Sheri-D Wilson enters a dreamless world with epic dystopian poem

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Sheri-D Wilson’s epic poem, The Oneironaut ∅1, has unusual origins.

The poet, spoken-word artist and playwright traces its beginnings back to 2019 when the Order of Canada recipient was nearing the end of her tenure as Calgary’s poet laureate. A group of precision oncologists were holding a conference in the city and since the acronym for Precision Oncology Experimental Therapeutics is POET they thought it would be a hoot to have one write and perform something for them. Initially, Wilson declined.

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“They are really high-thinkers, we’re talking the smartest people on earth,” says Wilson. “They were like ‘Will you write a poem about us?’ I said ‘Absolutely not. I can’t even imagine anything with it. In fact, I don’t even have the brain capacity to do that. I can generally say what you do, but I can’t really get into that because you are the brainiacs of the universe and you’re bringing all of the brainiacs from all over the world for this convention in Calgary.”

“But I said ‘I could write about this thing that I’ve been really thinking about … ‘”

So she delivered this relatively benign piece – at least compared to what it would become – about dream healing. An Oneironaut is a person who explores dream worlds. It kicked off what she describes as a six-year obsession for writing epic poems, which will eventually be spaced out over three volumes. The first, The Oneironaut ∅1, establishes a dystopian premise for the sprawling, narrative poem. The main speculation is imagining a world where people cannot dream. The main character, Rain, is a scientist who becomes involved with The Willows, a rebellion group that opposes the totalitarian “Bureau.” The Bureau forces citizens to take a “Metanoia pill” that renders them dreamless. When Rain stops taking it, she wakes up to her dystopian surroundings.

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Not unlike author and fellow poet Margaret Atwood, Wilson prefers the term speculative to science fiction. Nevertheless, The Oneironaut shares some obvious hallmarks with the sci-fi genre. It uses a dystopian backdrop to examine urgent issues that should resonate with today’s readers, offering a cautionary tale about surveillance and extremism.

Initially, Wilson didn’t introduce the dystopian elements to the tale. She was preoccupied with the dream themes at first. When the pandemic lockdowns came, she found herself able to focus on this tale, which began to evolve. After she delivered her well-received poem to those oncologists, she went home and worked all night and, for the most part, didn’t stop.

“I was inspired for many years to take on that subject and then COVID struck and I didn’t have to go anywhere or see anyone or even talk to people,” says Wilson. “It was really the best time on earth for me. I just sat down in my room alone and the story came. I just sat down and went crazy.”

Wilson eventually realized it was becoming like nothing she had ever written before. In terms of form, it owed much to the Greek epic poem. She read more modern takes on the epic poem, including the work of Anne Carson and Anne Waldman. It’s not as if Wilson has avoided timely and urgent subject matter in the past. She has written 13 books, shot four short films and released three words-and-music albums. Her work has covered issues of social justice, lost languages and violence. In 2019, she was appointed to the Order of Canada for her leadership in the spoken-word community.

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But this was something different.

“Well into writing it, when I had the whole story written, I woke up and suddenly had the whole dystopian world of it,” she says. “I hadn’t seen that before. It was all about healing before. It was kind of a nice story and I suddenly woke up and it was … darkness! I hadn’t written really seriously evil characters and that whole side of the world, that totalitarian side of the world, that really shook up the healers. I started that day from the beginning again and rewrote the whole thing with a dark side.”

It had a huge impact on Wilson as a writer. “I think it reordered my molecules inside my body,” which she found both “devastating and inspiring.’”

Eventually, Wilson and her publisher, Write Bloody North, realized the form and sweeping narrative of this project would not be contained in one volume. The Oneironaut ∅2 and The Oneironaut ∅3 will be released later.

Not surprisingly, not only is this uncharted territory for Wilson, but seemingly a ground-breaking literary hybrid in general.

“I’m sure there is an epic poem out there somewhere that is speculative poetry, but I haven’t found it,” she says. “It’s not really an acknowledged genre yet. You start exploring just within your own voice. I didn’t say ‘Oh, let’s create something new in any way.’ I just wanted to do this because I don’t write fiction, I don’t write in that form, I write poetry. But I want to write in that genre. So it just happened. It wasn’t until the whole book was written that I said ‘What is this?’”

The Oneironaut is now available from Write Bloody North. 

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