Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Conducting Experiments: Poets and Poetry at BookFest Windsor

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By Melanie Janisse

Phil Hall will be reading at Raw Sugar Café in Ottawa on November 24th. See Open Book's events page for details.

It is, frankly, a rare experience to witness a live poem reading, wherein something remarkable happens. I had just gotten off a train from Toronto and made my way to the Capitol Theatre in downtown Windsor in a flurry of driving. Settling in with some new friends in a small wing of the old building, I was looking forward to hearing the roster of poets — George Elliott Clarke, Phil Hall, Laura Lush, Thomas Lynch, Nicole Markotic and E. Alex Pierce. The evening began with the host — Steven Pender thoughtfully considering where the poem may live within modernity, how they might behave and what they might save, reflect and ruminate upon. He touched on the exact location each and every poet must consider as they enter into the strange pact that is inherently located within the act of writing poetry. What is this for? What is the point? Who hears this? What followed was one of the most engaging readings I have been at in a very long time.

Each poet brought so much to the event to make it accessable to the audience, that I was in the mood to forgive every painful poetry event I had ever witnessed. It was as if each reader knew that a reading was an experiment, instead of a rote delivery of words. I wished that there was room and time to interview each of them in turn, so that I could ask them all a constellation of questions. It is vital to poetry to consider the idea of a reading and also to change our perception of what this means. Like most things, the poetry reading is steeped in a tradition that craves for a break from itself, and for these poets, that question was considered and a new kind of live experience emerged, however tentatively from the ashes of our expectations.


Phil Hall walked up to the podium, when it was his turn. He silently looked out at us and in the silence acclimated the room for his words. He is a mild-mannered person, quietly intense, and when his eyes held the room at first, I felt the strange sensation that I was not about to experience anything mechanical or ordinary. Reedy and out of tune, but forceful, came the beginnings of an old field song:

Perhaps he’s on some water-course drowning
Perhaps he’s on some battlefield slain
Perhaps he’s to another maid married
My darling miss you’ll never see him again

Hall’s poems wove in and out of his singing like they were always meant to touch music. He read a tapestry from a collection of his works. I recognized lines from Kildeer and The Little Seamstress but out of context and with writing from other locations. When I asked Phil about this by email, this is what he said:

These days I like to ‘compose’ a reading by collage rather than read individual poems as set pieces. It makes the texts overall less sacred and I hope it makes a reading less precious and more lively. It makes a reading a fresh new thing for me. Often now, I find myself holding a long unfolding strip of page that is built of torn book parts glue-sticked together. It comes from working in long sequences — the individual poem takes a back seat to the multiple rush of them all together.

I think back to the Bookfest reading and consider this approach to poems and reading poetry to an audience. I am reminded of Patti Smith reading to a small audience of us in the Diego Rivera room at the Detroit Institute of Art a few months ago. She called out to a young man who was unabashedly videotaping her reading and gave him heck — she talked about how important is was for her to hold the space of the reading for us, in the immediate and how for her the presence of the interaction was one of intimacy and surprise in the moment and in the room. The food was at the banquet right before us. It was not justified in simulacra.

There is a lot to be said about not resting on the laurels of tomes and accreditation, but to be forever willing to take a chance and to create an experiment between the poet and the audience. There is something fragile about this process that reveals something that lies behind the words as they lie on the page. Something that digs deeper at the heart of what it is we are all aspiring to do with our words. What is the poem for?


The best poems come out of being dumb. Having some kind of flaw, so that you don’t know what you can’t do – you say it anyway. Not that our best poets are dumb, but they have that crack through them where the light comes, right? I follow that. I can’t do a lot of things, there is only a certain poem that I can make and I keep wanting to widen that to make more room. It really does excite me that if I can find a form that is open enough and in the process of writing my poem in a journal and working on it, I can say anything. —Phil Hall

Merry and I are sitting at her kitchen table down here in Windsor, Ontario. It is in its usual state of fresh-potted herbs, manicure sets, the remnants of a tarot reading, recipe books – all things that are now so familiar to me over the last couple of months. We are knee-deep in a conversation about words and how this town – Windsor, Ontario - has an alarming tendency to slay through a proclivity towards pretentious excess and get down the plain and simple. I am not sure what is in the water down here, but as I considered her point, I realized that as a writer, my most recent words have become shamelessly to the point. There is nary a beautiful, studied sentence in sight. On other fronts, I have not had a designer coffee since I left Toronto. I have not had to deal with one single hipster on his fixie staring back vacuously at me as I walk down the street. I have happily been living in one of the most unpretentious, beautifully-ugly places one can ever imagine, and here in this lunch-bucket town, I have had experiences that border on unbelievable and sleeps that leave drool on my pillow.

During our conversation, Merry suggests that this town may actually be more worldly than most Canadian cities. At first, I could feel my Toronto self bristle a bit, but then after a while, I just began to imagine what that could actually mean. Now, the savvy around culture is present here in Windsor. I think back to my Windsor friends lending me Elizabeth Smart books and decorating their houses with vintage band gear and Jesus statues – the irony and fashioning does exist here, it’s just that as a response to this self-conscious knowing it would seem that a choice is made to carry on with a cuss word, a Tim Hortons and a refusal to be so darn precious about everything. There is a crack in the people down here that I can trust.


Phil Hall and I nurse our drinks across the street from the Capitol at a dark little place called Milk. We talk about a dozen things in no particular order, but grapple with poems, circling the heart of the matter while knowing that there is nothing that can totally describe what a poem does. As we weave through words and coffees, we touch on many things to do with writing poems, but a theme emerges – being open. We consider together the thought that in the response to all things that limit, nullify voice, connection and possibility, the poem/ poet can create openings and stay in the places where one can subvert by and through opening.

