Sharon Berg interviews poet Phil Hall

1. In your book Killdeer (BookThug, 2011), in a poem titled ‘Becoming a Poet’, you speak to a time when you hitchhiked to Lakefield, ON, looking for Margaret Laurence’s home so you could meet her. That poem talks about the way that, as you say, “encounters – brash – rude – naive foolhardy or accidental” help us to “discover or select our lineage as writers.” Niagara & Government  (Pedlar Press, 2020) is published about a decade later. Can you speak to the various literary encounters or other influences upon your writing – human or otherwise – that have developed any shifts in your approach to writing for this new book?

Since 2011, I have traveled to Australia twice and sought out poets there: Michael Farrell, Gig Ryan, Andrew Burke…

I spent an important day at the Hawkesbury River with Robert Adamson. He read me original letters he had gotten from Robert Duncan.

Also, wintering in Victoria BC these years, I had been in the habit of visiting Phyllis Webb on Salt Spring Island. George Stanley has also become an important friend to me.

Other BC writers are enduringly vital to me too: Daphne Marlatt, Fred Wah, Peter and Meredith Quartermain, Colin Browne, Ali Blythe…

2. You use sometimes shockingly visceral imagery when you recount memories of your childhood or report on injuries, such as when a big jack ripped open your arm. How has your image choice shifted when it comes to the poems presented in Niagara & Government  (Pedlar Press, 2020)? Camille Martin notes that your poetry has changed over the years from focusing “on brutal, grotesque subjects of childhood” to “elegiac” truth-telling. Did you have a sense of there being a difference from your earlier work when you were writing these poems?

In my earlier poems, memory-harshness kept the attention on myself, not the poem. It was a performance-trick—to shock—I didn’t know it was a trick.

That story-shock, I hope, has given way to a focus on language itself, the little words without violence in them—the poem, not me.

I do not want the rough image anymore; now I want the inevitable word to surprise me with its intricate generosity.

In the arc of Patrick Lane’s poems, early to late, a reader can see the same watershed that I am attempting.

There is less performance now, I tinker to make it so. Transformation and revelation, syllable by syllable, does not need an audience, or much of one…

3. Rob Mclennan says your poems “have the durability and devastation of koans” meaning they offer paradoxical anecdotes or riddles. Still, the presentation of language in Niagara & Government (Pedlar Press, 2020) presents the reader with a greater challenge if they are looking for simple narrative poems. J.H. Prynne points out the difference between “post-modernist playfulness, where meaning is allowed to skim across a surface in a deliberately arbitrary way” and poetry that digs deeper, saying, “the use of difficulty as a method of poetic thought is different both in intention and effect from difficulty as a playground or a funfair.” You seem to have progressed to a point where your poetry articulates a difference in the presentation of thought itself. How do you respond to this observation?

A word can be taught to play, but each letter in that word is deeply serious in that it cares nothing for understanding, narrative, or metaphor. Or applause.

I like a poem that had to be written, changes the poet in the process, and is yet indifferent to all response—because it has solved something for the poet, who has moved on…

4. What would you say is the most fundamental difference between your earlier work and this new collection?

I used to think my story mattered, and/or that I had something to tell or say. I don’t believe that anymore.

It is a shift—to realizing that smarts don’t make my kind of poem. Where I am scarred and dumb in my quirks, poems are invited and made.

I have a compulsion to write each day where the spontaneous and the ancient in language intersect.

These filter through the lyric personal pronoun, as always—but now I am wary of that filter and its ego solutions.

5. How would you characterize the stance taken by this work in relation to the most immediate socio-cultural concerns of the readers it is intended for?

I am confident that readers bring difficulties of their own to attend my difficulties.

When I write that “Distance is Health” I know that many like me have escaped from the ruins of families, and found ways to live by maintaining distance.

In the poem “Abuse” I move between the first person and “we” because…where words catch in the throat, they are in common, and go way back…

6. What books were you reading when you wrote this? Are there any books that you had to keep visiting for inspiration when writing this book?

I mention Stan Dragland, Transtömer, Montale, Ashbery, Pessoa, Maria Von Franz, Duncan, Roy Kiyooka,  Bunting, and Celan in this book—I was reading these and others.

I mention Laura Smith, Ornette Coleman, David Murray, country music in general, and the song “The Weight”—I was listening to these.

My friends Erín Moure, Chris Turnbull, Ronna Bloom, Pearl Pirie, and Sandra Ridley—these poets sing to me on-goingly while I scribble…

7. How did you arrive at the title? What was your intention for the title to do?

“Niagara and Government” is an intersection, two streets, in Victoria BC.

It is near Emily Carr’s Birth House—in fact Government St. used to be called Carr St.

In the poem “Undressed” I say “I undressed my mouth / at the intersection of Niagara & Government”.

Thus, the title.

To undress one’s mouth is to make a libretto of shame.

If the words in my title are not streets, they represent the spill and spell of writing—Niagara is the spill of it, Government is the spell if it—the rush and form as forces in a poem.

8. If this book was to be translated in another language, what would your advice to the translator be, what aspect of the original work would you most care to consciously preserve?

Dear translator, use this work as a tool kit to make your own language surprise you in similar zones.

9. Are any aspects of the book that is autobiographical? How did you consciously deal with your intimate material (i.e., experiences – emotional and physical) in a way that avoids the dangers of straight autobiography?

Autobiographical? Yes. One section “Bottom” is a sequence that ruminates on drinking and stopping drinking.

One section delves into sexual abuse, etc. Are these metaphors? No. Are these poems accurate of experience? Not in a calendar sense; but in a mythic or collage sense, yes.

I dream of a poem that is so surreally personal, so almost-incomprehensibly odd in its accuracy—and yet it has found its way to a strange common music.

10.      For my 7th (extra) answer I attach this link to “Under the Cover” that I wrote for All Lit Up about the cover and title of Niagara & Government, hoping that it might be useful to you…

Phil Hall has lived in Windsor, Vancouver and Toronto, and now lives near Perth, Ontario. While in Vancouver, he was a member of the Vancouver Industrial Writers Union, and the Men Against Rape Collective. In 2007 he and his wife, Ann Silversides, walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain. In 2011 he won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in English. In 2012 he won Ontario’s Trillium Book Award. Hall is the founder of Flat Singles Press, and the founder of The Page Lectures at Queen’s University. Most recently, Beautiful Outlaw Press has published Toward A Blacker Ardour (2021).