|Phil Hall has never really considered himself a Canadian poet even to the point of writing that "Canada is dead" but his recent residency has partially shaken his "pretty disgruntled" feeling towards Canadian nationalism.
Hall argues that Ottawa forgets that much of Canada doesnt look south to the United States for inspiration an opinion that was reinforced during his four-month residency at the Pierre Berton House (the former house of that most Canadian of authors) in Dawson City, Yukon. "Newfoundland looks to Ireland, and the majority of the films entered in the Dawson City Short Film Festival came from Scandinavia," he says.
Hall wanted to "go north," feeling that Canada needs to integrate a knowledge of its north into its sense of self, so that we are not satisfied to be defined simply as "not American." He was embarrassed, then, to find his Canadian nationalism was bolstered when he looked out of the Pierre Berton House to see the former homes of the British-born Robert Service and the American-born Jack London.
Hall has made a point during his writing career which hes continued with his most recent book, An Oak Hunch (Brick Books, 96 pp.) to look outside Canada for inspiration.
While that may seem like an odd claim for a poet who has recently been announced as a Canadian nominee for the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence, what is most exciting to Hall is that "despite all of the problems, the Griffin Prize puts all poetry Canadian and international on the level.
"I never found what I was looking for in Canada and I had a fear of regionalism. I was more interested in where international poets could lead us. I so often find that when I teach, that people are only reading contemporaries within their own gender, style, class group, point in time, nation and the first thing I do with students is to expose them to poetry in another language."
He cites Clayton Eshleman and Robert Duncan both American writers as major influences on his work, and in both cases he has been drawn to their sense of "auto-didactic poetry."
Eshleman most famously has combined interests in poetry and archeology into manuscripts that engage in "psychological cave-digging," while "Robert Duncan said that he had a primal base for intellect, not a studied one, and claimed that he had the advantage of starting with no talent at all.
"Eshleman spoke of his writing as a struggle, and his writing has evolved through physical work, psychological work his themes have changed and forms have evolved. I am drawn to the idea of poets having a failure book and a wonder book."
Hall is reticent to define his poetry around a single subject. "To base an entire poetics around a subject is to enforce a false-ceiling its too limited," he says. Hall is more interested in the rhythms and patterns that can occur in self-exploration, which is where the idea of "auto-didacticism" enters into Halls poetics. His poetry is constantly about trying to educate not just the reader, but the poet as well and he believes that in order to work on craft, a poet should learn to "listen more carefully."
One of the big surprises that Hall had during his residency in Dawson City was the way that the arts is integrated into the larger community. Dawson City is run entirely by Parks Canada and is quite a small town, focusing on tourism (it feels like a "bit of a theme park," according to Hall) but despite that, theres a concerted effort to increase the profile of the arts. Dawson City has realized unlike Calgary, for instance that in order to keep people, a city must offer a culture with integrated arts programs, and Dawson has created an "arts for employment" program, in order to develop an understanding of the role that the arts can have in an economy.
Hall praised Dawson Citys Klondike Visitors Association, their film festival, and a pair of artists residencies (which currently include both a new-media video artist and a painter) as expressing the communitys drive to bring the arts to a community.
In Dawson City, Griffin-Prize nominee Phil Hall has found a community willing to challenge itself culturally, and like that small, northern city, Hall has continuously looked outside his own community for inspiration, seeking to combine the traditionally "poetic" with non-poetic subject matter.