Close Approximations: In Conversation with Poetry Winner Daniel Owen

It's like an exorcism and a prayer for long life in one breath.

This year’s winner of the Poetry category in Asymptote’s fourth annual Close Approximations Translation Contest was Daniel Owen. Poetry judge Eugene Ostashevsky called Alfizal Malna’s text “intellectual poetry of the highest caliber,” praising Owen for his “elegant, reserved English,” and for offering readers “a beautiful thing of clear obscurity” in his translations of Malna’s Document Shredding Museum.

We recently caught up with Yogyakarta-based Daniel to learn more about his work with the legendary Afrizal Malna, the process of “unsomeoneification,” and what he has been up to since winning the Close Approximations contest in January.

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): I found your translations of Document Shredding Museum to be incredibly beautiful and inviting; no easy feat given the complexity of Malna’s writing. How did you first come to Afrizal Malna and his work?

Daniel Owen (DO): I met Afrizal at Kampung Buku Jogja, an annual literary event in Yogyakarta with a book fair, readings, and discussions. I had just come to stay awhile in Jogja to intensively study Indonesian language and to read and subsequently translate Indonesian literature. While my Indonesian was okay when we first met, I hadn’t yet read much and was quite ignorant of the literary landscape. We were introduced by my friends, the writers and small press publishers Lelaki Budiman and Tiaswening Maharsi, after Afrizal’s discussion on theater and poetry with Gunawan Maryanto. I bought a copy of his new book of short stories, Pagi Yang Miring Ke Kanan (Nyala, 2017) and we chatted a bit. Following our initial meeting, I started reading Afrizal’s work pretty intensely, the short stories along with poems I found on the internet, and then his book of essays Sesuatu Indonesia. I found myself entranced by the poems; it was like encountering something extremely familiar yet at the same time novel. That kind of tickling of the sensibilities that’s both troubling and pleasurable, takes you, as a reader, outside yourself while making you feel more yourself. I started translating these poems which I’d found online, primarily to see what would happen and to share them with non-Indonesian-speaking friends who asked about what I was reading, thinking about, engaging with. And then I borrowed Museum Penghancur Dokumen from Budiman, read the whole thing and started translating it.

STH: Malna’s biography refers to him as a “major innovator.” Can you share more about Malna’s place in the Indonesian literary scene and his departures from literary tradition?

DO: Malna occupies a unique position in the Indonesian literary scene, one I’m still not sure if I really understand. In addition to his work as a poet, Malna has been very involved in many facets of theater and performance art and has been active as a theater-maker, playwright, artist, novelist, and critic. For many years, his literary work has been widely published and respected, and even gave rise to a whole genre of imitators in the 1990s, whose work is described as “Afrizalian.” His writing is often deemed difficult to understand and confusing, perhaps because it isn’t concerned with delivering the kinds of meanings, messages, and values conventionally expected from poetry. Of course, in my understanding, this is precisely the point. As evidenced by his enormous volumes of essays on Indonesian poetry Sesuatu Indonesia: Esai-Esai Dari Pembaca Tak Bersih / Something Indonesian: Essays from an Unclean Reader (2000) and Pada Batas Setiap Masakini / At the Limits of Every Nowadays (2017), Malna is thoroughly well-versed and engaged with the Indonesian literary tradition. His departures from this tradition are often compared with those of Chairil Anwar in the 1940s and Sutardji Calzoum Bachri in the 1970s.  

Whereas Sutardji wrote of “freeing words from their meanings” in order to return them to their origins as mantra (language whose recitation causes something to happen or change in the world), Afrizal seems more concerned with freeing language from its highly propagandized, rote social function in order to return it to its present as a medium of relation between reader and writer. It’s difficult to talk about the particular formal features that mark the departure of Afrizal’s work from Indonesian literary tradition because his work has changed and evolved over the years. However, I think it’s safe to say that his work upends and disorients conventional understandings of how poetic language names and tells. Everyday objects of the modern, industrial world and their relation to humanity come front and center. The poetic consciousness is fragmented, unstable. The language is made to speak to the reader rather than the poet speaking as a distinct entity. In many ways, Afrizal’s innovations correspond to postmodernist aesthetics. In my understanding, an important dimension of his aesthetic is a subversion of the literary and linguistic status quo in order to attempt a kind of un-alienation.

STH: Did you collaborate with Malna on these translations? If so, what did your cooperation look like?

DO: We didn’t actually collaborate much on the specificities of the translations. Afrizal lives in Jakarta, and I’ve been staying in Yogyakarta, so we’ve corresponded a bunch and met a few times to discuss the work, but our conversations usually focus on the broader ideas around culture, selfhood, language, and history that animate and ground the poems, rather than on the specificities of the poems’ language(s). Since my first meeting with Afrizal, he’s been very encouraging and trusting and has given me a lot of permission to reanimate his poems in English.

