Interview with Claudine Toutoungi

I talked to Claudine Toutoungi about her first full collection ‘Smoothie’ (Carcanet, 2017).

PART 1: THE POET

Paul: You have a background in acting and theatre. How did you arrive at poetry?

Claudine: There’s obviously a connection in that both genres involve a shared experience and are concerned with sound hitting the air. Growing up, I dabbled in writing poems (usually food-based for some reason) but was more of a consumer than an active participant whilst at university and drama school. Being around writers when working at BBC Radio Drama producing plays and stories was really where the itch to write my own stuff kicked in and I think – also as I went into teaching – poems were a little more manageable in terms of time-commitment than whole plays. But for me there’s not a big gap between the two genres. The best dramatic writing is poetry. The best poetry, to me, feels dramatic.

Paul: Who would you say are your writing influences, be they dramatists or poets?

Claudine: Influences-wise, I think I often return to and feel spurred on by the poems of Paul Durcan, Matthew Sweeney, Alicia Ostriker, Raymond Carver, Adélia Prado, to name a few but the list goes on and fluctuates.

Paul: As a dramatist, two of your plays (‘Bit Part’ and ‘Slipping’) were produced for the stage (at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough). What was it like seeing your writing brought to life, and are the plays connected in terms of subject matter?

Claudine: Seeing the work staged was fantastic. You learn so much by finding out what tickles your audience or stills it, or seems to make people sad. That business of airing work is the same with poetry. I never really know where I am with a poem until I’ve tested it on another pair of ears. The plays were very different. ‘Bit Part’ was a short about best friends who’ve just been extras in the film Little Voice. We encounter them before, during and after they watch the premiere and it’s about their reactions, aspirations and frustrations unleashed by the screening. ‘Slipping’ was a full-length piece about the unusual relationship between a woman about to gain a prosthetic eye and her ocularist.

Paul: Are there common themes running through both your plays and poems?

Claudine: I’m often drawn, one way or another, to characters with big dreams who have a complicated relationship with reality and who perhaps turn to fantasy or role-play or other tactics in order to survive. There are some echoes of that in the voices explored in my new collection ‘Smoothie’.

Paul: You have also written radio plays for BBC Radio. I heard the series ‘The Inheritors’ recently and it was hilarious, with such brilliant characterisation. Where do you get this obvious ear for dialogue and language as it is really spoken?

Claudine: Thank you! That’s a lovely thumbs-up also to the whole cast and crew who were such brilliant collaborators. Basically, I am quite a nosy eavesdropper. Always have been. And possibly – being of parents from Cumbria and Lebanon respectively – I heard a lot of different accents, languages and versions of English from an early age so that might have helped.

Paul: To what extent was this play about a Lebanese baking mogul and his three children in west London autobiographical?

Claudine: Not at all. My father is from the Middle East and is an excellent cook but, that aside, it really was just a huge mish-mash of influences and a light-hearted attempt to riff off (or possibly rip off) the big guns like Shakespeare and Balzac who’ve dealt so brilliantly with inter-generational inheritance angst.

Paul: Would you mind telling me a little about your name?

Claudine: Of course. My mum’s from Whitehaven, on the coast between Carlisle and Barrow, and on my father’s side there’s Lebanese, Italian and a whole lot more.  My parents met studying French at Manchester so I think that accounts, in part for my first name. Apparently when I was born, my Cumbrian grandad thought my name was Codeine and asked why I’d been named after a headache pill. Toutoungi is linked to the Turkish word for tobacco. I’m a non-smoker so unable, sadly, to cash in on this. All I can say is the term Lebanese/Cumbrian is quite rare and for some, I’ve been told, suggests an unusual breed of sheep.

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PART 2: THE BOOK

Paul: Okay, so, an obvious question. Why ‘Smoothie’ when there is no poem called ‘Smoothie’ in the book? Where does the title come from? Do you drink smoothies? Or are you smooth? Are there things you’d like to smooth over?

Claudine: There’s no poem but there is a smoothie (beverage) in ‘This Just In’ and there’s quite a few smooth talkers and smooth surfaces. I think the tension between rough/smooth runs through many of the poems, both emotionally and sculpturally. This wasn’t intentional, but it struck me after working on the collection for a while and I went with it and made it a little more deliberate. It may also have been a subliminal bid to gain a life-time’s supply of the yoghurt-based drink.

Paul: Is that your beautiful flowing handwriting on the cover (with the ‘oo’ of Smoothie like a pair of John Lennon/Harry Potter glasses)?

Claudine: No. Luke Allan at Carcanet is behind the design of the front cover but I’m not quite sure about the origins of the typeface. I wish it were my handwriting. It’s far more legible than mine.

