Phil Hall


Griffin Poetry Prize 2012
Canadian Shortlist

Book: Killdeer

Poet: Phil Hall

Publisher: BookThug

Click here to read and listen to an excerpt.

Phil Hall reads Becoming A Poet

Becoming A Poet


On a Sunday morning in July 1973 I hitchhiked from Bobcaygeon to Lakefield to meet Margaret Laurence

When a ride let me off in Buckhorn I had breakfast at a counter on stools among fishermen – my eggs were scrambled and served by a one-armed man

I got to Lakefield about 10:00 – most people up that early were in church – I had a clipping from The Globe and Mail – a photograph of Laurence’s house

The Diviners had just been published – I had a copy with me – the first new hardback I ever bought

With the photo to help me I meant to find Laurence’s house & just knock

The previous winter I had finished my first year at the University of Windsor – where my English professor – Dr Huong – had said – without any hint of a question – You don’t know how to write a sentence do you

Nevertheless – even as I walked around Lakefield – my first little book of adolescent poems was being typeset atrociously in Mexico City

I can’t remember now what possessed me to seek out Laurence – but I hope it possesses me still

It wasn’t that I particularly cherished her writing – then – I was too inflated & dazed – having left the farm – having gone away to university

As maudlin as it sounds – of many generations of drunks I was the first to ever finish high school

Because of the imminent First Book I thought of Laurence & I as colleagues

Besides – she was living nearby in Lakefield now – & this proximity suggested family to me at nineteen

I had already begun to hunt for & invent a literary family to replace the one I had been born into & couldn’t abide


She wasn’t home – I knocked – twice – but not too hard – I was eager to hurry away – maybe it was the wrong house – was it too early – had she gone to church

I walked around the cemetery for an hour reading the stones (there were no Halls) & when I knocked again at 11:00 the door opened

An Eskimo woman in a patterned shift stood there smoking a flat cigarette – when she spoke I saw that her teeth were black

Her words were delivered with a confident slur & there was no poise – I loved her instantly

My dead mother’s teeth & smokes were the same

I apologized for knocking – for the early hour – for knocking earlier – for being there at all

Laurence seemed eager that I come in – she said she would like me to phone next time

Next time – was I to be a regular visitor – then – so easily

No – she was not addressing me specifically – but giving general advice to the numbers of visitors she had started getting lately – now that she was famous – even notorious – because of The Diviners


I’ve just finished wallpapering under the stairs here – & this wall – do you like it

Was the wall cream-coloured with purple irises – what did I know about home decorating

My mother used to buy plastic curtains

My dad & his girlfriend were having straight vodka for brunch right now in the ramshackle Iroquois Apartments in Bobcaygeon

I bought this the other day – too – & I think it goes so well against the new wallpaper here below the stairs – I’m not sure what you call these

It’s a chair – & the seat lifts up – so there’s storage underneath – & the back of the chair has this bevelled mirror – & there’s these coat hooks up here on both sides

There must be an actual name – it’s lovely – do you think – oak

Yes – to me furniture was still bricks & milk crates

What I could understand was this woman’s simple loneliness on a Sunday morning – her eagerness to find approval – & her pride in her home

I was ashamed to recognize what I thought of as weaknesses in her – I had no right – & they were not weaknesses

Now I know that if she could entrust her vulnerabilities to even me she must have taken the same risks with everyone – from her children outward to glomming strangers

She risked a generous grace


I want to go back & protect her from the likes of me

Her cat’s name was Amber – her rowboat – that her son had painted for her – was named CC Grant – this she told as a rehearsed joke

My son is worried that if the boat ever gets away in a flood I’ll never get it back because they’ll think its owner’s name is CC Grant when really the CC stands for Canada Council – Canada Council Grant – which is what paid for it

She ended with a slight drawl & swagger – held the moment – then punctuated it with a final drag on her cigarette – a side drag

I didn’t laugh when I should have because I didn’t know what a Canada Council Grant was

To cover for myself – I reaching into my yellow Army Surplus shoulder bag – pulled out my copy of The Diviners & asked if she would sign it for me

I also handed her poems – far too many – a crumpled bundle – I knew she didn’t write poems – I didn’t care

She said that she didn’t write poems but that she would read them & write me a letter about them

I thanked her & left – the hitchhike home took longer – the day was hotter – memory fails – having caught its limit


Eventually I got a typed letter from Laurence – she was too kind – I have so often put that letter in a special place for safekeeping that I forget where it is

It is somewhere – one of the reasons I write is because it is somewhere

When I want to revisit that meeting I rent & watch the NFB film First Lady of Manawaka or the shorter version for schools called Our Kinda Talk

The home interviews for that documentary must have been done shortly after The Diviners was published – so about the same time as my pilgrimage to Laurence’s house

The way she says darn sure chokes me up


It is by such encounters – brash – rude – naïve foolhardy or accidental – that we discover or select our lineages as writers

(I think – too – of Dorothy Livesay – late in life – stooping to touch my daughter’s hand – blessing her)

Margaret Laurence touched the hand I write with – otherwise my pen might belong nowhere – have no family – be part of no continuance

She touched many – deeply – & me merely in passing – but without her touch I might be as if one-armed

I would have to hit myself to clap

I might be silent

From Killdeer, by Phil Hall
© 2011 Phil Hall


Griffin Poetry Prize 2006
Canadian Shortlist

Book: An Oak Hunch

Poet: Phil Hall

Publisher: Brick Books

Click here to read and listen to an excerpt.




each evacuated tread cancelling a labeled dig<
each bounding hoof-track deep as a nostril

a path contorting like a storm rudder
or a knob on a dash – ingrown by scrub-hawthorn

deak – waree-ree-ree – tchee – tchee

bobolinks fluffing in quillwork shadow
haw-hips detonating clay red in cold bills

guernicas of scythed footage boiling
in the soup of the day – jacklit by vagrant strobes

deflective-ornery path back
still – I’m going


& put in the cellar to tame
ran in blurred circles ’til the farmhouse spun

when I caught him again to let him go
his hindlegs jumping in my fist like the tractor’s gear knob
he tore a long furrow up the belly of my arm
as if I’d been trying to kill myself

the house slowly stopped spinning
& fell on its side – the cellar an open grave
its soft potatoes handled by cloud-shadow

boy was my arm ever starting to sing

From An Oak Hunch, by Phil Hall
Copyright © Phil Hall, 2005

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