Poetry gives people the power to make their voices heard. -- Toni Stuart
About Toni Stuart
Toni Stuart was born in Cape Town in 1983, and grew up in the city. Her poetry has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Looking Back, Going Forward: Young Voices on Freedom (British Council, STE Publishers, 2004), and In the Heat of Shadows, South African Poetry 1996-2013 (Deep South Publishing). She has been performing her work, both solo and in collaboration with other poets and musicians, since 2003. She was part of the And the Word Was Woman poetry ensemble between 2004 and 2007. Her performances include the poetry installation Here To Listen (London, 2015) poetry & film exhibition From My View, with filmmaker Shelley Barry (South Africa, 2013); Stretching Silence, with visual artist Firdous Hendricks (South Africa, 2013); and the sound installation Between Words and Images, with curator & visual artist Ernestine White (South Africa, 2013). In 2014 she was part of the Scottish Poetry Library’s Commonwealth Poets United exchange, travelling to Scotland and Northern Ireland to share her work. In 2016, she collaborated with South African filmmaker, Kurt Orderson, to create an audio-visual installation of her work, Krotoa-Eva’s Suite, a cape jazz poem in three movements. The piece was part of the exhibition Re(as)sisting Narratives which showed at Framer Framed Gallery in Amsterdam, and The District Six Homecoming Centre in Cape Town. In 2016 and 2017, she collaborated with flamenco company, dotdotdot dance, on a piece entitled I Come To My Body As A Question, which showed at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London and The Lowry in Manchester. She is one half of the poetry/music duo Gertrude & Jemima, with UK poet & drummer Remi Graves. She was the founding curator of Poetica, at Open Book Festival in Cape Town, South Africa, from 2013 – 2014. In 2013 she was named in the Mail and Guardian’s list of 200 inspiring Young South Africans. She has an MA Writer/Teacher (Distinction) from Goldsmiths, University of London, where she was a 2014/2015 Chevening Scholar. She lives and works between Cape Town and London.
Stuart’s poetry is intensely political, engaging with a range of social issues including gender-based violence, HIV/AIDS, and stories of place and displacement. Her poetry is one of motion, constantly evading fixity of position, perspective and form. Her long work ‘somnambulism’, which moves between lineated verse and prose, offers this eloquent account of the irreducible complexity of the poet and the larger, undefined community of which she considers herself a part: ‘we are the spectrums, walking, indistinguishable / walking like a barrage of colour into your ideas of one-ness and separation / when all of life is moving and gathering, herding and nomadic’. Throughout Stuart’s work, a clear-eyed engagement with politics and history is presented as a condition of ‘truthful’ physical experience, but this principle is often figured in oblique and subtle ways. In a prose passage from ‘somnambulism’, Stuart writes: ‘be truthful about the violence in you. walk into every syllable crashing against the weight of your too-heavy body.’ This embrace and interrogation of the ‘too-heavy’ body, freighted with meaning and history, is often the occasion for some of her most intense and vivid compositions. ‘in a single breath’ examines with precision the particulars of bodily experience:
. . . hands running fluid, down thighs
around knees, falling into arch, hands brown and
warm and seeking, hands dark and safe, telling
and kissing without need and want of lips and tongues, tongues
lost in palms . . .
In this passage, the complex syntax and irregular line-breaks enact skilfully the feelings of connection and disorientation brought about by close physical contact. Most remarkably, this effect is achieved within a very strict formal constraint: the sequence of words in the first nine lines of the poem is exactly reversed in the final nine lines, without any loss of sense or fluency. The concerns of this poem are returned to in ‘how?’, which like many of Stuart’s works responds indirectly to an artwork (other pieces refer to works by Doris Salcedo, Arvo Part, Wendell Berry and Toni Morrison). While it is, at first glance, a strikingly direct love poem, it also seems to advance a model of poet-reader relations, the two figures involved in a collaborative process of meaning-creation which is figured as a kind of imaginative ‘merg[ing]’:
how do we
merge like a Dali painting
where eye is also
i want to feel you
as part of
me; feel your hand
pierce my side your
neck become my thigh but fear
sits here waits
for my desire
The impact of Stuart’s poetry is dramatically enhanced through her remarkable, highly musical performances, which draw out the contours of her verse in rich, resonant tones.