Tag Archives: Medieval poetry

Poet Interview: Sarah Tolmie

Today, I’m interviewing Canadian poet, Sarah Tolmie, who hales from Kitchener, Ontario.

Tolmie

Author Sarah Tolmie writes books that tell a story through poetry

So let’s start with when were you first attracted to the written word, and especially poetry? What then inspired you to try your hand at it?

I have always loved words and started writing poetry as a child. I continued through my teens and early 20s and then went dumb as a doornail during and right after grad school, for about a decade. The academy just kills you stone dead. Eventually I recovered, by my early 30s, after my kids were born. One of my earliest memories is reading bits of {John} Skelton’s “Philip Sparrow” in an old university textbook of my mother’s (those old Penguin paperbacks, orange and white) when I was about nine — it’s in late Middle English so it made very little sense to me, but I thought it was utterly magical. So I thought poetry was a secret language, a code. I was very disappointed to realize soon after that many poems were written in ordinary language … I got over this in time, though I still retain a love for Middle English (which became my professional field) and its kookiness and playfulness and weird spellings. A lot of inspiration for my work comes from very early poetry.

You mentioned that Middle English became your profession? It sounds like your love of Middle English is important. What styles of poetry do you write or have you explored? Would you say it informs the structure of your poems or the content, or both?

Tolmie cover

Published through McGill-Queen’s University Press.

I have an MA in medieval studies from Toronto and PhD from Cambridge, yes. In my other life I teach at UW {U of Waterloo}. When I was young I wrote free verse, but since I started writing again as an adult I have been much more interested in formal verse. My first book, Trio, in 2015, with MQUP {McGill-Queen’s University Press}, was a sequence of 120 sonnets that told a story about a love triangle of sorts, with a female narrator. Syntax and vocabulary were modern and they were pretty colloquial (to avoid what I call the “prithee varlet” problem) but I found the constraints of the form very empowering. They fractured and sped up the narrative. It took a while to shed the form, though—I wrote hundreds of sonnets—which can be a downside. Everything I wrote turned into one for months afterward.

Tomie My new book, The Art of Dying, which MQUP just published in 2018, is an ars moriendi, a how-to-die manual (a medieval form) updated for today. It’s a satire about our contemporary death rituals and euphemisms and general evasive strategies. It’s mostly in triplets, though not exclusively, and was written consecutively, as a whole book that looks at one topic from many different perspectives. That’s one thing I’ve learned: I write books. I am rarely a one-off person. I do actually want my poems to tell a story; this is likely the influence of the medieval poets I spend my time teaching; they wrote long poems. It’s also true that I didn’t come back to poetry until after I had written my first novel (in which there was a poet character who mostly worked in received forms, I now realize).

Is there any current writer whose poetry inspires you and why?

The poets who have exerted most influence on me are Langland, Chaucer and Donne. The stuff I am writing now is more satirical and aphoristic and kind of recalls AE Housman, Auden or even Pope. In terms of people who are actually alive, I am a huge fan of Carol Ann Duffy. She has done great things for poetry today. I also like Ann Carson, who just goes her own way, period. I admire Carolyn Smart, who also writes whole books, with characters, thematically connected: at least she did in Hooked and Careen.

Wow! I just learned a few things about medieval poetry. 🙂 Would you consider that your poetry falls into the genre of speculative (SF, F, H) or would you say it spans any specific category? I’ve noticed poetry in general does not get as pegged in a genre hole as spec fiction does. Do you see any significant difference between poetry that might be in a genre magazine (StarLine, OnSpec, Grievous Angel, etc.) and that published in a literary journal?

I have trouble getting spec poetry in focus per se. I think it is a lot to do with how the poets themselves identify professionally; I have seen poems in non-genre venues that would fit in the genre magazines you name, and vice versa. Spec poetry is more committed to the fantastic, perhaps. But look at Sandra Kasturi, say—she could publish anywhere.

What would be your one piece of advice for poets?

My one piece of advice for poets is: don’t quit your day job. Not only because you would starve, but because other expertise is really valuable, if not absolutely necessary. Look how many poets are (or have been) doctors or bureaucrats or scientists or athletes or whatever. This is true even of academics, because while it is true that people like me teach and research on literature, what we do at work has nothing to do with writing poetry at all. It is actually antithetical to it.

Do you have any other projects in the works that you’d like to mention?

My current project is a bitchy satirical book called Confirmation Bias. In tone and technique it is rather continuous with The Art of Dying, but on a different topic—this endless human problem of finding what we expect to find in all walks of life, and endlessly choosing people and groups who will support our view. I am promoting and doing readings from The Art of Dying now, and have a few dates indicated on my website (sarahtolmie.ca)—plus am entirely open to doing more, if other poets or communities are interested!

From The Art of Dying: 

Why can’t I hire a death coach?
Surely death is still in growth.

Murderers practice what they preach,
Though their instructions may be brief.

Men in armies must discuss how fatal wounds
Are not just given but received.

Torturers may use the word and do the deed
Though it is not death, but pain, that is their speciality.

Hospice workers, nurses in palliative care,
Practically help us to prepare.

Churches insist it’s not death, anyway.
Perhaps this is my opportunity.

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