“The language of our dreams”: A Conversation with Indonesian Poet Saut Situmorang

“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.

[Here is the complete interview: Tupelo Quarterly]

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About 诗东西 Poetry East West

Chinese-English bilingual magazine (will include more languages), published in Los Angeles USA, printed in Beijing China. ISSN 2159-2772

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