25th Trillium Award

Vowels The Spirit / Consonants The Body: Phil Hall On Writing

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Phill Hall (photo credit: Donald Winkler)

The jury for the Griffin Poetry Prize described Phil Hall's last book, Killdeer, as "a testament to the creative life as an act of faith and transformation." With the recent publication of his newest book, The Small Nouns Crying Faith (BookThug), Hall continues to test his relationship with language and the world it wanders. His free-flowing, honest craftsmanship is more resonant than the showiest linguistic loop-de-loops, revealing words' beauty and barbs, the fear and the questions at work within even the slightest of our lexicon.

In today's On Writing interview, he lets us in on the questions he was struggling with while writing these poems and describes the "diagonal music" that he strives for in his poetry. And he waves at the deer in the wood outside his window.

Phil Hall will launch The Small Nouns Crying Faith at the BookThug Spring Launch at Toronto's Supermarket this Monday, May 6. Visit Open Book: Toronto's Events page for details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, The Small Nouns Crying Faith. What are some of the ideas and problems you invited while writing these poems?

Phil Hall:

What does it mean to not write from within the dominant urban amalgam?

What does it mean to choose to write with a rural pen? Like Blake.

What does it mean to try for a singular voice (coughs) when over-population & surveillance prove that no one is a 1 anymore?

The lyric survived the global village; can it survive the virtual global village? The yawp needs a burrow for a throat!

Is there any rural — any rural thought — I?m not talking wilderness, just non-Metropolis — any beyond-the-Pale patterns left to us that aren?t nostalgic blind-folding, & that aren?t mind-cuffed to self-promotion or cartoon interests / enthusiasms?

To even ask such questions is to sound like a crank. So I have sought instead a diagonal music in poems. A collage-method that promotes ?write anything.?

(Laughs) Of course, I don?t write anything. I buff the corners & orchestrate the spaces. Once in a stanza-while, I add a swampy random gizmo & low & behold it works?

Plus triptychs — have interested me in this book: how we speak in threes (the way I repeated ?what does it mean? three times above, for instance), the narrative possibilities & restraints of 3s down through terza rima, religious art panels, the waltz & Francis Bacon?

The imbalance of 3s as a deformity-merit of rhythm?

Or all this put more simply: Why do we — & how can we — still write the same little poems of narrative & comment? The audacity!

In these new tries, every time I invoke ?once upon a time? I kick myself (& the reader).

I kick myself to stop it; I kick the reader for liking it.


In The Small Nouns Crying Faith, words are material objects, culpable, visceral. The line, "There is a song each word sings as it's written long-hand" is only one of several references to the physical writing of words. Do you write your poems longhand, or on computer? Do you feel that the different composition techniques lead to different poems?


Cursive is the incubator. When I suspect a poem of the mystery of thriving, I do transfer it to a screen & follow it with a cursor. I need to see how it will look as type. Eventually, type is its officialdom.

But when my pencil is still the only mouse moving, hairy, I imagine that with practice you, listening, could shut your eyes & guess, by my pencil?s dance, the words I am cursing?

I have wanted these poems to be immediate: the fresh scratch. Past tense begs the reader for emotion while it doles out varnish. I have wanted these poems to appear to be immediate.

Yes, words are culpable — blameworthy. When the word ?it? is applied to a part of the body ? it is culpable for the divisions it helps maintain, though it is only doing its job?(5 X ?it? / 3 X ?is? / 3 X ?the?).

The lyric I — despite its insisted-upon isolation — seeks a blurring of such divisions.

To feel a word as heinous?for instance, the word ?flesh? — it disgusts me, because it is a mortician?s word (objectifying), & often wrongly used as a lover?s word.

Yes, words are visceral. ?Words have their smells, they hit home.? This is what being a poet means. (To me.)

And yes, there is a kind of writing that foregrounds as keyboarding. I don?t mean typewriter concrete poems, like Ian Hamilton Findlay?s; I mean typing typing — a computer activity — which produces writing writing.

A poet can burble thoughts into MA-sophisticated chunks of type that generally fall into two categories: I?ve-Read-That-Too or More-Surprised-By-Everything-Than-Thou.

