Celebrating our 2020 Ockham Poets: A Q&A with Steven Toussaint

Steven Toussaint is the author of Lay Studies (VUP, 2019), which was shortlisted for the Mary and Peter Biggs Poetry Prize at the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. He has been recognised in the past few years by residencies at The University of Waikato and the Michael King Writers' Centre and with a Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship. He currently lives in Cambridge, England where he is pursuing studies in philosophical theology.

1) How do you think social media has changed the way people read, watch, listen to and/or discuss poetry?

I am suspicious of the role that social media has come to play in the economy of poetry, but I admit that my feelings are inconsistent. Yes, Facebook and Twitter are incredibly efficient tools to announce and promote new writing. I have a Facebook account and occasionally dip into Twitter. But the quality of literary discussion that appears on these sites seems rarely to transcend the ‘hot take’, the ‘pile-on’, or some form of exhibitionism, whether pious, preening, or maudlin. Close reading, genuine insight, and rhetorical responsibility seem in short supply. Whether this is a built-in limitation of these technologies, I don’t know. Mostly, I see social media as a vice—perhaps a necessary vice. Or as a glorified noticeboard. I’m not persuaded by arguments to the effect that social media has opened up some new, radically democratic frontier of poetic discourse—as if distraction and vanity could serve as a sturdy basis for anything.

2) Has the COVID-19 lockdown (in NZ or the UK) had an impact on the way you work – and what you’re writing?

I am in the UK, where since October I have been conducting doctoral research on the Renaissance philosopher Nicholas of Cusa and have had little time to work on new poems. One of the unforeseen pleasures of lockdown has been that it has allowed me to return to a discipline of writing each morning—just inching poems forward, line by line. I give myself an hour. If the work is lousy, I have only lost an hour. If it is more fruitful, I can ride that good energy into the day’s other pursuits. I have been working on a sequence of satirical poems in rhymed quatrains, inspired by the centenary of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and T.S. Eliot’s Poems. They are full of dread but hopefully not dreadful.

3) How would you describe your kaupapa as a poet?

My theological commitments are liberally Catholic, which means that I take the doctrine of apostolic succession seriously. Likewise, I believe that poetic authority is transmitted down the ages through multiple, interwoven, and branching lines of influence. At times, these vectors of transmission have taken the form of sequential master-apprentice relationships. But perhaps more often, one discovers the work of a contemporary poet, is struck dumb by some mysterious power in their words, and apprentices oneself to studying the nature of that power and how to carry it forward. For the most determined apprentices, this will necessitate becoming genealogists of a kind. As is probably clear, I place a lot of stock in “tradition”—from the Latin traditio, “to hand down.” I tend to gravitate to poets who demonstrate a profound sense of the ultimately derivative nature of what we do, poets who converse with their adopted lineage(s). I don’t believe that one tradition rules them all. Neither do I believe in fawning nostalgically over past masters. To take tradition seriously, one has to put it to trial. Traditio also meant “to surrender, to hand over.” Tradition shares a root with treason—the gravest of mortal sins, according to Dante. I would express my poetic kaupapain the tension between these different definitions.

4) How does your shortlisted book reflect, redefine or depart from the concerns and subjects of your previous work?

My first collection, The Bellfounder, was apprentice-work in the ways I tried to describe above. The bellfounder of the title is Boriska, a character in Andrey Tarkovsky’s cinematic masterpiece Andrei Rublev. Boriska’s father, an expert bellfounder, has died of plague. But the local prince requires a new bell for his church. Boriska, on the brink of starvation, lies to the prince’s men, assuring them that his father handed down the secrets of his art before his death. He then bluffs his way through the arduous process of selecting the choicest clays, constructing a mould inside an immense earthen pit, and firing and casting the bronze. Should the bell fail to ring loud and true, Boriska and the workers in his charge will be beheaded. The stakes of writing my first book were far lower. The poems are, in the main, imitative—attempts to repeat non-identically the prosodic techniques of poets I admire. Lay Studies was built on that groundwork. But I’d like to think that I have developed my own technical instincts. The subject matter is more personal but also more esoteric. The poems follow my return to the Church after many years of fidgety gnosticism, my marriage and domestic life, the expatriate’s ambivalent sense of citizenship and home. Many of the topoi and allusions in the poems are the result of studies, at first amateur and then formal, in philosophical theology. The concept of study is important to the collection and to my poetics in general—the book is the confession of a perpetual student.

5)What contemporary poets are you reading right now?Poetry collections on your bedside table?

In the first days of lockdown, I happily received Craig Foltz’s new collection, Locals Only, by post. The book is an expatriate American’s travel log through both remote and familiar locations in Aotearoa, but written in a disjunctive lyric of quick glimpses, incongruous diction, and wild leaps of non sequitur. It soothes my homesickness for NZ. Two of my favourite American poets published new books in the last year: Peter O’Leary’s Earth is Best and Devin Johnston’s Mosses and Lichens. Both poets stick their hands into the humus, all the way up to the wrists. James Brookes’s Spoils, Rebecca Watts’s The Met Office Advises Caution, and Angela Leighton’s Spills have been in rotation on my desk. When Edward Kamau Brathwaite died in February, I began working my way through The Arrivants, which had regrettably stood unopened on my shelf for a few years. A little couplet from the first book of the trilogy says it all: “Ease/ up, Lord.”

6) What role do you see for celebrations of poetry like Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day?

One of the first things that struck me when I moved to New Zealand in 2011 was how crucial the National Poetry Day readings and events are to energising local poetry scenes. It’s a proper holiday. One gets to see old friends, the different generations meet and pay their respects, and everywhere a spirit of festivity and ritual pervades. Having co-organised the “All Tomorrow’s Poets” reading back in 2014 with my friends Gregory Kan and Jenna Todd, I can attest to the simple pleasure of squeezing a bunch of poets and readers in a little room together, drinking too much, and carrying on. I met some of my favourite Auckland poets that night. Maybe I’m feeling particularly sentimental because that kind of shoulder-to-shoulder, jam-packed reading seems like a pre-COVID phenomenon, one that Zoom, despite the best intentions, will never be able to replicate. I will miss listening to New Zealand poets in a crowded room this year.