12 or 20 questions: with Phil Hall
Phil Hall was born in 1953 & raised on farms in the Kawarthas region of Ontario. He attended the University of Windsor in the 70s, where he received an MA in English & Creative Writing.
His first book, Eighteen Poems, was published in Mexico City in 1973.
Since then he has published 13 other books of poems, 4 chapbooks, & a cassette of labour songs.
He is also a publisher of broadsides & chapbooks under his Flat Singles Press imprint.
In the early 80s he was a member of The Vancouver Industrial Writers’ Union. In the early 90s he was Literary Editor at This Magazine, & also edited a shortlived literary journal called Don’t Quit Yr Day-Job.
Among his titles are: Homes (1979), Old Enemy Juice (1988), The Unsaid (1992), & Hearthedral—A Folk-Hermetic (1996).
Trouble Sleeping (2000) was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for poetry.
In 2005, Brick Books (celebrating 20 years as Hall’s publisher) brought out An Oak Hunch, which was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2006.
Hall has taught writing & literature at the Kootenay School of Writing, York University, Ryerson Polytechnical University, & many colleges.
He has been poet-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario, the Sage Hill Writing Experience (Sask.), The Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon, & elsewhere.
This fall (2007), Book Thug will publish Hall’s new long poem, White Porcupine, & also issue a revised second edition of his essay/poem, The Bad Sequence.
Over the years, Hall has collected two full decks of random playing cards from the streets, numerous albums of found photographs, & too many boxes of paper ephemera. He calls all this junk “The Pedestrian Archives.”
He is learning to play clawhammer banjo.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
It arrived on a bus from Mexico City to Windsor, Ontario, 1973.
I spread copies of Eighteen Poems out on my cot in residence. I got down on my knees. I smelled them.
It was a dreadful little book. Already, I knew that. I loved its typos.
Until then I had thought it was easy.
2 - How long have you lived in Toronto, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
I have lived in Toronto since 1985, amazingly, because I grew up only two hours north of here,
& when the Guidance Counselor in high school asked where I wanted to go, I said, “Which university is furthest away?”
Toronto, for years, was just a place to take a leak between Windsor & Bobcaygeon.
I grew up on various farms between Bobcaygeon & Fenelon Falls, & when I fall asleep I go back there to walk around. I suspect my brain contours match that landscape: Red Rock, Bury’s Green, Martin’s Creek. I would prefer they didn’t.
I have outgrown my urge to apologize for being male, although there is much always to apologize for. As I get older, I feel more ashamed of being white & speaking only English. When I grew up where I did, there were only Scottish Presbyterians & Baptists. The towns were dry. My dad hated Catholics.
When a teacher asked my daughter what religion her family was, Brette said, “I’m not sure, but I think my dad said we were Pedestrians.”
These race & gender & geographic issues mean that I write from a very cramped position. Shame & guilt are at war in each line. Any pride I muster has a slow hole in it.
My early closed poems used to hiss & deflate as I worked on them with gum & rasp & patch, but open & long forms have allowed all that old stale air to be the element I sail on instead of the substance I carry.
3 - 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?
Although I haven’t titled individual poems in years, I often work from titles. As phrases strike me, I try them as titles; it’s a way to put a tracking light on them to see how they look & sound.
Because the autonomy of each line matters to me, I work epigraphically. So the challenge is to avoid sounding definite.
Yes, I write bits & pieces & slowly begin to figure out / make up their relationships to each other.
A title is often an early bag or drawer into which notebook lines & stanzas go.
But the aim is always a book because each book is a door I go through & grow through.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
Readings are entertainments. I used to think that poems were too, but that was when I wrote for praise.
I like to entertain people, but I don’t kid myself: a poet’s depth or sensitivity or craft cannot be conveyed from a stage. People just can’t hear very deeply or widely in such a setting.
They can be flattered into laughter. Their nostalgia bones can be poulticed or slapped. A ritual of sacred sharing can be invited.
But writing poems is about being alone with focus.
5 - 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?
Error is character. Rhythm is knowledge. The words & the letters are interchangeable.
As I say in An Oak Hunch, I am trying to “build lack into a merit of language.” To achieve
the Music of Error.
My limitations & failings have the urge to sing & find family within the history of literature.
An important issue is that blood means nothing. Heritage & lineage are oppressive antiques.
Relation is psychological, & not even limited by Time. If I say Dr Johnson is my father, he is.
I am trying to understand & outgrow myself by using musical integrity as a tool. But if you quote me, I'll deny it. I'll say, "Duh."
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Because I work in long forms, & am a nervous lout who finds his calm in submerged tinkering, I can’t see what I’m doing most of the time. So my editors have been essential to me. They show me what I’ve been up to. What I’ve made becomes what we can make of it together.
While midwifing a manuscript into book form, they transfocus the long poem’s nail-biting privacy. They invite it into community.
When I see the finished book, I often think that other names should be on the cover too.
7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, doyou find the process of book-making harder or easier?
It was easier to make a book early on when I worked in closed forms.
When I wrote “square ones” as I call them now, all it took to make a book, seemingly, was to have enough of them. For a book of closed lyrics the order is essentially arbitrary. They don’t really need each other too much. (The anthologies like it that way.)
