Monday, June 1, 2020

Long Growing Season : an interview conversation between Andrew Vaisius & Phil Hall

in advance of the publication by Flat Singles Press of Andrew’s long poem, Retirement

photo by Ann Silversides : Kim / Demeter / Andrew
I’ve known you for 35 years, about, and you have been a poet I admire all that time. My friend. But you haven’t been publishing books. Much. Until now.

How have you sustained a writing practice with almost no publishing?

For instance, where have your poems been kept and developed? Notebooks, binders, files? Who have you shared them with? Read them to? Any writing groups?

I've sustained a writing practice because of my love for words and communication, but it is more my attempt at words and communication. I am more a failure than a succeeder. Maybe my fails push me on, as do my occasional successes.

I house my poems in too many places with too many revisions that hang around after the revising. Lately in my life I don't share them too often, but I enjoy reading poetry including other poets whose work I admire.

In Morden the library and art gallery put on a quarterly open mic for spoken word and sung word. I read a mix of my poetry and others. I usually don't bug my family with my poetry unless I feel certain about the work, which isn't often.

Where are you from in the States exactly? What early writing influences? How did you come to Canada and stay?

I was born in Chicago, Illinois on the half century. I grew  up on the southside and attended high school in an all black neighbourhood.

I was in high school when Martin Luther King was shot. I went to do something at the school, and it was as if you could hear a pin drop in the streets around the school. That left a lasting impression. Growing up in a racist culture I hardly ever spoke to black people, or even looked them in the eyes.

I was through with the American Dream by the time I became a young  man. After I got married we decided to leave the place. My wife was working as a special needs teacher and she got a job in Sioux Lookout. I remember thinking when we crossed that border that I was finally home.

I became a Canadian citizen as soon as I was able. Our marriage broke down and I moved to Toronto, and worked as a lab tech for pharmaceutical firms. Lots of organic solvents and suspected carcinogens. Not the cuddliest job to have.

As for early influences, I'd have to cite Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, less so. Robert Lowell and Robert Frost. Edna St Vincent Millay, Adrienne Rich and Phillip Levine. Wendell Berry. I'd probably slap my forehead if you brought up others, "Oh Yeah, her." I think I am touched by most everyone I read seriously.

What later writing influences? I know Al Purdy’s poems have been important to you. How? And who else? Wayman? (It was Wayman who told me to look you up when I moved back to Toronto in 1985.)

Al Purdy for sure. He was the first poet I came across in Canada. I picked up his Sex & Death, and David McFadden's On The Road Again in the Sioux Lookout library on some kind of McClelland & Stewart promotion. Two bucks a copy or something. I was off and running.

I couldn't believe the richness of Purdy's words. Not precious, nor beautiful but there in your face being undeniable and so damn Canadian. I had a blood transfusion draining what little roots I had as an American. He has always stood out for me, and continues to stand out. I look past the big personality and stick to the words.

Other poets: Tom Wayman, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, Don MacKay.  And your own works, too, continually make me examine what goes into my poetry—how to say it, how to write it..

If I read someone seriously, they touch me.

Women poets?

Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Forche, Dorothy Livesay, Helen Potrebenko, Sharon Thesen...I'd rather read Atwood's poetry than her fiction any day.

Early on, Flat Singles Press made a broadside of one of your poems. Later, there was a chapbook. The cover, I remember, was by a Native dad at a daycare where you were working then, yes? Remind us of all that, the titles of these...Any thoughts on—or memories of—these?

The broadside was "In the Back of the Mind" with artwork by an excellent poet I knew back then. The chapbook is titled "But the Fools Got in the Way". and the cover was done by Bruce Beardy, who was the spouse of Katie Beardy, one of my staff at a core area daycare centre in Winnipeg. I was working as a child care worker, actually directing the centre. I directed it for 10 years. It shaped me as the assassination of Dr. King shaped me - deeply and irrevocably.

The broadside was very much early Vaisius finding my way. It was a long talky poem combining an everyday event, walking down to the Beaches in Toronto, with ruminations on the economics of disparity prevalent in capitalism. I forget how many were printed up, but the whole experience was pretty sweet. The chapbook required more thought and structure. There was a variety of poems included between the covers, poems that I'd still read today without hesitation.

