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Steven Michael Berzensky in Conversation with Phil Hall
(Toronto 2002)


MB: Phil, you were talking about how you don't want to be everyday with language inside poems anymore.


Ph: It doesn't serve my purposes anymore. I don't think it serves the reader's purposes either.


MB: And what are those purposes?


Ph: Well, readers needn't be coming to my poems for the same things they can find in newspapers. The dailies do what they do; my "dailies" are kept in my journals, while my poems, growing out of those journals, try to do some longer memory work.

Poems are narrow and deep; newspapers, wide and shallow, like computers. Traditionally, what poems are for is to make you wonder: you go listen to a loon's cry, you don't know what it's saying, you read a poem by Basil Bunting, you don't know what it's saying either. You can't put the mysteries into explanatory sentences. Is the loon laughing at or berating us? Is Bunting for real? No. Is the loon begging for help? Not exactly. This doesn't mean "this." The cry . . .


MB: Paraphrased?


Ph: No, the cry is complicated, intricately musical, and so are poems.


MB: So it's not a sin for some poems, we're not talking about all poems, but for some poems to be almost literally undecipherable? Would that be fair to say.


Ph: Yes. I don't think you can sin in a poem.


MB: And that's because they're not meant to be deciphered? Would that be a fair way of putting it? They're not meant to be taken in terms of the usual meanings that we try to put on everyday things?


Ph: Yeah. With classical music, we don't know necessarily what's being said in the music, but we don't say, well, that's not serving our purposes. We say, it's leading us out of here, it's inviting us away, further than we usually go. That's the purpose.

So maybe I should write a book called Carrot, and it will just be the carrot, not the donkey, just what's leading. What's making the poem's music go forward is a trying to. It is exhilarating writing a poem when you don't know what you mean. There's a good difference between what a poet might be trying to say and what the poem might be trying to say.


MB: But in your poetry it isn't the meaning that you're seeking. There is this second level, a reverence for mystery. Ph: Well we all supposedly have that. And you know I love a simple poem, slow and easy, but many times, increasingly so, what I'm trying to express isn't either.

To say an un-simple truth simply and retain its complexity is a great thing. Rare. While waiting for the rarities, I orchestrate the complexities.


MB: You don't want to be simple.


Ph: Oh, I'm a simpleton! But simple can be a lie, an evasion, laziness, orthodoxy. My poetry comes out of a tradition of driven expressionism in which you don't paint what you see, or even what you feel about what you see, but you try to paint, write, what you feel while seeing.

I used to do many self-portraits. Every day they were different. I can't draw; what I was doing was measuring, like heat photography, taking the temperature of how I felt. I was house-sitting in New Westminster, B. C., and I'd put my tortured self-portraits on the ironing board door everyday. My roommate would come in, look at them, and shout down the stairs, "Pretty rough day, huh?"

I do that in poems too. If they're crazy and twisted and really dense, then they're context is crazy, twisted, dense. I meant the poems in Trouble Sleeping to carry the mood of my actual almost schizophrenic childhood. They hold the terror, not the story. The prose passages are there to be kind to everyone and give them a story. But the real story? There wouldn't be a story if some things really dense weren't carrying that craziness. Or that joy, depending.


MB: What is not spoken, not shared, takes on cumulative power, the power of terror to work upon the imagination.


Ph: That's expressionism. Without the ism, it's just how fear works.


MB: And how it works on the one who identifies with the one who is terrified.


Ph: Here's our issue of difficulty in poems again. I think that Tom Wayman and I both still strive to be very respectful of the reader, but our methods of striving are different. Toward the same dignity of exchange, we all build different stages of reverence (there's that word again) for sharing. In the course of my writing, I have done a complete flip.

When I started out, I didn't want to write anything that some uneducated person like my late dad would think was hooey. I was ashamed to go to university; my dad had grade three. It's called "survivor guilt."

" I'm going to publish a book of poems?"

"Po-ems! Well, you pretentious little snot!"


MB: This is what your dad might say?


Ph: Yes. Say my dad comes to my graduation (he didn't). He's nervous, uncomfortable. He wanders into the bookstore, picks up a journal, and in there is a poem of mine. What if he thinks, Hogwash?

