News and Interviews

The Entitled Interview with Phil Hall

Drawing on the wilds of rural Ontario and his own family and artistic mythology as inspiration, Phil Hall's four decades of poetic invention have influenced countless other Canadian poets. Often called "a poet's poet", an anthology of the Trillium and Governor General's Literary Award winner's work is an overdue addition to the CanLit canon. Luckily Wilfrid Laurier University Press has created a unique and welcome volume of Phil's work, edited by fellow poet (and Open Book columnist) rob mclennan. Guthrie Clothing: The Poetry of Phil Hall, a Selected Collage is an irresistible selection of poems, with an afterword comprised of a brand new essay-poem by Phil, which ruminates on the purpose of poetry.

Today we speak to Phil as part of our Entitled Interview series, where we speak to authors about their own process in titling their work, their favourite titles and just what function a title ought to serve.

Phil tells us about "Adam-ing", what a title shouldn't do and the genesis of Guthrie Clothing's unique title.

Open Book:

Tell us about the title of your newest book and how you came to it.

Phil Hall:

Thanks for asking…

I am obsessive about titles. So these answers will probably be more than you want to hear (laughs)

Naming is what we writers do: Adam-ing, I call it. And there is still plenty of lee-way in finding the right names for things. As Orpheus knew, each Brinsley Oak, or each Red Breasted Nuthatch, expects you to find its own particular non-guide-book name; only then will they talk to us. And poems are no different — a right title can reify lines below it.

In my practice, when a word or a phrase isolates itself from the rush for a moment, I pause to consider it, then I will write it into my notebook, capitalized and underlined, to see how it looks as a title. And often poems start this way…

The one I tried out this morning was The Points Run. A friend told me that’s what it’s called when you fly to Europe and back, stay at the airports, and return in a circle, only to build up your flying points.(I see it as maybe the title of a murder mystery.)

My most recent book is titled Guthrie Clothing: The Poetry of Phil Hall, a Selected Collage. It is in that Laurier Poetry Series from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

I wanted a title that would associate me with the amateur, folk traditions I admire so much. In an early book, I recounted a dream in which a voice said this odd phrase “a Mandelstam in Guthrie clothing.” I think that dream was showing me how I disguise my seriousness about craft by an ah-shucks manner. (Ink all over my hands / plus a cowboy hat on…)

It gets complicated after that: when Bob Dylan gave his first solo performance, the story goes, Woody Guthrie lent him a suit to wear. That means that Bob was wearing “Guthrie clothing” when he stood up to sing his first songs.

Also, American culture, even the best of it, even these examples that I am mentioning, hangs on us and over us in Canada. If I have to wear hand-me-downs, if I have to wear “American,” then let it be Woody’s old brand.

About the Mandelstam part…in a poem, Osip called Stalin a “mountaineer butcher.” It cost him and his wife, Nadezhda, everything. Insisting on a voice that costs you everything — that is another important folk tradition.

A Mandelstam in Guthrie Clothing was too long to be the title, so the title is just Guthrie Clothing. Now the second part of the title would have normally been “Selected Poems.” But I have always been resistant to the notion of a Selected. The presumption of an audience in need of “the best of” someone’s work is always there in a Selected, and that presumption embarrasses me. Nobody needs what I write, nor should they.

So I chose my old poems and bits of poems, and revised some of them, and rearranged them into a new sequence of about 45 pages. I threw chronology out the window.

If I were doing it again this week, I’d choose differently, I’d arrange it all differently. The resulting main sequence has, hopefully, a jazziness to it.

What order and disorder I could blow at the time. What I made, right then and there…

What do you call that? Not: a Selected Poems. Brian Henderson at WLU Press suggested “A Selected Collage.” He knows I work at assemblage in visual art as well as in poetry, so that was a good suggestion.

I did the art work myself for the cover of the book — to complement the decisions we made about both halves of the title. My cover is a collage made from torn up bits of the covers of my old books. That seemed appropriate.

At the launch at Massey College in November, I sang a Woody Guthrie song. That seemed appropriate too.


What, in your opinion, is the most important function of a title?


