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Studying the Canadian Long Poem

A recommended reading list by Sarah Ens (author of Flyway), who is appearing at the Winnipeg International Writers Festival's THIN AIR this year.

Logo Thin Air 2022

Every September since 1997, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival presents THIN AIR, a celebration of books and ideas. Their curated line-up is a perfect fit for curious readers who are ready to discover strong voices and great storytelling in practically every genre. For 2022, they're presenting a hybrid festival featuring more than 50 writers, live events, and a destination website.

To watch video content Sarah Ens has prepared for THIN AIR, visit the festival website.


Book Cover Flyway

The first draft of Flyway came out of a summer spent studying the structures and patterns of Canadian long poems and letting myself write without knowing exactly where I was going. I tried to follow the poem—its expansive, unwieldy narrative, its questions, its chorus of voices—and when I got stuck, I followed the long poems I loved, using the works of other writers as guideposts. This list of long poems showed me how to write from a place of sustained attention around a central idea while also incorporating materials, ideas, and experiences that emerged during the writing process.


Book Cover the Shunning

The Shunning, by Patrick Friesen

The Shunning was the first long poem that sparked my interest in the form. I returned to it often while working on Flyway, inspired by Friesen’s use of simple, potent images to evoke all the ambiguities of a Canadian Mennonite community. I’m also drawn to the book’s musicality, the way Friesen’s lyric conjures prairie landscape. And of course The Shunning demonstrated how I might go about interrogating aspects of my Mennonite upbringing and faith with care and clarity.


Book Cover Blue Marrow

Blue Marrow, by Louise Bernice Halfe Sky Dancer

In Blue Marrow, Halfe listens to the voices of her ancestors singing up from prairie soil—hopeful and jubilant, seething and lamenting—to weave together and reclaim a family history fragmented by colonial violence. The book’s blending of dream, litany, personal memory, and historical narrative enables a courageous articulation and exploration of trauma, underpinned by a deep and celebratory love for the grandmothers whose songs ring out from the page.


Field Requiem, by Sheri Benning

I was lucky enough to have Sheri Benning as my MFA supervisor at the University of Saskatchewan, and Field Requiem came out when I was busy turning Flyway from thesis manuscript into book. Field Requiem catalogues the eco-cide of Canada’s temperate grasslands, bearing witness to its transformation from diversified family farms into “the cracked-open casket of the nation’s turn-of-the-century bullshit-promises.” Flyway mourns the destruction of the tallgrass prairie, and I learned so much from Field Requiem’s intimate, attentive vigil. (Highly recommend watching the short film “Winter Sleep” which is based on a long poem excerpt from Field Requiem.)  


Book Cover Settler Education

Settler Education, by Laurie D. Graham

Another long-poem mentor of mine, Laurie D. Graham, brilliantly folds historic and scientific fact into engaging poetic meditation. In Settler Education, she re-imagines key events from the North-West Resistance, questioning the dominant colonial narrative and reckoning with ongoing injustices. These are complicated events that require context, and Graham’s use of vivid, sensory detail and insistent images convey the necessary information while cutting to the heart of each story.


Book Cover No Language is Neutral

No Language Is Neutral, by Dionne Brand

Many of Brand’s poem-length books were deeply instructive to me during the writing of Flyway, but if I have to choose just one to list here, 1990’s No Language Is Neutral is the book that energized me the most. It journeys from Trinidad to Canada, asking questions about cultural and national identity while asserting the speaker’s agency even in the midst of alienation. Some of my favourite lines from any book are in No Language Is Neutral:

“History will only hear you if you give birth to a

woman who smoothes starched linen in the wardrobe

drawer, trembles when she walks and who gives birth

to another woman who cries near a river

and vanishes and who gives birth to a woman who is a

poet, and, even then” 


Book Cover Flyway

Learn more about Flyway:

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.

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