Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Dirty Dozen, with Brecken Hancock

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Brecken Hancock

Broom Broom (Coach House Books), the debut collection by Brecken Hancock is one of the season's most lauded poetry titles, praised as a "nervy debut" gifted with a "mythic voice" and dubbed one of the year's most exciting new collections by the Globe and Mail.

Today Brecken takes our Dirty Dozen series and gives it a poetic spin, telling a story of love, travel and natural disasters that took her from Canada to Japan and back again.

  1. Kyoto’s beauty snuck up on me. The downtown core is dominated by its railway station — a monolithic 238,000 square meters, futuristic, irregularly stacked plate-glass cubes supported by a steel frame. Streets fall in a grid, straightforward urban neighbourhoods deceptively easy to navigate. But pocketed away, historic shrines, temples, pagodas, gardens are secreted in its corners, tucked into the city’s folds. This elegance isn’t deliberately concealed, but because it isn’t flagrant many travellers miss it. I’ve heard foreigners complain that Kyoto is ugly, that they quickly moved on to other places in Japan. I stayed. I bought a used bike. The first time I fell in love with the city, I was cycling along the Kamo-gawa at twilight. Sakura blossoms were beginning to bud over the riverside path and lanterns along the western bank lit up restaurant windows and balconies.
  2. I lived in Kyoto with a man I hardly knew, a man who would become my husband.
  3. Japan wasn’t on my wish list. I went because he was there and he was compelling and I was sad and I wanted to escape sadness. I knew nothing. I knew Maru and his boxes. I knew pictures of macaques picking nits in the snowy mountain hot springs.
  4. When the earthquake and tsunami wracked the northeastern coast, we were living in a bachelor apartment in Higashiyama, Kyoto’s “East Mountain” district. We woke up to frantic e-mails and missed Skype calls. We’d spent the previous evening drinking shōchū with a neighbour on the rooftop of our apartment. Are you ok? Yes. Did you feel anything yesterday? Yes, a small rumbling, too common to be alarming. Are you coming home?
  5. We had no television. That night, we drank pints of Asahi at a bar—to be near people, to try to understand what was happening. Local news played on public televisions all around us, but the language barrier prevented us from absorbing any of the official discussion. We saw the pictures though. Pictures were enough.
  6. On a brilliantly sunny day, we walked the green, forested grounds of Nanzen-ji Temple, strolled along the still-running waters of the red brick, 19th-century aqueducts, discussing whether to catch a plane out of the country. To Taiwan. To China. To Indonesia. We disagreed. It was our first fight.
  7. We stayed. That first weekend after, we rode our bicycles to Tenryū-ji, a temple surrounded by rambling gardens heavy with moss and sakura, backdropped by the Arashiyama Mountains. The garden was full: full of people, full of sun, full of gratitude. And full of silence. Everyone was quiet, interacting delicately with one another, whispering against the world splintering open.
  8. Seishōnagon, a first-century writer of zuihitsu, observed, “The road to Kurama is a winding path; at a glance, the distance appears to be quite near, but it is quite far.” A month after the initial disaster, we hiked the tempelled mountain pass at Kurama. We passed other hikers on the switchback, already on their way down. Spirits were elevated — strangers called out to one another and to us, konnichiwa. The last vowel ringing out. I would try to imitate this optimistic, warm timbre when calling back, when using the few Japanese words I can utter—the opportunity to turn a greeting into a held note. Konnichiwaaaaaa. Arigatoooooo. Recognition, appreciation. Ah! Oh!
  9. I can’t story what happened in Japan. From the news, I know one woman’s account: she was in her car, suddenly swept away by thundering, suddenly, suddenly underwater. She can’t remember how she got free, but she remembers the bodies surrounding her body in the water, the deadly debris. Her mantra: up. She swam and she climbed. She grabbed what she could grab and hoisted herself. Up. She doesn’t know what her hands touched, but she clambered over what she grabbed and she climbed. I imagine the steel spears of uprooted traffic lights, the window casings wielding serrated knives of broken glass, the battering rams of floating cars to crumble legs and ribs and faces. She saw a living man, his skull crushed open by a hunk of amputated concrete. Up. She made it to the surface. She scaled the ladder of wreckage that had killed all the others.
  10. 15,885 dead. 6,148 injured. 2,623 missing. A wall of water, reaching heights of up to 40 metres in places, hit Miyako, Kamaishi, Ōfunato, Ishinomaki, Soma, Iwaki. The earthquake moved Honshu 2.4 metres east and shifted the Earth 25 centimetres on its axis. I learned this from Wikipedia.
  11. My lover said: “Today they’ve begun dumping radiated water into the sea.” I went on hanging the laundry.
  12. I was in Japan, on Honshu Island, in the city of Kyoto, in the spring of 2011, but I can’t tell you about the earthquake, the tsunami, the nuclear disaster. I was 1,000 kilometres and a foreign language away. It seems quite near but it was quite far. There was no way to take into my body the understanding of what had happened, what later happened, what is still happening in Fukushima. I was frightened. I was falling in love. During Hanatoro, at Kiyomizudera Temple, we drank from the Otowa Waterfall along with the hundreds of Japanese who had gathered. We drank from the stream meant to grant longevity. We were all standing close together. The city was beautiful. My mouth was hanging open. Horror and ecstasy. O and awe.


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.

Check out all the Dirty Dozen interviews in our archives.

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