Breathing Poetry

What Media Says


About Leon Agusta,
Written by Dina Indrasafitri, and was originally published in The Jakarta Post,
May 08, 2012


Noted poet Leon Agusta’s journey as a man of literature began when he was at a loss for words.

His childhood in West Sumatra already immersed him, along with other children then, in the culture of spoken or sung words, as the region is among those in the archipelago known as a land of poetry.

“My hometown [near Lake Maninjau] is a beautiful land. It is a land of pantun and sung poetry and it will never fade as long as there is the lake and the green hills. It will always sing of poetry,” Leon said, smiling, during an interview with The Jakarta Post recently.

However, it was only when going through a far from beautiful period in which he did not know what he should say that he chose to make literature his labor of love.

That period involved the Pemerintahan Revolusioner Republik Indonesia (Revolutionary Government of the Indonesian Republic, also known as PRRI) movement, which is often viewed as a rebellion against the central government during the Sukarno era.

Leon refers to this as a “civil war”.

“It was a horrible time when weapons were already speaking,” he recalled.

The “civil war” cost him several of his family members, including his father and one of his brothers.

“I was teaching in Bengkalis [Riau] at that time but my family was in the kampong. I came home when the PRRI was almost over and I got to see my father … he passed away only five days after I left the kampong,” Leon recalled of that day in 1960.

His brother had been shot and killed a few months before.

“The only way to speak then was through literature,” he said. Thus, his first poems, which conveyed his grief about the civil war, were born.

According to journalist and poet Jamal D. Rahman in his paper Suara Burung yang Melintasi Gelombang (The Sound of a Bird Passing Over the Wave), Leon came from a family of educators. His father was a teacher and a religious leader.

Leon followed his father’s path for some time by leaving Sigiran to be a teacher in accordance with the tradition of merantau – leaving one’s hometown to work toward success.

He also served as a reporter at Padang’s Haluan newspaper, Jamal wrote. However, Leon, whose real name is Ridwan Ilyas, left the profession due to journalism’s nature of prioritizing fact over art and imagination.

His career in literature became a prolific one. Leon’s published books include Catatan Putih, published in 1975, Di Bawah Bayangan Sang Kekasih, published in 1978 and Hukla, published in 1979.

Some compare Leon’s work to that of legendary poet Chairil Anwar, known for his brazen works coupled with a brazen life that ended when he was in his late 20s.

However, Leon’s poetry is seen to convey criticism in a milder and more subtle manner.

Nevertheless, Leon has had his share of controversy.

He has been arrested several times for various accusations, such as being involved in the 1974 Malari incident, which saw a string of fatal protests and riots that allegedly triggered the New Order to employ a more heavy-handed manner in handling dissent.

Leon was also once accused of insulting religion.

According to the 73-year-old, most of these incidents were merely “destiny’s madness”. His perceived involvement in the Malari incident, for example, was fueled by the fact that he had many acquaintances from the Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI).

“Intellectually I was raised in a PSI family. They were going after the PSI people at that time so I was dragged along,” Leon said.

And the accusation of insulting religion, according to him, was actually triggered by a personal debate with one of his then acquaintances.

Despite the arrests, at least a silver lining remained. Leon said that his time in prison provided him with a chance to polish his literary skills.

Some of the political consequences in his life, however, were based on choice and not only one of destiny’s games. In 1964 he had been one of the poets and writers to sign the Manifesto Kebudayaan (Culture Manifesto), which champions freedom of artistic expression over politics and propaganda. He quit being a civil servant after that.

Much of his poetry, especially those containing the word “hukla” – which has no exact dictionary meaning but translates as a cry of pain – is laden with criticism of an authoritarian and corrupt government.

The political controversies in his life failed to stop the man from exploring various arts. He participated in the International Writing Program in Iowa City in the United States in 1974. He is also known as the leader of the Bengkel Teater Kota Padang theater group from 1972 to 1974.

His latest book of poems is Gendang Pengembara, which reflects his wanderings, or explorations of poetry and literature throughout the decades of his career.

A theatrical performance of parts of the poetry in the book involving various forms of art such as songs and movement is scheduled for today (Tuesday) and Wednesday at Taman Ismail Marzuki in Jakarta.

According to Leon, the revival of poetry is necessary at a time when various other languages are invading the Indonesian language.

“Right now the beloved Indonesian language is being poisoned … by the victim-thirsty language of scapegoating, the arrogant language of insult, the denying language of denial, the sin-keeping language of image-creating,” he said.

Thus, one’s duty now is to preserve the Indonesian language, and, according to Leon, poetry is one of the best ways to display the language’s radiance.

It is easy to imagine someone like Leon Agusta, whom fellow writer Damhuri Muhammad described as living in art in his paper Bersetia dengan Sunyi, Kekal Dalam Bunyi, taking up this task of preserving.

“In each relaxed discussion I have stopped by to listen to, every time [Leon] speaks, somehow I always want to note it down as poetry. Not only that, the way he shifts his sitting position, looks at the person he is talking to, even the way he regulates his breath when his respiration problem surfaces, those to me are poetry. Perhaps because he has been so steadfast in the path of poetry and constantly imbued in poetry,” Damhuri wrote.

To Leon, again, it is about finding a language of his own amid what he perceives as negativity. He expressed this during a recent discussion in Jakarta about his latest book of poetry.

“I don’t have that language of scapegoating, insulting … I have the language that I have. That is poetry,” he said.

Read the full article here.