‘We pick up clichés like burs on our socks’

New Writer in Residence at Queen’s Phil Hall brings experience in the field of poetry

Governor General Award winning poet Phil Hall does visual work in addition to his writing. He’s made sculptures out of protractors and plastic triangles.
Governor General Award winning poet Phil Hall does visual work in addition to his writing. He’s made sculptures out of protractors and plastic triangles.
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Room 529 of Watson Hall now houses two famous Canadian poets.

Once a year, the department of English chooses a writer to have at Queen’s to participate in campus literary workshops and give advice to budding creative writers.

Governor General’s Award winner for poetry Phil Hall is the new Writer in Residence and he’s sharing an office with former CBC Literary Award winning poet and old friend Carolyn Smart. Hall started his residency last week and will be at Queen’s during the fall.

Originally from a town outside of Perth, ON, he’s taught classes on writing at York University and Ryerson University. As the writer in residence at Queen’s, he’ll hold office hours twice a week where students can submit their writing and get his professional opinions and advice.

In an interview with the Journal, Hall talks about working with students and his approach to writing.

1. What are your plans for your time here at Queen’s?

I’m going to be setting up a lecture series out of the English department. It’s going to be called the Page Lectures in honour of Joanne Page, who is very much loved in Kingston. I’ll be giving the first lecture in November.

2. How will you be working with students?

I’m going to suggest that people submit five to ten poems up to ten pages or one short story and that’ll give me enough to have a good sense of the writer’s work. I’ll just make some notes and talk with them about it.

One other thing I do is a manuscript mentoring service out of the Toronto New School of Writing. People send in poetry manuscripts and if I think I can help them or clean them up before the writers send them off to publishers, then I spend time with them doing that.

I have that as an ongoing project, so it’ll be good to do the same thing in miniscule at Queen’s.

3. What advice do you give to young writers?

I like to remind beginning writers that the words are doing more than just pointing to meaning. They also have an oral component, so what you’re trying to say is also making music. How the words sound and listening to vowels is important. I try to lead them away from clichés because we pick up clichés like burs on our socks.

4. Do you have any funny anecdotes from working with students?

I was in a class and I was showing students the William Carlos Williams poem about plums. I was telling the kids the thing that makes this work is that something is being offered and made to seem really good, then pulled away. I was asking them to write a poem that includes something like that and one student wrote ‘I’m sorry for spilling milk on the Mona Lisa, but I think it looks better.’ 5. What’s the best part of working with students?

To see their work improve and to see them gain confidence. Once they know it’s okay to try the craziest things they’re thinking of, it’s usually good to encourage them to go for it.

6. What’s the worst part of working with students?

The most difficult thing I’ve always encountered is when someone writes a poem about something that’s happened to them and I say “Well, this doesn’t make sense” and they say “But you don’t understand it because you weren’t there.” I have to explain that there’s two events — one in the poem and the one that actually happened to them.

Unless you create a new event so the poem is actually something new happening, then it’s dull. That’s often hard for people to get because the poem is still attached to their life experience rather than being an event itself. Once they get that, the poem gets better.

7. What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?

I do a lot of visual work as well. I’m not as confident with that as I am with my writing. I’ve been building sculptures out of protractor sets, and I can also take a whole bunch of those plastic triangles and make something.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

— Savoula Stylianou

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