STH: Malna used these writings or “documentations” to “unsomeonify” himself as a “product of culture.” How is this aspect of Malna’s process reflected in your translation or your approach to the text?

DO: Afrizal talks about wanting to write from his body when he was writing this book, to “empty out the documentations” of his self in order to let silence in. I see this process as something like a self-exorcism, an attempt to free oneself from all of the external socio-politico-cultural programming that lives in and through language. It’s like that parasitic tropical fungus that uses ants as its host. Once it infects an ant and begins to grow within it, the ant starts acting crazy, climbs down from the canopy and finally dies as the fungus’s growth overwhelms its body. Language is the fungus and humans the ant. Anyway, the idea that these poems issued from the direct, unmediated consciousness of Afrizal’s embodied self felt essential to keep in mind as I attempted to translate them. By dint of coincidence or kismet, Afrizal wrote this book while living in Nitiprayan, an area in Yogyakarta about four kilometers from where I’ve been living and working on these translations.

While working on the book, I felt myself in a spatial, bodily correspondence with the Afrizal of these poems. I tried to be open to and let in the sounds of the birds and the motor scooters, the moisture of the air, the frequency and intensity of rain, all those environmental factors that impact the body and mind in unconscious ways. For a lot of literary works, I’m not sure how important these factors would be to their translation, but for this particular book, based on the way Afrizal talks about his process and concerns in writing it, I think it might have been useful. Paradoxically, Museum Penghancur Dokumen is rife with historical and cultural references and allusions, which required a lot of research to really understand. In fact, I don’t think I yet really understand nearly all of them, though the translating and the research it necessitated brought me a piecemeal, working understanding of them. I’ve been reading as much Indonesian history and literature as I can, both in Indonesian and in English, but of course I am and probably will always be incapable of the depth and richness of association that moves throughout the allusions and references in the book. That being said, I think that this kind of backgrounding, both in terms of physical space and literary/historical/political knowledge (mental space you could call it), has been vital to the translating. In my understanding, translation is always both an “unsomeoneification” as well as a “resomeoneification.” If I, and the English language that comes out of me, or that I court and manipulate from the space around myself, is not broken down and then reinvigorated bearing the trace of its breaking down within the space of the author’s writing, then I think I may have failed as a translator. Either way, I hope more ants may live and thrive as a result of this process somehow!

STH: Your complete translation of Malna’s Document Shredding Museum is forthcoming from Reading Sideways Press. What can readers expect from the rest of the collection?

DO: Well, I think a lot of the pleasure and potential of poetry comes from its capacity for surprise, so I don’t want to give too much away. But seriously, I think readers can expect a deep engagement with Indonesia’s colonial and postcolonial history and present through the bewilderment of language that looks unsparingly at its environment. It’s like an exorcism and a prayer for long life in one breath. Many of the poems are razor-sharp in their political and social critique, but there’s also quite a bit of tenderness, celebrations of friendship and love, lamentations of loss. A strong current of dark humor runs through it all.

STH: What has winning Asymptote’s Close Approximations Contest meant for you and your work?

DO: I’m not entirely sure yet, as the contest was just announced a few months ago. I’m very grateful for the attention that winning the contest has brought to Afrizal’s poetry, as I think his work has a rare depth and humor and insight that could be very meaningful for many English-language readers. I’m also very grateful for the sense of validation that winning the contest has instilled in me, and the sense of confidence it confers, particularly coming from Eugene Ostashevsky (the poetry judge of the Close Approximations Contest), whose translations of Alexander Vvedensky (and other OBERIU poets) and Arkadii Dragomoschenko have been very important to me as both a poet and translator. It’s also such a prize in itself to have these translations appear in Asymptote, to be available in the context of such an astounding array of excellent translations of literature from all over the world.  

Daniel Owen is the author of Toot Sweet (United Artists Books, 2015) and Restaurant Samsara (Furniture Press Books, 2018). His translation of Afrizal Malna’s Document Shredding Museum is forthcoming from Reading Sideways Press. His writing has recently appeared in Hyperallergic, The Recluse, The Brooklyn Rail, The Fanzine, Vestiges, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Ugly Duckling Presse editorial collective.

Sarah Timmer Harvey is a writer and translator currently based in Brooklyn, New York. She holds an MFA in writing and translation from Columbia University and most recently, her work has appeared in Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Gulf Coast Journal, and Cagibi Literary Journal.


Read more work by Indonesian writers on the Asymptote Blog: