Sunday Poem – Basil du Toit

I am determined to start, and post the Sunday Poem up this week while there is still daylight left, and so stave off any terrible mishaps.  I have had a real roller coaster of a week with amazing highs and lows.  My first full-length collection has been officially launched which was definitely a real high, but in the run up to it I managed to torture myself into sleepless nights and nightmares that nobody would show up to the launch and I would be reading poems to the band and my parents.  I mean, there are nine people in the band, so adding my mum and dad, I’ve done smaller poetry readings and been an audience member in smaller readings as well.

Last week I was moaning on to Chris and asking myself why I’d organised such a large thing.  Whose idea was it to have it in the Supper Room which is quite a large room to fill? (mine) Whose idea was it to have the Soul Band playing, thus making everything much larger? (mine) And why in gods name did I tell people to bring food? What if there wasn’t enough? I was also panicking about the audience.  I suspected the poets would be outnumbered by the runners, soul band fans, teachers and musicians and might not have any interest in poetry.  What do you read to people that might not have any interest in poetry?  I was also worried about how people would react to the soul band.  I wanted the band to have a good night, as they agreed to play for free and most of them are gigging musicians so this meant a loss of income to them.  I was worried that the poets would think it was too loud and go home after the poetry.  I was worried about the turnout as well because lots of people who said they could come then got in touch to say they couldn’t make it for a variety of reasons.   I was worried about Amy Wack, my editor at Seren coming all the way from Wales and being disappointed in the turnout.

So, that was me, worrying away before the launch.  Chris alleges that I do this before EVERYTHING – that I worry myself into a sort of worry-frenzy and it always turns out ok, so maybe it is just the way that I cope with things.  Amy arrived on Wednesday and it was then I started to calm down a bit as I realised it was too late to do anything about any of the things I was worrying about anyway.

On Thursday we went for a walk with the dogs and then went for lunch with my auntie and uncle who had come all the way up from Leicester to be at the launch.  I don’t see them very often so it was really nice to spend some time with them.  After lunch I drove to Ulverston for a quick sound check with the band at the venue and to put out the table cloths that I’d borrowed from Poem and a Pint.  So there wasn’t any time to worry on Thursday, and before I knew it, it was 7pm and people were starting to arrive, first of all in a trickle, but then there was suddenly a queue outside the door to get into the room and there was no room to sit down and we were having to get more chairs.

I’ve put some photos into this post in a rare move for me to show you what I’m talking about.  It was a bit like getting married without having to share the limelight with a bloke! My lovely friend Jo Stoney made me the most amazing cake, with the cover of my book made out of icing.

1557543_10153071223968051_3522224217937592958_nWe even had a cutting-the-cake ceremony like you do at a wedding!  Here is Jo and I about to cut the cake.11350455_10153071223998051_6786030231315537806_nHere is a photo of the crowd at the launch – there was a group from my running club, some of whom had never been to a poetry reading before, teachers that I work with in schools, parents of kids who play in my band, Chris’s friends from work and psychotherapists that he works with, my family and of course the lovely poets who I spend a lot of time with these days.  Some of them, like Jennifer Copley and Mark Carson and Gill Nicholson I’ve been in writing groups with ever since I first started writing seven years ago.  Others I see more sporadically at events and workshops and open mics.  I was completely stunned by the turnout – I’m not making it up when I say I didn’t think there would be many people there.


It was an amazing atmosphere to read in and although I was too busy talking and signing books to get any food apart from a couple of crisps and a carrot stick, I’m told there was plenty.  After the food, I had a quick costume change into the black that the Soul Survivors play in and we went on and started playing. I needn’t have worried about the poets reaction to the music either.  They lost no time in getting up and gyrating about the place.  Here is a picture of the band and I’ve just noticed Jo is cutting the cake at the front of the photo!

11329852_10153071224483051_9214075939788998269_nWhen the pamphlet came out, I kept a sporadic but running total of my own sales, so I’ll do the same for the book.  In the run up to the launch, I’d sold 51 copies.  At the launch Amy sold 68 which I thought was pretty good.  I’ve decided not to sell the book from this blog, as postage is more expensive than for my pamphlet, and if you buy direct from Seren, you will get 20% off as part of their book club deal.

My next, and last launch event for the book is going to be in London at The King and Queen pub, 1 Foley Street, W1W 6DL on June 13th, starting at 7.30.  I’ll be reading with Jill Abram and Kathryn Maris.  Sadly, the budget won’t stretch to transporting the nine-piece soul band to the venue but I will try and make up for it.  There is a Facebook group for the event here and it would be lovely if any London readers could make it there – do introduce yourself if you come along!

