In Conversation with Phil Hall

 Phil Hall. Portrait by geffo
I would love to be a fly on Phil Hall's desk. A fly with ears.  I think Phil's desk is a swatter-free zone. A deeply generous zone. Here he is, on raw decorum and other songs. 

SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry in the first place?

PHIL HALL: I was desperate for order. Shelter. I built hidden forts everywhere. I needed—and still do—a musical place to keep my only and tiny authority. 

A musical need—the jarring, discordant, random ugliness of childhood would not let up.

Only—powerlessness can be underwear the dead wore first. But—only screwed-up me made this / using the little I know.

Tiny—inside the making of poems, the authority I find has to be easy to hide—it has to eat its flourishes, or risk the crime of showing-off—I wasn’t doing anything, just humming to myself, plotting transformation…

Outsider artists know something that is glaringly obvious—something that we educated types deny in favour of critical acumen: inside the act of assembly, you can’t make a mistake.

This becomes more true, the more we realize it—let the choosing of the next bit, next word, be instantaneous—and your quick choice will often reveal itself as most discerning, even beautiful.

Our quirks & errors are radiant, if we accept them. Of course, we’ve been taught differently.  And certainly the lesson of my raising was that I stank, had nothing to offer, could not give.

I came to poetry thanks to Shame & Absurdity. My henchmen!

SG: Many of your poems mine personal experience as they speak to the human condition more generally. You’re also an engaged reader of both poetry and poetics. What, to you, as poet and reader, marks the difference between the personal and the private, and is it a difference that matters?

PH: The classical answer is: a poem can be embarrassing to read if the poet’s desperation has not passed into some pattern, if the poet has used no devices to distance her personal anguish from the reader.

Otherwise, there is no—I use Wendell Berry’s word here—decorum. It is a matter of choosing the right insulation against the raw.

But we also get uncomfortable when a poem does what we haven’t seen a poem do before, or if it describes something we haven’t heard talked about in a poem before.

Who wants to consider the broken glass between “the back wings” of the hospital?  William Carlos Williams did.

Seeing only what we have already seen makes the whole world seem personal.
The unfamiliar is perhaps not alien, but private.

I guess I think of “private” as more crucial than “personal.” They are country mouse and city mouse—one hungry, one nervous.

What is gross about the slimy Alien is not its voracious design, but its nightwater sex dirt echoes. We would shut the door. The book. The cosmos.

I like raw. I like decorum. I like to know that the poem isn’t just someone swearing at me or lulling me with clever imagery.

Francis Bacon said he believed in "a deeply ordered chaos."

Or in Alice Notley’s long works I witness what might be called a “raw decorum.” She is singing. It’s complicated, but she is singing. Her rough band plays Caring For Us All beautifully.

The Lyric would interest me less if I didn’t still believe to be true our old slogan—the personal is political. This means that privacy can be where the revolution starts.

I will trust you with a hard secret / this little tune that many have told / I change myself by telling / you are changed by hearing / all is changed / nothing is sold.

SG: What’s inspiring you these days?

Well, on good days, I inspire the next syllable by remembering Raymond Carver’s best bit of advice: no cheap tricks.

I’ve been relishing the essays of Peter Quartermain—Disjunctive Poetics (1992), and now I’m reading his new book, Stubborn Poetics (2013).

Frank Bidart floors me! Lara Glenum’s new book, Pop Corpse, is wild—it uses sexual grotesqueries to defy misogyny.  Alice Oswald I find equally tremendous, tame, tracking the English rivers…repeating the names of the dead Greeks…

Robert Duncan continues to be my Master. And I am reading through J M Coetzee’s novels—coming to them embarrassingly late…

Phil Hall’s most recent book, X,  is a deluxe limited edition from Thee Hellbox Press of Kingston, a collaboration with the book artist/printer Hugh Barclay, and the visual artist, Michèle LaRose. He is currently mentoring in the Wired Writing Program, Banff Centre for the Arts. Read his poem from "Lake's End" here.