Q&A with Toni Stuart: Poetry gives people the power to make their voices heard

AiW Guest: Matthew Lecznar

Toni Stuart photo 1

Toni Stuart – image by Amaal Said

Toni Stuart is a South African poet, performer and spoken word educator, who presently works between Cape Town and London. Her work has been published in anthologies, journals and non-fiction books in South Africa and internationally. In 2013, she was named in the Mail and Guardian’s list of 200 inspiring Young South Africans for her work in co-founding I Am Somebody! – an NGO that uses storytelling and youth development to build integrated communities. In 2014/2015 she was a Chevening Scholar in the UK where she graduated with an MA Writer/Teacher from Goldsmiths, University of London.

Toni is currently in London, performing, speaking, and undertaking a number of inter-disciplinary collaborations with a range of artists. For a full list of Toni’s performances in London, you can visit her blog. For updates and live info, follow her on Twitter: @nomadpoet and Instagram: @tonistuart83

Matthew Lecznar for AiW: Hi Toni, welcome to Africa in Words! You’re in London for 8 weeks, and taking your poetry into an incredible array of spaces: you’re collaborating with a flamenco dance company and performing as part of a duo with the UK poet and drummer Remi Graves, you’re hosting a spoken word and social activism event at the Roundhouse theatre, you’re speaking at academic conferences and giving a reading at the Ledbury Poetry Festival. Could you begin by telling us about why you think it is important for your poetry to be performed in diverse spaces?

Hello! Thank you for having me and for this opportunity to be interviewed. For me, being a poet, is not only the act of sitting down to write, it’s a way of being in the world, and a way of engaging with the world. Taking my poetry into these different spaces is another way of doing that: engaging with a range of people, from all kinds of communities. Before I was a “full-time” poet, I worked in the youth development sector, and before that I was a journalist. Throughout my life I’ve engaged with different communities and spaces, people from all walks of life. We can’t live and work in silos – we have to be finding new spaces, in order to keep learning, keep being challenged and keep creating. Taking my work into diverse spaces allows me to do that.

Also, poetry like all forms of art, is needed and relevant everywhere. It is as relevant in an academic setting as it is as a poetry festival or a political rally. Wherever people find themselves, when they experience poetry, it awakens something in them, it touches them, it moves them, it makes them feel alive.

Hmm, I think also, that put really simply – it’s so much more fun to take my work into diverse spaces. It would be really boring otherwise!

Looking at your London programme, I am struck by how many collaborative projects you are embarking on. Poetry is often characterised as being an introspective and personal art form, so what excites you about collaborating with other artists? What are the challenges?

I came up in the Cape Town scene in the early 2000s, where melding poetry and music was such a natural way of working. I’m also part of a community of friends and colleagues in Cape Town who all work in a range of different art forms and are always finding new ways to work together.

Toni Stuart 2

Toni Stuart and Remi Graves – image by Amelia Shivani Hansard

All art requires of the maker, considered periods of being on their own – for research, reading, writing and making. I spent a considerable amount of time doing just that. At the same time, working with other artists – poets yes, but especially artists of other disciplines, excites me because it pushes me to stretch myself. Working with drummer Remi Graves, in Gertrude & Jemima, is making me think about rhythm more intentionally both on the page and in performance – what happens to a poem, if I riff a line, like a drum beat? Working with the flamenco dancers of dotdotdot dance, is making me think about how I do/don’t embody my words – and asking myself what I could do to be more connected to my own body in a way that would serve my writing and performance?

Working with poet Jacob Sam-La Rose on LDN-CPT, just pushes me to be a better writer, always pushes me to be a better writer, to read more, to work harder at my craft, because Jacob is simply one of the best.

Finally, it’s just the pure joy of sharing a deep love and dedication to making excellent work with another person, that really excites me about working with other artists. The process can so often be lonely – and that’s necessary sometimes – but it’s also good to be able to share the journey with someone.

When it comes to challenges – time. We all have so much we want to do and achieve, and are doing, that we often don’t have as much time as we’d like to spend together making/creating. We’re also often juggling many different projects in order to meet our financial needs and commitments, which also puts strain on time. Other than that, it’s been an absolute joy to work with all of these artists, and it’s only brought me deep satisfaction and a sense of real community.

You’re performing at a number of events with overtly political focuses, including a conference titled ‘Archives Matter: Queer Black Feminist Perspectives on the Archive’ at Goldsmiths College, and an event at the Roundhouse which brings together poetry and activism. What makes poetry a powerful political tool? How would you describe the relationship between your art and politics?

Poetry gives people the power to make their voices heard in a clear, discernible and distinct way. The brevity, the intentional use of language and the use of metaphor and imagery, allow people to talk about complicated, difficult and large political issues in a human way. It allows us to engage with the human voice, the human experience of these political issues – something that can be lost in the statistics, the news headlines and the rhetoric. Poetry is the medium through which we are able to see and experience how “the personal is political”.

In my work and life, I’m always striving towards an holistic and integrated way of being in the world. I believe that the way in which I do the work is as important as the work I’m doing. Thus, my art and my politics are one and the same thing. Who I choose to work with, what I choose to write about, where I choose to perform, which projects I choose to be involved in or not, are all political as well as artistic choices. I have turned down work because it didn’t align with my intentions as an artist: to create space for all voices to sit alongside each other equally and be heard. This too is a political choice.

Finally, I’d like to ask you about working between Cape Town and London. It’s interesting that one of the events you are performing at, the Writing South Africa Now conference at the London School of Economics, brings you to the UK in order to talk about your home. How would you compare London as space for artistic performance and collaboration with places in South Africa? Does the geographical location of your poetic practice and performance matter?

It’s very difficult to compare London to Cape Town or Johannesburg, and I don’t think that it’s useful or helpful. The infrastructure of the entire creative industry is completely different in the UK, because the economy, built environment, history, geography are all different and all of these factors play a part in how the creative industry is shaped. Johannesburg and Cape Town are different cities, as all South Africans will attest, and thus what is possible and what happens artistically in both cities is different. In the same way, what is possible and takes place in London is different.


About the geographical location of my poetic practice and performance, and whether it matters…we live in a global world, where the geographical distances between us are decreasing rapidly through the digital space. Nothing can take the place of face-to-face interaction, but the digital world means that whether I’m in London or Cape Town, people all over the world can engage with my work. For me, where it matters, is in the making process. Cape Town, where I come from, this city that grew me is what inspires, informs and fuels my work. It is the reason I am a poet – it’s story, it’s people, it’s history, it’s future that I want to be a part of creating. London, this city where I can walk down the street and be anonymous & where I experience the world in a single music night or poetry reading, is what challenges me to push past my limitations and fears, stretches me to do the work in new ways. It is the reason I want to be the best poet I can be.


IMG_2650_2Matthew Lecznar is a PhD student at the University of Sussex. His doctoral research explores the cultural legacy of the Nigerian Civil War in different forms of material culture. Through a comparative analysis of portrayals of the war in literature, art, film and photography, he considers the effect of international institutions on the production of these works, and the impact of the conflict on Nigerian cultural memory and artistic innovation. His wider research interests are in anglophone African literature, postcolonial conflict literature, gender and sexual dissidence, and world literary book history.

Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A

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