Writings / Essays

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Call and response: a note on Phil Hall, and 52 flowers (or, a perth edge)

rob mclennan
joining the extremes, a nun table, clawhammer banjo what has managed to twist, to give meaning or perhaps, require if only, cant out of circle using broken pieces of dreams & family , houses , a museum of conjoined myth ad nauseum; kindled to pass off as truth , becoming The best response to a poem is another poem. Margaret Atwood, or perhaps Phyllis Webb, once said this, but it feels like one of those phrases repeated so often, we are lost to its original attribution. My fifty-two page sequence 52 flowers (or, a perth edge) – an essay on Phil Hall – (Koriyama Fukushima, Japan: obvious epiphanies press, 2011), subtitled “an essay on Phil Hall,” was the result of weeks pouring over the work of Toronto poet Phil Hall, and, more specifically, a day long visit the poet Wanda O’Connor and I had with Phil and his wife Ann at their summer cabin in August 2005. My initial response to Hall’s poetry was a series of questions. I was fascinated by his process, fascinated in just how his poems became what they were. Might he be interested in an interview, possibly? He wasn’t entirely comfortable with such, instead suggesting I come out and spend a day with him at their summer house on the Rideau Lakes, a cottage just outside Perth, an hour or so drive west of Ottawa, for the purposes of escaping Toronto (they have since moved there full-time). I’d long been fascinated by Hall’s poetry, intrigued by the long stretches of small moments, the strung-together phrases and halting images. I was intrigued by the poem-sequence “An Oak Hunch: Essay On Purdy” from his newly-released An Oak Hunch (London ON: Brick Books, 2005), a collection later up for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Could you do that? Write a series of sequence of phrases, halting lyric and collage-as-poem as an essay? There was an element of realizing his poetry a matter of deliberately-placed found materials, crafted phrases, accumulated, collected and sorted over an extended period of attention. There was the idea that poets such as his friend and contemporary Erin Mouré had also been presenting in her own work, that poetry and essay could be intertwined, simultaneously both. I was intrigued by his accumulation of highly charged phrases, intrigued that so much could be packed into such a small space. Early on in Hall’s sequence on Purdy, he writes: BETWEEN THE BODY & LANGUAGE a ravine of call & response   if you look down the well for the moon your head eclipses the shine   hurting myself is a still they'll never find The morning after a late-night gathering of poets on the upper floor of O’Connor’s apartment, we woke late and drove the hour west, picking up a pie at a farmer’s market en route. Once discovering their nearly-hidden driveway, there were the conversations about poetry, the conversations about his collections of found materials—including wood carvings, ancient Ontario tools, antique postcards, a 1960s issue of Life magazine that Wanda poured over (specifically, a cover article on actress Elizabeth Taylor)—the accumulated barn (there was a drawer filled with, for example, door-knobs). We talked of music, his interest in learning the clawhammer banjo; the annual visit he has with writer Stan Dragland, usually around Kingston, geographically half-way between their summer retreats. At one point, Ann offered to take us out in the canoe, and she and Wanda made their way across the surface, soon disappearing behind a further shoreline; Hall and I remained, watched from the shore. Hall’s collections of found materials and folk-archives seemed closely associated to his poetic, one of working to respect the original intent of discovered or recovered phrases, as well as infusing a new life and new kind of energy through his own considered touch. From my response poem, here is one of the early sections of such, writing: imagine an inside a poem imagine bob caygeon a man , bob caygeon a brutal man roughneck vancouver past on yellow gloves, writing i am writing; all that i am left is writing smells deliberate; yesterday the ottawa rain smelled ocean; saying as much on tape [laughs] or grown out of i am three-quarters here

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