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Editor Andrew Arnott

Andrew Arnott

Andrew studied Literature and Sociology at UCT before setting off on a global trek that saw him working under the seas of the Caribbean, on the snow covered slopes of the Canadian Rockies and writing for a variety of financial and travel institutions. Now at home in Cape Town, Andrew’s passions for wine and writing are married on this blog.

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The McGregor Poetry Festival - Toni Stuart

Toni Stuart is a performer in as much as she is a poet. Her words and her voice come as one, and the package is breathtaking.  Her delivery is so rich and so lyrical, you feel as if you are watching her sing.

Toni is young, but unafraid to stand up and be heard. And she is passionate about inspiring the youth of South Africa to find, and use, their voices, too. In this vein, Toni runs workshops throughout the country to inspire children and adults to allow themselves the freedom to take their voices back. Toni believes that “writing without judgement is the act of freeing yourself.” To her, poetry is a tool for youth development, social change and reconciliation.

Her poem ‘Innocent Wisdom’ is testament to these beliefs. It was the first of her poems to be published, and hearkens back to the confusion and solitude of a child, knotted up in “her songs of why” and her desperate plea to “let me be.”

Toni is inspired to write about those seemingly imperceptible moments we tend to bypass in our daily lives. She feels compelled to observe these moments, and unravel the stories behind them for the rest of the world to see.

Her devastating rendition of a woman waiting for the return of her husband on Alberta Street is an example of this. The poem’s title, ‘Alberta Street’, refers to a small street between two main roads in the centre of Cape Town, passed by hundreds of commuters every day.  It is also the drop-off point for convicts returning from their time at Pollsmoor Prison. She describes the woman and her child as they wait for the prison bus, hope filling their every gesture as they search the faces of the crowds. And then nothing.  Toni performed this poem with such exquisite vulnerability that it left both her and the audience in tears.

albertus street

a bird's call smacks
against periwinkle sky.
here, where it is always summer

 

through grated windows
their voices crack
against the white-walled cages
of trucks rolling up
for the morning drop-off

 

a man's fingers cling
to that wire.
here, where it is never summer

 

sun dances between leaves
to paint shadows on listening tar
wailing sirens pierce
the serene canopy of trees
calling gates to open and swallow trucks whole

 

justice is a quiet cul de sac,
                a black cloak on broad shoulders billowing
                in the wind.

 

on the corner she stands
mother, girlfriend, wife
her cigarette smoke wafting
through and over the street names above

 

and behind her, the black fence
she will later scale with her voice
her urgent words will spiral
against red-brick wall

 

from inside the wall
a muffled reply will find its way
through the barred windows
and cause a smile to fall into her voice

 

spilling private lives onto a public street
that only the tar will hear and remember
stories that will wait to cling
to our limbs, and leave here
with our walking

 

a bird's call smacks
against periwinkle sky.
here, it is always summer

 

a mother's hands tremble
in the basket of her lap
here, it is never summer

 

not today. he won't be coming home today

© Toni Stuart, May 2013

Turning these small moments into stories became a theme of the afternoon. There was ‘The Lovers’ – a beautiful poem borne of observing a couple in a restaurant. “Have you seen time stop?” Toni asks us, as she goes on to illustrate the significance of the smallest gestures in love.

the lovers – den anker

have you seen time stop?
two lovers slowed the
clocks in their world
with one touch one look

 

they sit, heads turned
to the still moving water,
through the restaurant's glass wall,
watch the setting sun
turn a sky lonely
in shades of pink.

 

she tucks
his mousy brown hair behind
his ears then, one stroke
                         two strokes
with the back of her fingers
against his left cheek.
in that single gesture
he knows

 

his head is turned to the mountain.
eyes lost as he smiles
and in that slow instant
between his cheeks rising
to meet his eyes
she
knows
too

© Toni Stuart

‘Avocado Pear’ describes her father’s somewhat sacred ritual of eating an avocado sprinkled in sugar – a simple process lovingly described... “This is the quiet way my father has.”

Toni’s poem ‘The Temptation of Pots’ was inspired by McGregor’s own Millstone Pottery, a poem she was yet to deliver and read to the potter who’d influenced her.

the temptation of pots

a poet and
a potter speak of the lines
that shape them

 

with index finger
and thumb, the poet traces ceramic
lines of knowing

 

that offer up
the story of the pot's coming
into being,

 

under the weight,
push and give of the potter's hands.
The potter speaks

 

of his search
for the imperfect: the succumbing to fire's flow
and his love

 

affair with cracks
that filigree the busts of pots. “Please
handle the pots”

 

the poet does,
but cannot imagine ever drinking
from them

 

though this is
his wish, “they are functional pots, they are meant
to be used.”

 

the poet can
only imagine sitting alone
in silence

 

waiting for the
songs held locked in their earthen flaws
to sing

© Toni Stuart

The highlight of the afternoon was her first and, thus far, only Afrikaans poem, during which a tearful audience proceeded to pass tissues around the room. ‘Ma, ek ko huis toe’ is based on a letter written to her mother when Toni lived in England. It is a heart-wrenching ballad of desperate longing for the heat and rhythm and language of the place she calls home.

Toni’s performance is undoubtedly integral to her words. She believes that poetry is her calling, and watching her read, it is hard to believe otherwise. At the end of the hour, when the audience pleaded for her to read more, the lines from her poem ‘Cape Doctor’ rang through my head: “Wind, tell me your stories, so I may know the other half of me.”

All poems used with Toni Stuart's permission.
Toni Stuart Poetry
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