The Jakarta Post
Afrizal Malna's phrasing in his poems is often obtuse. But, arguably, they are also simple and clear statements of encounters between an author's fragmented consciousness with an equally fragmented urban environment.
The title he has given to a recent collection of his poems, Aku Setelah Aku, (Myself After Myself or, 'I After I', or 'Me After Me') is a typical example of 'afrizalian' style. The self is written of as being subject to changes in time; time makes us become someone different. 'Myself after myself' suggests the self is both different and the same. It's an afrizalian conundrum and in order to get into Afrizal's poems one has to be willing to grapple and accept such simple yet assertive statements.
Afrizal's manner of greeting friends and strangers is consistent: he greets those he knows well and those he hasn't met before like he is meeting with long-lost family. He offers a warm smile, a touching of the cheek on both sides, a slow clasping of the other's hands. He utters the greetings of hello and how are you with a smile and almost a gentle laugh.
The intimacy of his greeting style and interactions with others is significant, for there is a toughness about Afrizal. The skin of his hands is coarse, his head is bald and his torso is petite. He eats little, but smokes a lot and drinks double espressos. His toughness is disguised against his neat clothes and body language and of course his gentle, persistent and easy smile.
This toughness might be related to Afrizal's experience as an activist with the Urban Poor Consortium. During the 1990s he worked with these urban activists to help advance and protect the rights of those who were being marginalised during the New Order's programs of urban development. The videos made during his time show the evictions of the urban poor and the destruction of their houses. Urban change, destruction and development is inevitable, but what can be negotiated is the degree to which those who are marginalised are involved in dialogues, the degree to which they are compensated.
Afrizal's poems from earlier collections draw on this process of negotiation between individual and urban environment. In an autobiographical essay, Afrizal has written of how he split with UPC after feeling that he was being pressured into adopting certain ideological positions.
In a recent essay published in Kompas, Afrizal wrote of how 'the city', let alone 'Jakarta', is not a place of 'home' in the Indonesian imagination. To go home, pulang kampung, is to return to a smaller town, a smaller distant village. As a native of Jakarta and as a monolingual speaker of Indonesian, Afrizal feels a closeness to the national project of the Indonesian nation, and of course, the dislocation and forgetting that it involves. For Afrizal, his identification with Jakarta is closely related to the city's violent history and in particular the incidents of Malari ( 1974 ) and Reformasi ( 1998 ).
Afrizal's lifestyle is not comfortable. An established and respected poet and writer in his 50s, he maintains a vigorous rate of productivity. A couple of years ago, he published with iCAN a book of his critical writings on Indonesian theater ' some 400 pages long. A new novel, Kepada Apakah (On What) will be published this year. He frequently publishes his essays in Kompas's Sunday edition ' perhaps the main space for literary debate. He travels from city to city to participate in dialogues and debates and discussions. These events perpetuate and stimulate new essays. This work is separate from his main output and that which he is mainly known for; his work as a poet.
In 2012, Afrizal was invited to a performance arts and sharing forum Platform Lublin in Poland and an exclusive residency invited by DAAD Berlin. While in Lublin Afrizal was included in sharing ideas and experience with many performer arts from many countries. In Berlin, for a month, he worked on many theater events, exhibitions and wrote over ten essays about European contemporary art. He also had a discussion about his poems with keynote speaker Ulrike Draesner and Silke Behl. The residency and its funding also gave Afrizal an opportunity to travel to Paris and Swistzerland ' where he met a friend from his time with the theater group, Teater Sae.
Afrizal only began to write the poems from his European sojourn after his return to Indonesia. The poems however are further examples of Afrizal's inimitable style. They are rooted in specificity and geographical detail. Friends' names are used as if already known to the reader; names of bridges, streets and other landmarks are quoted directly rather than used as metaphors for the universal and common qualities of a city's make up. The poems consist of long paragraphs; often containing incomplete and ambiguous sentences. His poems are clearly open to many different interpretations and translations.
In Afrizal's recent collection, poems are often finished by simple, one-line sentences. 'Berlin Proposal' (the original title is in English) consists of two paragraphs: The first is a long reflection on associations of cities, nations and world wars. The poem finishes however, with a curiously personal and perhaps, deliberately distracting, statement: 'I cannot read poetry with chocolate in my mouth.'
'Report from Sartre's Cafe Flore' is an engagement with the literary landscape of Paris. Afrizal performs a literary-philosophical pilgrimage and connects the philosophy of Cafe Flore's most famous visitor with his own subjective experience of the cafe, the city and Sartre's writing.
The more a reader engages with his poems, the more layers of meaning are revealed. Afrizal's works span the New Order era and that of reformasi and now the post-reformasi era. Afrizal, rather than just being a poet, is a literary worker whom relies upon exploration, travel, research and engagements with others for his productivity. There is little romance to this poet's life; just much work and much curiosity.