IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 25 | Regions | Southeast Asia


Agus Sarjono:

The poet who eavesdropped on a conversation
between a golf course and a daisy

'Writing poems or other literary works is a struggle against every final and absolute definition about mankind,' says Agus R. Sarjono. He would prefer to write poems about love or nature or even existential loneliness. However, since his country is still confronting an multitude of problems, he feels he has to write about this. Sarjono sits at the window of his room at the IIAS overlooking a part of the Botanical Gardens in Leiden, but his thoughts often drift to his beloved country, Indonesia. He receives piles of e-mails from his friends and colleagues at home, informing him about recent developments in his country where the tension rises day by day. Agus is well aware of where he is at this moment: 'When I am in the Netherlands, I try to write about the Netherlands; when I am in Paris, I try to write about Paris, but I am haunted by all the blood that is being shed in my fatherland, it seeps into the poems I write here.'

Agus Sarjono and Linde Voûte in the Botanical Gardens, Leiden (April 2001)


Sarjono arrived in the Netherlands at the beginning of February this year. He had been nominated for the Ludo Pieters Guest Writer Fund by the Poets of All Nations Foundation (PAN). The Ludo Pieters Guest Writer Fund was founded in 1992 by L.J. Pieters and enables a poet or writer to work at a Dutch university for one year. There is a preference for authors who are politically engaged. The Prince Bernard Cultural Fund manages the Ludo Pieters Fund, which makes a certain amount of money available each year. PAN makes all the preparations for the stay of the writer-in-residence and provides guidance and support during his or her time spent in the Netherlands.

Sarjono was chosen both by the Ludo Pieters Fund and the International Institute for Asian Studies to spend ten months in the Netherlands as writer-in-residence for 2001. Among his illustrious predecessors invited to the Netherlands by the Ludo Pieters Fund are DuoDuo (China), Bei Dao (China), Nasim Khaksar (Iran), Rendra (Indonesia), Mohamad Magani (Algeria), Jack Mapanje (Malawi), Dubravka Ugresic (Croatia), and Marina Palei (Russia). From the above list, however, only Rendra was a guest of the IIAS, as well.

It is not the first time that Sarjono has been in the Netherlands. In 1999, he was one of the poets participating in the Festival 'De Winternachten', where Dutch audiences became acquainted with his work for the first time. Although political, he writes in a rather different way from the other poets who interpret the struggles and social injustice in their countries. For instance, Sarjono sometimes speaks through the voice of a bulldozer or a daisy. He writes a love poem to express his desire for peace and tranquillity, while listening to the umpteenth speech about the political situation. He writes a fake poem about fake education and remembers his father working in the rice fields, revealing to us the extreme hardship of farmers in his country. Agus asks himself: 'Why found a country only to silence its people and restrict their freedom? As long as this goes on, I shall continue to write my poems.'

To be in other countries and experience different cultures is very important to Sarjono. He is also a well-read person, no easy accomplishment in Indonesia because of a lack of translated contemporary literature and poetry. Sporadically, one can find translations of Western poets like Walt Whitman, Neruda, or Mandelstam in newspapers or magazines. There are also some novels and short stories from modern classics that have been translated, for example Steinbeck, Hemmingway, and Dostoyevsky to name a few. School libraries are generally poorly stocked. The teaching of literature and the desire for reading is also very underdeveloped. 'It is not only the lack of books,' says Sarjono, 'but poor school programmes, and underpaid and apathetic teachers certainly do not add up to more and better reading.'

For Sarjono, literature is a means to understand mankind. It is also a way of questioning our definition of people of all races and creeds. Access to literature and a good education is therefore essential. As a member of the editing team of the literary magazine Horison, Sarjono is active in the field of literary education. Not only has Horison started a supplement called Kakilangit ('Horizon') for teachers and students, in which a different author is introduced per issue, and to which students can send their poems to be discussed by a member of the editing team, but Taufiq Ismail, a leading writer and poet who also works for Horison, has worked together with Sarjono to found Pelatihan Membaca, Menulis dan Apresiasi Sastra (MMAS) (reading, writing, and literary appreciation training). This is a training programme for teachers all over Indonesia. 'At this moment, thirteen groups throughout Java and Sumatra (except for Aceh) have joined in the programme, and this year we intend to go to Kalimantan and areas in East Indonesia. After the training, teachers, who in general do not seem to write much, have begun to enjoy writing again. Before this, literature was merely an obligatory part of the school programme. Literary studies are being used to improve teaching and, what is far more important, it helps to place experiences and feelings back into a human context.'



Kamu cantik, ucap padang golf pada bunga
rumput yang berayun diasuh angin. Bunga rumput
itu pun tertunduk. Dikenangkannya padian
sayur-mayur dan lenguh kerbau yang bergegas

pergi sebelum tiba pagi.

Kamu menawan, bisik padang golf sambil mengedipkan
sebelah matanya. Bunga rumput itu pun tersipu
menatap jauhan mencari pedoman
kepastian-kepastian. Dipandangnya padang golf
yang tersenyum sendu memainkan rambutnya.

Kamu keajaiban, desah padang golf sambil menghunjamkan
binar matanya. Bunga rumput itu pun terisak. Kamu sombong rungutnya, kamu usir keluarga dan sahabat-sahabatku
kamu usik ketentraman kami.

Tapi aku benci padi, aku benci sayuran, aku benci
pematang, aku benci bau pupuk, aku benci...

Kamu pendengki! Kamu benci semua hal...

