Friday, April 19, 2024

ANYWORD: A FESTSCHRIFT FOR PHIL HALL, eds. Mark Goldstein and Jaclyn Piudik


It must be noted that Hall is one of the most widely and deeply read people I know. Years after he won the Governor General’s Award, he told me that, “It’s very, very difficult to recognize a good work.” Moreover, Hall has a Master’s degree which he completed at the University of Windsor in the 1970s. No small feat, considering Hall was the first person in his family to finish high school. When I asked Hall why he didn’t pursue a PhD (which he’d considered) he said, “Because I didn’t want it to dry me out.”

The idea for this Festschrift was inspired in 2021 by the publishing efforts of the inimitable polymath Nick Drumbolis and his remarkable imprint LETTERS. And though this Festschrift is a gathering of writings for Hall as he turns 70, it is not a birthday party. It is an opportunity to give thanks for the years of steady friendship, mentorship, and work that he has provided. (Mark Goldstein, “Preface”)

I’m not usually in the habit of reviewing a collection I have work in, but recently a Canadian contemporary said they didn’t know what a “festschrift” was, so thought that prompt enough to discuss the recent ANYWORD: A FESTSCHRIFT FOR PHIL HALL, eds. Mark Goldstein and Jaclyn Piudik (Toronto ON: Beautiful Outlaw Press, 2024). Unlike the more formal essay series produced by, say, Guernica Editions (another essential grouping of responses), the literary festschrift allows for more of a range of responses-as-celebration, from the critical to the creative and all between, from essays and interviews to small memoir pieces, poems and photographs.

Festschrifts produced by a trade publisher do occasionally (very occasionally) emerge, but over the past few decades in Canadian writing, at least, it had been the journals doing the bulk of this kind of work, with a variety of special issues through The Capilano Review focusing on works by Robin Blaser, George Stanley [see my review of such here], Sharon Thesen [see my review of such here] and George Bowering, among others, or Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory (1965-2013), a journal that included special festschrift issues on bpNichol, Steve McCaffery [see my review of such here], Barbara Godard [see my review of such here] and Ray Ellenwood, not to mention a variety of other journals over the years that have less frequently featured special issues on particular writers, whether Arc Poetry Magazine on Erín Moure, Prairie Fire on Dennis Cooley or The Chicago Review on Lisa Robertson [see my review of such here], etcetera. Given how far the festschrift seems to have fallen by the wayside (mainly through a slow decrease of proper publisher funding and that 1990s drop-off in library funding, which reduced their purchasing power), I began producing a series of similar chapbook-sized festschrift publications during the Covid-era through above/ground press (I thought the Covid period could use some increased positive)—the “Report from the Society” series—with more than a dozen published volumes to-date, which also includes one on the work of Phil Hall (a reworked version of Susan Gillis’ piece from mine appears in this current collection).

There might be those who recall A Trip Around McFadden (Toronto ON: The Front Press/Proper Tales Press, 2010), the festschrift produced by Stuart Ross and Jim Smith to celebrate David W. McFadden’s 70th birthday, or the combined four hundredth issue of 1cent/thirteenth issue of news notes that jwcurry produced on the work of Judith Copithorne (“for Judith with love”) [see my review of such here], but how many might recall Raging Like a Fire: A Celebration of Irving Layton (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 1993), the festschrift edited by Henry Beissel and Joy Bennett? There are probably others, naturally, that I’m either unaware of, or simply can’t recall at the moment, but either way, there simply aren’t as many out there as should be. Volumes such as these are important parts of literary conversation and acknowledgement (as are volumes of selected poems, something that occurs far less since the Governor General’s Award declared them ineligible for consideration back in the late 1990s), none of which is occurring nearly enough, so a volume on award-winning Perth, Ontario poet, critic, editor, mentor and teacher Phil Hall, especially one so brilliantly and thoroughly done, becomes an essential commodity.

In many ways, one can’t get much better than the short essay “Landscapes,” by Br. Lawrence Morey, a contributor who lives as a Trappist monk at the monastery of Gethsemani in Kentucky, that opens: “I first became aware of Phil Hall’s existence when I was in grade 9 and he was in grade 10. I had taken out the book Cariboo Horses by Al Purdy from the school library, which I loved. Those were the days in which you would write your name in the back of the book on a small, pasted-in form, along with the due date, which corresponded to a card in the librarian’s files. In front of my name on the form, I saw the name Phil Hall. I knew Phil to see him, but didn’t dare approach him, since I was a mere 9th grader and he lived at the exalted level of the 10th grade.” This particular perspective on Hall’s ongoing work is wonderful (and Morey’s biographical detail, itself, provides a curious insight into Hall’s Gethsemani sequence), as Morey writes, later on:

            Though poetry is Phil’s main medium, he also loves to make quirky sculptures out of found objects, bottle caps, paperclips, and other things. Like the work of Kurt Schwitters, his sculptures grow like living creatures. His journals are a mixture of writing, drawing, and pasted words and images. I think this reflects his working methods beautifully. In everything he does, he takes disparate pieces of things, letters, words, phrases, sequences, and molds them into something new, something surprising and revelatory.

