The Sarah Ens Interview 

This meditation on the impact of human and ecological trauma explores the cost of survival for three generations of women living between empires. Writing from within the disappearing tallgrass prairie, Sarah Ens follows connections between the Russian Mennonite diaspora and the disrupted migratory patterns of grassland birds. Drawing on family history, eco-poetics, and the rich tradition of the Canadian long poem, Flyway migrates along pathways of geography and the heart to grapple with complexities of home. Julia Spicher Kasdorf says Flyway is “a triumph for any time, but savour it now, as power and grace in a troubled world,” while Sue Goyette says “Flyway situates itself as a poem in a biodiverse temporality where all species of home is rooted.” 

Sarah Ens is a writer and editor based in Treaty 1 territory (Winnipeg, MB). Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Fire, Arc Poetry Magazine, Contemporary Verse 2, Poetry Is Dead, Room Magazine, and SAD Mag. Her debut collection of poetry, The World Is Mostly Sky was shortlisted for the 2021 McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award and the 2022 Lansdowne Prize for Poetry. Flyway is her second book of poetry. 

 “This is a collection of being and becoming, writing out what is lost, gained and abandoned; writing out what is inherited, and what can’t help but be carried across not only distances, but generations.”

rob mclennan

“Throughout, the speaker is careful to not let her desire “to be absolved in the homecoming/ … / to be undone &  remade, like my body is not a memory/ I keep confessing into some promise of land” to paper over the darkness of the migration story, but she holds all the context with tenderness and a grounded, careful touch.” 

—melanie brannagan frederiksen, The Winnipeg Free Press 

What attracted you to the long poem form? 

I love reading long poems. I love their open-endedness, their ability to handle multiple voices and story threads, and their sustained focus on a subject, a focus that circles and questions and reverberates.  

I knew Flyway, with its variety of voices and perspectives, fragmented letters, poems, and scripture, a narrative that spanned 1929-2022, and all these questions about home, memory, and trauma, would be a long poem as soon as I started writing it. Poetry can connect two seemingly disparate things—my Oma’s forced migration from Ukraine during WWII and the destruction of the tallgrass prairie, for example—and the long poem form can extend, complicate, and follow those connections in ways I find exciting.  

In a previous interview, you were asked about the biggest misconception about poets. Your answer starts off with what could be the dream bumper sticker for all poets – in an ideal world where poets could afford cars. “People sometimes seem to think that poetry is difficult to understand and that poets are intentionally obscuring meaning.” Okay, so perhaps it would have to be on three connecting bumper stickers, nevertheless, your clarity on the issue is inspiring.  In the end, you want people to give us the chance to prove we are actually communicating and not just speaking in tongues, reading ingredients off a soap can and writing it down. Keeping all that in mind, what are some of the messages you aim to convey with your new book Flyway? 

I really do believe that poetry is for everyone (a sticker I’d put on my bike for sure) and that it can be one of the most accessible art forms.  

With Flyway, I wanted to convey an ecological message. Over 99% of the tallgrass prairie in Treaty 1 territory has been destroyed because of resource extraction, urbanization, and industrial farming—legacies of settler colonialism and capitalism. One aim of the book is to raise awareness about the grassland bird and plant species nearing extinction and to provoke thought around historical accountability and climate justice. 

See also  The Kate Hargreaves Interview

Flyway is also about inherited stories—shared memories—and the importance of examining the margins of those stories, seeking out perspectives that have been silenced. It’s about disrupting foundational myths while also recognizing the ways narrative can create a sense of belonging and home. One of its messages is that healing might be found by speaking the unspeakable, something poetry can facilitate. In Flyway, this means articulating anxiety and grief around the climate crisis and naming the long-reaching impacts of individual and collective trauma. 

You work with language that moves the words over the landscape – as if you’re matching words that seem to mimic the actual textures you are describing. Or is that impossible? In one passage, you splice sandpipers, spill, sky, shimmer, swarm, you “wade in the wind” and ask about “the huge, the hollow, the wild open mouth of land”.  Do you think the language we use and the language of nature can communicate?  

To me, poetry is all about language, and not at all restricted to human language. Forrest Gander talks about how eco-poetry can “draw us into a dialogue with the world” by representing and recognizing the interdependence of all life. I was aiming to mimic the textures of the landscape, as you say, through the syntax, sounds, and shapes of the “Tallgrass Psalmody” sequences so that I could suggest a dialogue with the world, or depict a kind of listening and perceiving, a reciprocity. 

Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart is one of my favourite books. The poem is a polyphonic, fluid stream of words that echoes the sounds of the river Dart from stream to estuary. I wanted Flyway to do something similar, for its vocabulary to be rooted in very particular prairie elements and images. All those “s” and “w” words, for example, are meant to evoke the sound of wind through grass. 

What were your field excursions like?  How did you find your voice? 

I think spending time in the tallgrass was less about finding my voice and more about learning to know what I was looking at and experiencing. What kind of grass is this? How does it grow? What do its roots look like? Its flowers? What bird am I hearing? What are its different songs? What do its nests look like? All basic questions but my journals are full of them—questions, observations, and long lists of wonderful birdy words, like murmuration, fledgling, flight song.  

I had to develop an ability to notice what was there. And notice my own emotional responses to the space. It was startling to realize that this ability didn’t come easily, or if it once did, I’d lost the skill at some point. Really taking note of the non-human life around you in the place you call home is essential, I think, especially now. It’s much harder to till under a patch of tall grass to erect your condos or your highways if the patch of tall grass is made up of specific, endangered plants that you know and recognize. 

What were three books of poetry that made an impression on you as a young person? 

  • questions I asked my mother by Di Brandt 
  • 100 Selected Poems by e e cummings 
  • And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou 
  • Honourable mention, as it’s not exactly a book: Blue by Joni Mitchell 

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