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?
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
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.
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
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
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.