Over the past decade, Toronto poet, editor, critic, publisher and book designer Mark Goldstein has evolved into one of Hall’s most thoroughly-considered supporters and critics, having now produced three full-length collections by Hall through his Beautiful Outlaw Press—Toward a Blacker Ardour (2021), The Ash Bell (2022) and Vallejo’s Marrow (2024)—as well as a chapbook (Essay on Legend, 2014) and postcard (Rampant, 2022) in small editions. Produced and co-edited by Goldstein, ANYWORD: A FESTSCHRIFT FOR PHIL HALL may be wonderfully expansive and even exhaustive, but it should be noted that his own contributions include the essay “A Maker’s Dozen: from Eighteen Poems to Killdeer,” a whopping sixty-six page essay that examines, as he writes at the offset, “Phil Hall’s published body of work from 1973 to 2011. With a focus on form (as well as syntax and subject), I will investigate Hall’s line through thirteen trade editions and how it changed over the nearly forty-year span since he first saw his work published.” Living writers, especially those still active and engaged, are rarely provided such thorough, thoughtful examination, and Goldstein should be commended for not only this piece, but his ongoing critical work, which itself is provided not nearly as much attention as it deserves [see my review of his 2021 Part Thief, Part Carpenter: SELECTED POETRY, ESSAYS, AND INTERVIEWS ON APPROPRIATION AND TRANSLATION, produced through Beautiful Outlaw as well, here]. As Goldstein writes as part of his lengthy essay:

            To be clear, by employing the term poetic form, I am pointing to the structural and organizational patterns of a poem, including its (subtle or more obvious) rhyme scheme, meter, stanza structure, lineation, sentence structure, and other elements that shape its overall configuration and design on the page. In light of free verse, poetic form has played a significant role in the development of contemporary poetry, as poets like Hall have experimented with new forms and pushed the boundaries of traditional structures to create highly readable yet neoteric and innovative styles of writing.
            As I’ll show in this essay, Hall’s sense of form was first influenced by both traditional and modern forms of poetry found within the canon, and later it was increasingly written in concert and conversation with contemporary and postmodern poetry itself. Hall is a careful reader of all types of poetry (and literature) and has thought deeply about form. He has considered his own use of free verse and, rather than adhering to accepted rules or anti-rules of meter and rhyme – whether outmoded or contemporary – he has, over time, experimented with myriad structures and patterns in his poetic line. This has likely afforded Hall a greater flexibility in expressing his ideas and emotions in poetry. This has also pushed him to develop new poetic forms of his own design, as well adapt or redeploy older ones – such as the prose poem and the haibun – to his own unique use. Moreover, Hall has slowly gravitated toward an expansive use of his own idiosyncratic forms and sub-forms which are drawn from the dictates and necessities of his own poetry’s deployment.
            Against a more prescribed approach to form, Hall has said, “What are we making? Sausage?”

At more than three hundred pages and twenty-six contributors, ANYWORD: A FESTSCHRIFT FOR PHIL HALL includes poems, essays, reminiscences and interviews by George Bowering, Erín Moure, Don McKay, Sandra Ridley, George Stanley, Steven Ross Smith, Tom Dilworth, Cameron Anstee, Br. Lawrence Morey, Mark Goldstein, Susan Gillis, myself, luke hathaway, Nicole Markotić, Fred Wah, Louis Cabri, Karl Jirgens, Arthur Craven, Chris Turnbull, Ali Blythe, John Steffler, Pearl Pirie, Donald Winkler, Ronna Bloom, Andrew Vaisius and Angela Carr, as well as an array of photographs of Hall over the years—including an early 1980s photo at Michael McNamara’s apartment on page 272 where he looks the spitting image of a late 2000’s former Ottawa poet Jesse Patrick Ferguson—and a healthy bibliography of Hall’s published work. The responses run the gamut from the personal to the intimate to the critical and the celebratory (with most incorporating most if not all of those features), many of which I’m still working my slow way through reading [the video of the zoom-launch for the collection, which included readings by Hall, Moure, Blythe, Ridley and myself, is now online]. As Angela Carr writes to introduce the first of two interviews she conducted with Hall: “Phil Hall is to poetry in Canada what style is to reason.” The essay by Pearl Pirie is easily the strongest critical work I’ve seen by her to date, and both Moure and Blythe offer pieces that delight in their scale and intimate scope. The collected pieces offer such appreciation and delight, attempting to share or discern the shapes of how Hall reacts, presents and writes, and both the generosity and curiosity of a writer decades-deep into an appreciation of how the poem moves, or might move, or could move. It becomes hard to highlight much in this collection without wanting to reproduce whole pages, which I won’t do here, but I shall leave the last words to Hall himself, out of one of those interviews conducted by Angela Carr, where he speaks of the late Stan Dragland in such a way that it could be applied to Hall and his work, as well:

It is a style (one thing reminds me of another) that can easily go wrong. If a writer seems to be padding, if a writer seems to be flailing or name-dropping, if the examples seem too carefully or metaphorically fetched. But Stan makes in his essays each step of his argument seem inevitable, so that we say, “Of course!” Then, at the end of an essay by him there’s that feeling of having participated in a dance – & having gotten somewhere unexpected, wider.

It has a lot to do with texture. And character. And with a widening of community. During the time I knew Stan, from 1984 until this year, he moved toward an on-rush of critical herding & gathering that can be breathtaking to read. Breathtaking in its humility & faith. He had a deep faith in us. He believed that we, his friends, were worth it – worth every quirky added bit – and worth every word.

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