Apart from obsessing about things that are out of my control I’ve also played at a wedding with the Soul Survivors on Friday night and on Saturday morning I knocked seven seconds off my Park run personal best time, taking my best time down to 23 minutes and 1 second! Highly annoying not to get under the 23 minute barrier but it seems well within reach now.  Of course once I do that I will start obsessing about getting under 22 minutes but, you know.  It keeps me busy.

So that is more than enough about me.  Today’s Sunday Poem is by Basil du Toit, who is another Poetry Business pamphlet winner.  I was really impressed with his quiet yet assured delivery at the pamphlet launch and I really enjoyed reading his pamphlet once I got home.

The poem I’ve chosen, Sound Engineer, is one I love firstly because of its sure footedness.  It tells you exactly where to breathe because of the line breaks – it is like reading a musical score.  It’s an interesting subject for a poem as well and I love how it succeeds in making the voice a physical object that can be manipulated and changed, snipped and cut.  It also draws attention to the things that surround our speech and our words, the swallows, glottal lumps, the ‘tiny puff’ of a sigh.  Maybe this is why it is so easy to fall in love with poems – on the page or spoken aloud, if they are read well, there is no room for any of these vocal sounds.

The contrast between the two people in the poem is very marked as well.  The Sound Engineer is a ‘language beautician’, a ‘word surgeon’, whereas the owner of the voice has ‘ugly glottal lumps’ and ‘noisy swallows’, ‘gristly blurts and mishaps’.  By the end of the poem, the speaker has been transformed ‘speaking like an angel’ but the poem finishes with that striking image of the feet of the sound engineer, surrounded by the ‘phonic fragments’ of his voice.  I might have just been reading too much of Ovid’s Metamorphoses recently, but there is something in this poem that reminds me of the story of Philomena, whose tongue is cut out by her sisters’ husband, but the tongue continues, almost with a life of it’s own.  There is something painful in this ending, as if getting rid of the ‘acoustic transgressions’ has removed something vital from the speaker, something important.

This poem comes from Basil’s winning pamphlet Old, published by Smith/Doorstop.  You can order the pamphlet here.  Basil sent me this lovely biography and I thought the whole thing was really interesting so I’ve left it in first person.  He says

“I was born in Cape Town and spent most of my childhood in a country pretty much devoid of books – the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana). Things have come along since then, of course. I moved to Edinburgh in 1980 (when I was just shy of 30), and I’ve been here ever since. I think that being so distant from South Africa freed me up to write poems – back there I think I’d have been strangled by the imperative to write political verse, which, much as I might wish otherwise, doesn’t suit me. I have published 2 full collections of poems, Home Truths and Older Women, both brought out by South African publishers. Old, my Smith/Doorstop pamphlet, is my first UK publication.”

Sound Engineer – Basil du Toit

She runs the magnetic spool backwards
and forwards to identify ugly glottal lumps
in the vocal tissue; finds one, snips it out
and neatly closes the gap: a noisy swallow
lies on the floor on one inch of recording –

a language beautician is at work, cutting
gristly blurts and mishaps from my delivery.
I listen in amazement as she isolates
a sigh, removes and transfers this tiny
puff – intact into a different utterance.

She directs her art to linguistic particles,
splicing morphemes and phonemes
like someone transplanting a cornea.
She’s a word surgeon, widening vowels
or punching tracheotomies into sentences.

I end up speaking like an angel, in a purified
dialect free from acoustic transgressions,
while around her feet, on snippets of tape,
inarticulate phonic fragments of my voice
continue to gulp and hiss and croak.

3 comments on “Sunday Poem – Basil du Toit

  1. Massive congratulations on the launch and thank you so much for the endorsement for my new pamphlet The cake looks amazing, as do you! Love the all black look on the band, it’s striking and stylish. The featured poem is really something special, it is a really beautiful poem. It’s right up my street.

  2. Told you it would be a good night. Wish I’d been there. Really liked reading you writing about the poem as a musical score, about breathing through (which is one of your hallmarks). And you can’t read too much of Metamorphoses. Fascinating poem. It’s so double edged…..made me think of Tony Harrison’s ‘Them and uz’, and of Caliban cursing Prospero ‘for learning me your language’. Makes me remember, cringing, how I tried to adapt to the public school RP of the chaps at university and why I quickly gave it up, afrad of losing me. Great post at the end of a great week xx

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