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Aqueduct Press
PO Box 95787
Seattle, WA 98145-2787
Sarah Tolmie

Sarah Tolmie

I wrote my first novel on the bus. I doubt I am the first to do so, but maybe I'll be the first to put the drivers on the Toronto-Waterloo corridor along the 401 in my acknowledgements. They deserve it. They provided a 130-km-per-hour zen decompression zone and moving think tank twice a week for me from 2005 to 2007. I wrote the whole first draft of The Stone Boatmen in hour-and-a-half installments during my commute to work, usually in the dark, time for which I was profoundly grateful between trying to get tenure and having two toddlers 17 months apart. The meditative exercise of those hours — during which I resolutely denied that I was writing a novel, but merely a series of paragraphs one after the other — provided a vital zone of freedom. It also allowed me to answer a question that had grown quietly inside me during more than a decade spent studying and teaching medieval dream poetry, namely: what would it actually feel like to live through a renaissance? When things sufficiently new were happening that there were not even words for them? There was something about that warm darkened fishbowl of the bus — it seemed to be eternally raining, I recall — that dropped me instantly into the always unfinished world that I was writing. I treated each paragraph as a question, and answered each one separately. By the time I sat down again, 72 hours later or more, without having thought consciously about it at all in the interim, there would be another one waiting. It was amazing. I was able to write a 200-page novel, then a collection of short fiction, and then a short-short collection, without ever having to look directly at the whole of any project, only a screen-full at a time. It was as if the bus eliminated peripheral vision and left only the road ahead. If I had tried to imagine what I was doing as a serious, connected task — as more responsibility — I would have choked. I had always been a speculative fiction reader, and up until grad school a fairly committed poet and occasional playwright, but had never been able to write prose of any sustained length. Therefore I simply told myself I was not doing so and got on with it edgewise. I’ve always loved paradoxes.

I'm an Associate Professor in the English department at the University of Waterloo. I did a PhD in medieval literature at Cambridge after two degrees at the University of Toronto. I held brief contract jobs at Harvard and started teaching at UW in 2000, where I teach medieval and renaissance literature, general British literature, and now, creative writing. I publish on the bizarre late medieval visionary poem Piers Plowman and its relations to logic and language and have been developing a virtual reality translation of the text — what I call a “wearable poem” that the reader walks into via a head-mounted display — called the Salvation Suit, since 2009. This technological experiment has led to several other research-creation projects, among them building an augmented reality angel out of a human dancer and a pair of dynamically-responsive virtual wings, and making a whispering gallery of voices saying “goodbye” with a Kinect, an interactive theatre piece about mourning.

These projects create links between movement and proprioception — the body's sense of itself and its limits in space — and narrative and poetic structures and pathways. As such they are deeply related to my recently discovered passion for the dance form known as contact improvisation. I began studying contact improv in 2009 and have since become a member of the Kitchener collective Friends of the Floor Dance Theatre, dancing in and concept designing a series of shows with and for them over the last three years. I have wanted to be a dancer all my life but was hampered by a complete inability to tell left from right or to follow choreography. (May I say, if this describes you, contact improvisation is your form?) If you had told me three years ago that I would be dancing professionally, in public, I would have laughed or had a panic attack. I have brought the practice increasingly into my research and teaching, especially in creative writing, and co-founded the Raw Nerve Research Group in 2011, a team of three researcher/dancers (an engineer, a computer scientist, and me) who lead participatory workshops helping people understand complex interactions through movement. Writing and dancing came together most concretely in October 2012, when I got a grant from the Ontario Arts Council to complete a dance-related sonnet sequence called Trio. This project, too, began with a single short work: one sonnet, a 14-line experiment in a retro form. And then another, and another, always looking the other way. Now it’s 450 sonnets and counting. I guess I have to face up to fact that it’s a book now. Just like I did when Timmi agreed to publish The Stone Boatmen. It was such a great surprise.

The Stone Boatmen NoFood Two Travelers