For four issues, in the 80s, you and I edited together a Work Writing journal called Don’t Quit Yr Day-Job. Did any of your poems go into those issues? Any memories of this paste-up and fly-by-night endeavour?

If I recall correctly we were co­-editors of the poetry, and we didn't appear in any of the issues with poems. We sort of sung a manifesto in the first issue. I didn't quit my day-job so my memories are few and probably full of holes. You were the shaker and mover, and made the thing possible and fun.

I know you have done a beautiful chapbook with Robert Pasternak’s press in Winnipeg more recently. Can you tell me about that? Title? Didn’t it include seeds? There have been other ephemera publications with Robert as well, haven’t there? I have, somewhere, a poem on a candy wrapper, is that right?

My friend Robert is an artist of huge range slogging away in Winnipeg. I think he works in a call centre to support the art. He is an original. We've known each other for years, and out the blue he asked if we could do a chapbook together. He'd do the art and book construction, and me the poetry.

The book is called Domestic/Export. The poems roughly cover domestic issues as a father and child care worker, and things outside my home life. For example, I wrote a poem about Eric Nesterenko, one of my hockey heroes when I was growing up. The book did contain seeds halfway through, some I husbanded myself, some collected from trees. It was a beauty of a book thanks to Robert. We had to have a second printing by demand.

Robert did do a bunch of other creations like a toffee looking roll-up with the ends twisted shut, and one of my poems inside. He also did a gum package with my poems as the gum sticks. He is worth looking up and wandering through his website. Some of his comics have just been published by At Bay Press called Place into Being.

Have you continued to send out and publish in literary journals all these years?

I haven't sent out my work as often as I should have I suppose. It became trendy for small magazines to run an endless number of contests to bubble up their circulation.

I don't really believe in those contests, and my submissions dropped off accordingly.

You have published much more as a poetry book reviewer than as a poet. Is that right? Please tell us about that: for which journals have you reviewed, what have you liked about reviewing, any favourites and discoveries that stick out? Are you still reviewing?

I probably have more reviews published than poems, and that comes as a result of Canadian poets and poetry. It is fertile ground. I have reviewed mainly in Prairie Fire out of Winnipeg, but also in ARC Poetry, and different now defunct journals.

I like the idea of telling people that this poetry is worth a read, that this is an interesting slant on things, or conversely that this is starched-shirt poetry. Mostly I try to be positive.

Lots of poets stick out. Lots of those poets might not be writing poetry anymore. Someone who is still writing who I came across by her first book is Mary Dalton from Newfoundland. I think she is exceptional.

I also could underline the books that Andrew Wreggitt wrote, though I think he is writing film scripts now. Stephen Collis too, in BC. Reviewing has dried up in the age of internet. Capsule commentary is easy to find, and easier to digest.

You have always grown your own food. Is there any relation between poetry and farming, gardening? Sure there is, but would you care to elaborate? Publication and harvest?

Putting words on paper doesn't always end in publication, but putting enough seeds in the ground will get you some kind of food. The relationship is more in the way of sowing I think, and the way of tending to what's sowed. I don't expect perfectly round tomatoes or straight green beans. I plant mainly heritage seeds, and save a lot of seeds on my own. They don't seem finagled by big Agriculture into something they are not.

I grow a fair bit of garlic, usually about a thousand cloves every year. I touch every last one of them, physically touch each of them at least six times in the process from planting to harvesting. I am not automated, but I can give bulbs away to friends and family. Gardening is something I do. It defines part of me, like my poetry defines part of me.

Your main paid work, until you retired, had been as a daycare worker and director—and you have shared in the raising of your  five children with your partner Kim.

A career devoted to raising—crops and children. To me, this seems such an admirable way to describe a poet. Especially a male poet, for tradition calls this work women’s work.

I think I have always wanted to do meaningful work, and it seems as if women have been doing real meaningful work all along the way.

That I chose to do child caring as a profession in no small way was to choose to do women's work. To feel what it is like to do an important job that doesn't receive the remuneration it deserves. To change diapers, wipe runny noses, to love the young, who only mothers could love. It is difficult but necessary.
I spent many moments in the sleep room crying to myself about the "human condition" after the children released their tensions and slept.

And after the day in the centre I'd come for more in a domestic setting. I realize I couldn't have done either of those jobs without Kim. In the early years she had five of them at home alone.

