Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Out-of-Town-Authors: Brecken Hancock

Brecken Hancock is my favourite kind of Ontario poet: a whipsmart transplant from Saskatchewan.

Back in July, Alison Calder and Luann Hiebert and I opened for Brecken at her Winnipeg launch at McNally's. Brecken wore her wedding Fluevogs and her pregnancy, having announced it publicly that day on the Internet.

I'd planned to interview her in advance of the event, you know, for publicity purposes. But didn't manage it, given the general hubbub. Once I finally got her the questions, Brecken meant to respond right away, but then didn't manage it, given the general hubbub.

Appropriately, Brecken sent me her responses—far better, thankfully, than the questions that provoked them—on the day her baby was due. They're now both overdue, but these questions have have a freshness I appreciate.

What do you want people to know about Broom Broom?

Since the release of Broom Broom, I’ve had the opportunity to write extensively on the impetus for the book. Broom Broom deals with issues of domestic horror and crises of identity—when the home/self becomes “unhomey,” the uncanny. I’ve also been interested in positioning my work within the context of memoir and confession, as this book documents the decline of my mother’s health and the decay of my family’s cohesion over a period of twenty years. Paratext, if readers are interested, can be found in an essay for 17 Seconds called “Forensic Confession,” and in a series of essays I did for Open Book Toronto in July as their Writer in Residence.

As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?

In a recent interview with Tony Leuzzi for Brooklyn Rail, Mary Ruefle mentioned that she’s “never met a writer who does not crave to be alone.” I love Ruefle’s work—both her poetry and her essays—but her words triggered an imposter complex in me. I’ve had to work really hard at learning to be alone, to endure the isolation that composition requires. Sometimes I’ve wondered how I even came to be a writer since the practice contrasts so intensely with my natural inclination to be among people, to work collectively, to converse. But I take such pleasure in the words and the thinking. Writing hasn’t been a choice; it’s something I’m driven to do. So I’ve learned balance. I write more fruitfully when my alone time is interwoven with community work, good friends, time with peers and colleagues. Readings function in this role for me—fellowship. I love reading to a public audience, but I also love attending readings, hearing the work of writers I admire circulating among a crowd. The practice of writing mostly requires present-day sweat toward future payoff—an imagined audience, the envisioned completion of a piece or a project. Readings offer a salve to the sometimes frustratingly abstract trajectory of production. At their best, readings afford me the opportunity to live through writing in the moment. There’s a concretization of what it means to communicate, a culmination of the energy of poetry in this shared experience.

Tell me about that strange object/phenomena called ‘the first book.’

When it's new, the first book is a source of pleasure, evidence that one has realized a life-changing goal. For me it was proof that I had the stamina required to complete something meaningful. But there’s also a naiveté that accompanies a first book—about its potential to reach a wide audience, about how life-changing publishing actually is. Learning to withstand rejection and silence is part of the process of growing with the first book as the months go by after its release. I’ve often talked with other writers about how much “success” constitutes a satisfying consummation of the effort bled into the page. I think it can be disheartening to realize that very few writers achieve widespread readership—and, until the first book actually appears in the world and competes for attention and shelf space, it can be easy to believe that readership, prizes, and multiple print runs are merely a publisher and a perfect-bound codex away. I’m lucky to have participated in readings and to have seen my book reviewed in newspapers, online journals, and personal blogs. I’ve been thrilled to work with Coach House. It’s been important to celebrate every encounter with someone who likes the work.

The first book is an initiation. Ideally, over time, it will be put in context, marking the initial step in a lifelong process. I like to try to think of Broom Broom this way: as if I’m looking back on it from old age. It requires a type of double vision. Revelling in the achievement yet remaining humble about the strength of its impact.

The poems in this book are both crafty and incredibly brave. How do you mind your Ps and Qs, your nuts and bolts, while also turning yourself inside out? How do you know you’ve done both/either well?

