Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Phil Hall on literary house parties and his fantasy job

The author of Conjugation answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Phil Hall is the author of Conjugation. (Griffin Poetry Prize)

After 43 years of publishing poetry, having won the Governor General's Literary Award and the Trillium Book Award, there's a rallying cry at the centre of Phil Hall's latest poetry collection Conjugation: "To not let poetry be furniture." 

Below, Phil Hall answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Kenneth Oppel asks, "Even after so many books, do you still feel like you're doing it wrong?"

Each book is an attempt at redemption or reprieve: how to make virtues of my constant errors. 

My embarrassments in the past advise me to shut up for good, but they also spur me to attempt further revelations by form. 

I am guilty of continuing to revise my older publications, of seeing the printing press's finality as only a stage in my long process toward some ever-elusive perfection. Sure, I scribble changes into my books... even into my new books...

Juan Ramón Jiménez says: Poor lover of perfection, don't you see that you are a living poet and that life is undying imperfection... Without a doubt, perfection is poison.

I like to say, "Error is character." So it is the music of error I'm stuck with trying to make...

2. Ian Brown asks, "What is your fantasy job — the work you'd love to do if you weren't a writer?"

The Cigar Roller's Union in Florida used to employ readers to sit on a high platform and read to them: Dickens, Scott, Twain, as well as the seething political newspapers and pamphlets of the day. I would have liked that reading job.

When the cigar manufacturers outlawed readers in their cigar-rolling shops because they thought that the readings were promoting radicalism, the cigar rollers went on strike! No reading; no rolling! They got their readers back. I would have liked that job.

3. Todd Babiak asks, "Do you ever feel so scared in the dark, when you're alone, that you have to turn on a light? If so, what are you afraid of?"

Sometimes I go on road trips alone and will stay in hotels or motels. I like how anonymous hotels and motels allow us to be. They make us feel like W.G. Sebald!

In the middle of nowhere, or on the 5th floor, I vanish as I shut myself in. Sleep is good then, but I never sleep very well anywhere, so I'll be awake at 3 a.m., in the Cedar Bucket Lodge along the Bruce Peninsula, or at a Super 8 near Toledo... I'll be wide awake, in the dark, again, puzzled. 

What has always puzzled me is biology's indifference, how it cohabits with self-awareness and could care less. Where and how do numb indifference and enthusiastic awareness touch? 

When the darkness in the room becomes a living cube of anonymity I am beached in, ruminating, half-bored and half-troubled, I will turn on the light. 

I will read something undemanding that soothes my nerves: the lush and unforgiving Savanna Gothic prose of James Lee Burke, perhaps. 

The cop, Dave Robicheaux, is afraid of the dark; Civil War ghosts haunt him. 

Tonight, men with shotguns are punting in along the bayous to kill him and his wife, Bootsie. 

Dave has a 3-legged raccoon named Tripod. I wish I had a 3-legged raccoon. It would sleep on the bed with me. 

Its weight would make it easier to turn the light out.

4. George Elliott Clarke asks, "What literary character would you like to seduce — or be seduced by?"

I won't say "seduce" as in sexual sport. I am not that confident, or hungry. 

But it has occurred to me that it would be sweet to work at that lodge in northern B.C. where the woman in Ethel Wilson's Swamp Angel comes to hide. 

She has escaped from a husband in Vancouver, and carefully disappeared into the bush. She will try now to find a new life for herself, whatever that will be. 

I'd like to get to know her, and to watch as she finds her optimism again. 

Maybe I'd be the old trapper, of few words, who brings game to the kitchen each morning, and then will sit for a bacon sandwich and a tea. 

Let my name be Grattan. I'd be a friend to her. I could use a friend, and so could she. I wouldn't try to seduce her. She has gone past that. So have I.

It is the company of other women she needs now.

