“The language of our dreams”: A Conversation with Indonesian Poet Saut Situmorang, curated by Ming Di

Saut SitumorangSaut Situmorang (1966-), born in North Sumatera of Indonesia but raised in its capital Medan, spent eleven years (1989-2000) as an immigrant in New Zealand where he did his BA in English Literature and MA in Indonesian Literature. He was also actively involved in the underground poetry readings in New Zealand and was awarded several prizes for his English-language poetry, such as the Original Composition Prize from Victoria University of Wellington and the Blues Award from the University of Auckland. He returned to Indonesia in 2000 and now lives in the city of Yogyakarta as a writer, widely published in newspapers and literary magazines all over Indonesia. He has published five books of poems, a book of literary essays, and a book of short stories. His Indonesian-language poems and short stories have been translated into English, Italian, Czech, French and German. He is one of the pioneers of Internet Literature in Indonesia and at present is one of the editors of the Indonesian underground literary journal boemipoetra. From 2005 to 2007 he was the Literature curator for the Festival Kesenian Yogyakarta (Yogyakarta Arts Festival) in Indonesia. He was one of the curators for What Is Poetry?-International Poetry Festival Indonesia 2012. A familiar name in the literary scene in Indonesia, he was invited to the book-launch of a selection of his poems translated into French at the Unesco, Paris in November 2012. He was invited to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Germany in 2013. And in 2015 he was invited as a guest poet to the 3 Cities Poetry Festival (Bandung, Yogyakarta, Denpasar) in Indonesia.
Ming Di: I was very fortunate to have met you and the other Asian poets while in South Africa and Zimbabwe, two amazing countries. It was my first exposure to Indonesian poetry then. So I googled Indonesia after the long trip and I’m googling it again now. You have 300 ethnic groups, 700 languages and over 13000 islands. What’s the first language you learned to speak and what’s the language you use for writing poetry?

Saut Situmorang: I was very happy joining you guys too, fellow poets from around the world, doing the poetry trip in South Africa and Zimbabwe a few years ago. My first ever visit to Africa! I remember telling Vonani our South African host-poet on our bus trip to his hometown near the Zimbabwean border that “even the rivers left Africa like humans do (after seeing no rivers along the trip) but the sunflowers in the sunflower farms by the road bowed when the minibuses taking us poets passed them.” Hahaha… Vonani smiled. He had been to Java (Indonesia) on the previous “What’s Poetry” event and saw how different Indonesia was from Africa.

Yes, Indonesia has hundreds of ethnic groups and ethnic languages spread out in over 13000 islands. In our national language, that is Indonesian, we call our country “nusantara” which means archipelago. It is an old word/concept originating in the 13th century as a response to the expansionist policy of the Mongol Yuan dynasty in China!

Most Indonesians nowadays are born polyglot. We are born into both our mother tongue (ethnic language) and our national language, Indonesian. Then we grow up learning other languages, usually foreign ones, like English or French or German, or Mandarin like the trend now in the big cities. As in the ancient past, China has a very close relationship with Indonesia today. Our national language Indonesian is a new language. It is originally a “language” of mixed words from many local and foreign languages including Arabic, Indian and Chinese, used for the purpose of trade in the coastal trade centres along the archipelago. Our great writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer called it the “lingua franca” of the archipelago. Malay language as is still spoken in Sumatra island (Indonesia), Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei is the base for this lingua franca.

Although I was born into a polyglot family but unfortunately I was raised in only one language, that is in our national language Indonesian. My ethnic group or what I prefer to call my tribe is Batak. Our tribal land is in North Sumatra on the island of Sumatra. I was not raised in my tribal language because, I suspect, I was born during a period of great chaos in Indonesia’s history. I was born in 1966 after the military coup by the general-dictator Suharto. The feeling of nationalism was high, a new and real “Indonesia” was born and everybody wanted to be seen as nationalist including my father who was a young armyman then. The national language was one of the great tools to prove this. Only in my late 30s did I start to learn my tribal language especially through our tribal songs which are very popular all over Indonesia including Timor Leste, the former Indonesian colony. But my English is a lot better than my Batak—that is my postcolonial reality.

