Brecken Hancock’s poetry, essays, interviews, and reviews have appeared in Lemon Hound, The Globe and Mail, Hazlitt, and Studies in Canadian Literature. She is Reviews Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine and Interviews Editor for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Her first book of poems, Broom Broom, is out with Coach House Books. She lives in Ottawa.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Publishing my first book has been exhilarating. Coach House was my first choice of publisher and I feel extremely lucky and grateful for the experience of publishing with them. Sometimes I bike to work along the river and the air smells sweeter for having accomplished something that it took a long time to bring to fruition.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
It began with infatuation. I didn’t really know anything about poetry when I was a teenager, but I wanted to. I longed to draw nearer to it. I started scribbling things that I thought were profound. They weren’t. I kept trying. Although I’ve always been a voracious reader of fiction and non-fiction, it was the poetry I was reading that made me want to look for ways to make my poems work. Maybe it’s the versatility of poetry—its shape-shifting, mellifluous ways? Wow. And who doesn’t love rhymes?
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Writing is slow and I’m not prolific. I revise and revise and revise. In my experience, first thoughts are not best thoughts, and I push myself past the first sting of “Ah! A snag in language” to something that brings me closer to the hidden nub of the wound.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a “book” from the very beginning?
For Broom Broom I always knew I was working on a book-length project—although I tried, however unsuccessfully, to work on the individual pieces as discretely from one another as possible. But in the end, each poem had to serve the larger whole or it was cut. The pieces I’m working on now feel different. I don’t have a particular story I’m trying to tell. I’m having much fun with a proliferation of ideas and at this early stage—I love the fact that I have no idea where the new work will lead.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Reading out loud, even at home by myself, fuels my approach whether I’m writing in form, rhyme, or prose. Poetry’s versatility to be both page-bound and ephemerally voiced means that it’s a uniquely liminal genre—somewhere between prose and music, sometimes closer to one or the other. Public readings can feel like a guilty pleasure away from the cavern of production. Oh, yes! This is work too. I’m an extrovert—I love talking to other writers, hearing from other writers, discussing, drinking, joking, staying up late. Sometimes when I’m alone at my computer, I’m dreaming of a time when I’ll have a chance to share the work, to have that ideal experience of connecting with an audience, to feel the words filling up a room.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
This is a complicated question for me and one that I’ve thought a lot about recently. Broom Broom deals explicitly with issues of domestic horror and crises of identity—when the home/self becomes “unhomey,” the uncanny. I wrote extensively about the impetus behind the book in a recent essay for Seventeen Seconds, which, if readers are interested, they can find here: http://www.ottawater.com/seventeenseconds/pdfs/ninthissue.pdf
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I don’t even know how to be a decent human, let alone how to provide advice about what a writer should be up to in the larger culture. Thinking about what it means to be alive is really hard, really painful, I find. I often feel like a scarecrow, stuffed with straw, propped up in my privilege—surveying my “situation” in life. It’s a feeling of a lack of agency. I could say that the power that comes from my privilege is a gift that I can use to make a difference in the world—it’s power that shouldn’t be squandered. But most of the time I’m the one swimming in my own luck and enjoying the luxuries that the colour of my skin and my socio-economic class afford me. I could say, “a writer should be informed and try to do what’s best based on the evidence.” But what does that mean? I know about the oil sands and I still drive a car, still fly on an airplane. Things are troubling and I feel entirely culpable. And I feel trapped in my culpability.
Then we can consider what it means to be a good friend and a trusted loved one. I said something mean about my husband in public recently. I meant it to be funny and it came out entirely wrong. I still think about that. Why does being in this body and brain require my making so many mistakes? Friends are breaking up. Friends’ parents are ill. How can I help? I think it’s so easy to feel despair on both political and personal levels. Writing can’t fix this for me. I can talk about these feelings of inadequacy in my writing, but think there’s a ceiling on what writing can do.
I’ve maybe taken my answer to your question past the point of reason. I’m actually, generally, a happy and grateful person. But nagging questions about responsibility and culpability won’t be defeated easily. You’ve hit a nerve here and I spend a lot of my time stewing in the evils that my way of life ushers into the world. The earth is heating up. The power of storms and lack of resources is what I believe will ultimately prompt systemic action.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It’s hard to jump from the gravity of that last question to this one about process, but here goes: working with an editor is absolutely essential for me. Everything happens in the revision process. I try to act as an outsider to my own work, as much as that is possible, and have learned how to view my work from across the room, so to speak, by paying close attention to how my trusted friends interact with the poems. I’m always poking at the line, tweaking, massaging.
