Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Conversation: Phil Hall with Beth Follett

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The Conversation: Phil Hall with Beth Follett

In this conversation, Phil Hall talks to Pedlar Press publisher Beth Follett about poetry, his "Pedestrian Archives," his latest book, The Little Seamstress, and more. Take note: the launch for The Little Seamstress is on April 27th at 7 p.m. at Supermarket on Augusta Avenue in Kensington Market .

Beth Follett:

What led you to write poetry? What were some of the very first poems you read?

Phil Hall:

The earliest poems I remember were talking country songs like “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” or “Old Shep” or “Who Spit Tobacco On Tessy’s Wedding Gown.”

Then came “A moon was a ghostly galleon upon a stormy sea” (“The Highwayman”). And “Now I lay me down to sleep” (Robert Louis Stevenson). And “The Lord is my Shepherd….” And “Red Rover, Red Rover / let Phil come over.”

By the time I heard Robert Service, I was a goner. I memorized “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” & “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” as well as countless songs by Wilf Carter.

It was theatrical. I wanted praise. Poems followed naturally from books, & I had found that I got, if not praise, at least begrudged respect for having my nose in a book.

But that was just rhyming. Verse. Nineteenth century. Even the cowboy songs. I’m lucky to have had the ground prepared by these, though, for me to hear actual poetry when it found me. I heard “Birches” by Robert Frost. And “Bombers” by C. Day Lewis.

I quit making up a ballad about a pirate ship to write a sonnet about the amazing kangaroo rat!

It has been downhill / like Jack & Jill / ever since.


What are some of your hopes for your poetry? It is argued that 75 per cent of the people who read literary work are themselves writers of the kind. Do you think about how your work could be received by younger people who have had little exposure to poetry?


I used to, but I don’t anymore.

I used to go into schools, give readings, do workshops.
But it was, again, theatre. And I wasn’t very good at it.

Too selfish. I loved the kids.
But I loved the sound of my own voice more.

So. No, I don’t care.
The perennial worry about “an audience” for poetry
is in bed with lies about progress, career, success, all that.

If I work wider instead of forward,
if I recognize for my work not a market economy but a gift economy,
if I invite instead of edit,
if I develop textures instead of images,

& if the whole belief in improving, getting better, becoming “great”
can be subverted by a belief that change itself is health
(change without a direction pinned to it)...

then I’m truly hopeless.
And so must put my trust in process not product…

The problem is that,
while I may try to find all of my joy inside the actual making of poems,
& while I may try to think of all the rest of being a poet as just politics,
my need to be praised is still here.

It has diversified, & lessened, but still rankles.

For this I have 2 or 3 good readers
who know the flubs I have sworn by in the past,
who get my local / private references,
& who aren’t enamored of my brainstorms
or intimidated by my slumps & grouches.

They know I’ll probably change it tomorrow.

My salvation & curse is that I can’t stop.
I’m addicted to surprising myself.


When did you first start collecting? What was the impulse behind building your various collections? Do your "Pedestrian Archives" [I am using your term broadly here] influence your current poetry more than they used to?


I collect because as a boy I thought I would freeze to death, be abandoned, have no clothes or food, be torn apart, be humiliated, never have anything.

I was made to feel like a thing, an object, so I grew to identify with objects & gather them to me. My uncle brought me books from the dump. The only books in the house were mine. I felt less alone, less of a thing. Among things...

An early commercial on TV in the late '50s had a big influence on me: it was about preventing fires & told the story of a little boy who looked down when everyone else looked up. Everyone was watching the eclipse, while the boy was watching his feet.

Of course, the boy spots the fire. I wanted to be that boy. Others would say, Oh you are such a Virgo & speak of my librarian tendencies. But I prefer to speak of “compulsion” & “focus.”

I feel smart when I’m around paper, so I started to collect it off the streets. I was too poor to collect anything else — too stupid not to value other folks’ discards. Perhaps.

I go around with my head down. It gets dark; it gets light. I spot the fires in myself. I play with them.

Collecting, gathering, eventually led me to bricolage, the art of making that relies upon what is at hand. Also, a fascination with proximity, how things look & alter in relation to each other. There is an arrangement of a group of things & if I find it they will sing.

It’s the same way with words.