But at some point the safes turned to water! An open lyric has traded its safety for harmony. Then the poems in a book lean in to the microphone together. That’s harder.
And if we’re talking open long forms, the problems of sound co-ordination become symphonic.
Then the only way a poem feels finished is by physical changes, a phase of craziness ends; I’ve changed my tone & preoccupations one morning…
8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
An over-ripe pear for each of my hands to squeeze until the urge to just use someone passes.
(His big pain is a one-winged hornet trying to wear a fallen pear as a helmet.)
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When I lived in Windsor, one time Eugene McNamara & Alistair MacLeod & I drove to Ann Arbor to hear William Stafford read. That night what I remember him advising us all to do is: “Listen to the vowels.” I try to.
The line that really haunts me though is Simone Weil’s “All diversion is suicide.”
To counter it, my mantra these days is Robert Kroetsch’s (that’s where I found it) “Poet, no thyself.”
10 - 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 work from notebooks. I keep the notebooks nearby all the time. I work in the mornings if I can.
I keep a rough draft in the notebook as long as possible to see if it’s going to die on me. This keeps the early workings closer to drawing, more physical, less technical.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When all my new poems are crap, I tell myself that this is an important phase: I’m no longer satisfied with what I have been writing, & I haven’t figured out how to achieve a different poem yet.
I call this “Pickle Time”. Something is stewing. Something I don’t know is coming. So far it always has.
It may still be crap, but the results start to satisfy me more & more.
12 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
I have learned to equate change with health, so if a new book looks different when I throw its bones, if it sounds different that the books before it (as I feel different from the guy who wrote those other stinkers), then I think the process (for all its slumps & doubts) is evolving healthily.
13 - 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?
What really delights me is the musical equivalent of outsider art: amateur songs sung with little or no accompaniment or talent, in every country, in every period of history, the cruder the better.
Jazz: Mingus, David Murray, Jerry Gonzalez, Sarah Vaughan. A lack of caution from moment to moment, word to word, that’s what I’m trying to learn here.
Paint & line swamp me. I let them. In Canada: Greg Curnoe, Joyce Wieland, Jean-Paul Riopelle.
Animals come to the church in the wildwood, & I come to paper.
The Periodic Table is my ground-sheet flag.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The major Ontario voices are important to me: Alice Munro, James Reaney, Al Purdy, Dionne Brand. My friends Erin Moure & Tom Wayman, have been influential too.
Much of Canadian poetry is imitative, so I try to mostly read outside of Canada, absorb the sources.
Clayton Eshleman has been a big influence. As has Odysseas Elytis. Susan Howe. Medbh McGuckian.
Early on I was a huge fan of Philip Levine’s, Anne Sexton’s, Doctor Williams’s, Shelley’s.
Like everyone, I go through enthusiasms that are determined by what is happening or trying to happen in my own work at the time. I burn through other writers until I exhaust their worth for me. If someone mentions a writer I haven’t heard of, I go find them & read them. Because I grew up in an un-booked home, I’m insecure enough of my bookishness to not want to miss anyone that might be just who I need…
The point is never hero worship, but rather a voraciousness that keeps my own work flowing & changing.
As a kid, it was animal fiction: The Yearling, Silver Chief, Beautiful Joe, Rascal. . .
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to leave Ontario, leave Canada, leave North America & never come back. Ireland. Greece. A portable kayak & a good pen.
But I’d like to see my daughter & step-son graduate from university. My older son is drywalling Calgary; sometimes he calls. My kids have been essential anchors. And there have been other things holding me back over the years.
I’d like to visit Vienna; maybe I can do that. The Wiener Werkstatte, Klimt, Hundertwasser, Schiele, Schubert, Bernhard…but I’ll end up coming back to this embarrassment of a country. I’m stuck here.
My voice is stuck here, & that is its dilemma-merit.
16 - 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?
If I hadn’t gotten through high school & away to university, if I hadn’t educated myself (with help) out of my class & region…well, I’m no good at anything else. But I often wish that I did something I wasn’t ashamed of, something solid & respected & visible, like cabinet making, or stained-glass work.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
At first the voice was conscience, yelling. Then a distracted, dithyrambic irreverence. Then the voice found defiance & wouldn’t stop singing. I used to turn vinyl with my finger on a broken turn-table to try to sustain some gravelly semblance of life-line to intensity somewhere. If I hadn’t listened & begun to write I’d be dead. (So what does quality matter?)
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Alma, or the Dead Women. Alice Notley. New York City: Granary Books, 2006.
Sweet Charity, Shirley MacLaine, 1968, directed by Bob Fosse (his first?), based on Fellini’s Nights in Calabria (an even greater film). Shirley sells dances instead of sex, so the bathos is turned down from the original, & there’s an outlandish cameo by Sammy Davis Jr (he’s a hippy priest) that seems an incongruous nod to the times now, but MacLaine’s vibrancy, & Fosse’s choreography, colour-work, & use of stills, are all enduringly stunning.
Generally, though, I prefer cheesy B films whose flaws have a glow that seems to come directly from the collective unconscience.
19 - What are you currently working on?
Just what the world needs.
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