Quatrain Questions: Sarah Ens

Sarah Ens unpacks forced migrations, both personal and ecological, in a new Quatrain Questions interview.

1. For those who aren’t familiar, can you please tell us a bit about “the prairie long poem” as a genre of poetry? What about the long poem drew you to it when you were writing Flyway?

The long poem as a genre encompasses many different styles and expressions, including “narrative poems, verse novels, sonnet sequences, irregular lyric medleys or cycles, collage long poems, meditative sequences, extended dramatic monologues, prose long poems, serial poems, [and] heroic epics” to quote from Lynn Keller’s article “Pushing the Limits of Genre and Gender.” A few things you can generally expect a long poem to do, though, is a) extend to some length, usually a whole book, and sometimes across multiple books; b) claim significance for a topic or subject or place by way of its length; c) map the (geographical, psychological) journeys of specific peoples and histories or depict transformative (often non-linear and cyclical) trajectories; and d) demonstrate an impulse towards documentation, especially through the incorporation and fragmentation of other media and texts.

The prairie long poem—which of course owes much of its early cultivation to Turnstone Press poets like Dennis Cooley, Robert Kroetsch, Sylvia Legris, and Fred Wah!!—does all of the above while set in or somehow about the prairie landscape. Long poems can be authoritative texts, solidifying cultural systems of power and understandings of history, but I’m really interested in the ways the form can also subvert and challenge dominant discourse by shifting between perspectives and emphasizing marginalized voices. Louise Halfe Skydancer’s prairie long poem Blue Marrow, for example, rewrites the “Lord’s Prayer” in Cree and invokes as litany the names of her ancestors, whose bones sing from the soil of the Saskatchewan prairie.

I knew the form of Flyway would be a prairie long poem as soon as I began thinking about it. I wanted to write from a place of sustained attention directed at this central idea of home and deepen my perception of—and maybe challenge my relationship to—an overlooked place that I found captivating: the Manitoban tallgrass prairie and the villages constructed there by Mennonite settlers. I wanted to draw on a multiplicity of contradictory voices, including those of my Oma and her family, and destabilize some foundational narratives surrounding Mennonite exile and settlement while also giving meaningful shape to the family memories I had inherited. I needed a form that could handle Flyway’s expansive, open-ended narrative, full of questions, characters, and fragmented letters and scripture, and found inspiration in the prairie long poem tradition.

2. What unique perspective do you hope Flyway contributes to the traditions of the prairie long poem?

Most of what I did in Flyway I did because other poems showed me ways to do it, so I don’t know if I’m contributing something particularly unique to the form. I am grateful, though, that I was able to represent the perspectives of my Oma and other Mennonite women refugees who were forced from their homes in Ukraine during WWII. Many of these women experienced sexual violence, many lost children and parents and husbands, and all were traumatized by their displacement. When they arrived in Manitoba, their integration into Mennonite villages often depended on the silencing of their stories. Sometimes community and church leaders made the women repent their “worldly” traumas in front of congregations. I’m interested in how the long poem form can speak the unspeakable and expand shared memory by giving space to disempowered voices, and I aimed to do that with Flyway.

3. The speaker in Flyway uses Manitoba’s traumatized tallgrass prairie as a space from which to grieve and transform her own ancestral trauma into an act of healing. In what ways do you think poetry can return the favour, and be used as a tool to grieve and actively transform spaces of ecological trauma?

I think art can draw attention to injustice and inspire change. And I think making art and experiencing art can facilitate healing, or move a person through difficult emotions and experiences. Flyway is one attempt to respond to the climate crisis and engage in a process of historical accountability. I hope the poem encourages interest in the tallgrass prairie ecosystem and the many at-risk species that rely on it, and that it points to the ways settler colonialism has harmed and continues to harm this place.

4. Flyway focuses primarily on capturing the experiences of women living through the Mennonite diaspora during WWII, but the male voice of Anni’s brother is also interwoven into this narrative. Why was it important to also work his voice into this female-centric narrative?

My great-uncle Hans, my Oma Anni’s younger brother, was conscripted into the German army towards the end of the war and almost immediately sent to a POW camp by the Soviets. When he was released, he returned to his family’s home in Ukraine and wrote letters to his mother and sisters, now resettled in Manitoba. When I was first working on Flyway, I thought Hans’ letters, compiled and translated into English by my uncle Gerhard Ens, would be a useful resource but had no plans to quote from them in the book. As I read them, however, I found myself writing down particularly potent lines. Almost every sentence begins with “Mama”; almost every letter pleads his family send him money or food or clothing. He died when he was thirty-seven and in one of his last letters he wrote this strange poetic sequence in which he dreams of laying “the blanket of his life” in the grass nearby his home, and his mother sitting with him on the blanket. This goes back to the above question about poetry being a tool for grief—I think Hans must have reached for this metaphor to try to express an idea about home, love, memory, and loss. It was the same idea I was hoping to express in Flyway, so when I read this letter, I knew it would be an anchor of the book.

In an early conversation with my excellent editor Alice Major, she suggested I cut back on Hans’ letters, as his voice was overtaking those of the marginalized Mennonite women who absolutely are Flyway’s focus. Though I appreciated where the suggestion was coming from, I explained that I wanted Hans’ voice—faraway, desperate, isolated—to disrupt the book’s “Un/Settling” section. The absence of her brothers and father defined Anni’s new home in Manitoba, I think, and Hans’ letters were a way to depict that absence.

 

Flyway by Sarah Ens

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