Granny, Will Your Dog Bite? An Interview with Phil Hall


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?Hall Phil

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!

Visit the IFOA Bookstore & Meet the Authors at their Signing!

Searching for an opportunity to buy your next favourite book and get it signed by its creator?
IFOA will be operating a bookstore at the Festival Hub in the Marilyn Brewer Community Space at Harbourfront Centre! Check out the Signing Schedule and come meet the authors you admire!

IFOA Bookstore Hours
Thursday, October 20      5:30pm-9pm
Friday, October 21           5:30pm-9pm
Saturday, October 22       12pm-10pm
Sunday, October 23         11am-7pm
Monday, October 24         7pm-10pm
Tuesday, October 25        1pm-8:30pm
Wednesday, October 26   5pm-10pm
Thursday, October 27       1pm-10pm
Friday, October 28             5:30pm-10pm
Sunday, October 30           10am-7pm




Five questions with Sylvia Legris

Legris SylviaIFOA: Why did you choose this title for your collection?

Sylvia Legris: I have an intensely vivid and visual imagination and a tendency to brood and obsess. I can freak myself out imagining what might be going on inside my own body. Blood streams afloat with islets of fat, bone islands, the recurring skirmish of muscle and bone in my shin-splints’d tibia. I simultaneously wish I had X-ray vision and could see under my own skin and am relieved that I can’t. The title to me is two-edged. Much of The Hideous Hidden is about anatomy—the poems probe into all that gross stuff, innards and viscera, blood and slime, that is largely hidden from sight. However, my intention in these poems is to unearth the music inherent in the body’s icky inner-workings, effectively displacing (or temporarily hiding) the hideous.


IFOA: What elements of anatomy attract and/or inspire you?

Sylvia Legris: Hoo ah!…connective tissue…the glue that holds it all together.


IFOA: Who was the poet that inspired you as a young writer?

Sylvia Legris: While Dr. Seuss basically taught me to read, and certainly attuned my ear and tongue to bendy, nonsensical language, I think that listening had as much—maybe even more—of an influence on the would-be poet in me than reading did (granted, I was a voracious reader from an early age). I was obsessed with cartoons, Mel Blanc’s many voices (my awareness that the Road Runner’s nasally beep was actually a Meep Meep). Even Yogi Bear’s distinctive inflection (“Look’s more/like a sycamore/to me”). Cartoons made me aware of the potential subtleties and nuances of the human voice. I do a pretty good impression of Elmer Fudd singing.

IFOA: What is the ultimate purpose of poetry?

Sylvia Legris: The purpose of poetry, ultimate or otherwise, for a poet writing in North America is no doubt completely different than for a poet writing in a country that doesn’t have the freedom of expression that we do. For me, the purpose of poetry is that it pushes me to pay close attention to everything in as minute detail as possible.

IFOA: What have you learned about language through writing?

Sylvia Legris: I’ve learned how beautifully elastic language is. However, I’ve also learned how kindergartenish my grasp of it is. I’ve learned I’ve got a lot to learn.

Sylvia Legris @ IFOA:

Hear Japanese writer Takashi Hiraide alongside Canadian poets Sylvia Legris and Sarah Pinder read from their latest works on Sunday, October 23 at 5pm. For tickets click here!

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!

An Excerpt from Best of Writers & Company by Eleanor Wachtel

Best of Writers & Company, Eleanor Wachtel Wachtel Eleanor

Interview with Alice Munro.

Excerpt from pages 206-207.

WACHTEL Keeping with the idea of Runaway, in your 1998 collection The Love of a Good Woman you have a line about a woman who flees her marriage for another man, and you write, “So her life was falling forwards…. She was becoming one of these people who ran away. A woman who shockingly and incomprehensibly gave everything up. For love, observers would say wryly. Meaning sex.” What is it these women run away from? Is it convention and expectation?

MUNRO I think they run away from a life… they look ahead and they can see what their whole life is going to be. You wouldn’t call that a prison exactly; they run away from some kind of predictability, not just about things that will happen in their lives but things that happen in themselves. Though, I don’t think most of my characters plan to do this; they don’t say, “There’s a certain stage of my life when I’ll get out of this.” And in fact I think the people who run away are often the people who’ve got into things the most enthusiastically. They think, This is it!—and then, they want more. They just demand more of life than what is happening at the moment. Sometimes this is a great mistake, of course, it’s always a little bit, a good deal, different than you’d expect. Women in my generation particularly tended to do this because we’d married young, we’d married with a settled idea of what life is supposed to be like, and we were in a hurry to get to that safe married spot. Then something happened to us when we were around forty, and all sorts of women decided that their lives had to have a new pattern. I don’t know if that will happen to women of the next generation, or the generation after that—I think of my granddaughters’ generation—because so much has happened to them by the time they’re forty, maybe it’s enough. And they pick a life and go on with it, without these rather girlish hopes of finding love, finding excitement.

