Photo credit: Mark Goldstein
IFOA: The balance and rhythm between the words and pauses is a big part of your poems. How does music influence your writing?
Phil Hall: I like jazz (Charlie Mingus/David Murray) & old time fiddle tunes (Smiley Bates/Jarvis Benoit).
Against these authenticities, the philosophy of nostalgia crowds its tin-ear into poetry wherever it can.
Louis Zukofsky set the upper limit of language in poetry at music, and the lower limit at talk. It sounds obvious, but isn’t, because words leaving the world and entering poems from high or low become notes.
Following Zukofsky’s A, my tinkering inside poems is increasingly about ways to design my talk as music.
Punctuation is a prose tool—a tool kit for making a manual surface clear & smooth in its argument. But in music, punctuation is timing. So, on my page I now use caesurae to pace the talk. Caesurae as visible scars.
Some of this isn’t Zukofsky; it is Doc Watson. I apprentice to both masters. Bottom (Zuk) & Deep Water Blues (Doc).
Theory comes down to a hand-skill each day when I play my banjo. Right now I am learning a tune called “Granny, Will Yr Dog Bite?”
Prose logic is so slow the poem falls asleep. How to make the words bite? Pick up the pace (as Tom Raworth has taught us) by getting the rhetoric out. Dream logic is a better singer.
As Olson says about the musical phrase: One perception…must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!
Or as Blossom Dearie says, in her little girl’s voice, Get in there & bash!
IFOA: We read that you once walked Santiago. How did this, and other journeys – physical, mental, emotional – contribute to your creative work?
Phil Hall: Oregano, Lightning, Olive…
Walking the Camino, I wrote only one word a day. I gave each day a name.
Then when I got home, I stamped the names onto 30 cards. A Deck of Days. To look through the deck at each name sets a little pace of its own…
I liked hiking in Spain because the 15 to 20 K a day knocked my chatter-mind out. I became a donkey. Platero!
Predicating this, when I was 15, I ran away to Florida. Eventually, I had to hitch-hike home up the American east coast in February 1968. It took me 2 weeks to get back.
I remember the pace of hitch-hiking as a discipline of accident akin to writing poems: wait a long time, ride with what stops for you as far as it goes, then wait a long time again…
Fog, Wind, Cathedral…
I love a good walking city too—Vancouver, Lisbon: the inexhaustible abundance, the naming details.
(George Stanley’s Vancouver: A Poem, and Meredith Quartermain’s Walking Vancouver, are both tremendous book-long poetic journeys in that city.)
I work in lengthy forms, so Time becomes almost a character in my poems—they take longer & longer to abandon!
I like the going, which is process, more than I like the arrival, which is death or the published book…
I guess I like being a writer more than I like being an author.
Windmill, Toreador, Blister…
IFOA: Conjugation consists of poems written in the early morning. Are there creative benefits to this?
Phil Hall: Yes, much of Conjugation is about getting up early to write just before or at dawn.
The Spanish word for that early zone, that morning mood, is madrugar. So I call these poems madrugars.
Half asleep writing is pre-logic, dream damp melody, grey, creaking. That’s my littoral.
That’s where the stump of language is. I stand on that stump, with my eyes shut…
I don’t like myself well enough to trust my first thoughts. So I am not all jazz; I revise. Though I wish I didn’t have to…
In my revision, I try to compose an atmosphere of spontaneity by inclusion. It is trickery, but a welcoming trickery.
I think of Ginsberg’s “first thought” (he famously says “first thought, best thought”) as primal not chronological. I like my first thoughts more when I get up early. I like myself best before I’m fully—cognate.
My best words are usually buried under layers of surface crap, which means I have to return again and again to the same page, and wait out the false arrogances lyric is prone to (prose to), until the poem starts to say its own say—and then I have to let it.
Sometimes, a poem will set its own internal rules without me at first noticing. The poem might pick a stanza scheme that is familiar (I’ve used it before) or imitative (even worse) or easy (lazy). My job is to watch for those cheap rules or patterns and destroy them. By this process, the language might get somewhere surprising.
To surprise one’s self—to Pied Piper one’s self out of the Known into the mountainside of doubt. Why else bother?
As I say in one of the poems in Conjugation: “In the morning the poem solves everything / in the afternoon it stinks & I stink too.” (I’ve left out the caesurae.)
Or another metaphor: I used to like being up late, writing, as if I were the lighthouse keeper. But now I like to get up early and swim from the wreck I am. Word as shore…
IFOA: What’s your next creative project?
Phil Hall: Let’s not say “project.” It makes us poets sound like architects.
I am more like a guy who has snuck into a haberdashery at night and can’t get out. But keeps yelling.
The crime of sustaining a voice has brought many half-door-knobs and gizmos and whiz-bangs with it. I’m sorting them.
I am nurturing the amateur impulse however I can—against the times, but not willingly. I can’t help it. This is how I have found to not go silent.
Except for my miraculous kids—and except for a few assemblage art-things I’ve made—my books of poems, despite their failings (or maybe because of them) are the best whole-hog evidence of me attempting citizenry as song…
So I’m working on another book, another wallow: a grab-sing / a vow-try.
Phil Hall @ IFOA:
Re-awaken your love of poetry as you hear celebrated poets Phil Hall, Maureen Hynes, Sylvia Legris and Mark Wagenaar read from their new collections on Wednesday, October 26 at 8pm. For tickets click here!