It is because of this background most of us including myself write our work (poetry, novels, short stories, and essays) in our national language Indonesian. It is the language that we live in since childhood. The language that we use every day and in schools. The language of newspapers, books, films, radios and televisions. The language of our first love. The language of our dreams.

MD: It’s so good to be in touch again. The trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe was so memorable that I was busy writing poems about that experience and forgot to write email. Thank you for sharing all the stories. Yes I remember your spontaneous poem about the sunflowers that bowed down to us... What inspired you to become a poet initially? Who have influenced you during your literary career?

SS: I became a poet after I returned to Sumatra from Jogjakarta in central Java where I was living for two years from 1984 to 1986. I was studying there then. I failed to enter the prestigious state university there and my first love dumped me for an actor. So I decided to return to Medan the capital city of North Sumatra Province where I was raised. I decided to take the national exam at the local state university choosing English Literature as my major. I passed the exam and suddenly the whole world opened to me through English literature. I found myself obsessively in love with literature. I got my satori. I could write about that first love and tried to understand it. I wrote my first poems and my first short stories then. Poetry in particular made me understand Love, like it did to Dante, to Petrarch, to Pablo Neruda. Through English I got to know my heroes: Li Po, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, the French Surrealists, TS Eliot, Aime Cesaire, Lorca, Pablo Neruda and the Beats. They are living in my poetry. Whether I write about Love or Politics, they are writing it with me. Ironically, although I became a poet through English Literature (I finished my B.A in English Literature at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand where I also took Bill Manhire’s creative writing program which awarded me the Poetry Prize in 1992), English poetry itself did not influence me at all. I found it lacking of Passion, something that attracted me to those heroes of mine mentioned above. Poetry must be passionate in order to be poetic. This is my credo.

MD: Indonesian language looks so European in the writing script (so does the new Vietnamese). I found a poem in your blog “spring sudah tiba”. Why do you use English word “spring”? Do you have a word for spring in Indonesian? Most Chinese grow up bilingually speaking a local dialect and the official Mandarin. That’s my post-colonial reality too. But as you know our writing system has been unified for two thousand years, for better or worse. I met a Mayan poet who told me that “It’s so easy to write poems in Spanish. I’m writing in Mayan and making better poems.” I was so excited and I looked at his Mayan poems—all in Roman phonetic spelling. Not a single Mayan glyph. I guess a written “lingua franca” is much easier to learn and it promotes cross communication but I’m still disappointed that so many languages in America and Asia and around the world have died out and continue to disappear. Do you ever try to promote Batak through poetry?

SS: Indonesian language does use Latin alphabet although many tribal languages such as Batak have their own alphabet which is derived from South Indian script and Arabic. Indonesian is a new language created during the Dutch colonialism based on the old lingua franca. Even the name “Indonesia” was coined by an English ethnologist George Windsor Earl in 1850.

In my Indonesian poetry I do often use English words such as the one you mentioned above. Of course Indonesian has a word for “spring” that is “musim semi”. “Musim” is “season” and “semi” is “spring”. We always use the word “season” with the name of the season: musim semi (spring), musim panas (summer), musim dingin (winter), musim gugur (autumn), musim hujan (rain season), and musim kemarau (dry season). I use English words especially when the context of the poem is the West. It gives the poem its foreignness and foreign effect to Indonesian readers particularly those who have never been to a Western country before. But I also write my poems in English as well. I started doing this seriously when I did Bill Manhire’s creative writing program at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand in 1992. (Please find attached one poem of mine in English that I wrote in New Zealand and also the link of the English version of an article about what happened to me last year in one of the biggest scandals ever happened in the history of Indonesian literature.

I wish I could write in Batak language! I do of course write about Batak in my poetry and short stories. I use a lot of Batak cultural references such as the lizard which is an important symbol of fertility and the sacred three colors, white, red and black, that symbolize the three realms of Batak cosmology (the upper world, the middle, and the lower).

MD: I found your reading of Perahu Mabuk (drunken boat) online, which sounded so ecological and powerful to me that I almost took it as your tribal language. How does Batak sound different from Indonesian?

