“You are doing the heavy work of poetry: sitting with your back to the fire, looking into the dark,” said Joanne Page in her introduction of Phil Hall. And anyone who has read Hall’s brilliant poetry or heard Hall speak knows that she wasn’t just flattering a man who has initiated a lecture series in her name. Phil Hall is a man who knows how to think, how to put those thoughts into words, and how to knock the top right off of your head every single time. He may be incapable of disappointing. (That’s the sort of thing I’ve learned it’s sometimes best not to say to poets, or, really, anyone who thinks, but sometimes, like now, it’s true.)
“The ways the page is trying to stay wild,” is what Hall decided to talk about. Pasted on the wall behind him were nine words and two blank pages: BARK, HAND, PAGE, AGAPE, VELLUM, SKIN, EGAP, TYPE, CANVAS. Hall spoke to these words and to those pages for over an hour.
He spoke about “the page in its journey from wood to document,” but also about the vellum that came before paper – “to think of the bristling page, to think of the bristle against the nib.” Think about it for a minute. Think about the visceral act of writing that way: the nib of the quill pen pushing against the edge of a not-quite-removed bristle. I’m typing this up as I write it and the difference between what I’m doing as these words make there way on to the page is physically, experientially, quite different than what I was doing when I scribbled handfuls of Hall’s phrases into my notebook. And the difference between typing and the nib against the bristle? Trying to wrap my mind around that expanse is like trying to wrap my mind around the vastness of space. This, Hall suggests, is because “digital vistas are dull compared to the page that is the tree that is us. We close the egap every time we remember this.” The egap: page backwards and the “e” gap we now find ourselves facing.
At one point, holding up the poems he’d prepared for a recent reading (a colourful and crushed scroll that resembled an accordion or a children’s toy) he admitted “there are many pleasures in tearing apart your own publications … in returning it to woe” and recommended that others do the same: “this is what you have made carefully, tear it down.” Visceral, again, in a way the digital text can never be. Hall talks about the text as body, about the “page as skin,” about how “a word can be a slash, a smear of innards across a page.”
You can destroy a book, but can you destroy an ebook? That was the question rattling around in my head. And, if you can’t destroy it, can it swallow you whole? That’s what a luminous page does. It swallows you. I have shelves of texts that have swallowed me whole: pages from which I had to reemerge, pages which left me broken, pages that altered the trajectory of who I am, pages of my own that found a home or met death by fire. The page is a living thing, but is the e-page dead and does it have to be? I know how a computer is different from a machine manufactured page and how a piece of three-ring binder paper is different than handmade, but I’m finding an urge in myself to know how vellum feels under the pen and how a scroll feels in the hand. I want to etch words on rocks and paint my hand on the cave wall. I want to hold those experiences against the feel of my hands on the keyboard and the words scrolling across the screen and see if I can navigate the differences.