Quatrain Questions: Sarah Ens

Sarah Ens unpacks her experience of millennial womanhood in our latest Quatrain Questions interview.

1.    The World Is Mostly Sky is a very honest portrayal of coming into millennial womanhood. How has the process of writing this collection shaped your own understanding of what it means to be a “millennial woman”?

I wanted the poems in The World Is Mostly Sky to suggest a sense of impending danger or looming harm while at the same time celebrating the freedom and joy found in community and in youth. And I think those two elements—danger and freedom—are driving factors in the lives of many millennial women. We came of age at the same time that “global warming” became a common term. We’re aware that ours is an inheritance of environmental crisis and I think many of us struggle with eco-anxiety and eco-grief. And, while millennial women have many more opportunities than those of previous generations, gendered violence remains pervasive. I don’t know any millennial women who weren’t impacted in some way by the #MeToo movement—what it was bringing to light, the ways it allowed us to speak up.

In writing this book, I wanted to depict what it is like to exist in a body that often anticipates danger, and what it’s like to grapple with those societal violations while in the midst of an ongoing environmental catastrophe. At the same time, I hope The World Is Mostly Sky also depicts the empowered embodiment and fearlessness that is possible when immersed in a community of young women and when examining and healing our connections to place.

2.    The collection makes a number of references to “classic” film and music (i.e., Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe, Leonard Cohen). How do these sources inform your poetics, and your identity as a (millennial) artist?

I don’t think it was until I started to put the poems together that I noticed my tendency to reach for famous personas and cultural figures as a way of situating or symbolizing certain sets of ideas. Marilyn Monroe, for example, provides a shorthand for a very particular kind of femininity—and the violence and pain inherent in upholding that femininity.

I’m also interested in juxtaposing current or personal events with classic, larger-than-life references. What happens to my own heartbreak when I layer it with lines from Monroe movies? What is the experience of watching Hitchcock films now, when powerful men working in the arts are finally being held accountable for their treatment of women?

3.    The World Is Mostly Sky plays with concepts of religion and astrology, which are arguably both methods for determining purpose and fate, but which also seem fundamentally at odds with each other from a theological standpoint. How do you reconcile the two? What effect were you aiming to achieve through this duality?

To me, religion and astrology are both human gestures towards making sense of the world and our place in it. So, in that way, they don’t feel very oppositional. In a book about a world that is mostly sky, or a world that is mostly unknown and beyond our control, drawing on sacred texts and stars alike to help make meaning and determine ways to live well in that world might be a natural compulsion!

Astrology is something that I became interested in as a young adult, in very typical Millennial fashion!! I’m attracted to anything that has a storytelling hook or can be used as a tool for introspection. Plus, the astrology memes on Instagram are very good. Referencing characters and stories from the Old and New Testaments was much more innate and instinctual because I grew up studying them. Those Christian characters and stories first provided me with a framework for understanding the world and myself. I find it difficult to keep biblical images out of my writing because, similarly to pop culture allusions, they can conjure whole worlds of meaning with such concision.   

The combination of the religious and astrological in The World Is Mostly Sky is, likely, a reflection of my own attempts to make sense of my life and to offer myself symbols and narratives of hope. Sometimes the Israelites wandering in wilderness for forty years feels very similar to navigating the aftermath of a bad breakup. Sometimes realizing that your friend’s sun, moon, and rising are all water signs creates the space for her to share about what she is grieving and how she might begin to heal.

4.    What do you see as the next step for your poetry?

I’m currently completing my MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. My thesis project, Flyway, is a long poem that focusses on the forced migration of both humans and birds. I love the long poem form and am so inspired by poets like Dionne Brand, Robert Kroetsch, Louise Bernice Halfe, Daphne Marlatt, and Dennis Cooley who demonstrate incredible urgency, experimentation, and documentation in their book-length poems. This first attempt to write one myself has been sometimes unnerving—it’s easy to get lost in many different weeds—but always exciting, especially as I’ve been aided by such fabulous mentors as Laurie D. Graham and Sheri Benning. So, in terms of next steps, I hope to continue to experiment with the serial poem!

Flyway is also a work of eco-poetry and elegy. I want to get better at writing about where it is that I live and this process of learning how to live in this place well. I want to develop skills that enable me to pay better attention and I hope my new writing demonstrates that stance of attention.