Perhaps I can best answer that by saying what a title for a book by me should not do:

  • it shouldn’t appeal to the emotions (a bad title will basically be saying “I am very sensitive” or “My poems are all empathy”);
  • it shouldn’t aggrandize the work or the author in any way (a bad title will basically be saying “I am very clever” or “My poems are extra brainy”);
  • it shouldn’t be a metaphor (Leaves of Grass is a bad title, but we have forgiven Whitman that);
  • it shouldn’t trade in a fake innocence or blind regression (as with world, so with poem: no return to a Golden Age or Childhood — and everything a complicated mess redeemed only by variable rhythms);
  • it shouldn’t use a definite article to make itself sound like a tome (The God Poems);
  • and finally, because it is only a doorway, not a performance — a title for a book (or a poem) by me shouldn’t pirouette by showing off with alliteration etc. (for example “A Little Heart to Heart with the Horizon” is a poem title by Alice Fulton, one that I couldn’t use).

For me, the title of a poem is often best employed to hold some extra bit that I couldn’t make fit in the poem. I don’t want to use a title that is the best line or word in the poem, because by the time the reader reads down to that line or word, it is stale, because it has already been absorbed; in effect, I will have sucked the energy out of my best line or word by foreshadowing it as the title.

These days, I work in long forms mostly, so many of my poems don’t have titles, they are fragments of something larger, part of the sequence.

Sometimes, if a fragment needs a clarifying title of its own, and I can’t avoid it, I’ll put that extra bit of information in brackets (like an aside). In Guthrie Clothing there are some poems that originally had titles, but in the new sequence those titles are gone; where I had to keep the information of a title, it is reduced to a bracketed clarification: (Bronwen Wallace) — it says at the top of one poem, just so you still know who I’m talking about…

I tell myself: A title is not a pitch, it is a commitment.

Then I say: Oh, come off it, you windbag! (laughs)


What is your favourite title that you've ever come up with and why? (For any kind of piece, short or long.)


I like Trouble Sleeping. It always amuses me how that title can be read two ways:

1) Oh, you are having “trouble sleeping.” That’s rough.
2) Oh, Trouble, that monster, is sleeping. Finally! Good.

Seen in this forked way, Trouble Sleeping, as a title, is both “troubled” and “post-Trouble.”

Once, at a reading, I was introduced as the author of Trouble Shooting!


What about your favourite title as a reader, from someone else's work?


I’ve always liked Diane Wakoski’s book title: Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch.

Also, C.D. Wright: Translating the Gospel Back into Tongues.

Also, Lisa Robertson: My Fidelity is My Own Disaster.

Those are all big titles, but I also have always admired Philip Levine’s book title, 1933, for its restraint.

I love Laura Glenum’s work. Her recent title Pop Corpse can’t be gotten past easily.


What are you working on now?


I will have a new book out this spring from BookThug. I am putting the late dabs to that. It is to be called Conjugation.

At first it was going to be called Gap & Hum. “Gap & Hum,” is a section of the book — but as the overall title, it seems too whimsical.

Then it was going to be called Lake’s End, but Lake’s End sounds too much like Howards End by E M Forster. Or it makes it sound like I’m dying. And it appeals to the Romantic emotions too much.

Then it was going to be called A Grab-Sing, A Vow-Try. Which I still like for its strangeness, but I find that such a title also tugs at sentiment too much. It invites the reader to worship at the altar of craft (in a folksy way, but still): the desperation of “grab” is followed by the holiness of “vow.” Then there is the strained humility of “try.” Both phrases are ones I stand by in the poems themselves, but as a title, it was reaching…the book would have been as if pointing at itself and its process.

“Conjugation” means what we know it to mean. It also means, in biology, the transfer of information between cells.
The singular word, Conjugation, is important: Conjugations would be a terrible title, because that would be as if to label each poem (the way DH Lawrence called one of his books of poems, Pansies…and another, Nettles).

To me, Conjugation is a worthy title, for it says nothing sucky about me or the book. But as the poems in the book are read, I think that title will take on nuances of meaning.

Burbling adjustments, increments of vowel shift…

“The right title always ends up seeming inevitable and the only choice.”

People say this. But is that really true? It sounds too smug. (This is the danger of the epigram as a form…)
There have been some dreadful titles: Scouts in Bondage, Accordions on Snowmobiles, Who Will Toss My Salad?...


Phil Hall won the 2011 Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry in English for his book of essay-poems, Killdeer. He also won the 2012 Trillium Book Award for Killdeer. His other most recent books are: Notes from Gethsemani (2014), My Banjo & Tiny Drawings (2015), and Le pluvier kildir, the French translation of Killdeer (translated by Rose Després). In May he will teach the Spring Colloquium at Sage Hill in Saskatchewan (Kroetsching: The Long Poem Sequence). He is Poetry Editor at BookThug. He lives near Perth, Ontario.