One of my first attempts to connect to the text of Kildeer in my talk with Phil was to warmly share my fondness for Nicky Drumbolis. Just as soon as I got cozy in my memories of Nicky and confident that here we could find common ground, Phil called me out. He identified the comfort that we all take in narrative, and how in Kildeer he uses that nostalgic comfort — but only in order to pry us open to the things that follow and subvert our expectations.

People expect closure, they expect one subject they expect if you are talking about a person that you are going to do a portrait of them. But Gertrude Stein proved in the '30s that you could write about someone without even bringing them into the text.

So, I gather right away that as my questions close in on an answer Phil Hall will likely ask me to shift my gaze. The rest of the interview (here) is a negotiating of the steppes of discourse that wind around the subject of writing poems. It really is worth a listen, as it truly speaks to the tactic Hall has invested in – to clarify through opening something up wider and wider. Our conversation stands as an experiment, an open-ended invitation to meander, to keep adding different thoughts to the mix. To keep shaking it up.

One of my favourite turns of the conversation that I had with Phil Hall was near to the end. We are talking about the vocationality of the poet and where humility comes into the picture. I ask him what he thinks the role of the poet is right now and where the poem may survive.

He says:

Tom Wayman calls poetry the underbrush, the places that you can hide in at the bottom of the tree. When I come to read, I climb up the tree, but I like to stay close to the ground. If poetry has any power it’s something like a rat, something like an underbrush, something that is too small to kill.

As I weave through the streets of my hometown, Windsor, Ontario, I consider the possibility that this might be the perfect location to hunker down and burrow into this bramble. The real movers and shakers have moved on from here for now. I drink Tim Hortons and have taken to not giving a rat’s ass about who my next publisher may be. I have been reading bp Nichol. Something is afoot.

Thanks Phil.


I do not believe in first thought, like Ginsberg, I think that that what I look for is usually buried. That first thought has come to us through media and platitudes and things like that. I don't trust that. —Phil Hall

Merry was sitting quietly this morning drinking her coffee before work when I came out of the guest bedroom dishevelled with sleep. While looking down at her nails that she had just painted, she began to share a memory of her youth up in Lake of Bays in the fifties. She used to get sent up the road to a house that had been converted into a bakery as well as a beauty salon. The owners had a pet monkey and she used to play with him while waiting for her bread. On the quiet afternoons of her summer vacations sometimes the woman would teach her how to perfectly paint her nails in between monkey pets and bites of brownie.

The impossibility of this narrative — the monkey/hair salon/bakery in the woods — existed nonetheless, unaware of itself as a cultural artifact. There in the middle of the Muskoka woods this wondrous place just existed in its strange and lovely circumstances. Each time my friend polished her nails, these characters and the time spent in that place was ever present underneath the polishing. Underneath the quiet morning, the nail polish, is more being added to this present moment — the memory, the sharing of the memory, relating, the unsaid story. The present opens — a can opener works at the edges of the moment in order to include my own resonance to Merry’s thoughts.

Later, I thought a bit more about Merry’s monkeys and brownies. They brought me back around to my current disdain for the droves of hipsters in places like Toronto or Brooklyn curating simulacra — fake old places, places with ‘authentic’ local bacon, the donning of artisanal sweaters (and trust me I am as guilty as most) — and I realized that in the tightening of the taxonomy of these cultural devices, we lose the monkeys, so to speak. In our chat at Milk, Hall implored poets to keep adding to the present, that in order to achieve clarity, one must continue to add complexity. I was starting to see what he meant. Without this infusion, this breathing into all that is present, we are left with a simulacra that is lacking in the spontaneity that could allow the experience to continue to open.

How do we negotiate the fragile steppes of constructed words and infuse into them authenticity? How do we avoid creating more simulacra? How do we, in Hall’s words, create the poem that needs to be written? I am not totally sure, but I intend on hanging out here in the rabbit holes letting the burrs stick to my clothes and see what happens.

This morning, as I make my coffee, I imagine Phil at his next reading with his glue-sticked pages of poem fragments trying to keep up to momentum of this energy. Hoping to never have to see his words ossify on the page, keeping words fluid and full of chance-taking. I feel grateful for his refusal to rest on the laurels of his credibility. He scrambles and unscrambles the codes, reaching outwards to us with a monkey on a stick and I am able to exhale.

I say in Kildeer that clarity is not simple, it is intricate – and I believe that. I think that shakes up a reader, because to be simple and clear is stuff that we are taught to be spare — they are standards of workshops. To suggest that if you are being clear about something, you just have to invite in more and more and more. —Phil Hall

Melanie Janisse is a native of Windsor, Ontario, where she retained memories of old docks jutting out into the Detroit River and strange underground drives to her father's hometown of Detroit. Melanie began her education by leaving home early and wandering around the abandoned houses of inner-city Detroit, the quirky streets of Montreal and the intense forests of the Canadian West Coast. Along the way, she obtained degrees from Concordia University in Communication and Emily Carr in Visual Arts. Thirteen years in Toronto has produced an ouevre of work that includes: a book of poems (Guernica Editions), a regular literary column/ publication (Open Book Toronto/Open Book Ontario), a café (Zoots), clothing stores (Melanie’s Closet, Pineapple Kensington), a quirky old commercial building and a nearly completed MFA from OCAD U. Currently Melanie is residing in Windsor, Ontario/Detroit Michigan and is delighted to have completed work in this area that is being published in Bayou (University of New Orleans), The Windsor Review, Palimsest and Black Moss Press.

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