Claudine Toutoungi

- United Kingdom -

Claudine Toutoungi is an award-winning playwright and poet. Her first collection Smoothie (Carcanet, 2017) received warm reviews and was followed by Two Tongues (Carcanet, 2020), a surreal exploration of the dislocations of modern life, that won the Ledbury Munthe poetry prize in 2021 and an Authors’ Foundation award. Her poetry has appeared widely in the UK and abroad in such publications as Poetry, Poetry Review, PN Review, the Guardian, the Spectator, the New Statesman, the Financial Times and her many live poetry contributions to festivals include Tongue Fu, Poetry East, the National Theatre River Stage, Kendal Festival, Ledbury Festival and appearances on BBC Radio 4.


Claudine’s plays Bit Part and Slipping ran at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2014, following Slipping’sselection for New York’s Lark Play Centre’s international HotINK series. A bittersweet drama about a relationship sparked in an ocular prosthetics clinic, Claudine’s adaptation of Slipping for Radio 4 was a 2015 BBC Audio Drama Awards finalist in three categories. Her dramas for BBC Radio 4 include Deliverers, Home Front, The Inheritors and multiple dramatisations of work by writers such as Delphine de Vigan and Mira Hamermesh.

Claudine Toutoungi grew up in Warwickshire and studied English and French at Trinity College, Oxford University. After a Master’s at Goldsmiths, she trained as an actor at LAMDA and worked as a BBC Radio Drama producer and English Teacher. As a dramatist, her plays Bit Part and Slipping have been produced by the Stephen Joseph Theatre. She lives in Cambridge. Two Tongues, published in 2021 by Carcanet, was the winner of the Ledbury Munthe Prize for Second Collections in 2021. Of Two Tongues, Steve Whitaker of the Yorkshire Times, says “Toutoungi’s poems are a blistering hail of words, a ravening, gathering storm of sound and meaning that insinuate themselves into every receptor… her latest collection is overwhelming, leaving the reader aghast at her lexical brilliance”. Smoothie, Toutoungi’s debut collection, published in 2017, laid the foundation of “lexical brilliance” Two Tongues developed. Of Smoothie, Claire Trevien of Poetry London said: “Smoothie is a jet of multilingual exuberance…this is, in many ways, what you want from a debut collection: a willingness to experiment with tones and voices, and the promise of deeper excavations in the future.”


Two Tongues satisfies that promise of deeper excavation. The title –– which is sonically related to the author’s last name –– is, as Toutoungi explains in various appearances, a shade of falsehood. Two Tongues contains various languages: English, smatterings of French, fractions of Hungarian, German, Arabic, and Spanish. Toutoungi’s poems destabilize: languages other than English veer in like cars emerging from blind spots. Where other poets set up scenes by describing architecture, the physical specificities of place, Toutoungi suggests place through the tongue:


J’admire votre hérisson
you tell the woman in the artisanal cake shop
because it isn’t every day you see a chocolate-sculpted


(“The Marmots are Suffocating”)


The collection struts inside of fragmentation, at times melancholy, at times ecstatic. With Toutoungi having trained as an actor and dramatist, I can’t help but feel that each poem begins, not in the oft necessary silence between the title and the first line, but rather with stage-lights flashing on, the scene having been reset in complete darkness, the speaker in another position, dressed in a different costume and language altogether. But the dramatic monologue, –– which many of the poems could be read as –– yes,  proceeds through psychological association of the speaker, but, in Toutoungi’s craft, does not require the typical restraints of grammar and syntax. In “There are Mushrooms in the Gallery”, a poem composed primarily of monostiches, Toutoungi is at her most compelling, as it creates its own micro-form through repetition:


there are mushrooms in the gallery 

lion’s mane                   oyster

and whilst the artist’s project may be to provoke reflection upon

impermanence and friability 

the curator would urge you to remember that

there are mushrooms in the gallery


And later:


also expressions of racist and homophobic views which the curator is at

pains to point out

do not reflect the ethos of the gallery


Toutoungi’s idiosyncrasy evokes the “crystalline jumble” Ashberry remarks of Rimbaud’s Illuminations. Refraction could be one goal of the poems, as opposed to reflection, a tidy reflection of the poet’s psyche. The opening poem of Two Tongues “Rift” almost seems to give a treatise on how to continue reading the collection. In seven pliant lines of autumnal, almost pastoral, imagery, the speaker terminates the poem: “Nothing more incomprehensible than that, / nothing more consoling.” It’s almost as if, after being handed “sunlight on bare arms”, “marauding ducks, and “sheep [wearing] serious faces”, we are asked to rest our senses which might reach towards the ‘certain’, the ‘beautiful’, the ‘there’, and find consolation in the incomprehensible. I don’t think incomprehensible, in Toutoungi’s work, means impenetrable, but perhaps, another mode of understanding may need to rise. Perhaps we may need to default to the ear. Toutoungi’s sonic richness and variety recall English poet Geoffrey Hill, restless in their colliding of vowel sounds and often devoid of rhythmic function words:


I am taking up a new position

spreadeagled on the shingle


welded by the half-baked

sun to the earth’s crust, a 


washed-up starfish

draggled with bladderwack


(several suppurating encrustations

microscopically concealed)




Many poems contain behemoth words. In Two Tongues you’ll find words like “appoggiatura”, “dipsomaniac”, and “obstreperous”; in Smoothie, “crenellate” and “supra-ventricular”. There’s a way in which these kinds of words, in the context of Toutoungi’s poems, do not obfuscate but rather dazzle, often making even English feel like a second tongue (it’s a known fact that native English speakers use very little percentage of the full lexicon).


It's easy to relay logics that are unconventional to the logic of dreams, but to remark on Toutoungi’s two collections as solely surreal doesn’t quite fit. These poems leave a real impression, however much they may seem to arise from some nether region; perhaps this nether region is identity, persistence, or, just the composite static that sits behind any life. As Peter Pegnall in Ploughshares said of Smoothie, “There is a real danger and exhilaration here and a kind of excoriating honesty”. Smoothie begins with a declaration of wanting to be noticed, but it's Toutoungi’s acute ability to notice, document, contradict, and collate that is entirely noticeable and lastingly noteworthy.