In The Little Seamstress it seems to me that the Hermit and the Magician tarot archetypes are particularly prominent, and riff off one another; that the poet examines our current social problems of alienation and isolation and the impulse to self-obliteration while a Magician stands off to one side, naked, his golden body gleaming, making commentary and sometimes turning a trick or two. Do you agree with this observation?


I’d like to. It sounds like somebody who knew what he was doing!

A private alchemy. Working inside the poem, I feel a confidence I never know when just mucking about out here. And it scares me.

I want humility & confidence. Contradictions? Not arrogance, not doormat. And the poem wants anonymity, not safety.

It is true that I encourage my poems, increasingly, to subvert the expected, whether that be sentiment, next word, or rhythm. I especially have it in for verbs these days. In syntax, they are the wax. Verb wax. A verb keeps nouns from torting each other. I don’t think the poem wants to go anywhere. It wants to stew in its own juices.

Perhaps the process of the poem’s making changes the Hermit into the Magician.
I don’t feel safe, leave me alone — becomes . . . watch me pull a Fedora out of this Angora.


I have often used Keats for an epigraph on Pedlar Press catalogues: "There's nothing stable in the world; uproar's your only music." For you, poetry is a form of attention and of discomfiture: the poems in The Little Seamstress turn and leap, digress, proceed, with breathtaking quickness. Will you comment on this?


I think I’ve had some widening of preoccupations in the past few years. My last book, White Porcupine, has a title that means, for one thing, death. The Little Seamstress is, for one thing, breath.

The Spanish poet, Jorge Guillén, has a poem in which he contemplates the table before him, his relation to it, from where he sits on a chair. Proximities again. Nothing happens. The table in that poem, though, is whirring, whirring....

If, in our debarked world, a table & a chair can be lied about as stable — in a poem, a chair & a table are known to whirr, invited to sing.

All the molecules are spinning, is the truth. It is the pragmatic that is the lie.

Breath is the stitch that sews our whirring to that whirring.


Why are you so crazy for Alexander Calder?


I like artists who seem like big kids. Calder. Klee. William Steig. Maud Lewis. Mary Martin as Peter Pan . . .

I love Calder’s wire circus & the imaginary animals he built from olive oil tins.

Balance. I grow sequences by cutting & pasting them into long poster strips. I want to see how they hang, how they look in the air in their moment of voice.

I am intrigued by the thought that no one has ever comprehended a Walt Whitman poem because we have always cut & divided them into folios. To see a full long one endlessly rocking might overwhelm like a new breed of tree.


You seem to be writing out of a deep connection to your home, the place where you currently live, from there looking into deep psychic and historical space. What's going on? Can you explain this stance?


They’ll be taking me out of here feet first.

I’m not into research: I don’t care who owned the land before.

I like it here. I am trying not to say like to each it here.

I grew up in the country. We rented abandoned farmhouses. Being here now brings back competences & fears I had forgotten. I like the gate locked. I am afraid of chainsaws. My woodpiles stay up in the wind.

Gradually all of my books can be in one place. When I’m low or anxious, I can rearrange the shelves.

Like with like is such a simple principle. It suits me here. It suits the poems.

Sometimes I feel like a failure, then I remember my breath. The Little Seamstress. For now, she is involuntarily on my side:

inspiritu, ex-spiritu, inspiritu...


Beth Follett is the publisher at Toronto-based Pedlar Press and her first novel, Tell It Slant, was published by Coach House Books in 2001. She was born and raised in Toronto, spent her adolescence and young adult life in Winnipeg, and returned to Toronto in 1985.

Phil Hall was born in 1953 & raised on farms in the Kawarthas region of Ontario. Attended the University of Windsor in the '70s, where he received an MA in English and Creative Writing. His first book, Eighteen Poems, was published in Mexico City in 1973. Since then he has published thirteen other books of poems, seven chapbooks and one cassette of labour songs. His newest collection, The Little Seamstress, has just been released by Pedlar Press. His collection Trouble Sleeping (Brick Books, 2000) was nominated for the Governor General's Award for poetry, and An Oak Hunch (Brick Books, 2005) was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2006. In Fall, 2007, BookThug published Hall's long poem, White Porcupine, and 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, and numerous albums of found photographs. He calls all of this ephemera his "Pedestrian Archives."


Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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