‘Surrural’ poet plucks words from country childhood

Phil Hall looks like a wanderer. He’s dressed in black jeans and a thick tan shirt; two earrings glint in his left lobe and a silver feather…

Phil Hall looks like a wanderer.

He’s dressed in black jeans and a thick tan shirt; two earrings glint in his left lobe and a silver feather hangs around his neck.

He’s a fan of postcards and playing cards and picks them up if he sees them lying discarded on city streets.

He’s been an orderly in an old age centre and edited high school textbooks, but today his job is stringing words together.

Hall is midway through his three-month stay at the Berton House writer’s retreat in Dawson City.

He is in Whitehorse reading for a handful of people at the library; it’s the first stop on a tour through Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria to promote his new book of poems, Oak Hunch.

His voice is soft in conversation, but gathers strength and momentum as he begins reading from his books.

“I started off being called Phillip, then I cut the ‘lip’ off,” he says. “Then I lost the ‘il’ and now I just sign ‘Ph’ so that whenever anybody blows out a candle I think they’re calling me.”

His poetry contains intimate, childhood reflections or images plucked from dreams.

“I like being far away from home but I’m always writing about it,” says Hall.

One simply lists nicknames he and his family used while he was growing up.

The word “bullrod” figures prominently.

“‘Bullrod’ was a word I made up because I got in trouble for saying ‘bullshit,’” says Hall. “But of course it’s all in the way you say it; so soon, I was banned from saying that word too.”

Hall began stringing words together young.

He remembers making up rhymes while stomping through the woodshed in his childhood backyard.

“I remember walking back and forth and trying to make up rhymes about the people in my class like ‘Mary, Mary she’s so scary,’” he sings.

He’s a rural poet with his feet planted firmly in Southern Ontario’s soil.

“I was born in the mid-century but you could almost smell the Victorian Age,” he says. “When I talk about my childhood I seem a lot older than I am.”

He went to a country school with an outhouse and a library full of old books.

His father had a Grade 8 education, while his mother completed Grade 3.

“I’ve educated myself out of my class,”’ he says.

With an MA in English and Creative Writing and a shelf full of books to his credit, Hall is carving his own path.

He went to school with writers like Joyce Carol Oates and Alistair McLeod.

He’s a self-described troll beneath a bridge, twisting words until they sound like poetry.

“My poems have become surreal, but I try to keep the words rural,” he says. So he calls his works “surrural.”

“I don’t feel that expansive; I feel like something cramped like a squashed car, something that only squeaks come out of,” he says.

When he writes he keeps three maxims in mind.

First, error is character.

“You don’t have to be perfect or be consistent — we love our family and friends for all their flaws.”

And sometimes, from error comes discovery. He used to keep a book in his pocket and jot down all the things he misheard or misread in a day.

Second, that rhythm is knowledge.

“A poem doesn’t have to be about anything as long as it gets its rhythm right,” he says. “You don’t necessarily have to spill your guts.”

And third, focus is grace.

“Freud said, you need two things in life to be fulfilled: love and work, I think what he meant is that you need focus,” he says. “To have something to focus on is a saving grace.”

Hall’s first book, Eighteen Poems, was published in Mexico City in 1973.

“It’s dreadful; it’s high school stuff,” he says with a laugh.

Since then he has published 11 volumes.

Trouble Sleeping, completed in 2000, was short-listed for the Governor General’s Award for poetry.

His new book, Oak Hunch, released in November 2005, is up for the Griffin Poetry Prize this year. The winner will be announced on June 1.

Hall has an impressive resume of writing and teaching to his credit. He has taught at York University, Ryerson University, and the Kootenay School of Writing.

As well, he has been poet-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario, the Kingston Writer’s Workshop, Sage Hill Writing Experience and The Moosejaw Festival of Words.

Currently he teaches poetry at George Brown College, and Canadian Literature at Seneca College in Toronto.

Before he heads back to his cabin south of Ottawa for the summer, Hall will host a poetry workshop at the Yukon College campus in Dawson.