Sarah Tolmie is an associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo. Her poetry collection, Trio, was shortlisted for the 2016 Pat Lowther Award. She is a medievalist trained at the University of Toronto and University of Cambridge.
Her latest book, The Art of Dying, is on the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize Canadian shortlist.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was a novel, The Stone Boatmen. It kept me from going mad during the tenure process, by giving all the extra, ungovernable thoughts that would not fit into academic writing somewhere to go. I wrote it mostly on the bus to and from Toronto and Waterloo. The book languished for a while, while I myself had a horrible depressive episode; then it was saved by Ursula Le Guin, my personal culture hero, to whom I had sent it in despair, saying quite truthfully that she was my ideal reader, and that if only she read it, I would be content. Her amazing and generous response to this was utterly transformative, really a saving grace. I went on to write three more books of fiction (one, The Little Animals, just coming out now), and reinvented myself as a poet. I had written a lot of poetry as an undergrad, published in all the U of T magazines and so on. I was even shortlisted at CBC (for the first and only time). But all that fell apart in grad school. I thought it was gone. But it gradually came back, and I began to write sonnets like a crazy person, which led to the 2015 publication of Trio (and a very tiring editing job for Carolyn Smart, as there were about 400 of the things; we got it down to 120). Then I was in sonnet recovery for a time – but the formal experimentation there led to The Art of Dying collection nonetheless. One thing I will say is it’s a lot funnier.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to poetry first as a young person. I liked the speed and the wit. I also couldn’t sustain longer narrative, though I did try. Fiction experiments were hopeless, though I wrote a couple of plays that were okay. Then the whole creative thing dried up for almost 15 years, and came back with a vengeance, most unexpectedly, via these long meditative prose narratives, and then to poetry again. So I do think of fiction and poetry as two sides of a coin, profoundly interrelated. The tempo of composition is very different, though.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I don’t take notes. Ever. Or do outlines or plans. I think this a reaction against the processes of academic writing. It all happens organically. At a certain point I sit down and begin to write, usually about some single small observation or idea, and then the next thing follows. In prose, I think strictly about sentences, and then paragraphs: those are the units. In poetry, it tends to be the whole (fairly short) poem. Then the next one is a variation on it or reaction to it, often an adversarial one, and so it proceeds like a conversation or an argument. Certainly The Art of Dying is like that. It’s also true of my current book, Confirmation Bias, which is similar in style.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Both my poetry books were books from the get-go, very deliberately. I wanted them to be long and interconnected, and to have characters, story, and a main idea. Love. Death. Big accessible ones readers can get a grip on.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy them, though they make me nervous. I do spend half my life as a literature professor speaking to mid-size groups and reading poetry aloud so it shouldn’t be that alarming. But of course it is; it’s very different to read your own work. Much more exposed. I would not say they have been highly related to my creative process; they tend to be after-the-fact. I don’t read much work in progress. I’m too busy writing.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
My books are very idea-heavy. Some people lead with character or voice, some with sound, some with drama or topicality. The Icelandic writer Andri Snaer Magnason said in a seminar I attended that he wanted his books to be like vodka as opposed to wine, in terms of ideas per cc. Or they just turned out that way. Mine, too. Trio was about how women are positioned in love poetry and in dancing, and about what it is to achieve and relinquish mastery of something. The present book is about contemporary secular ways of dying, and talking about death. All in all, most of my books revolve around rituals, with which I am obsessed. Examining rituals – which occur everywhere, all the time, not just in religious contexts – and exploring what ideas they articulate, and how, is fundamentally what I do. I am an anthropologist manqué. This does not tie me down to a set of topics, but a mode of observing, one that can be both charitable and critical. Rituals are how we make sense of things, and share them. Those processes are precious to me however I encounter them. I have no idea what the current questions are. Nor am I sure who could identify them. One thing my training as a medievalist has given me is a sense that clarity about the big questions of any period emerges only in retrospect. I take a very, very long view. This gets me out of competing for relevance. I am supposed to do that all the time as an academic and it is exhausting and pointless.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of a creative writer is to speak the truth. There are almost no other venues in which we can do so.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have had very useful relationships with several editors, ones that greatly improved the books in question. Timmi Duchamp of Aqueduct Press kicked my ass around for slack pacing and mixed verb tenses in my first novel, to lasting effect on my style; Carolyn Smart read huge numbers of poems, three-quarters of which we cut, for Trio. And Ursula Le Guin had some brief and pointed things to say about The Little Animals, which she blurbed for me before she died: I fixed them immediately. And I dedicated the book to her.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A friend in high school – I think he was quoting someone else, possibly his dad – said “the trick in life is just to keep on making noises.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