It?s fun, but I hate myself afterwards. I prefer to get up early & chew a pencil.


You write, "There was a time when a man like me / could sit down and draft a competent poem in an hour or two." The collection is haunted with a skepticism towards poetry, your own and also with poetry that is "ironically-renegade." When it sometimes seems that the only question we can ask is "how can the world be like this," how is it that the small nouns can still cry faith?


?The small nouns / crying faith? is a phrase from George Oppen?s poem ?Psalm?
in which he marvels at the unlikely actuality of deer in a wood.

We have deer in our woods. (Takes his hat off.) They eat my sunflowers!

Small nouns still cry faith, though I may have given up on a referent or two. I am not allergic to the word ?horse,? for instance.

Words may be culpable, but their roots are renewably transparent, the follow-through of centuries of precise care.

Which accumulates as ?faith? — dictionaries as far better Bibles, say?

And ?crying? because — well, who cares — who has ever cared — except the one whose shadow stays over the word, studying its fibres?

Irony I don?t trust, especially if it claims to be progressive, for irony is all about cleverness, & ?progress? is a marketing lie.

I?m against cleverness. It does not take brains to make poems; it takes flawed hunches stewing in their own juices, going nowhere except slowly from one old word to another. And back again. Or making some up?

There is no need for a poem to show off. What it needs to do is eat its shadow.
(Did I already say this?)

Those who drag the word ?Freedom? around by its hair don?t understand how a faith in small words may be crucial to our survival. To such arbiters, poetry is penny-ante, insane.


The speaker in these poems sees himself as the "conduit," "not the point / but the pointer." Have you always felt this way as a writer?


Well, at first I simply wanted praise. To be praised for being precocious was the point. To be pointed at. Now, yes, I am convinced of the blank-in-training where I stand.

Hafiz says, ?The dust on the window-sill is of more worth than my head.?

I would rather be a Spicer radio, bringing in the voices of those little buggers from outer space, words. To be tuned to hear strange tunes?

As Robert Duncan says, ?Vowels the spirit, consonants the body.?


You've been described as a "surruralist." How do you understand this term and the collision between the rural and the surreal?


I live in a wood by a lake now, & am increasingly attracted to a complex layering of images & rhythms.

I grew up on farms, too. In between, I hid out — sloppily — in cities. I wrote poems for farmers to understand.

But I had a caricature of a farmer in my head. I didn?t know what I was talking about. There are some very un-bucolic, complex & elegant folks who live up rural routes.

They are surreal, as in a photograph taken so close to something that it blurs & is made strange. I want that distorting proximity as well.

To have one?s nose so close to the ?soil? that it becomes ?shale? or ?soup.? I?m getting there. I?m getting back there. I love a floating bridge?

One poem in this new book is about the other writers who have lived (or who now live) up this way: north of Belleville, north of Kingston, the Ottawa Valley. To be part of that tradition of retreat pleases me. (All those ?eee? sounds!)

To follow the shore until ?discourse? goes so local it turns to Pig Latin?


What's next for you?


I?m teaching at Banff in the fall, the Wired Writing Program.

I want to walk the southern France portion of the Pilgrim?s Way.

I?m working on something long called ?The Ballad of the Rupert Hotel Fire.?

I turn 60 in September. (Waving.)


Phil Hall?s most recent book of poems is called The Small Nouns Crying Faith. It came out this May from BookThug. Hall was the 2011 winner of the Governor General?s Literary Award for Poetry in English for his book of essay-poems, Killdeer (BookThug). In 2012, Killdeer also won Ontario?s Trillium Book Award, an Alcuin Design Award and was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Previously, Trouble Sleeping (Brick Books, 2001) was nominated for the Governor General?s Award, and An Oak Hunch (Brick Books, 2005) was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize.

He has taught writing and literature at York University, Ryerson University, Seneca College, George Brown College and elsewhere. Currently, he offers a manuscript mentoring service for the Toronto New School of Writing. Hall has recently been writer-in-residence at Queens University & the University of Windsor. In fall 2013 he will be an instructor at the Banff Cenre for the Arts, in the Wired Writing Program.

He lives near Perth, Ontario.

For more information about The Small Nouns Crying Faith please visit the BookThug website.

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

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