Paul: Did you publish a pamphlet/chapbook before this first collection? Have your poems appeared in other publications?

Claudine: I’ve been publishing in magazines for a few years now and then in 2015 Michael Schmidt kindly selected my work for inclusion in New Poetries VI. Being in the anthology was extremely galvanising, not least because it put me in touch with a host of other excellent poets.

Paul: What determined the sequencing and order of poems in the book? How did you go about this process?

Claudine: It was quite a long process, in which the manuscript evolved incrementally. Things would go in, then come out, go in again. And I definitely had moments of not knowing at all which way to proceed. I’m extremely thankful for the brilliant advice I was able to take from poet friends along the way and in particular Rebecca Watts whose generous, astute insights were invaluable in shaping the book.

Paul: Ian McMillan tweeted a photo of your wonderful poem ‘Skirting’. Can you tell us where this poem came from – a particular observation, perhaps?

Claudine: I’m not sure if others share the experience of looking back at a poem after the event and genuinely having no clue how it came about. Skirting was like that. I had a few lines in my diary that had petered out. I rediscovered them after a hiatus, something clicked and I wrote out a draft. I remember feeling quite proud at having learned some technical names for roses in the Botanical Gardens near where I live and playing around with them might have triggered it all off.

Paul: On the back cover, Mark Waldron says of your book is ‘peculiarly vivid’, that it has ‘genuine wit’, ‘a lightness of touch’, ‘sophistication’ and ‘inventiveness’. Which of those compliments do you rate most, and would you like to add anything?

Claudine: All of those comments are enormously kind. Mark’s such a fantastically startling writer, whose work I much admire. To be honest I’m still not over the fact he made those remarks at all.

Paul: You have a poem called ‘The Active Ingredient’ in which you eat gender-neutral snails. What are your favourite foods? Does it include crustaceans?

Claudine: I’m not a fan of snails as a comestible, but there’s also lobster-salad in the poem, though that’s not a dish I’m familiar with. My favourite food is actually tuna. I’m not at all averse to prawns either so yes, I’ll go out on a limb and say I’m a fan of crustaceans in general, though having, as I mentioned, never tried lobster it may be more the idea of crustaceans rather than the reality that appeals.

Paul: Should a poem be active, reactive, proactive, hyperactive or radioactive?

Claudine: All of the above. Definitely.

Paul: You have a poem called ‘Edgar’s Fridge’ and in your poem ‘Machine Dreams’ your fridges fancies a sauna. I take it you like kitchens, or maybe just white goods?

Claudine: Haha, yes. Again, it’s amazing how these things only strike you once you’ve put the whole collection together, but you’re quire right. There’s a remarkable quantity of kitchen-based material in there. I’m not even a particularly good cook but I do like kitchens and a lot of the nitty-gritty of life seems to erupt there.

 

Cold

After I brought it back from the ceilidh

where the lukewarm buffet did nothing

to dispel the arctic breeze coming up

the stairs of the Guildhall, a knifing breeze

straight into the heart of the dance,

I sat down in the kitchen and let it overpower me,

glorying in it, like a child waggling its tooth loose.

You were working and I, not wanting to disturb,

let its sea mist swamp me, whoosh, ’til I sneezed

with it, enjoying the tenor of my sneeze, its spit.

Where’ve you gone and got that from? you said,

like the culprit germ was rare, fished from some antique reef.

All is well, my dear. Look. I am curing it

with this morsel of chocolate reindeer.

 

Paul: You bring in London, Rome, New York, train stations and cyberspace, Eastbourne and Poole. How important is ‘place’ for you? Is it bound up with identity or more about theatrical setting and ‘décor’?

Claudine: I think being displaced physically can bring on a poem. I went to a talk not long ago with Tara Bergin and she mentioned that she felt if she’d not left Dublin, she’d not have written. That’s obviously quite a huge statement but some element of it resonated with me. It might simply be that travelling to a different place frees you up and jerks your brain out of its usual routines. Or maybe it’s to do with momentum and the sense of being carried along by a different rhythm. But yes, certainly, I do find new locations – and getting there – whether by foot, train-ride or whatever can spark a line that then leads to another line and so on.

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Paul: Your poem ‘Travel Plans’ announces that you are thinking of going to Honduras? Did you go? If not, why not? And if you did, how was it?

Claudine: Good question. Sadly, no, I didn’t go. The weird thing about a poem like that is you create a persona who is forever hovering, forever on the brink of departure but doomed to never leave. It’s slightly terrifying. But maybe also just a lot like life.

Paul: Could you talk about your poem ‘The Swap’, a startling poem that begins with your own eye staring up at you?

