Launched in 2015, the Jakarta-based Unmasked has hosted many open mics and popularized spoken-word poetry. (Photo courtesy of Unmasked Poetry Open Mic)

Got Poetry?: Guide to Open Mic Nights in Jakarta


MARCH 22, 2018

Jakarta. "We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion," English teacher John Keating, played by the late Robin Williams, said in Peter Weir’s 1989 coming-of-age classic, "Dead Poets Society."

Sometimes passion doesn’t stop at the written words. You’re lucky if you’re still at school or university where you can easily find poetry communities or student-organized poetry slams to perform your work. But once you're out of that circle, the options can be limited.

Luckily in Jakarta, open mic nights are growing in popularity. We've found three which will welcome you (for free!) no matter your style, and no matter what language your poetry is in.

1. Malam Puisi Jakarta

Malam Puisi (Poetry Night) originally began in Bali in 2013. One night, co-founder Bentara Bumi was hanging out with her friends at a cafe past closing time. After running out of topics to talk about, they decided to read poems to each other.

The night inspired them to host a poetry reading. Bumi invited Bali-based videographer Putu Pucangan to organize the event with her.

"Our motto is simple: come, listen and read your poem. We're just people who love reading and writing poetry but didn't have room to express ourselves, so we created Malam Puisi," Bumi told the Jakarta Globe.

Malam Puisi's first open mic night was promoted on Twitter. The response was bigger than the organizers expected. Poetry lovers from all over Indonesia were asking if the event was going to be held in their city as well.

Undaunted with the task, Bumi created a list of guidelines for people planning to organize a Malam Puisi event and posted it on her blog.

Five years later, Malam Puisi has been held in over 40 cities in Indonesia, though not regularly. It's now only held in around a dozen cities, according to Bumi.

Bumi herself moved to Jakarta in 2013 and established Malam Puisi Jakarta.

There have been around 30 Malam Puisi Jakarta open mic nights held sporadically since then until last year. Now it’s a monthly event.

Most of the poets who come to Malam Puisi are young, around 18-25 years old, though the organizers are in their 20s and 30s.

Malam Puisi is meant to be a simple but intense 2-hour marathon of poetry reading. All you have to do is pick a poem – yours or someone else’s – come to the event, raise your hand and wait for the moderator to pick you out of the crowd.

The poem can be in any language, and you don’t have to follow the theme set by the organizers. You can experiment with other media though simple performances are preferred because the event often takes place outdoors and sometimes even without a mic.

A young poet reads at Malam Puisi in February, held at Kaffeine Kline, a cafe in South Jakarta. (Photo courtesy of Malam Puisi Jakarta)

Bumi wants Malam Puisi to be a safe, non-judgmental space for anyone who has something to say through poetry. She believes poetry is personal and everyone must have written a poem at least once in their life.

She said the reason why it's often difficult to muster up courage to read in public is the culture many Indonesians grow up in. At school, poetry is often seen as uncool and students are often laughed at when they read a poem in front of the class.

Bumi also thinks the school curriculum in Indonesia does not encourage a love of poetry because it only exposes students to themes they can’t relate to. As an example, Bumi mentioned that many students are familiar with legendary poet Chairil Anwar's "Karawang-Bekasi" – a fiery poem about patriotism during the Indonesian Revolution – but hardly know anything about his love poems.

"Malam Puisi tries to shake off Indonesian poetry's 'bad reputation.' We believe poetry is personal and relatable to many. Poetry isn’t just for experts of literature. It’s for everyone to create, read and enjoy," Bumi said.

Bumi also said that poetry helps people get in touch with their emotions, that's why it's always a liberating feeling when we read something aloud.

"I always tell the newcomers at Malam Puisi when they hesitate to come up on stage, once they go for it, they'll be addicted," she said.

The two hours the organizers plan for each event often have to be extended since people would demand another go on the mic.

The next Malam Puisi Jakarta open mic night will be held on Saturday (24/03) at Kaffeine Kline in Pancoran, South Jakarta. More information will be posted on Twitter.

2. Unmasked Poetry Open Mic

Unmasked is best known for the four faces of its founders, but what’s the story behind the event?

Putri Minangsari, Pangeran Siahaan and Ayu Meutia – the open mic night's three founders – met at Ubud Writers and Readers Festival's annual poetry slam, where they are regulars.

In 2015, Ayu was in a poetry workshop with American duo Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye in Kuala Lumpur when it dawned on her that the spoken-word poetry scene in Jakarta was threadbare to say the least.

Ayu, Pangeran and Putri held their first open mic night, "Unmasked: a Poetry Night," at Tree House Kemang in South Jakarta in April that year. The event drew quite a large crowd.

Journalist and "RasaKata" literary blog founder Abdul Qowi Bastian was the host that night.

"He's always been a most reliable friend and the greatest supporter of Unmasked. We invited him to join our core team in March 2016, so Unmasked became four," Putri said.

Left to right, Putri Minangsari, Abdul Qowi Bastian, Ayu Meutia and Pangeran Siahaan – the four faces of Unmasked. (Photo courtesy of Unmasked Poetry Open Mic)

Putri and Ayu said poetry reading communities are important not only as a channel to vent or relieve stress, but also to voice opinions.

"Poetry communities that provide accessible, public stages like Unmasked may become a much-needed, creative outlet for people in the city who long for their voices and opinions to be heard," Putri said.