It took a while; I couldn’t do it till I was 35, after my kids were born. But now it’s easy. I always have at least one poetry project and at least one prose project on the go, and I use each one as relief from the other.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I have no routine. I write everywhere, all the time, in long or short bursts, as I can. I am not precious about it. I have other responsibilities, too.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Sometimes I just let it stall. If it stalls too long, let it die. The one time I really had to force the issue – for a book that had just flatlined, and I had received big grants for it and everything, so I was consumed with guilt – I went away. For two weeks, to a hot place with a beach, where I could swim. Water is helpful. I swore I would come back with a working book, or kill the project and refund the money. I worked 10-hour days, and came back with an MS I could tolerate. That is the exception, though; any other time I would just switch to a different project, usually cross-genre. I fight the urge to take refuge in comfort books that I’ve read a million times, or, if I do, I just admit I’m fallow and just resting. I have to give up and watch Netflix series for a while. That does happen. It’s not inspiration I need. It’s rest. My head is always full of ideas. The trick is managing the energy to get them across. Any depressive will say the same.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Curry spices and hyacinths.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Dance has been big for me. I practiced contact improvisation intensively for a while and it was really game-changing. Loosened me up in every conceivable way. I am also very interested in both science, especially early, anecdotal science, and in painting. My dad is a visual artist, so I grew up with that side of things; I studied art history for a while. I’ve always wanted to take courses in sculpture. Maybe that can be the next thing … I tend to need a thing. I’m very big on propping up one form or practice with another. The Little Animals book (sorry, it’s very much in my head just now) is about the 17th century Dutch microscopist Leeuwenhoek and his weird encounter with a goose girl who can hear microbes: natural philosophy versus magical thinking. Or not, as it turns out, versus, as they share the same premodern world. But that book came out of an old idea – from my teens – reactivated by studying contemporary cognitive poetics. So scholarship has its place, too, for me.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Ursula Le Guin. Tom Waits. George Eliot. Wittgenstein. Pam Mordecai. Auden. Chaucer. William Langland (or whoever), who wrote Piers Plowman, still the book that has exercised the greatest effect on me and my writing life. Many Middle English and early modern authors. My trade is reading them professionally. I consider myself a spokesperson for them, for the work of the dead, who wrote in languages now inaccessible to us. It is my duty to keep them alive, because they were brilliant.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a screenplay. Or, a successful screenplay, let us say. One that reaches production, eventually, in whatever form …
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would be an anthropologist. I have no idea what I could have been other than a writer, though, truthfully. Except an academic. I love old things, and I wanted a steady income. There’s nothing like living with an artist in youth to put the fear of God into you about financial security. Not that there is any now if you are seeking to enter that profession.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I can do it.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last two great books I read, and I feel stupid for not reading them before, are Middlemarch and The Master and Margarita. The movie would have to be Kore-Eda’s Shoplifters. I have also really enjoyed Brit Marling’s series The OA.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I am most of the way though a poetry collection called Confirmation Bias, which is about that perennial problem: humans need communities to thrive, but we tend to form communities only of people who agree with us. Likely done by fall. I have a sequel to The Stone Boatmen back-burnered, and possibly a historical novel about the insanity of Thomas Hoccleve, a 15th-century poet and bureaucrat. But that one keeps winking in and out of existence so I can’t yet say. I have a screenplay that got to the second round at the Sundance screenwriting workshop – I think I have to totally re-do it now. That will require mentoring, I expect. Really new forms always do. Plus I am just beginning to produce my fiction for audiobook, starting with the short story collection NoFood, and then moving on to the Leeuwenhoek book to coincide with its release (more or less). It is weird and wonderful to hear auditions of other people reading your work. Truly bizarre, and kind of embarrassing. It makes me squirm every time. But I keep doing it.