Tidak! Jawab padang golf sambil menggenggam jemari
bunga rumput. Aku cinta padamu!

Agus Sarjono, 1991

RENDEZ-VOUS (Translation: Linde Voûte)

You're gorgeous, said the golf course to the daisy cradled by the wind.
The daisy bowed. It remembered rice fields, vegetables and the lowing of buffaloes hurrying away before dawn.

You steal my heart, whispered the golf course winking. The daisy shyly
gazed into the distance looking for assurances. She looked back at the golf course who, smiling melancholically
fumbled with his hair.

You are a wonder hissed the golf course
with scrutinising eyes. The daisy sobbed.
You're conceited she grumbled, you drove away
my relatives and friends
you disturbed our peace.

But I hate rice fields, I hate vegetables, I hate
The small dikes, I hate the smell of dung, I hate...

You're a jealous creature! You hate everything...

Not at all! Said the golf course grabbing the fingers of the daisy. I love you!

Agus Sarjono, 1991

Sarjono travels widely in his own country. In conjunction with MMAS, Horison also introduces literary appreciation into high schools. Writers and poets visit high schools and campuses to read and discuss their work with children and students. More than forty writers are involved in this programme, which takes place in remote corners of West Java, Central Java, and the area of Yogyakarta, and involves over thirty schools. 'It takes a lot of my time, but it does seem to work. We even succeeded in supporting teachers and students in their efforts to improve the condition of the libraries. Recently the Minister of Education has started to make more literature books available in schools.'

Sarjono dreams of 'an Indonesia that honours its people, rich or poor, without looking at the ethnic background, race, religion, or political party.' He dreams of a government that can be trusted. Here in the Netherlands, he will have time to read and write, and once again to observe and experience Dutch culture. One of the things that really fascinates him about the Netherlands is the fact that 'Dutch knowledge about my country's culture and life is exceptionally detailed. But what do my people know about the Dutch way of life? From Independence until very recently, my people's knowledge of the Netherlands has still partly been based on the Dutch colonial past. I think it's about time that the Netherlands introduces its present-day culture to the Indonesian public. Now is the time for an intensive exchange of Dutch authors and poets with my Indonesian counterparts. Now is the time for more Dutch authors to be translated into Indonesian and for more poets to travel to my country.' *



Goodmorning sir, goodmorning madame said the students
with a fake greeting. They studied
fake history from fake textbooks. Having finished their studies
they were dumbfounded at the mass of fake marks.
Since their school grades weren't good enough
they went to their teachers houses to present them
with envelopes full of comments and fake respect.
With fake smiles and making fake rejections
their teachers finally accepted the envelopes with the fake promise
to change the fake marks for new fake marks. Many schooldays
later they became fake economists, fake lawyers,
fake farmers, fake engineers.
Some of them became fake teachers, scientists
or artists. They plunged eagerly into the middle of fake development,
with fake economy as fake leaders. They witnessed the hectic
fake trade with fake export and fake import
which provided various goods of fake quality.
And fake banks full enthusiasm offered fake bonuses
and fake gifts, but at the same time with fake permits
and fake letters secretly asked for loans
from the national bank, run by fake high officials.
The public did business with fake money
supported by fake foreign exchange.
Therefore the foreign currencies, stimulated by fake rates caused everybody to panic and end in a crisis
which made the fake government
crash into a fake fate. And fake people
cried out their fake joy and discussed
fake ideas during seminars, and fake dialogues
welcomed loudly the start of a democracy
and fake.

Agus Sarjono, 1998

(Translation: Linde Voûte)


As soon as the monsoon is over, I watch the farmers and my father busy harvesting sorrow
among the grains of rice that were never sufficient to enable his children to grow up, to ripen and blossom in the fields of destiny and future.

So I just squat down, bent over my own sorrows and dreams, exhausted from planting the garden of hope in life's lonely and dusty school benches. As soon as
the monsoon is over,

just as I did after the exams, I sit down in thought like my forefathers watching the sky,
beautifully curving, like the cheek of destiny that turns black and blue.

Agus Sarjono, 1996 - 1997

(Translation: Linde Voûte)

So far during his stay in the Netherlands, Agus Sarjono has travelled to participate in the International Poetry Festival of Bremen (May), and the Festival of Berlin (June). A collection of his poems will be translated and published in the Netherlands by the end of this year.

Sastra dalam Empat Orba,
Agus Sarjono


In our country everything is always dusty

like memories or history. On a peaceful morning

or afternoon, when we sit around the dining table

someone suddenly may turn on the fan

and dust filled with names and sayings settled down

in the corners of the cupboard, on the window slats

or on memories, whirls around and fills the air

again so that we cough

ourselves to death.

In our country everything is like a government office

stuffed with papers and unfinished business.

One day, tired of gossiping or playing chess

a pen-pusher may write down the wrong addresses

and send letters to all corners.

One of them may arrive at your house

stating that your name has been removed from the family register

and you from the place where up until then you lived and laughed.

And after a few decades your grandchildren stare fascinated

at your picture in some old file

that someone forgot to clear out.

In my country everything is always dusty, it tickles

the nose and throat. We have to learn to breath correctly,

slowly and carefully. Otherwise one sneeze

could result in all hell breaking loose. Everything

in our country is always dusty.

Agus Sarjono, 1998

(Translation: Linde Voûte)


Linde Voûte is an artist and freelance translator who mainly translates Indonesian poetry into Dutch and English. She also works closely with Poets of All Nations (PAN).

E-mail: LindeVoute@compuserve.com


   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 25 | Regions | Southeast Asia