If what I wrote made anyone feel stupid I'd still be mortified, but I suppose what I write these days could do that.

Still, I don't or can't believe that my recent poems are intellectual crap. They challenge the reader, for sure. They challenge me!

I think that if my dad wrestled with a line of mine, a good line, if he stepped on it, shit would come out (like when he was gutting a deer and stepped on an intestine). He'd get the texture of that, if not a meaning. The guts of a line are not held by its meaning. To say a line is "full of shit" is a compliment.


MB: Where was the turning point?


Ph: Well, it was gradual, and it isn't a shift that's unique to me. For poets, change is a sign of health. I was in theatre. I was a bad actor. I had to fire myself from the ensemble. I had to sit alone a long time.


MB: But it must have been wonderful to say, I'm not going that way anymore.


Ph: My dad's not going to read my writing anyway. (Actually, now that he's dead I think he may be more sympathetic, a better reader. But I suspect it's crowded where he is, and that it's hard to concentrate.) Most of the people who aren't going to understand my poems aren't going to read them anyway.

And I'm not a very difficult writer, compared to my heroes. (Think about Zukofsky's 80 Flowers!) It's just that the change from "work writer" to whatever I am now, that watershed, makes the difficulty more obvious.

I want to take risks that are self-transformational, not maintain old standards. I'd rather write terribly than imitate, though some of that can't be helped, because poetry is an on-going guild chorus. Language or autobiography, it is the same choice. Politics or linguistics, same choice. I began to be attracted to books I didn't understand.


MB: You're a re-reader, then?


Ph: I carry a good book of poems around for months or years (I'll be carrying 80 Flowers around off and on for the rest of my life I guess.) and struggle with it. Perhaps not to understand it, but I stand under it and listen to its music. Something in the music will make me hungry. Not to know but to yodel. I try to adjust my rhythms to the rhythms of the text.


MB: In your poems you often mention the body, the internal organs. You were just mentioning intestines, for instance.


Ph: Language is here to help us intuit what our bodies are trying to say, because the body's language is meta-sema-phore, a swallowed shadow puppetry, not a language we understand, though we are it. What we end up saying about the body is always an intuited translation.

I avoid the impulse to write the poem until it really bugs me.

I put down things in my journals: funny ideas, little phrases, quotes, notions for poems; but a poem itself has to chase me around for awhile before I actually get to working on it. I want to see how strong its pull is. In my book, waiting is daring?

Inside a poem is the only place I have authority most times. When I'm making a poem, I feel confident in ways that I don't generally. Otherwise, I'm slumped with doubt.

As I've said, I can't draw, my singing and my banjo playing are both groupie gestures. But inside the poem I have the authority to think "hard for us all" (to borrow the William Stafford phrase).

The poem may not make newspaper sense, but it is certainly taking into it everything I can give it, and even a bit more if I'm lucky. Here's me, plus. I've set up the coordinates, and something else has come in. That makes me happy. Scared. Something. Which is good, because I'm usually depressed.


MB: But you have a reverence for truth, language, the use of words for sacred purposes.


Ph: I'm pretty silly, too. [Laughs.]


MB: Well yeah, but you do consider the profession of poetry a sacred trust. I use profession in its root context: to profess.


Ph: You've caught me saying as much on tape here. I may deny it. [Laughs.]


MB: Right. [Laughs.]


Ph: I'm trying to say what I really feel, which is not necessarily what I want to be cornered in to saying.


MB: Well, I'm sorry if I'm cornering you.


Ph: No, no. It's just that I'm reluctant to speak about myself and by so doing reveal how important this all is to me. You know my emblem bird is the killdeer. It shows up often in my books. The killdeer, by pretending to have a broken wing, tries to distract and lead away those who come too close to its eggs. I make stupid jokes, plunk the banjo, tell funny stories. These distract, they entertain, they lead an audience away from seeing my eggs, seeing how sacred the nest of poetry is to me.

I'm just letting you see the eggs tonight. But my experience is that if people really see that something is vital to you, they'll take it away. [Laughs.]


MB: Because you've had that happen to you?


Ph: Yes. But I'm publishing books, so where the hell can I hide? I have to hide in the open air.


Phil Hall's works copyright © to the author.


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