Personal narrative requires what Vivian Gornick calls The Situation and the Story. Eviscerating oneself on the page isn’t as simple as recording one’s experiences in a diary. As Gornick says, “The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.” I think that the Ps and Qs you’re talking about are the artifice that must shape who is speaking and why that person is speaking: the narrator is fashioned into a persona.

For me, this means that I can only turn myself “inside out” from a distance, using the tools of language to construct a stage where personal disclosure becomes performance—and the whole messy story of my life is ideally funnelled to a razor-thin, linear trajectory. By performance here I don’t mean deception. In fact, the painful personal narrative can only become honest for a reader through careful assemblage. This means that the persona needs dimension, critical depth, self-reflexivity—the dynamism to spark empathy. Most relevant to my work in Broom Broom, Gornick asserts that “a Mommie Dearest memoire—where the narrator is presented as an innocent and the subject as a monster—[fails] because the situation remains static. For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent.” This deep drama is what I was going for. If I could achieve it—a brutal depiction of the horrors of slowly losing my mother (and myself) to her illness—I felt I had succeeded.

But how does one then tell that the work has succeeded? First, I had to like the poems myself. That’s mysterious as hell—it’s gut instinct informed by hours of reading, thinking, and editing. After publication, however, it’s up to readers. In the end, I suppose writers all succeed on a case-by-case basis. The more cases of identification, the more evidence of the kind of “value to the disinterested reader” that Gornick describes.

If art isn’t therapy, then what is it? And why does it look like therapy at first brush or from a distance?

Art is work. The production of writing is as unglamorous and grueling as any other form of non-manual labour. Poems are hundredth thoughts, thousandth thoughts. They are rewrites. Early mornings, afternoons, and late nights spent alone. It’s not about recovery. In fact, the effort required to re-live experience again and again, attempting to effectively render it into language, can be traumatizing. Art is re-injury.

Therapy happens after work, on personal time. One must pay a therapist—someone trained as an expert listener, educated in helping patients to sort through emotional and psychological distress. It’s a haphazard and groping business to work through grief on a psychologist’s couch. I’m not trying to be dismissive—I’ve seen a handful of counsellors myself over the years. I only want to point out that therapy is a process driven by a self-interested desire to heal and to overcome the private dysfunctions that interfere with daily life.

These things don’t seem analogous to me in the least. Why might they be confused? Perhaps the disruptive potential of art shocks some readers and audience members into assuming blatant revelation should only happen behind closed doors. My 90-year-old grandfather came to my reading in Edmonton. It was the first poetry event he attended in his life. Afterward, he told my uncle, “It takes bravery to be so self-reflexive, to disclose pain so publicly. Thank god everyone’s not like that. The world would be chaos.”

Have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard? 

I’ve been to Winnipeg! Recently I read with you at McNally Robinson, along with Alison Calder and Luann Hiebert. An early mentor, Warren Cariou, is a professor at the University of Manitoba and I felt lucky to see him again at that reading. One of my dearest friends, barbara romanik, lives in Winnipeg. My cousin built his own house on an acreage outside Winnipeg and I stay there when I visit, looking out the kitchen window at horses. Guy Maddin, The Weakerthans, Mondragon (I felt devastated when it closed). The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Adam Beach’s film school for Aboriginal youth. Walking tours of The Exchange District. The Winnipeg Free Press and Jonathan Ball’s excellent poetry reviews. CV2, Clarise Foster, Jennifer Still. The friendliness of friendly Manitoba.  

What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?

For the past two years, I’ve been an interviews editor for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts and it has been exciting and politically energizing to speak with writers and publishers like Alana Wilcox, Sue Sinclair, and Lisa Robertson. As of yesterday, I finished researching and writing an interview with Lee Maracle. The last month has been spent engaging with her numerous published works, her interviews, and her talks available on YouTube. Maracle’s work as an artist, public speaker, and activist has been important to me, and having the opportunity to ask her about her career is a huge honour. It always amazes me that writers like Maracle continue to offer their unpaid time to endeavours like CWILA, to speaking with people like me, because of their dedication to community and service work.

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