Poetry Primer #6: Damian Rogers & Brecken Hancock

April 13, 2015

Damian Rogers is entrenched in Canadian poetry as the poetry editor at House of Anansi and as the creative director of Poetry in Voice, a national recitation contest for Canadian high school students. What better person to select an emerging new voice for our National Poetry Month celebrations? Damian selected Brecken Hancock of Ottawa, Ontario as an emerging voice to watch out for. Hancock's debut collection, Broom Broom, was selected as one of the National Post's top 5 books of poetry for 2014.

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Damian Rogers is entrenched in Canadian poetry as the poetry editor at House of Anansi and as the creative director of Poetry in Voice, a national recitation contest for Canadian high school students. What better person to select an emerging new voice for our National Poetry Month celebrations? Rogers's own poetry has been previously nominated for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, for her collection Paper Radio (ECW Press), and her latest collection was just published by Coach House Books this spring, Dear Leader.

Damian selected Brecken Hancock of Ottawa, Ontario as an emerging voice to watch out for. Hancock's debut collection, Broom Broom, was selected as one of the National Post's top 5 books of poetry for 2014. Since 2012, Hancock has been the reviews editor for ARC Poetry Magazine and the interviews editor for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Previously nominated for the Pushcart Prize and longlisted for Best Canadian Poetry, Hancock is only at the start of what is sure to be a long literary career!

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Damian Rogers on why she selected Brecken Hancock or, in the Bath with Brecken Hancock’s Broom:

I have read Brecken Hancock’s startling debut collection, Broom Broom, several times in the bathtub, which is — as those who have read her poem X, a harrowing and skillful inventory of historical bathtub lore, will know — sort of the perfectly perverse place to do this. Baths are a big deal in Broom Broom. In the bath, you are submerged; you are able to (briefly) escape the domestic pressures of the family while remaining trapped in the house. A bath soothes, a bath drowns out. It’s no accident that harried housewives are often depicted retreating under a blanket of commercially packaged, chemically produced bubbles. And it’s no accident how many accidents happen in the bath. It’s a feminine space, a womb, a vessel. It’s as far away as some women can run within the hold of the house. The bath has been the site of cleansing, rebirth, ritual ceremony, and no small number of murders.

The claustrophobia of the childhood home is mirrored (sometimes through the literal image of mirrors) throughout Hancock’s first collection. As a poet, she is unafraid to use and sometimes subvert received forms. Hancock yokes the ferocity of her emotional terrain with technical control, a control I’m confident will only grow stronger throughout her career. I admire the way she integrates her sense of rhythm with her sense of (dark) humour — she has great timing. And she is willing to not only document the most frightening experiences with compassion, she has the true courage to implicate herself, something we don’t always see in poets of witness. There is a lot of work in her work, which in turn offers the reader a model for the ongoing struggle to elevate and forgive.

Hancock’s work is feminist, intense, unapologetic, and deeply involved with the world outside the self. In her first book, she navigates dangerous ground by examining the overlapping relationship between troubled mother and troubled daughter. She is clear in how we wound each other, through love and sickness. She asks the hardest questions: How do we negotiate the bonds we did not choose? And how do we reconcile the pain we feel with our gradual understanding that those who hurt us are often victims themselves? To write honestly about the wounded and wounding mother is to perform a public betrayal. It is also a matter of survival. I’m grateful for Hancock’s insistence on survival and also for the artfulness with which she betrays the part of herself that resists this survival. It’s rare to see this level of risk married to such skill. 

Work like this opens doors. Young poets — young women — need to see that this kind of survival is possible; it provides the necessary permission to speak. People are driven mad — made sick — by the pressure to not tell stories that don’t line up with comfortable narratives about the family. In the right hands, powerful art rises out of the internal battle to get the truth out, even if the truth is, as it always is, messy. Hancock reminds us that poets can transform that mess into beauty. And that’s an act of grace, the work of healing.

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Brecken Hancock on why she writes poetry & who her influences are:

I’ve thought a lot about what drew me, what drove me to poetry. Elsewhere I’ve talked about agency, writing to hear my voice enter the world. I’ve also talked about the unique qualities of poetry that make it attractive to me: rhymes, plasticity of form, sounds and letters as raw material, the written word processed directly as experience. Thinking back though, trying to remember the inception, I’m struck to recall that I wrote my first poem at 13—for a school assignment. It was six lines or something and I think it was about the wind, or a beautiful day, or maybe the beach. Sifting through memory, I realize that, until then, poetry had seemed completely alien to me: elite, impenetrable, ornate, anachronistic, boring. This was simple ignorance, a lack of exposure to writers who would later move me. But at the time I was firmly dismissive. When I wrote that first, short, light poem, I was cheeky, deliberately saccharine, disingenuous. I didn’t think it was possible to write a good poem, so I limped through the task.

But when my teacher returned the work, she praised me. Rather than feel snarky (that I had fooled her), I was empowered—it seemed I had stumbled onto a phrase that held weight. I looked again at my effort and began to see possibilities, the way words might be rearranged to even greater effect. It was intoxicating, world-building. I recognized the potential: poetry and its limitless modes of expression suddenly became available to me, equipping me with the means to confront and cope with a sad and confusing and unjust world. I turned toward atmospheres that genuinely engaged me, started jotting things down that pushed at profundity, morbidity, depression. None of these early attempts succeeded, but through developing a practice and cultivating patience, I eventually, twenty years later, found I had snagged onto something worth nurturing.

The reasons to make art, and the way that effective art gets made, are twinned mysteries. I doubt anyone compelled to create, of whatever variety and whatever potency, would be able to answer this question accurately. For me: why poetry? Truly, I have no idea. It seems so inevitable that the impetus is shrouded from view. Was it that assignment? That teacher? Or would I have found my way to Broom Broom, my first book of poems, regardless of these accidents?

It seems crucial, finally, to speak of influences, for after I became infatuated with poetry in the abstract, only encounters with other writers could flesh out that affair and initiate me into a relationship with words, lines, poems, books: Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Yoko Ono, C. D. Wright, Mary Ruefle, Brenda Shaughnessy, Lisa Jarnot, Suzanne Buffam, Kay Ryan, Inger Christensen, Jenny Holzer, Lisa Robertson, Susan Holbrook, Margaret Christakos, Anne Carson, Eula Biss, Rebecca Solnit, Leslie Jamison, Joan Didion, so, so many more.

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Are you loving our National Poetry Month celebrations? Don't forget you can extend the experience with some poetic merch or our NPM anthology, ibid.!


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