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Sapardi Djoko Damono keeping his mind sharp with writing

Sebastian Partogi
Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Ubud | Mon, November 5, 2018 | 09:47 am
Sapardi Djoko Damono keeping his mind sharp with writing

Janet DeNeefe (right), founder of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, presents the Lifetime Achievement Award to writer Sapardi Djoko Damono during the festival’s opening ceremony in Puri Ubud, Bali, on Wednesday, October 24, 2018. (JP/Anggara Mahendra)

Seventy-eight-year-old poet Sapardi Djoko Damono is indeed a living legend, with popularity that matches that of a rock star.

A group of youngsters instantly gathered around the poet to ask for his autograph and take pictures with him shortly after he spoke at a panel at the 2018 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) in Bali on Oct. 25.

The poet willingly spent time with his young fans. Sapardi’s warm personality seems to match his UWRF bio, which describes him as Indonesia’s “best-loved poet”.

“Whenever I take a stroll in shopping malls, youngsters always call me, Eyang, Eyang! (Hi, Grandpa!) and ask me to take pictures with them,” Sapardi told The Jakarta Post gleefully.

“They dub me as eyang-eyang nge-mall [grandpa who loves shopping in a mall]. That’s OK with me.”

Distinguished for his romantic writing style, Sapardi’s first poetry anthology is Duka-Mu Abadi (Your Pain is Everlasting, 1969) while his latest is Perihal Gendis (About Gendis, 2018). In between, he has produced a plethora of poetry collections, novels, literary studies and translations.

The University of Indonesia (UI) professor has translated several literary works, including Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea in 1973.

Born in Surakarta, Central Java, in 1940, Sapardi now lives at the UI professors’ housing complex in Ciputat, Tangerang, Banten.

To honor his creative energy, the UWRF bestowed upon him the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award. Sapardi is the third writer to receive the award after NH Dini and the late Sitor Situmorang.

“I’m very happy to receive the award and to know that the UWRF committee still remembers me,” he said upon receiving the award from UWRF founder and director Janet DeNeefe on Oct. 24 at the Ubud Royal Palace.

“I’d like to thank my readers and my publisher because without them, writers are nothing,” said Sapardi, who previously received awards from UI, the Jakarta Academy and the Habibie Foundation. He has also won the prestigious Southeast Asian Write (SEA Write) Award.

“The most important part of publishing companies is, of course, the editors. I have a very capable editor, [Gramedia Pustaka Utama’s] Mirna Yulistianti, and I’m very happy about it”.

According to Mirna, Sapardi is a highly pleasant writer to work with.

“He is a very humble man despite his maestro status. He is open to suggestions from readers, or from me,” said Mirna, who has been working with Sapardi since 2013.

“To me, it’s an honor to have a senior writer like him as he is still willing to listen closely to my suggestions on titles and illustration matters. Not all writers are open to input. Some of them don’t like to have their book titles changed,” she added.

As he is getting older, Sapardi now moves little bit slower, but his mind is still sharp as ever, thanks to his unending intellectual pursuits. 

In an interview with Antara news agency, Sapardi said he continued writing to fight age-related forgetfulness. Besides writing, he teaches at the postgraduate school of the Jakarta Arts Institute (IKJ).

“It’s impossible for writers to earn a living as full-time writers. Look at senior poets like Goenawan Mohamad or Taufiq Ismail, they are all productive writers but earn their living elsewhere,” he said, laughing.

“Young writers like Dewi Lestari and Ayu Utami also have to work to earn a living”.

Sapardi said his job as a teacher often gave him writing ideas.

“My teaching activities require me to constantly update my knowledge, reading all sorts of books, be they novels, poetry or textbooks. Then they will percolate in my brain and all this new input is very useful in my writing activities,” he said.

Inspiration also comes from the books that he translates and movies he watches.

“A 1946 British film, A Matter of Life and Death, excellently depicts how one person can walk in and out of consciousness. I replicate that [concept] in my 2017 novel Pingkan Melipat Jarak [Pingkan Goes Beyond the Distance]”.

Sapardi’s astonishment over young writers, who are well-versed with global literature, has also inspired him to keep writing.

“When I read the poetry of Anya [Rompas] or Norman Erikson Pasaribu, I was blown away. It’s obvious they have global literary references. I am often jealous of the young writers, but that motivates me to keep learning.”

According to Mirna, when Sapardi is not putting his literary hat on, he is a really casual and relaxed person.

“He often cooks instant noodle with sambal matah [Balinese sambal], flavoring in secret because his wife prohibits him from eating it,” Mirna said gleefully.

Sapardi defended his penchant for instant noodles.

“What can I do? I like these instant noodles. I figure eating them twice or thrice a week won’t matter,” Sapardi said.

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