What a society we have constructed! That making money is more important than raising our children. No one can convince me that an entrepreneur’s skills at amassing cash trumps a child's ability and need to learn in a safe and loving environment.

Now, with your children grown and away from home, and with the daycare work finished, out pours this long poem, Retirement.

I have a sense of this book—of this poem—that the makings of it have been storing up a long time, biding & binding its forms, its lines, while work and family and growing—while loving—came first.

Please tell us about the life around and above the poem. Whatever occurs to you...

The poem references nothing about the work I did. I find that fascinating. It began one day after hearing one more person ask, "Well, what do you do now that you are retired?" The poem starts as an answer to that question, then spills through daily events and thoughts about how my future is lessening by the hour. I am finite. I don't believe in a god. I have nothing but what is here, and I better like what I'm up to since I'm the one living it.

My children, all adults now, mean much to me, as does Kim. In a sense we are all growing older together. Perhaps someday I can express that well in a poem. The poem itself seemed like a return to writing again. Part of it felt like a push by you, and for that I am grateful.

Any thoughts on the long poem vs the occasional poem?

Having written both I think I'd side with the long poem as having a greater ability to fly. Being tied to a monument and getting off the ground requires a bit of magic, and magic can turn into formulaic material. A long poem can wander and observe; it has the sense to laugh at oneself, and be foolish. Yet for all that play it can be serious and committed to forthrightness.

You were a landscape water colourist when I met you. Had lived in—was it South Porcupine? Canoeing and hiking into landscape has been like food to you. Is that fair to say? Which out-of-the-way places have been most vital to you? The most memorable?

I sometimes get down on myself for not being more ambitious as a writer, carving out time from the family for myself, but then I think of the hoot we had as a family and I am staunch about what my choice would be if I could do it again.

As I said earlier, when I moved to Sioux Lookout I felt like I finally came home. The bush, the lakes you could drink from, the farther you can travel by canoe, and still farther. Food? Definitely. Sustenance and better than any school you could attend.

While living in Toronto Kim and I decided to road trip as far as we could one summer in search of a new place to live. Our young ones at that time were two and four. We loaded up the canoe and tents and headed west.

We got as far as paddling up the Churchill River in Saskatchewan for a couple of days. That summer experience was amazing, living out of tents, and canoeing almost daily.

Is there a question you wish someone would ask?

Would you read a poem please?

Would you read us a poem please,  Andrew?

Hands and Knees

Days crawling a child's height scaled down trucks fake fur
jigsaw puzzle scatter Appear as if I like this but afraid
by the fifth question give a goofy response

to separation Each second off kilter and hanging
bleached language and assembly line diapering
We were something in our day until the bureaucrats

caught us flat footed and forced us to wear Latex gloves
spray QUATS solution everywhere so we misted dirt safe
yet dirt ever The smell of peanut butter in their hair

Be real didn't suffice they need rocking hugging a stern
voice a lean into to slow tidal motion of self stimulation
on a cot Redemption by the women who understand

a man might want to pull the kitten-caboodle down
A child explodes and we work through the shock
no matter how calm the other six hours pass

Clock tics A clock tick demands attention even as
boredom tosses a block into the air Years before this
I stake out my life in pharmaceutical labs testing

steroid implants for cattle and suppositories for kids
whose rectal muscles remain undeveloped
because of enemas they received as infants

It's a business I guess but I see the rotten turnip in it
and nudge myself to usefulness shift my intentions
away from the I to the us I wish to fit in not too

snugly to grow new skin like a potato when nicked
or bruised A wooden block tossed into the air
suspends at zenith Click A life a moment

of recognition Rain falls snow falls night falls
the sun rises Let me outlive another day to do
the work I want to do to call this child to sentience

from sense Look we are two of us and we owe
our breath to mothers and fathers who came before
we came Not those but those before Not us but those

after us In that way we snake around and on


April 2020

Phil Hall is the author of many books and chapbooks. In 2015, his award winning book of essay-poems, Killdeer, was translated into French by the Acadian poet Rose Després, and published as Le pluvier kildir by Éditions Prise de parole. Forthcoming from Beautiful Outlaw Press: Toward A Blacker Ardour (2020), and from Pedlar Press: Niagara & Government (2020). He lives near Perth, Ontario.

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