event where writer and poet Ervin Ruhlelana and performance poet Buyung Mentari performed under the light of the full moon, on a stage erected close to the river. Yet Malkan explains that poetry gatherings like these are not new – “W.S. Rendra made Perkemahan Kaum Urakan (camp of the non-conformists) in Parangtritis, Jogjakarta, in the 1970s. Urakan means to perform actions that might violate the law or social norms that apply. We can call it anti-system. Rendra in youth (he confessed) had a rebellious soul – proven by the many bans and detentions sentenced to him. He was arrested, not for disturbing public order with a variety of urakan actions, but because he was considered a threat to the stability of the government.”

Yet Malkan has concerns about the modern-day preoccupation with productivity rather than creativity and Indonesian poets are often encouraged to write in Bahasa rather than their mother tongue, (for example Javanese), which may impact on the way they refine their voice. So, how can we get people interested in poetry again? Gary Snyder once said that the poet was like a shaman, acting as a medium for the earth and as Malkan says, “The most effective way to stay on the right track is to be true to your heart, and writing poetry in my opinion is part of an effort to always hear and obey the words of the heart.”

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