Joanne Epp [photo credit: Anthony Mark Schellenberg] has published poetry in literary journals, including The New Quarterly, The Antigonish Review, and CV2; her work appears in Lemon Hound's New Winnipeg Poets folio. Her chapbook, Crossings, was released in 2012. Eigenheim, her first full-length poetry collection, was published by Turnstone Press in 2015. Born and raised in Saskatchewan, she spent several years in Ontario and now makes her home in Winnipeg.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Having my first book accepted by Turnstone Press felt like a really big validation of my writing. I’d been writing a long time, and had become quite involved in the local writing community, but even though I already knew I was a real writer, having the book published still changed things.
The publishing process confirmed what I’d experienced a few years earlier, when I self-published a chapbook: while writing itself is solitary, putting a book out is a collaborative process. I’ve been grateful that I’m able to work with people who are skilled in things like design and marketing, about which I know little.
My recent work continues along earlier themes, but takes them in different directions. I’m still exploring the idea of home, which forms a prominent thread in Eigenheim, but also taking home as a given, a place or state of mind from which to move outward, and focusing more generally on landscape and place. Time has become a more frequent motif—or maybe I am just more conscious of it now. And I recently got a taste of ekphrastic writing, and found it quite stimulating.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I think I’ve always been attracted to the compactness of poetry, compared to prose. Years ago I made a couple of half-baked attempts at fiction, but ran into dead ends very quickly. Fiction seemed to require so very many words just to get from one thing to the next, and I became overwhelmed and impatient at the prospect.
Poetry was always a familiar thing. We had books of children’s poetry at home, and memorized poems at school. And I still have a book my aunt gave me for my ninth birthday called The Enchanted Land: Canadian Poetry for Young Readers. It contains both formal and free verse, and was probably where I first saw unrhymed poetry. I must have read it thoroughly; so many of its poems feel like I’ve always known them.
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?
A poem tends to go through several versions before it feels settled, although the general shape of the finished piece may be discernible in the first draft. I usually set a poem aside between revisions and let it sit for several months while I work on other things. The result is that a series of poems can take years to develop. I have several in progress at the moment, most of which started out as single poems and expanded as I kept discovering more angles on the subject.
There are a few poems in Eigenheim that I had to take apart and rebuild a few times before they really worked. Then there are the rare ones that emerged fully formed and required very little revision. But there’s only been two or three of those, ever.
4 - Where does a poem 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?
Besides working on series, I also write individual pieces that aren’t deliberately connected to anything else. In any case, a poem begins with something concrete, with an image or incident or sound. I generally can’t start with an idea, unless I’ve got something concrete and particular to anchor it.
Eigenheim wasn’t conceived as a book from the beginning; when I started putting it together it was a collection of most of what I’d written up to that point. Then I had to find where the connecting threads were and determine what did and didn’t fit. The manuscript I’m working on now has a more deliberate structure—although there, too, it began as a discovery that the various series I was working on had some things in common.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like doing readings. They can be part of my creative process, if I’m reading something fairly new and want to test it, but on the whole I see readings more as communication than as part of the creative process.
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?
Recently I’ve heard a number of poets talk about how they push the boundaries of poetry in different ways. And I realized what I’d probably known for a long time, that while I find what these poets do very interesting, my approach to writing poetry is not like theirs. If I have a theoretical concern it’s probably this: does lyric poetry that is, by some measures, fairly conventional, still have interesting things to say? I’m working on the assumption that the answer is yes. But at the same time I find it helpful to listen to poets who stretch my ideas of how language and poetry work.
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?
I think attentiveness is a large part, if not the main part, of a writer’s task. A writer can reflect what’s around her, reflect on what’s around her, entice readers into the unknown, make them believe in fairies—but you don’t accomplish that by thinking about your role in the larger culture; you accomplish it by doing the best writing you can.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Working with an editor is difficult in that it makes me think harder about what I’m doing, but that’s a useful kind of difficulty and one that I might avoid otherwise avoid. I have become better at editing my own work, but there comes a point when I need someone else’s eyes. Eigenheim in particular is more tightly organized and more thematically interesting thanks to my editor.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When I was in my teens my mother once told me that I should find something I loved and stick to it. (She rarely gives advice, which is probably why I still remember this.) She was thinking, I’m sure, of occupations that would earn me a living, and in that sense I have not followed her advice. But I have stuck with poetry, whatever else I was doing.