Claudine: Again, it was a poem I wrote quite quickly, some years after the experience of gaining a prosthetic eye. Unhelpfully I can’t honestly remember what exactly prompted it, although I was in a workshop at the time, where we had to bring a poem along every week and something about that lent a sense of urgency to the writing. Obviously, a cosmetic eye is a strange and other-worldly thing and ripe to be written about. There’s a lot going on internally – or there was for me, when you go through the process, some of which I’d explored in my play ‘Slipping’. The difference I think in writing the poem was I got a lot of enjoyment from crafting it into couplets and playing with ideas of symmetry within the form.

Paul: You launched your book at the CB1 reading series recently, introduced by Adam Crothers. I heard you read and really felt you ‘performed’ the poems. How did it feel to launch the book to a home audience?

Claudine: Nerve-wracking, moving and thoroughly lovely. The audience was extremely warm, Mark Waldron rose to deliciously louche heights and all in all it was a grand night.

Paul: You incorporate dialogue into your poems, including the odd smattering of French and Italian. Did this seem a natural extension of writing script?

Claudine: I think I just got to a point where I was pondering the sounds and musicality of those two languages and wondering how they would sound woven in with English. For a while I resisted this, thinking it might come over as pretentious. Then I took a whole-hearted plunge and went with it. I enjoy the anarchy of a poem that reserves the right to throw anything at you, so long as it feels like it belongs there.

Paul: To what extent do you see yourself in your work? It is suggested in the inside cover that the poems are ‘candid without being confessional’ but I was wondering if you thought we could be confessional through others, by revealing of ourselves in how we depict other people in a poem?

Claudine: I think you can’t avoid a degree of self-exposure if you’re writing from a place that feels ‘meant’. I try not to over-analyse the process and go with an initial impulse, which is often the exploration of character. To quote the Smoothie blurb the pages contain – ‘hotel eavesdroppers, city interlopers, lone wolves, phantom bird-watchers, disaffected language robots and triumphant piano swallowers.’ Some of these characters grown out of a line of overheard dialogue (Mrs Schwarzkopf in ‘Sturm und Drang‘) or an anecdote about a real person (Mary Bonham Carter in The Watcher, Princess Alexandra of Bavaria in Piano Lessons for Adults). Some of them might start with a dream (as in ‘Niall’) or a memory (‘This Could Be Our Death-Scene Moment’). The urge to probe one’s own psyche must be in the mix, I suppose, but hopefully not so much it limits the poem’s potential to grow beyond those confines.

Paul: Would you say that there is a loneliness to these characters? Or are you celebrating the eccentricity that comes from isolation and heartbreak?

Claudine: Without being disingenuous I’m going to not pass judgement on my characters. I think they have the potential to stir up a range of feelings. My main hope is that they do in fact stir something up within the reader- whatever that may be.

PART 3: POETRY LIFE

Paul: When, where, how do you write?

Claudine: I eavesdrop. I steal. I write down odd names and scraps of dialogue and I have a lot of files on my computer with very random titles that seem like a good idea at the time but get discontinued. Basically, it’s a process of back-firing, overwriting, cutting, rewriting and starting all that over again. If I have a draft of something vaguely serviceable I’ll use a voice-recorder to hear it back and then change it a lot more. And then probably cut it. I like cutting. That’s probably the best bit.

Paul: Do you have a regular poetry group? Do you show your drafts to anyone?

Claudine: I’ve been in and out of workshops for most of the time I’ve lived in Cambridge- a city where there’s a lot going on poetry-wise. Currently, I’m not in a formal group but do get together with a few fellow poet friends based here as regularly as possible and that’s been a great stimulus and inspiration. I also usually do show my drafts to a few close and patient friends.

Paul: What are you working on now? Only poetry?

Claudine: I’m working on a couple of script ideas for TV and radio. That doesn’t leave too much time for poems to appear but you live in hope.

Paul: What are you currently reading and what do you think of it?

Claudine: I absolutely lapped up Tara Bergin’s ‘The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx’ which struck me as deft, soulful and constantly astonishing, so I’m looking forward to a second read. I’ve also just got hold of Natalie Shapero’s first collection ‘No Object’ having encountered several excellent poems by her in Poetry (Chicago).

Paul: Where does the poem begin?

Claudine: Usually at the most inconvenient moment when I’m dropping off to sleep or don’t have a pen or a phone to hand and then it’s all down to chance and hoping the addled cells remember it.

Paul: Is there a question I should have asked you, or that you’d love an interviewer to ask?

Claudine: No. You’ve been most comprehensive and it’s been a pleasure.

 

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