WACHTEL Why girlish hopes? What do you mean?

MUNRO Well, women often harbour rather youthful ideas—ideas that somewhere there is a passion that will last, or there is a passion that surpasses everything else in life, that you can just tear everything apart, and pick up, and go on somehow. I think that’s rather a youthful idea. But I think that women of my age didn’t hit this youthful phase until we’d first had our middle age. We had our kids and our homes and our husbands and our quite programmed lives. But there remained this voice that said there’s got to be more in my life than that!

WACHTEL And they were attracted to a certain recklessness.

MUNRO In men or in themselves? In both, yes, I think in both. The very idea that one is doing a reckless thing! The character you’re talking about, the one from “The Children Stay,” finds that running away has considerable penalties she didn’t count on. The way she finds this out is one of the things you discover.

Eleanor Wachtel @ IFOA:

Rosemary Sullivan interviews Eleanor Wachtel about Best of Writers & Company on Thursday, October 27 at 6pm. For information and tickets, click here!

Do not miss Writers & Company @ IFOA on Saturday, October 29 at 8pm. Eleanor interviews international authors Francesca Melandri and Christopher Kloeble! For information and tickets, click here!



Poets @ IFOA

Do you love poetry? Here are events featuring poets @ IFOA 2016.

1. Shakespeare Lives in Poetry: Friday, October 21, 2016 – All Day

To celebrate the international influence of Shakespeare, during the year of the 400th anniversary of his death, the British Council is bringing international poet and facilitator, Deanna Rodger to IFOA to work with emerging spoken word poets. Taking Shakespeare’s sonnets as inspiration, this Spoken Word Workshop will explore how sonnets can be utilized by contemporary voices in fresh and unexpected ways to talk about their lives today. The workshop will culminate in a performance by the participants.

The workshop is free and open to all spoken word poets, from beginners to seasoned performers. To participate in the workshop, download the Sign up form, and email

2. Immersive Settings: Sunday, October 23, 2016 – 1:30pm


Chris Chambers presents Thrillows & Despairos, a collection of poems that speak of our connection to a place, in Immersive Settings.

Get tickets to this event by clicking here.

3. Interrupting Familiar Spaces: Sunday October 23, 2016- 5pm

Hear Japanese writer Takashi Hiraide alongside Canadian poets Sylvia Legris and Sarah Pinder read from their latest works. The reading will be hosted by Catherine Graham and followed by an audience Q&A.

Get tickets to this event by clicking here.

4. Interpreting the Past: Monday, October 24, 2016- 8pm


Join Adam Hochschild, Guy Gavriel Kay, Lola Lafon and Daniel Scott Tysdal as they explore the theme of writing about history. Daniel Scott Tysdal will present Fauxccasional Poems,

Get tickets to this event by clicking here.

5. Sound & verse: Wednesday, October 26, 2016 – 8pm


Join poets Phil Hall, Maureen Hynes, Sylvia Legris and Mark Wagenaar reading from their new collections! If you love poetry, this is a must-attend event.

Ger tickets to this event by clicking here.

6. Poetry Ireland @ IFOA:  Thursday, October 27, 2016- 2pm


Part of festival focus this year, Ireland @ IFOA, we welcome two contemporary Irish poets, Julie Morrissy and Ciaran O’Rourke!

Get tickets to this event by clicking here

Click here for Ireland @ IFOA, featuring both Julie Morrissy, Ciaran O’Rourke, as well as Emma Donoghue and Paul Muldoon presenting the best contemporary  Irish literature.

7. Recklessness: The Art of Writing – Celebrating Ten Years of the Guelph Creative Writing MFA

Thursday, October 27, 2016- 7:30pm

Join hosts Michael Winter and Catherine Bush as they celebrate the 10th anniversary of University of Guelph’s Creative Writing MFA program, whose faculty, alumni, and students have been pushing boundaries―being reckless!―for the past ten years.

This event features award winning poet Motion.

Get tickets to this event by clicking here

8. Artist talk: Paul Muldoon: Friday, October 28, 2016- 5:30pm

Award-winning poet Paul Muldoon will talk about his craft and inspiration. This event is hosted by poet Jacob McArthur Mooney.

This event is FREE.

See our full list of events here. For ticket information call our box office at 416- 973 4000.

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