Then there’s something my organ teacher occasionally says when I ask about some detail of musical interpretation. Sometimes there are rules or conventions that apply, but at other times she simply says: “Use your ears.” This seems to me like a generally useful principle.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Writing non-fiction ends up being a form of study for me; it’s for argument, discussion, for working out ideas. I find it harder to write than poetry, where you have to be convincing but not necessarily logical, and where you can make things up if you want.
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 work in fits and starts, and am not nearly as disciplined as I’d like to be. Fortunately, I have a writing partner whom I meet with once a month (at times it’s been a group, but for now it’s just the two of us) to share new or recently-revised work. Those regular deadlines are a lifesaver.
One thing that’s remained consistent about the way I work is that I always write first drafts in longhand, and do a fair bit of editing with different coloured pens before entering anything on the computer. I think better with a pen in my hand.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Going for a walk is good. Sometimes it just clears my head; sometimes being physically in motion gets the words moving, too. At home, my favorite route goes down toward the river. When I go on a retreat (which I haven’t done in a while) I get into an alternating rhythm of writing and walking, which I find very satisfying.
I also read when I don’t know what to write. And sometimes I just keep writing: if I’m stuck for a word or phrase I write out as many possibilities as I can think of, until something works.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Poplar trees—I think it must be balsam poplars—have a scent I associate with the small towns in Saskatchewan where I grew up. You rarely see poplars in the city.
When I think of smells associated with the home where I am now, they’re all food smells. Toast, granola fresh from the oven, or the onion-and-herb aroma of soup.
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?
Nature has become an important one, I think partly because of the way I find it rewards attentiveness. The places I visit over and over become ever more familiar, and yet they keep showing me new things. Music and visual art, too, influence my work. With music it happens organically, it more or less soaks in, while with visual art it’s been more deliberate. I’ve done a little ekphrastic writing recently, mostly through workshops, and have enjoyed the way it brings forth poems I would not have expected to write.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Dorothy Sayers: her novels, for pleasure, and her plays and essays for their solid arguments and their “aha” moments. G.K. Chesterton, for the same reasons. The best of Robertson Davies’ novels, for his incisive observations of character. Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery, again for their vivid characters, and also for their close attention to the details of women’s lives and work. The sermons I hear every Sunday, which are both passionate and unfailingly literate. I keep coming back to The Enchanted Land, the anthology I mentioned earlier, as well as 20th-Century Poetry and Poetics (ed. Gary Geddes) and the anthology we used in high school, Poetry Of Our Time, in which the work of several Quebec poets stands out for me.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to learn to write formal poetry. I’d probably have to take a class or workshop, because I wouldn’t have the discipline to do that on my own.
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 once had notions of studying library science, and might still like that, as long as I got to work with actual books. I’ve been involved in music to a greater or lesser degree since I was a child, and in an alternate timeline I might have made it a bigger part of my working life.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I can’t imagine not writing. The amount of time I’ve been able to devote to it has varied quite a bit over the years, but it’s always been there, along with whatever else I was doing, whether studies or paid work or raising children.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, a novel of social class that seemed like it was going to be firmly anti-industrialist but ended up being much more nuanced. As for films—my family and I watched several by Wes Anderson recently and loved them (The Darjeeling Limited et al.). I also think Housekeeping and other films by Bill Forsyth are among the best I’ve seen.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I have a manuscript in progress—it’s been in progress for several years and I really mean to get back to it soon, but there’s also a series of poems that I want to turn into a chapbook, and I’m preoccupied with that at the moment. I also just took a class in letterpress printing and want to keep doing that.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;