Thursday, July 16, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sarah Ens


Sarah Ens is a writer and editor whose poetry has appeared in a number of literary journals including Prairie Fire, Arc Poetry Magazine, Poetry Is Dead, and SAD Mag. In 2019, she won The New Quarterly's Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest and placed 2nd in Contemporary Verse 2's 2-Day Poem Contest. She also won 1st place in Room Magazine's 2018 Short Forms Contest. Sarah is a current MFA in Writing candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. The World Is Mostly Sky (Turnstone Press) is her first book.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book, The World Is Mostly Sky, just-just came out on April 15, 2020, so it’s a little bit hard to say exactly what its impact will be on my life going forward. I do know that all the steps up to this publication have been tremendously affirming and that I’m better able to bat way my imposter system with this book in my hands. This publication experience has also introduced me to different corners of the literary world, to so many different writers and readers, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.

I wrote the poems in The World Is Mostly Sky over a six-year span, 2013ish to 2019, and the book pulls from memories earlier than that. I feel like I had to write out all those “becoming/coming-of-age” poems first and foremost because those experiences and fixations were just immovably pervasive in all my writing. Looking ahead, I’m noticing that I’m becoming more and more interested in longer poems, or in poems that require a longer look and a broader space, rather than brief flashes into particular moments.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I think I came to poetry through music—the hymns my family sang in church, but also the CDs my dad always had playing at home: Stan Rogers, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. I always loved stories and novels as well, but I distinctly remember listening to “Case of You” over and over when I was a kid and realizing, oh, the impossible is actually possible! I felt there was a magic in those lyrics impossible to achieve in any other form. After that, I started writing poetry in my journal every day and trying my best to conjure that magic.

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?

My first-draft writing—particularly my poetry—tends to come quickly. Certain lines or images grab me, and I just try to follow them. However, the editing process can take time. Some of the poems in The World Is Mostly Sky, for example, needed all six years of revision in order to land where they wanted to be.

I love CV2’s 2-Day poem contest for this reason. It forces me to move through a draft quickly, to push myself to have an idea of what a poem wants to be sooner than I would without that time constraint.

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?

Usually, I collect short pieces as I go and it’s only much later, after a long time of gathering, that I’m able to see how they work as a cohesive project. However, I’ve always been drawn to the long-poem form and am feeling more and more compelled to write pieces that don’t seem as discrete, that tie together into something larger right from the beginning of their writing.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Public readings make me nervous, but I also love to share work and feel an immediate response from an audience. It can be almost like workshopping, if you’re reading something new—you get a sense of what is working, what is immediately resonant.

I do think it’s a special thing to give breath and voice to a poem. I love attending the readings of other poets for this reason!

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?

How can I articulate my experiences of eco-grief and trauma, and articulate them in truthful, ethical, meaningful ways? What does healing look like in a poem? Is it possible for a poem to manifest healing? What does home look like in a poem? Is it possible for a poem to manifest home? Will I always be so full of longing? How can I live in a way that is truthful, ethical, and meaningful?

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 believe writing to be about connection—about articulating an idea or an experience in a way that means something to someone else. I also think that writers have an opportunity to use their craft to call down systems of harm and to call up communities of care. I think the role of a writer should be to point at things and say, “There, look there.”

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Essential! I love working with editors. The revision process is often, of course, difficult, because the goal of creating a good poem regularly strikes me as insurmountable. But though the revision can be difficult, I am always so grateful for the expertise, guidance, and clarity editors can bestow. I think an editor is often the best reader you’ll have! 

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Tim Lilburn said to “write to the level of your best line,” which is something I continue to fail at but now always strive for. At Sage Hill, Sandra Ridley told me to “consider what a poem does to you rather than what a poem says” and also: “if you have filler, the purposeful stuff doesn’t jump out.”

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to creative non-fiction to collaboration)? What do you see as the appeal?

I think there is a lot of blend for me between the lyric essay and the prose poem. Sometimes I write poetry to work my way into an essay and sometimes an essay spills out into poems. I tend to be confessional and write lyrically regardless of the genre. And I love to collaborate with other writers/artists/musicians. I love how collaborative projects introduce me to new considerations, new forms and media, new topics, and I love how my own work becomes more fluid when I’m creating alongside other people. 

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’m terrible at routines. I am constantly trying to do good, healthy things on a regular basis and I always end up doing them erratically. But, because I’m a full-time student and a freelance editor and writer, I do need to get things done by their deadlines. A typical day begins with feeding my cat. Then coffee and a snack and emails/admin. If I need to edit, I then sit myself somewhere with few distractions and lots of provisions and plug away. If I need to write, and the words are stagnating, I go for a walk or read poems I love or clean my apartment furiously until I start to get excited to go back to the page. I’m a night owl, so I can usually count on my most productive energy kicking in around 8pm. I can also be really single-minded, so once I’m “in the zone” I’ll usually stay there for several hours without a break. This means a typical day often ends with me working from 8pm-2am while my cat dozes nearby.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Walking by a river really helps when I’m stuck, but because I live in the prairies and hate being cold, months go by during which walking outside isn’t really an option. But reading! I can read in any season, any weather. And I can always count on the words of others to spark ideas or images or memories. 

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

My idea of home has been scrambled for much of my adult life—I’ve moved thirteen times and between three provinces over the past ten years—so when I think of home, I still think of my childhood bungalow in Landmark, Manitoba.

The smell of baking reminds me of that home. Growing up, my mom made cookies at least once a week. Also: feedmills and cow barns, because those are the smells of a small farming town!

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?

The ecology of the place I’m in absolutely affects my writing, both in terms of content and style. And music continues to teach me how to write poems. I’ve already mentioned Joni and Stan and Leonard, but also: John K Samson, Sarah Harmer, Neil Young, Kate Bush, Fiona Apple—so many teachers.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Some writers who have been critical to my life include: Alice Munro, Miriam Toews, Thomas King, Maggie Nelson, Robert Kroetsch, Sylvia Plath, Di Brandt, Anne Carson, LM Montgomery, and Richard Adams.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I would like to get better at birding. The thing I’d like to do is walk into a field and have someone say, “Wow, look at that bird! What is it, I wonder?” and for me to confidently say, “Well, it’s a bobolink!”

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 guess what I’d really like to do is become the manager for my Instagram-influencer cat.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I don’t know if this sounds cheesy, but I needed to write, always. I can’t imagine not writing.

The cool thing about writing is that no matter what else I’m doing—if I’m a barista or working at Sport Chek or teaching or whatever—I can always also be a writer. I feel incredibly lucky about that.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great book I read was Heavenly Questions by Gjertrud Schnackenberg. An incredible work of elegy. It made me realize all kinds of things in writing, and in grief, are possible.

And the last great film I watched was Little Women—the new one, directed by Greta Gerwig. I saw this movie twice in theatres (remember when we could go to theatres) and I wept throughout the whole thing both times. I suppose, because Little Women is about a woman fulfilling her dream of publishing a book, the timing seemed extra resonant.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on Flyway, a long poem about home, migration, and ecological and human trauma. It’s my master’s thesis project and draws on my Oma’s refugee experience during WWII and her immigration to Manitoba while also grappling with our current climate crisis. 


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