Cattail Skyline: 5 Questions with Joanne Epp

Joanne Epp grew up in central Saskatchewan and still goes back as often as she can. Married with two grown sons, she spent several years in Ontario and now makes her home in Winnipeg. Epp’s poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Prairie Fire, Juniper, and other journals. Her first full-length poetry collection, Eigenheim, was published by Turnstone Press in 2015. In her second poetry collection, she ventures from open prairie roads into little creek beds, down onto the warm earth of strawberry patches, and far afield to the busy markets of Cambodia to examine the intimate ways we come to know and experience place. With vivid detail and quiet reverence, Cattail Skyline captures a myriad of landscapes where every change of season and slant of light reveals something previously unnoticed, and where even the most well-trodden paths hold the potential for new discovery. The McNally Robinson book launch for Cattail Skyline is June 4th at 7:00, pre-register here. To purchase Cattail Skyline direct from Turnstone Press, click here.

1. What has drawn you to writing poetry, as opposed to prose?

I don’t know if it was a conscious choice at first. Poetry was simply the thing I was most naturally drawn to. The way I explain it now is that I’m attracted to poetry’s compactness and conciseness compared to prose. I like poetry’s holistic approach to language, engaging the sound and rhythm and imagistic qualities of words as well as their sense.

On the few occasions when I did try writing fiction, I found it overwhelming; it felt like there were way too many words involved, and I got stuck at a certain point in the plot. The plot problem could have been solved, of course, but I didn’t have enough interest in writing fiction to work at it. Many poets also publish prose, but at this point I don’t see myself doing that. I do occasionally write articles, blog posts, or book reviews, but poetry is what I care about most.

2. Cattail Skyline is a collection of poems inspired by your travels by train. Is your writing process different, then (from, say, writing the poetry of Eigenhiem)?

Yes, there is a section of the book that’s inspired by train travel; there are also many poems about the places in Saskatchewan where I grew up, and two sequences about places in Manitoba that have become familiar to me. The ways in which we know and connect to places has been a strong thread in my writing over the past several years.

The process of writing this book was similar to Eigenheim in that I wrote the poems first and then figured out what they were about. The difference is that, with this second book, that realization came earlier in the process. With Eigenheim, it was really only when I began assembling the first draft of the manuscript that I took a serious look at how the poems spoke to each other and what ideas or themes I was preoccupied with. With Cattail Skyline, that kind of figuring-out started long before I had enough material for a collection. Once I realized that I had several series of poems with themes that kind of connected to each other, I began deliberately building on those themes, looking for places where I could add to what I already had. By then I was more consciously aware of what was going on in my writing—something I’d learned through reading, attending various workshops, and working with a couple of mentors. Also, by the time I was working on Cattail Skyline I’d begun applying for arts council grants, and that process really forces you to learn to articulate what your work is about.

3. Cambodia factors into your poetry in Cattail Skyline. Are there other overseas destinations that your poetry visits (or, revisits) in your newest book?

Cambodia is the only one.The trip that inspired those poems was the first of the very few overseas trips I’ve made, and it felt like a really big deal (reading about a place is one thing; being there is something else entirely!). We lived in Ottawa then, and I worked in the Mennonite Central Committee office there, which at that time was particularly interested in what was happening in Cambodia. During my visit I was able to see some of MCC’s work with rural communities, and also made a trip to the ancient temples of Angkor. It was a rich experience, and I felt extremely lucky to be there.

4. The title of your previous publication, Eigenheim, intrigues me. I’ve learned it means ‘one’s own home’. You write in English… why did you choose a Low German word for the title?

Eigenheim” is the name of the rural Mennonite church in Saskatchewan where my family comes from, and I used it as the title for one of the poems within a section about my family. My editor, Alice Major, thought the name would also work well as a title for the collection as a whole because it nicely encapsulates the themes running through it: the idea of home—literal, metaphorical, and spiritual—and the search for one’s place in the world.

5. How has being a Mennonite helped, hindered, or influenced your writing process?

Although I’ve attended an Anglican church for quite a while now, I attended Mennonite churches until I was in my late thirties, and still keep up some connections with the Mennonite world.

My poetry has not been especially Mennonite-focused, and I always thought of myself, not as a Mennonite writer, but as a writer who happened to be Mennonite. All the same, I can see some definite Mennonite influences in the literature I grew up with and the poetry I read as a young adult. As a kid, I read novels by writers like Margaret Epp (no relation!) and Ruth Unrau, whose books were in our church library. Later, in my early twenties, I came across a poem by Di Brandt in the alumni magazine of (the former) Canadian Mennonite Bible College. That was when I was just beginning to take poetry seriously, and there was something about that poem, some combination of the style and subject, that made me think I could write something like this. I think Di Brandt’s questions I asked my mother and Sarah Klassen’s Journey to Yalta were the first books of poetry I ever bought.

6. There’s a lot of prairie landscape in this poetry collection. What is it about that landscape that attracts you so strongly?

I’m sure the fact that I grew up on the prairie has something to do with it, but I’ve also found that it’s a landscape that rewards close attention. The common image of the prairie is of great big skies and open spaces—that’s certainly true, and I love that, but it’s the small things that really hold my attention: the birds in the bushes and the wildflowers in the grass.