Unmasked's open-mic nights are scheduled every April, August and December but Putri said they always end up hosting more than 6 events each year because opportunities for collaborations keep coming up. Last year, they organized 8 open mic nights and poetry slams.

For open mic nights, the number of readers varies according to the scale of the event. Normally there are around 15 readers, but the people who show up to the event can reach up to 70.

"When we organized two poetry workshops and a poetry slam on Fatahilah Square’s outdoor stage during Asean Literary Festival 2017, we were stunned to see how a crowd of easily two thousand people gathered at the huge plaza to witness the slam. And they stayed till the end. It was an unforgettable moment," Putri said.

Unmasked normally sets a theme for each open mic, but they don't mind if the readers don’t stick strictly to it. Your work must be original, and it can be in any language. Don’t forget to sign up online on Unmasked’s Facebook page first.

The form that they encourage readers to showcase is spoken-word poetry.

"It is considerably new, especially in Indonesia. The style of spoken word poetry is free-flowing, not rigid nor formal, usually big on rhythm and often rhyming. Spoken word poems are generally written to be performed verbally, not necessarily be compiled in a poetry anthology to be read – although that is possible too," Putri said.

Ayu recalled some of the most memorable poems that have been performed at Unmasked, such as "Catatan Pinggir Nesia" (Marginesia) by Andhyta Firselly Utami, "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika" (Unity in Diversity) by Antonia Timmerman and "Menuju Terang" (Unto Light) by Bentara Bumi. The first two are about patriotism and Indonesia’s diversity while the last is a piece about struggles with mental health issues.

Unmasked has also been involved in some mixed media projects. Putri herself is a dancer who often incorporates poetry in her performances. As a team, Unmasked created a video for the "100,000 Poets for a Change" global movement in 2015, where the founders and other poets recorded their poems in the alleyways of Jakarta’s Bendungan Hilir.

Unmasked has also worked with British Council, @america and the US Embassy, Galeri Indonesia Kaya, Peace Women Across the Globe (PWAG) Indonesia, and took part in the Salihara Biennale and Asean Literary Festival.

Some of their future plans include celebrating their third anniversary in April, and hosting an open mic and poetry workshop for Speak Up!, a bilingual literary festival held at the National Library in early May.

Ayu and Putri said there’s no reason to be scared when you come to an open mic night.

"Everyone has something to say, something to inspire others. You won’t know how far the distance you can go until you start walking. Walk with us at Unmasked, come to our open mic nights, immerse in words, and write often, write with heart and passion," Putri said.

3. Paviliun Puisi

Say hello to youngest of the bunch. "Paviliun Puisi' (Poetry Pavilion) is a monthly open mic night at Paviliun 28 in Kebayoran Baru, South Jakarta, that has been attracting a lot of hype for their off-the-wall collaborations with bands, DJs, visual and performance artists and filmmakers.

The first Paviliun Puisi event was held in June last year, and since then has been held on the last Saturday of every month.

One of the organizers of Paviliun Puisi, who asked to remain nameless, said one of their main objectives is to show that poetry is a fluid art form. "Chairil Anwar once said that 'non-poets should not take part in poetry,' but here, poetry doesn’t only belong to poets," she said.

Musicians, illustrators, dancers, actors, photographers – anyone with a creative passion – is invited to experiment with it.

Each Paviliun Puisi has a specific theme. Cuci Mata in October presented poetry-based visual explorations, and Tough Love in February challenged poets to write love poems without all the cliché words associated with the genre.

The organizers always announce the theme ahead of time on their Instagram – that also has photos and videos of past performances you can check out – giving people enough time to prepare if they want to.

Dalam Jenggala X SWUN combine prose, video mapping and mellow EDM at Paviliun Puisi #CuciMata edition at Paviliun 28, South Jakarta, last year. (Photo courtesy of Paviliun Puisi/Yoga Prathama)

Paviliun Puisi has been attracting the most attention for its unconventional performances, often in collaborations with artists from other disciplines. There have been poems turned into a modular analogue synthesizer piece, a poet doing a mock-up cooking show with a real chicken while reading a poem about the woman body and a poem about loss printed on the venue's long bar table.

"There was even a collaboration when the poem was not read, but performed by a lyrical dancer who moved her body in response to a video mapping piece done by another artist," the organizer said.

Around 50-60 people have been coming to each Paviliun Puisi event, and almost half of them would perform during the open mic session.

The organizer said she keeps seeing new faces, though she has seen some established poets quietly checking out the event as well.

"We welcome both senior and budding poets at Paviliun Puisi. We want everyone to be able to enjoy poetry together, and if we could, we'll ask them to collaborate," she said.

The anonymous organizer actually attributed the event's popularity – Paviliun Puisi is always packed and they recommend people not to bring their cars since parking is limited – to these nameless "open mic-ers."

"We've had some amazing young poets whom we've never even seen before. From code-switching feminist poets to an unknown MC who had never even performed on stage before but has uploaded all this great rhymes on Soundcloud. We asked him where he was from, and he said, 'Straight outta Mampang!"

The organizers would often invite these new talents later to become headliners in the show.

Paviliun Puisi is also free of charge. You only have to put down your name on a list once at the venue if you want to read. Everyone will get a turn.

More information on Paviliun Puisi can be found on their blog. Highlights of the performances are also available on their YouTube channel.

The organizer has a tip for people who are still hesitant to read their poem out loud, "don't worry."

"Poems come alive when shared or read. When you feel the urge to say something, just say it. You'd be surprised at how receptive people can be when you choose to reveal your innermost feelings," she said.