“There are sprites & hooks (& what Henry Miller calls “islands of repair”) between each syllable, line, stanza.
My practice has grown to be: stay dubious enough to hear those islands-of-repair cleanly, without the static “his(s)” of me needing to own them.”
Phil Hall, Dubious: On Performance
Phil Hall is to poetry in Canada what style is to reason. What fate is to regret. What necessity is to poverty. What a lamp is to a lamprey. What the neck is to the gesture. What the irrepressible is to the present. What evaporation is to residue. What a request is to humility. And this is him: intelligent, witty, resolutely humble, a vegetarian.
We met at a cafe to talk. He was already drinking tea. He put away his notebook. The shirt he wore was patterned with small square frames and in those frames, I noticed after some scrutiny, were fish hooks, decorated with feathers or quills. We shared bread with walnuts and grapes sunken in the top.
He told me, “voice is a volatile solid,” something that endures, like the stone tablets of oral culture and simultaneously something that can explode: flying particles, migraine-white. We talked about trauma. When he was a child, his father made him shoot his dog. For years, he dug for the line, “I should have shot my father.”
We talked about the impoverished townships where he was raised, in the Kawarthas. He came from those townships running. “I asked the guidance counselor in high school what would be the farthest place I could go, and that was Windsor. University was good for me, for plumbing and books.”
Hall often draws self-portraits to gauge how he’s feeling: how close or dangerously unlike himself he appears. Writing is recovery of that self who was “not supposed to have a voice.”
“Self-portraits are a way of taking my own temperature. Blind drawing, expressionism. Not necessarily faithfully how you look, but how you feel about how you look. Or perhaps how you feel because of how you draw how you look. It’s a bit embarrassing, but it’s easier to keep myself still than most things.
“I like the tactile, so I also make a lot of little cards and collages. Montages with words.
“I tend to work from titles, single lines, aphorisms and mis-hearings. When I lived in Vancouver, I kept a little orange notebook called Mistakes where I wrote down what I saw or heard wrong. Is that a chewed canary on the sidewalk? No, it’s a gnawed peach pit.”
“I like that,” I said, “I recently misread a sentence about entering the room of the wake. I read the wake of the room. That was a good mistake; it took me somewhere.”
“All the people coming and paying their respects to the room, which has died.” Phil said.
“Yeah, I like those too. They hark back to childhood. They’re cracks through the expected.
“Right now I’m drawing fish hooks. Imaginary ties for fly-fishing. Those are tiny and esoteric and beautiful and lethal, like poems. I can put anything on the hook I want to. I can give them any invented bug-name I want. A series of little cards. Sometimes I put coloured threads on them, or I use stamp-edges.”
“So you put words on the fish hooks?”
“Yes. I feel safer if I’m working very small. For years now I’ve mostly worked in long forms, as a challenge to myself, because I get very insular, want to keep little boxes inside little boxes, so that nobody would ever see them. And they’d be safe. And I’d be safe. From what? So I string the poems together, to be more generous. It’s personal work, though, and people don’t admire the personal much. Not any more.
“I let the poems pickle, so they can separate from me. I keep working toward a language that’s hermetic and private. So that if you take the phrases twenty miles out of their range, nobody understands them. John Clare had this limitation-blessing. In another way, so did Aimé Césaire, in French. (He recently died. His poems: revolutionary exotic local plants!)
“I like those kinds of poems. Whether it’s the nature of the language, the nature of the subject or the nature of the details. If a poem’s that deep in its origins, sometimes it’s an actual imaginary creature, a thought-fox (as Ted Hughes says). As specific as possible, torqued private until it flies.
For the rest of the interview please pick up a copy of Matrix, which features a fabulous image of Shari Boyle’s work. There is also a brilliant piece by Jonathan Ball. You can hear Phil Hall read from An Oak Hunch, shortlisted for the Griffin Prize for Poetry in 2006.