Quatrain Questions: Joanne Epp

In our latest Quatrain Questions interview, Joanne Epp reflects on writing about nature and place in Cattail Skyline.

1. Looking at some of the specific locations in this collection (i.e., Omand’s Creek, the cemetery, the cottage, Cambodia, etc.), at what point do you personally feel like you come to “know” a place, if at all?

I’m not sure I can describe a point at which I can say I really know a place...it’s a matter of degree, of how well I know a place. Eventually I start to know what to expect when I return to a place: here is where the lady’s slipper blooms in late spring, here there’s usually poison ivy, and so on. Of the places in this book, Omand’s Creek, Star Lake, and the cemetery road are probably the ones I know best, a result of repetition and of learning to observe. Cambodia is the place I know the least; I know only enough to recognize how little I know, and the most memorable experiences there were the ones in which I felt immersed in the unfamiliar.

But even with places I know well, it’s always possible to see more, especially if I’m with someone who notices different things than I do, or who knows more of the history of the place. It’s always possible to be surprised.

2. Can you tell us a bit about the frequent returns to the cemetery road throughout this collection? What is it about this liminal space that continues to capture your attention and act as a muse for your poetry?

I have always been interested in cemeteries, and I think it’s because they’re quiet, and because of their connection to the past, to names and stories. They’re an interesting kind of space: one that’s been altered by humans, but is visited infrequently enough that wild strawberries can grow among the grass.

I find walking meditative, and the cemetery I write about in Cattail Skyline is just far enough out of town to make for a good walk. What started as simply a way to get exercise gradually became a process of learning to see the landscape around me. These repeated walks are a natural occasion for thinking about time, memory, and change, and for observing the mingling of sameness and variation in plant life and weather.

3. The majority of these poems focus on experiences/encounters with Nature, often of the same places revisited over many months and years. What conclusions, if any, can you make about the resilience or fragility of the natural world, based on these experiences?

I’m not sure what I can say about resiliency or fragility, but what I have realized is that the natural world is not a static entity, but one that changes. Old trees fall and rot, and new ones grow. A tiny island in a lake changes shape and size depending on water levels in a given year. We’ve become wary of changes in the natural world, and with good reason, because we’ve become aware of how damaging some of our own alterations to nature have been, and yet the natural world will always be subject to change simply because it’s alive.

4. What inspiration would you like readers to draw from this collection as the world continues to cope with (and eventually move forward from) the pandemic?

When Angeline Schellenberg interviewed me for periodicities, she asked, “What experience do you hope to leave with your readers?” my answer was: “I want them to go for a walk.” The process of writing these poems was one of repeated walking, learning to see what’s in front of me. Much of that is fascinating and beautiful, but there’s also the plastic bottles in the creek and disposable masks on the ground. I hope that people who read my book can experience some of what I did, and will be encouraged to make connections to the world around them in whatever way they can. And that those connections can lead to an awareness of themselves as part of the world, not separate from it.

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