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Beni Satryo: Play with words, with sprinkles of dry humor

Marcel Thee
Marcel Thee

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Mon, June 11, 2018 | 08:28 am
Beni Satryo: Play with words, with sprinkles of dry humor

Writer and poet Beni Satryo writes about his daily with such ease that when it comes across as comedic — and it often does — it feels earned and personal. (Beni Satryo/File)

At first glance, Jakarta-based writer and poet Beni Satryo’s work comes across as being imbued with sprinkles of dry humor and droll sarcasm, the kind that is not atypical to “young”-ish, 20-something purveyors of the pen such as himself.

But dig deeper, and that element of semi-comedy dissipates to make place for a refreshing earnestness: a naturally unpretentious sense of words and lines that is unique in its straightforward honesty.

Not long ago, Beni published his first collection of poems in a book titled Pendidikan Jasmani dan Kesunyian, which translates as “Physical Education and Silence”.

The book garnered Beni a good amount of recognition in the local literally scene. For better or worse, it was that dreaded “humor” that got people’s notice.

Combined with Beni’s casual way of laying down words, the collection provided pieces that were accessible even for those unaccustomed to heavy literature.

An example would be “Di Restoran” or “At the Restaurant”, which rough translation goes as such — seemingly describing a casual, identifiable dinner date: “You ask a lot of things/ When we stop at the restaurant/ What is this? Pepper/ This? Salt and sauces/What is that? Knives and forks”.

The other pieces also offer the same kind of nonchalant-yet-distinctive quality.

“My poems, to a lot of people, are filled with humor. I don’t fault nor agree with that assumption. But the truth is, I’m not a very humorous person. Those poems are written about my daily life and the things that happen to me. Oftentimes, I do write about my misadventures. And then those writings and poems encourage laughter. Maybe my days are filled with comedic things that happen to me,” Beni says.

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The 28-year-old refers instead to senior Indonesian poets such as Remy Sylado (through the mbeling movement in the 1970s) and Herry Gendut Janarto’s Gado-Gado Kredo, as truer pieces of comedic literature.

Though he does not see himself as being a part of it, Beni does lament the lack of rapturous reception those artists receive. What he sees between himself and them are a commonality in using simpler, everyday words to make a point.

“Works [by those artists] are important, so that Indonesian poetry isn’t filled with just big reach-the-sky words. Poetry can be made with simple words,” argues Beni, who studied philosophy at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta.

He sees depth in everyday things. Things such as people working, doing nothing, getting pissy, daydreaming, chatting and hanging out, taking an afternoon nap. “All those things are poetry [to me]. Those are things I am familiar with, why should I talk about issues which I am alien to?”

For Beni, the act of writing about others is also a reflection of himself — or lack thereof.

“When I start working on a new poem, I start by looking inwards, but in the end, I see nothing there but emptiness,” he says, somewhat laughing. “But the emptier [I am], the better; poems will grow nicely there.”

Perhaps a major factor of Beni’s unique style is his regular upbringing. None of his parents were particularly into reading, he says. The closest they came to instilling some sort of reading to young Beni was through bedtime stories.

Things shifted for Beni when in junior high school, he was introduced to the writer Putu Wijaya, whose works acted as a gateway to the wider literary word for Beni.

Another influence was the singer Iwan Fals, who remains Beni’s biggest passion today. In his teenage years, Beni would listen to the local folk legend’s socio-politically charged music every day.

The music resonated deeply, Beni says, practically acting as a soundtrack to every little thing he did in adolescent, such as running away from home (it wasn’t a dramatic thing, he insists).

Through Iwan Fals, Beni began writing poetry: buying his first poetry book (Penyair Muda di Depan Forum or The Young Poet in Front of the Forum, released in 1976) and a photocopied collection of Goenawan Mohamad’s writings.

Other poets, such as the influential Jokpin and Sapardi, also played a major part in Beni’s growth. All of these influences resulted in Pendidikan Jasmani dan Kesunyian, which now works as a descriptor of the artist’s growth as he traverses through the big city.

“I created the poems in the book between 2014 and 2016. These were my initial years in Jakarta, after 8 years living in Yogyakarta. Maybe there were some changes within me, maybe there weren’t — I don’t know. But what’s clear is that Jakarta plays a role.”

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