Text & Photo: Stefano Romano
Conversation with Mario Lawi, a young Indonesian poet, who came to Florence and Rome to study Dante, the Italian National Poet.
I am Mario F. Lawi, and I was born in Kupang, Timor, Indonesia. I currently live in Yogyakarta and I am a student of graduate program in Religious and Cultural Studies, Sanata Dharma University. The studies I did in Italy is a collaborative project for my next poetry book and it was funded by National Book Committee and the Ministry of Education and Culture, Indonesia. Dante’s Inferno and Virgil’s Aeneis are two of my sources.
When and how was love for poetry born?
I fell in love with poetry intensively when I was at St. Raphael Minor Seminary, the only minor seminary in my hometown, when I was about fourteen years old. But I started to write poetry a year before that, when I was still in St. Theresia Junior High School, also in Kupang. Reading so many poems wrote by Indonesian poets was a kind of pleasure you’d love to do since you couldn’t use your handphone or electronic devices in minor seminary. Literature, music and sport were the most popular entertainment in our seminary. So I personally read literature, first of all, to entertain myself.
How many books of poetry have you published today?
I have published four books of poetry. Memoria (ed. Ama Peke, 2013), Ekaristi (ed. Aan Mansyur, 2014), Lelaki Bukan Malaikat (ed. Mirna Yulistianti, 2015) and Mendengarkan Coldplay (ed. Septi Ws, 2016).
I know you came first to Florence and then to Rome to study Dante, the greatest Italian poet. But he is a very difficult poet, even for the Italians. You can explain how Dante’s interest was born, and what prompted you to come to study in Italy?
I read Virgil, Horace, Juvenal, Martial, etc in Latin. I studied ecclesiastical Latin at St. Rafael for 4 years, and it helped me to understand classical Latin poetry. I read Dante because I was prompted by some reviews that he was guided by Virgil in both Inferno and Purgatorio, and I thought it was his strategy to manage his kind of poetry style that he distorted from the previous one. Dante also mentioned Horace and Ovid in Inferno, and it made me exciting since they were also my favorite ones. What prompted me to come? It was a luck, I think. It’s not me to decide I will come to Italy or not. But when I sent my application form for this residency program, I thought it would be nice to recreate some parts of Dante’s Inferno and Virgil’s Aeneis and to put them among my own traditional stories in my next poetry book, as Dante and Virgil did to the texts they read. I mean, it would be hard to read Virgil’s Aeneis if you didn’t know Homer’s opera magna at least. But that’s the excitement of writing that you choose to pick for yourself ones among traditions you want to work over, fight them and put your own traces of victory.
Do you think Dante’s message is interesting also for the people of Indonesian readers?
I think, Dante’s Divina Commedia deals with questions that are always actual and relevant. We can’t just take the Pilgrim and his journey in medieval sense, because it tells story about our actual problems, the deadly weaknesses, the struggle to overcome those weaknesses and the victory. Inferno, the initial part of Commedia, for example, will be interesting for Indonesian readers because of its relevance to Indonesia recent situation, when minority live under the fear of persecution, when someone can be easily considered as an infidel just because his/her political choices, etc.
Having studied a little bit of classic Italian poetry, what are the biggest differences with the poetry that is written in Indonesia?
The language and the tradition. First, the language: Bahasa Indonesia is a young, beautiful language for two reasons: it’s not the first language of most of Indonesian people yet it connects people from various vernacular languages and dialects, and it doesn’t have tenses and conjugation that you can sometimes play with ambiguity in the sense of simplicity when you write a poem in it. In Bahasa Indonesia, time is not something determined by verbs and causality is not something determined by tenses, while in Latin, for example, you can have futurum and futurum exactum to distinguish both time and causality in a complex sentence. Second, the tradition: Italian poetry can easily refers to Latin and Greek literature as its sources, and you can read it clearly in Dante’s Divina Commedia and Egloghe, while Indonesian poetry is usually served by its oral traditions and vernacular languages and mythologies.
If you should, instead, suggest Indonesian poets to readers in Europe, what names would you do?
I just have one, it’s Chairil Anwar. He’s our Dante and Virgil. His poems injected vitality and confidence to young, flourish Bahasa Indonesia at his time, and expanded the poetic possibilities of Indonesian poetry tradition.
What is the most beautiful memory you bring to Indonesia from Italy?
The food. I love pasta.