Fresh from her spoken word duet with Jacob Sam La-Rose at Wordstock; South African poet, Toni Stuart talks to Elen Lewis about writing and teaching, words like bricks in a wall and dark chocolate
What is your day job?
I’m a poet – I write, perform and teach and run creative projects that use poetry in various forms. Currently my day job is being a student of poetry.
What are your private passions?
Dark chocolate, the really dark kind, like 85% at least! Making truly meaningful connections with people. Running – although an injury has me benched for nearly a year. Walking – I love what it does for my writing and running. Guilty pleasures: musical movies and X-Factor (don’t judge!)
Describe what you do in 26 words.
I use poetry to create spaces and facilitate processes for people to listen to & connect with themselves and in each other in intentional, meaningful ways.
What do people get wrong about you?
From what people have told me, I think people get the sense that I am a lot more confident about my work (in all its forms – writing, performing & teaching) than I actually am. I also think that because I’m fairly outgoing, people assume I’m an extrovert – but I need lots of alone time to cover, so I definitely am more on the introvert side of the spectrum. And, people are often surprised by my reading tastes – I’ll pretty much read any kind of fiction – especially love YA and the easy summer reads.
Why did you come to London?
I was awarded a Chevening Scholarship ( www.chevening.org )to do my masters. I’m currently doing the MA Writer/Teacher at Goldsmiths College, University of London. It’s such an incredible thing as writer to have dedicated time to focus on the development of my own writing practice, poetics and develop my own poetry pedagogy.
What South African poets (aside from yourself) should we all be listening to?
Gabeba Baderoon, Kelwyn Sole, Karin Schimke, Malika Ndlovu, Rustum Kozain, Khadija Heeger, Diana Ferrus, Koleka Putuma, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, Antjie Krog, Kobus Moolman, James Matthews. There is a wonderful website www.badilishapoetry.com which is an online archive of poetry from the African continent and diaspora. You will find work by all of these poets there, as well as over 300 poets from across the world.
What’s your favourite piece of advice for good writing?
This is something that I learnt from a fellow student on the MA Writer/Teacher. His question was, is every word essential to the poem: if I were to remove one word, would it be like removing an integral brick in a wall, that would have the whole wall come tumbling down? I love that! It’s made me a lot more conscious of each word I choose.
What does being a poet mean to you?
It is a way of being in the world – it means living, walking, interacting and engaging with the world in an intentional and open-hearted way. It’s about slowing down, paying attention and listening, really listening to hear what is going on underneath the surface.
What are you working on right now?
At the moment, I’m working on a series of poems around where I come from, my identity as a person of mixed heritage in South Africa – I found it difficult to write about these themes while living at home; the distance is making it easier to do so. I’m working with fellow 26er Jacob Sam-La Rose on an ongoing project called LDN-CPT – a poetic and audio conversation between our two cities, London and Cape Town.
Studying and developing my teaching practice is taking up a fair amount of my time at the moment, and it’s having a direct impact on my writing practice and my poetics, so I see that as another current project.
What advice would you offer other 26ers wanting to become poets?
Find poetry that really moves you – read it, listen to it, over and over again to understand how and why it moves you so. And write. Write regularly. Write intentionally to work on particular skills, ideas, themes. Find a community of poets who can support your writing and development as a poet.