Mikael Johani, translator and co-organiser of Jakarta’s Paviliun Puisi, looks at how Zoom events have created new opportunities for self-expression and connection beyond PavPu’s usual venue, beyond Jakarta, and even with international partners.
Commissioned for the International Literature Showcase.
Greeting regulars and strangers walking through a big red door. Young poets and curious walk-ins skulling strong supersweet medicinal red wine (ABV: 19%) from glass jugs. Some water down the sweetness with ice cold pilsener. A girl poet cleaning and rubbing a chicken carcass with spices on a tiny stage as she reads a long poem about the woman body, to a DIY remix of the Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack. She pulls the innards out and tosses them to the floor. The music stops. The poem ends. The girl poet pulls a pre-prepared BBQ chicken from under the table. She yanks the drumsticks and the wings off the chicken, rips aparts the breasts, detaches the neck, the head, and hands out the pieces to the audience. Those who’ve been watching her performance, and those who haven’t. Too busy drinking. All of them now munch solemnly on the woman body.
That’s just one of the many performances that stood out for me from Paviliun Puisi (PavPu), a monthly spoken word night that I’ve been hosting with my wife, a bigger poet than me in the Jakarta scene, and three of our friends, a feminist poet, a queer poet, and a talent manager (also an incredible MC) since 2017. There was also the night when we transformed the bar into a mini theatre for an adaptation of Pinter’s The Lover (the poets and actors mingling with the audience who were sat on the floor, on the bar table, on a tiny mezzanine above the makeshift stage) and the long night when we took turns filibustering our own event by reading through a ridiculous new government bill that was anti-abortion, turned a blind eye on corruption, and shoved severe human rights abuses under the carpet among other things. (The other things included a £500 fine for letting your chickens roam in the neighbour’s yard.)
Our last night at the bar before lockdown was on 29 February 2020. The theme was a pun on “kabisat”, the Indonesian word for the leap year: TAK BISA (CANNOT). I can’t read the poster now without captioning it in my head as if I was watching a pre-battle scene in Game of Thrones (OMINOUS MUSIC PLAYING).
The raw physical intimacy of our bar, perhaps the main reason why our night was always so packed that I often had to turn people away from the big red door, has now been replaced by the mediated intimacy of Zoom sessions, of which we’ve now had 14 (an accidental counter for how many months we’ve spent in lockdown).
One thing that strikes me from these sessions is that everyone is sitting down. Sometimes even lying down. I remember everyone in our dive bar standing, jumping around, hands in the air, clapping, lifting skinny fists like antennas to heaven.
But hey, since rich countries have hogged all the vaccines and we’ve got no idea when we’ll ever be able to get out of the house safely, why stand when you can sit?
One person who always joins our Zoom readings never sits. He dances. In his tiny kos room where he’s installed a stripper pole. He plays music through the shared screen feature, and sometimes projects a homemade video on the wall. One night he plays a dance video he made featuring multiple versions of himself. The captions in my head: (BURST OF SHOW TUNES) (‘NOTHING MATTERS WHEN WE’RE DANCING’ BY THE MAGNETIC FIELDS PLAYS).
Zoom also transcends boundaries. It has let our night wander to other cities outside Jakarta, and let young poets from those cities, who have long heard about us on social media and have always wanted to come but couldn’t, to wander into our space. A queer poet joined us from his bedroom in Padang (on the island of Sumatra, 1276 kilometres from Jakarta), a uni student joined us from his hometown of Kupang (on the island of Timor, 2787 kilometres from Jakarta), Jeffrey McDaniel joined us from Yonkers (27 hours and 25 minutes on Etihad from Jakarta). On Boxing Day last year we did a live reading with spoken word poets from Singapore’s Spoke & Bird collective.
The view from Jakarta is (DRUMBEAT STARTS UP) (CYMBALS CRASH) (‘HOLD ON HOPE’ BY GUIDED BY VOICES PLAYS)
Mikael Johani is a poet, critic, and translator from Jakarta, Indonesia. His works have appeared in #UntitledThree (Edinburgh), On Relationships (London), Asymptote, The Johannesburg Review of Books, AJAR (Hanoi), Vice Indonesia, Kerja Tangan (Kuala Lumpur) and Popteori. He is the author of We Are Nowhere And It’s Wow (Post Press, 2017). He organises Paviliun Puisi, a monthly spoken word night in Jakarta (currently on Zoom quarantine). He appeared at the London Book Fair (2019), Singapore Writers Festival (2020), and Poesia 21 (2021).