Brecken Hancock

Haiku Haiku

Nancy Jo Cullen on Brecken Hancock’s “Haiku Haiku”

Arc Poetry Magazine has been involved with VERSeFest, Ottawa’s annual international festival of poetry, since its inception. So it is fitting that we are publishing Brecken Hancock’s “Haiku Haiku,” a celebration of the poets and poetry of VERSeFest 2021. “Haiku Haiku” is an engaging study of poetic voice, as is her introduction to the poem, where the poet breaks down her writing process. Brecken’s introduction invites us to think about how a poem works, how a poet works, and how a gathering of poets works to foster much-needed conversation and community. “Haiku Haiku” is a celebration of this potential.   

Preface to “Haiku Haiku”

As the VERSeFest 2021 poet-in-residence, I was commissioned to write a poem in response to the festival. To find a way to adequately engage with the incredible lineup of poets, and the experience of hearing their work at the 20 festival events, I wanted to bring the more than 70 voices together in a collective study. I recorded the titles of writers’ featured books (or, in some cases, the title of the first piece they read in their performances, if they hadn’t launched a book yet) as a list, one title stacked on another and so on. I also surveyed the diversity of languages represented, including for poets who wrote in one language but noted in their bios or in their performances their identification with another language. These two lists formed the basis of the conceptual exercise: I used an online translator to run the list of works through the series of languages and finally, because I’m an anglophone poet working in English, I translated them all into English. Some titles are unrecognizable, some bear their own shadow, and some were virtually unchanged by the process.

From there, I tasked myself to keep the phantom titles intact (in terms of word order, not meaning or grammar), but I juxtaposed them in new ways until they gelled. I did not adhere to punctuation or case. In two places, the translations resulted in words that exist in no language, and I left them. Significantly, I must note that while there are online dictionaries containing some Algonquin and Cree translations, there are no AI translators of either Algonquin or Cree. Louise Bernice Halfe’s (Sky Dancer’s) awâsis – kinky and dishevelled translated to “confusion collected by awasis.” Thus, awâsis did not translate from its original Cree, other than to lose the circumflex, and remains mostly intact—it means “a child.”

Once I started playing within these constraints, another filter arose organically. Dave Read’s Fifty at Fifty: My Haiku and Jeanne Painchaud’s Mon été haïku became 50 to 50: My haiku and, simply, season elided, my haiku. These were the only signposts of poetic form, and they were duplicative, insistent. Late in the process, the poem seemed to assert that it wanted to be a series of haiku. This changed the rhythms again, and in some cases forced me into new re-arrangements. While my earlier rules didn’t allow for all stanzas to fall into perfect 5/7/5 syllabic patterns, I tried to remain true to the mood of haiku—something terse but rich.

Taken together, these metamorphic titles speak to a collective anxiety about poetry’s use-value in the face of intractable disease, systemic racism, institutionally sanctioned violence, climate change, and other trauma. We’ve been living through three years of a global pandemic now, and, at the time I wrote this VERSeFest poem (February 2022), we’d plummeted toward possible world war. That threat continues to loom, as do many compounding, ever increasing, threats to civil rights, environmental health, and our very survival.

It’s not a new question, but it persists: do we need more poetry? What I know from working with these poets’ words is that *we* need it—those of us who gather together to share our work and hold each other up. Probably each of us has a voice in our minds that tells us poems are unwanted. But we grapple with that voice, and, in the end, the existential argument itself is what fuels us to record what we see, and to record what we feel about what we see. Is there another way? Not for us. We look out at the world and it moves us to despair, but also strange forms of joy—and always awe. We come back to the page; we write more about it.

Brecken Hancock
Ottawa, June, 2023

Haiku Haiku

I have something to
tell you, Frank. Carrot-red dress
on the body of

our Plexiglas
tower: the trash is awake
& viruses make

little wolves to get
used to. The first 3 months, I
slept slowly. Fear of

the future (an
escalator) put the devil
in us. Welcome, Cyrus—

most Anglo-Saxon
Ottawa, everything we
think: Me. I have a

painful allergy
to my roots; you want to be
someone else.


Walt Whitman told me
directly, poems are un-
wanted, cosmos’

letter is boring.
Stop presenting the latest
women’s poetry

in Quebec 2000-
2020. No false
interview with a
Canadian author
on differences in writing

garden &
accompanying booklet).
Biographical words—

these are cancer, black
roots & yellow leaves. Me, you
& Shelley know that life.


Is a rainbow 50
to 50 grace & fear? Earth 
enters the radar—

unknown country, magic,
its black salt, the south wind.
Exposure’s the reason

for the flower.
You know the ground stars:
orange begonia.


Get out of here
ASAP—do you want
to burn?


features boredom & my, my
the poems are unusual.

It’s not good to ask—
Diggrafxt? Intuki? Word
problem. Confusion
collected by awasis’
gloves. Cut down a tree. Visit
zoo attractions. Carry

on, planet earth. It’s
very important. Honestly:
eat, or we’re both

hungry—With love, from
Pine Crest Creek; St. Boniface;
Kerry; Africa.


Is, like, a dream
beyond my heart provincial

A healthy life?
The debt I don’t understand?
My feelings’ use of

the site? Is TV the light
of love? Answer from you: No.
Write more about it.


Photo of Brecken Hancock, in a room with light coloured walls. Brecken is wearing a dark shirt and thick rimmed glasses. Her hair is long and brown. Brecken is looking at the camera.

Brecken Hancock is a poet, essayist and screenwriter whose work has appeared in TolkaHazlitt, Best American Experimental Writing, and Best Canadian Poetry. Her first book, Broom Broom (Coach House, 2014), won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, was shortlisted for the ReLit Award, and was named by The Globe & Mail as a debut of the year. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, was a finalist for the RBC Emerging Artist Award, and read at the American Library of Congress in Washington D.C. as part of the US/Canada Capital Poetry Exchange. Brecken’s screenplay “Don’t Tell Me How Nice It’s Gonna Be” was a finalist in the 2022 SWN Screenplay Competition & quarterfinalist for Final Draft’s Big Break. She lives in Ottawa.

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