25th Trillium Award

Poets in Profile: Brecken Hancock

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Brecken Hancock

In today's Poets in Profile interview, Ottawa poet and dog-walker Brecken Hancock explains how poetry is the hero's final challenge: the mirror that reveals the deepest self. To prove it, she shares with us the poem that keeps her up at night, the line that she covets and the manuscript she threw out on the way to Broom Broom, forthcoming with Coach House Books.

Brecken's chapbook, The Art of Plumbing, has just been published with above/ground press. She launches the book in Ottawa at The Factory Reading Series on Friday, February 22 alongside Abby Paige, Hugh Thomas and Michael Blouin. Visit our Events page for details.

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Brecken Hancock:

When I was eight, I loved The Neverending Story. During one crucial sequence, the hero must survive two challenges: after narrowly escaping the first, he faces the second test, a mirror. His two friends, watching from afar, discuss his plight: ?[He] has to face his true self?. Kind people find out that they are really cruel. Brave men discover that they are really cowards. Confronted with their true self, most men run away screaming.?

As a kid, it was difficult for me to understand how looking in a mirror constituted a heroic challenge, how it could lead to madness. This problem continued to worry me. The internal battle isn?t something you can film; it?s something that happens inside the hero. I badly wanted to look in that mirror, to be that kind of hero.

I?m invested in the tension between fa├žade and confession, bravado and vulnerability. My poems are one way that I hold a mirror up to my bad parts, and I think poetry offers a potent means for exposing an internal landscape that?s not available narratively.


What is the first poem you remember being affected by?


?Some One? by Walter de la Mare kept me up at night. I loved the borderland between fantasy and horror and made my grandma read it over and over. There isn?t necessarily anything to be worried about: the poem doesn?t ever present an actual threat. But it?s the not knowing that eats away at you:

Someone came knocking;
I?m sure-sure-sure;
I listened, I opened,
I looked to left and right,
But nought there was a stirring
In the still dark night.

I still love this poem. Although commentary on my earliest experiences of poetry is bound to be fraught with anachronism, I tend to think that, as a child, I was already intrigued by the supernatural — inspired by the instability of perception, attracted by that wiggly feeling that wells up when what we don?t know has more power to fuel our imagination than what we can see and name.


What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?


I?m embarrassed to say — partly because it feels too obvious and partly because it looms so large in the canon — but I?m going to be truthful and just come out with it: ?Daddy? by Plath. Working on some of the poems in Broom Broom, I would come back to ?Daddy? and scour it for its secrets. Writing about parental abuse presents a tricky problem: how to confess and at the same time transcend the personal? How to lay bare and at the same time claim power? Exploiting words-as-material rather than using words to create narrative brings one a long way toward a solution — for me, there?s nothing better than the carefully controlled pain of that opening line, rendered exquisitely and intuitively in sound: ?You do not do, you do not do.?


What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?


Plumbing websites.


What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?


I?ve seen shades of this answer here before: I work on it and I wait. I?ve waited a long time to put out a first book; in fact, my first book isn?t coming out for another year and although it?s ?done,? I?m still working on it.

About three years ago, I threw out a manuscript because it just didn?t feel right. Rather than remain a slave to earlier versions of work, I allowed failure to enter the picture. I started from scratch. Most of Broom Broom has been written in the past three years and The Art of Plumbing, my chapbook that just came out with above/ground, was about two years in the making. In my experience, poetry takes a long time.


What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?


Stewart Cole?s Questions in Bed and Brenda Shaughnessy?s Our Andromeda. I can?t help but mention a few others. Things that never stray far from my desk: Susan Holbrook?s Joy is so Exhausting; Jim Harrison?s Songs of Unreason; Kay Ryan?s The Best of It; Lisa Jarnot?s Black Dog Songs; and C. D. Wright?s Rising, Falling, Hovering.


What is the best thing about being a poet?and what is the worst?


I?m still thinking carefully about this. My impulse is to steal Matthew Tierney?s answer: ?Best thing: success. / Worst thing: failure.? Matthew goes on to expand what he means by success, and I appreciate his interpretation. I?m also interested in how poems embody both success and failure simultaneously.

When I look at my own work, say my finished manuscript, I see both success and failure residing in its fabric. I like the book; I like my poems, but I can see weaknesses too and I can see the ways in which these individual poems can?t answer for the more intangible ?something? I wanted to get down on paper. Some days, I?d go so far as to say I hate the sound of my own voice coming back at me. The poems themselves are the best and the worst thing.

Brecken Hancock?s poetry, essays, interviews and reviews have appeared in Event, CV2, Grain, The Fiddlehead and Studies in Canadian Literature. She is Reviews Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine and Interviews Editor for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. The Art of Plumbing, her most recent chapbook, is out with above/ground press and her first full-length manuscript of poems, Broom Broom, is forthcoming with Coach House Books. She lives and walks dogs in Ottawa.

For more information about The Art of Plumbing please visit the above/ground press website.

To order, send cheques (add $1 for postage; outside Canada, add $2) to: rob mclennan, 402 McLeod St #3, Ottawa ON K2P 1A6 or paypal at www.robmclenan.blogspot.ca

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