Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Karen Enns

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Karen Enns

Karen Enns talks to Open Book about the how growing up among a generation of adults who had survived Stalin's Russia may have attuned her to silence. Silence and song work against one another to profound effect in her first collection of poetry, That Other Beauty (Brick Books).

Karen will be reading from her collection in Victoria, B.C. on Friday, March 11 at 7:30 p.m. at The Moka House (formerly the Black Stilt Coffee House) on Hillside Avenue. Visit the Brick Books website for more details.

Listen to Karen Enns read the title poem from That Other Beauty in the podcast below. For readings of other poems from this collection please visit Audioboo (with special thanks to Brick Books and Julie Wilson).

Listen!

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, That Other Beauty.

Karen Enns:

The backdrop for much of the poetry in the book is the rural landscape of southern Ontario, but I think many of the poems are really more about displacement than place, and not belonging rather than belonging. Throughout, there is a preoccupation with light and darkness, with sound and music, with listening, and with that other beauty: that strange, other knowing or seeing.

OB:

That Other Beauty is your first collection of poetry. Was there a point at which you began to think of the poems you were writing as part manuscript as opposed to individual poems, or did you have that impression from the beginning?

KE:

I didn't really have a sense of the manuscript until I began to fiddle with the piles of poems. They were written individually, without the vision or confidence of a larger form. But, after much fiddling, the structure of the book came to mean as much to me as the structure of the individual poems.

OB:

Over what period of time were these poems written, and how did your understanding of yourself as a poet develop during the course of the project?

KE:

These poems were written between the fall of 2005 and the spring of 2008, a period of about two and a half years. My understanding of myself as a poet? It's a difficult question. I took the work seriously from the beginning and somewhere along the way, after having a few poems published here and there, I began to wonder if I might be able to think of myself as a poet. These were fleeting moments but important. I do know that during that time I began to feel an enormous commitment to the craft of the poems. It was a lovely time, really, being a kind of closet poet.

OB:

The poems in That Other Beauty are divided into three parts. Will you describe what differentiates each section and how you decided on this structure?

KE:

From the beginning, as I sorted through the poems, I was interested in a three-part form. It probably has a lot to do with being a classical musician. The sonata form was what I had in mind: an introduction of ideas in the first section, a development section with greater exploration, modulation and tension, and a third section in which the main ideas emerge from that intensity to stand in the light, transformed. I wanted very much to create an arc from the first to the last poem, a long musical slur, so the last pages would bear a kind of echo of the first. I don't know if this holds up for the reader, but it was what I had in mind.

OB:

"The Hand Is a Field of Grasses" employs an interesting repetition of different metaphors for the hand, such as "the hand is barnboard" and "the hand is bread." What was your inspiration for this poem?

KE:

I read Robert Bringhurst's "Sutra of the Heart" several years ago and it stayed with me. At the time, I wanted to push my own use of metaphor, create a kind of directness, a "take no prisoners" approach. The hand, of course, seemed like a natural taking-off point. The work of the hands, the work that stands in for an emotional response was very much a part of Mennonite life. It is what I know.

OB:

Many of these poems evoke memories of your childhood in a Mennonite farm community. How did growing up in this environment and culture shape you as a writer?

KE:

That's a very difficult question and I don't know if I'm really qualified to answer it. I don't know that I've written enough, or for a long enough period of time, to see this clearly. And do we ever really know, with any kind of certainty, how our past shapes our creative life? What I do know is that I grew up around quiet, stoic people who had suffered tremendously in Stalin's Russia. I felt that legacy then and still do. We all carry the weight of the last century's atrocities, but to be a child surrounded by the victims of such brutality, well, that has a deep impact. I'm not sure how that has shaped me as writer. I'm aware of a certain restraint, I suppose, a listening for silence.

I grew up, too, with the commitment to the long term that comes with farm life. My father farmed, his father farmed, my brothers and now my nephew are farmers. There is an awareness that you are connected to the land which is always there (threatened or taken away, sometimes, but, nevertheless, there) while you, of course, won't be. The land, and the cycle of planting and harvesting that goes on year after year, is something that has far more weight than your own small part. Of course, there's something biblical in all of that too. What you sow you will also reap. But it doesn't seem that far to go to take these notions of self-discipline and commitment and apply them to the long haul of a writing life, or any kind of artistic life for that matter: a taking part in something that also excludes you — that will carry on after you. And your job is to act as caretaker of the art form — to hold up the integrity of it while you can.

OB:

In the poem "Confession," the speaker says, "I wanted this: // to see the shape of things completely, / every darkness, every rise and fall, small breath." How does writing poetry enable you to "see the shape of things completely"?

KE:

I don't think it enables you. We can hope for moments of that kind of clarity and I think we can feel ourselves in the presence of it when we read the work of Milosz or Eliot or when we listen to Brahms or Mozart. In "Confession" the speaker wants to experience the unity of everything, wants to experience transcendence. I think poetry is a way to articulate that want.

OB:

Which writers would you say have most strongly influenced your work?

KE:

I am particularly drawn to the work of Polish and Russian writers: Adam Zagajewski, Wislawa Szymborska, Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, Anna Akhmatova. While I was writing the poems in this book, I was also reading and rereading the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer, Sylvia Plath, Jan Zwicky, Patrick Lane, Seamus Heaney, Jack Gilbert and Charles Wright. The question of influence is an interesting one; there are so many layers of absorption. Early on, I enrolled in two poetry courses with Patrick Lane that were pivotal, and my ongoing conversations about poetry with Jan Zwicky, as well as her careful reading and editing of my work, have been an enormous influence in a very "hands-on" way.

OB:

What poets have you read recently whose work has really excited you?

KE:

I've been reading Louise Glück's work lately, including her collection of essays, Proofs and Theories, and Wislawa Szymborska's View with a Grain of Sand as well as a wonderful new collection, Here. And just this week, I finished a marvelous book of Janusz Szuber's poetry, they carry a promise, which, I understand, is the first English translation of his work (by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough).

OB:

What are you working on now?

KE:

I'm working on new poetry.


Karen Enns is a poet and musician living in Victoria, B.C. That Other Beauty, her first book of poetry, was published by Brick Books in 2010. Her poetry has appeared previously in The Malahat Review, The Antigonish Review, Grain, PRISM international and The Fiddlehead.

For more information about That Other Beauty please visit the Brick Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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