Susan Holbrook was a wonderful editor for Broom Broom; she has a keen ear and eye. In the daily life of my poetry-writing process, I rely on friends Stewart Cole and Jeramy Dodds—we share work, e-mail back and forth, talk on the phone. Pascale McCullough Manning read Broom Broom many times before it went to press—in the early days of getting the book ready, I remember Skyping with her and she had the pages printed out and arranged across her floor. Friendships like these are humbling and necessary. My world would be so much smaller without them. And my husband, Andrew Markle, is always my first reader and sounding board. He’s a fiction writer, so he brings an entirely new perspective to the work. When something is off for him, it’s an early warning sign to go back and re-think.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Never give unsolicited advice.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Poetic critical prose is something I’ve only just started to try my hand at. I used to be a PhD student in English literature and I published a couple of academic articles back in that life—but the poetic essays I’m working on now feel entirely different. I enjoy the challenge.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I have a 9-5 job that dictates what’s possible in terms of writing time. I try to write in the mornings before heading to my job, but I’m not a morning person and progress isn’t stellar. Mornings tend to be best for editing my work, or for making progress on volunteer projects, like editing Arc reviews or preparing for CWILA interviews.
Weekends are essential and my husband and I go to a particular coffee shop that we love to work in and stay for hours every Saturday and Sunday. All my vacation time from my paying job is spent writing, which means I haven’t had any real time off for a few years. We even spent our honeymoon writing at a cottage in Vermont—that’s actually how I finished Broom Broom.
I’ve been lucky though because in the past I’ve had long periods of time away from paying work due to a couple of Canada Council grants and a Saskatchewan Arts Board grant. The bulk of Broom Broom was written while I was able to write full time. That was blissful. I would wake up, have an elaborate breakfast, read poetry in the sun, walk, ride my bike, and use all of that cat-like luxury to fuel my energy for poems.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I wouldn’t really say my writing is ever “stalled.” If writing isn’t progressing, it’s because I’m not working diligently enough. I don’t really believe in inspiration—or rather I believe that inspiration is everywhere. Of course reading is essential. And being out in the world looking at things. But the only way to really get anything done is to sit with my fingers on a keyboard and bang through the frustrations one-on-one with the page.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
My friend, artist Kerri Reid, after reading some of my work about bathtubs, pointed me toward an episode of Art 21 featuring Janine Antoni, whose installation featuring a bathtub full of lard particularly arrested me. After that, I watched every episode of Art 21. So many of the artists talking about their work lent ideas to my poems. Oliver Herring, James Turrell, Sally Mann, Kara Walker, Cai Guo-Quiang, Jenny Holzer.
Oh, and I referenced a Ricky Gervais joke in one of my poems too. Stand up comedy has had an influence on me, although my poems aren’t as funny as I’d like them to be.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
While I was writing Broom Broom, I devoured memoirs and memoir-like texts: Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary; Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights; Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story; Jowita Bydlowska’s Drunk Mom; Lynn Crosbie’s Life is About Losing Everything; Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage; Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story; Patrick Lane’s There is a Season; Édouard Levé’s Suicide; David Wills’s Prosthesis; Kate Zambreno’s Heroines; Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water… I could go on but I’ll end there. I love the memoir form and it’s something I’ll keep returning to.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
BASE jumping. It’s a really bad idea, terrifically dangerous. But when I see videos of BASE jumpers, it looks like ultimate freedom to me. I love their squirrel suits. The super power I always choose is flight.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I think a lot of professions look exciting from afar. Sometimes, even now, I think about going back to school to become a psychologist.
It would be disingenuous of me, however, to call my writing an “occupation”—in that it’s not the principal means by which I earn my living. I’m a business owner, an editor, and a full-time employee at a job where I contribute to public policy. Writing is a career and it’s part of my everyday life, my everyday work, but it’s by no means the only thing I do.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
If I think, specifically, about what made me write, what makes me write, it’s probably about agency. I was really young when I started writing, and at that time I felt alone and angry and silenced. I wanted to speak, even if it was just a voice that echoed back to myself. I started working with words and got hooked. After that, I didn’t really think about why any longer. It’s been over twenty years since I started jotting things down that I thought of as “poems” and only now do I have a first book out in the world. Something kept me going and it wasn’t only the thought of the eventual public presentation of my poems in book form.
I gathered with friends for food and walks a couple of weekends ago. We all work in different genres and forms of expression, from film to visual art to poetry to prose to the undefined. Each of us had stories about being discouraged by teachers and professors—that clichéd story “look to your right and to your left… only one of you will still be here in a few years.” We discussed at length how easy it actually turned out to be to work in the artistic fields—you just have to be flexible about what “working in your field” actually means. I work in my field but I don’t make a living at it. I’ve made peace with that.
And it’s the work of writing that’s always drawn me back. The actual work, words on a page, has been both the easy part and the hard part. It’s hard to keep going in a vacuum and it takes willpower and a sense of self that refuses to forgo expression. On the other hand it’s easy to be a poet: all you have to do is write poetry.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
At the lake this past weekend, I jumped into the water naked after finishing Aisha Sasha John’s Thou.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I just finished editing Jeramy Dodds’s translation of the Poetic Edda—a vivid, brilliant version of the Old Norse poems, out with Coach House this summer.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;