5. Vincent Lam asks, "For you — what does the 'Ultimate Literary Event' look like?"

Where I live, there are a lot of house concerts. Musical performances combined with pot-luck dinners will happen in someone's straw-bale house in Brooke Valley in the dastardly winter. 

I like those. Laura Smith comes from Nova Scotia to sing sometimes. She's great. I'm thinking that I might host a house concert for visiting poets at our place at Otty Lake sometime...

If Stan Dragland could come to read his fine prose, then there'd be Newfoundland music too; he'd bring his travel guitar. 

Beside the stone fireplace, I'd sit the performers — Erín Moure? John Steffler? The fire would be blazing. We would want each person to read for a good long while. And the audience, local friends, wouldn't have to be so quiet; there'd be some banter. That would please me. 

I'll let you know when that's going to happen, and maybe you'll be able to make it...

6. Karen Solie asks, "What do you do for fun? If you think writing is fun, what else do you do?"

I am more defined by what I don't do for fun: I have no interest in team sports, I don't hunt or fish, I don't play golf, I don't yoga, I don't swim, I don't drink or smoke, I don't like fancy eating or eating out, I don't garden very well, I don't buy lottery tickets...

Philip Levine said that he had spent much of his life avoiding an interest in many things, waiting for the Voice to enter him...

My wife Ann and I like to hike. In the winters, we try to get away somewhere to hike. This winter, we walked the levadas (mountain aqueducts) in Madeira. 

It calms me to play my banjo, but many days go by when I don't play it. I read. And second-hand bookstores still intrigue me: I collect books. 

I guess that's what I do for fun: I collect. Books and things: 60s paperbacks, miniatures, glass boots that candy used to come in, jokers from card decks, erratum sheets, odd pop-up books, matchbook holders, jazz vinyl, stove lifters, marbles... and especially cowboy books (Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Lone Ranger, Red Ryder, etc.).

Of course, collecting is an intermittent pursuit. It leaves too much time for the twiddling of thumbs. Faced with my collections, where is the fun? Nowhere, really...

7. Marina Endicott asks, "Can you love a book written by a lousy human being?" 

Well, there are people I can't read because of what I know about them. 

If Knut Hamsun is shaking Hitler's hand, is it collusion on my part to read him? Maybe, maybe not, but I can't read him. 

Celine, too, always comes up in these discussions; but what about Winston Churchill, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953. He was one of the most bloodthirsty writers ever. He authorized the dropping of tons and tons of bombs. Those trenches full of mustard gas were his doing. (No one reads him much now anyway...) 

Also, there are writers we love, we cherish their work, we admire them for years... then we find out that they were despicable, and not like their personas at all! Robert Frost comes to mind, his unwavering ambition sours the folksy side-road feel of his lines. 

After a really good biography, many an author's books go un-reread. 

I love Henry Miller. Many think he was a lousy human being. I suspect that for much of his life he was; but I also suspect that by the time he was an old man he had written and painted the disease of misogyny out of himself — he had taken the cure. He had autopsied his old self! In his blue bathrobe, smiling, he looks like the monk of our gender wars. The exuberance of his prose remains infectious, both Rococo in its enthusiasms and blunt in its disgust, in the same way that Roberto Bolaño's does for us today...

Theatre is a factor, as well: if I take on the character of a serial killer, will the genre buffer me? If the plot is disgusting, am I?

8. Jane Urquhart asks, "If you were forced at gunpoint to give up either reading or writing, which would it be?"

If we throw the gun in the ocean, this is a desert island question: what would you take? I'd take reading. 

I'd give up writing. I have always been dubious about it, anyway. I have always been embarrassed about doing writing as my main work. 

Reading is the progenitor: to read was an island I could go to, and still is. I still can. To own a book is to own a boat. To know how to read is the base skill in my life.

Writing came late to the island; it stowed away onboard, and then snuck ashore and hid. Later, writing would claim the island as its own invention.

But no, by reading a book while raw in the head is how I got here. 

I'd give up writing. I'd go bamboo.