SS: Batak does not sound different from Indonesian because both languages belong to the same language family, the Austronesian language. And you know it is the largest language family in the world with about 1200 languages, representing one-fifth of the world’s total. It is widely dispersed throughout Maritime Southeast Asia, Madagascar and the islands of the Pacific Ocean, with a few members in continental Asia.

MD: I’ve always been curious about the Pacific islands. The similarities between the languages and gradual differences... They all sound like ancient Chinese to me. And you know about the chanting tradition in China... Do you always like to read poetry with music? Do you believe in the music inside a poem? Is it some kind of performing art to you the way you read your poems?

SS: I like experimenting with my poetry reading. Sometime I use music and other times I use multimedia stuff. Of course a poem has its musicality as well as its imagery especially poems written in a very musical language like Indonesian. In Indonesia it is a great tradition to read poetry loud and “chamber poetry reading” is not popular. Many poets even act out their poems like a loud monologue. It is a very different tradition from the one popular in the West. The so-called “slam poetry” in the West is similar to poetry reading tradition in Indonesia. Yes, we perform our poems, not just “read” them.

MD: Do you have an ancient form of poetry in the Indonesian islands?

SS: We do. We call it Pantun [puntoon] and it’s been influencing Western poetry since Victor Hugo introduced it into French literature in 1829. The most famous practitioner of this poetic form in American poetry is John Ashbery.

MD: I just goggled Pantun. How interesting that this familiar form is from your island. I wonder if Indonesians maintain the ancient forms of poetry through recitation. You know we recite Li Bai and Du Fu in school but we write modern poetry which started in China in 1917. When did Modernism start to influence Indonesian poetry or did it ever? What are some of the interesting current trends in Indonesian poetry today?

SS: Modern Indonesian literature is a child of Modernism. It was born out of the Dutch colonialism in the 19th century. Western literary forms like the novel, short story and free verse did not exist in Indonesia before the colonial time. So both the language (medium) and forms of Indonesian Literature are new cultural products. The styles of writing are similar to the ones found in Western literature. Even the great literary movements of the West are reflected in Indonesian literature. It is sad to say that the dominant trend in Indonesian literature today is art for art’s sake. It is sad considering that Indonesia is a postcolonial Third World country. Compare to other postcolonial literatures in Africa, Asia and South America, contemporary Indonesian literature is just like a copy-paste literature of contemporary Western literature especially American literature. Although we have our great writers who are also acknowledged widely in the West like the novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer and the poet-playwright Rendra who wrote about great events in our history and the social political problems of modern Indonesia but their legacy is sadly not strong enough to become the major trend in contemporary Indonesian literature.

The Love Song of Saut Speedy Gonzales

By Saut Situmorang
love is a Burmese cat running across the road & was shot at
          by APEC leaders’ security members

love is the tampon that you mistook for a Chinese herbal tea-bag

love is red & fiery like a member of a Communist party

love is never boring except in a Hollywood movie

love is in the air & like a fart it is always interesting & smelly

love is a full course of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault with
          a sprinkle of Alfred Hitchcock

love used to be blind & childish & very Greek

love is now multicultural & global with English as its medium
          of expression

love is real like a cruise missile launched from an American

love is sexy & lovely like a multicoloured used condom recycled
          to the Third World countries

love is an Indonesian clove cigarette you smoke during a Mozart concert

love is high culture like a backpacker running out of toilet paper
          in the jungle of Indonesia

love is never vegetarian & not going to be one either

love is alcoholic & full of nicotine

love is poisonous & very very addictive

are you ready for love?

Ming Di is a Chinese poet and translator, author of six books of poetry in Chinese and one in collaborative English translation, River Merchant’s Wife (Marick Press, 2012). She taught Chinese at BU before moving to California where she lives now. She has translated four books of poetry from English to Chinese and co-translated four books from Chinese to English including Empty Chairs – Poems of Liu Xia (Graywolf Press, 2015, finalist for the Best Translated Book Award in 2016). She edited and co-translated New Cathay – Contemporary Chinese Poetry (Tupelo Press, 2013).