Under the Cover: Poet Phil Hall on the evolving art of self-portraiture

Poet Phil Hall discusses the cover artwork on his latest collection Niagara & Government (Pedlar Press) and the evolution of his own self-portrait and artwork – from edgy, ’80s Elvis Costello vibes to watercolour and collage – and the eternal nature of a pair of classic black-framed glasses.


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This self-portrait is dated 1986—but what really dates it is the huge glasses. It was the Elvis Costello look. I used to do a lot of self-portraits in the ’80s, especially when I had migraines. And I drew better when I was drinking. Expressionism. Outsider Art. This is what I told myself.For half of the ’80s I lived in Vancouver. Or in New Westminster, above the Fraser River. I was in a basement, and each day I’d write bad poems and draw myself, then I’d stick the day’s drawings on the outside of the door at the top of the stairs to the basement. My friend Catherine lived upstairs, and when she got home from teaching at UBC, would see these torturous drawings in her kitchen. Depending on how awful they were, she’d call down the stairs, concerned or amused. “A rough day today?!”When I moved back to Toronto, my glasses were still disco-big, but had changed from black to a clear yellow. This cover drawing has some watercolour to lighten it up. The lines of the pen are the Government of it; the watercolour is the Niagara of it. Spill & Spell. I might have had a migraine; I had likely been drinking—see the scribble that is one half of my head.This cover suits this book, though. The glum over-the-shoulder glance. “Bottom” is a sequence about sobriety. A number of poems consider (and try to be) Folk Art: “Local Produce,” “Stan Dragland’s Wall.” There are meditations on “Failure” and the “Prodigal.” Other titles: “Abuse,” “Drugs,” “Distance is Health.”I remember an early Costello song: “the angels want to wear my red shoes”—dancing like an idiot to that. Big glasses bouncing. Then for twenty years I wore rimless glasses, almost not there on my face. These days, I don’t worry so much about how I look, which means fewer self-portraits. My visual art now is usually collage or assemblage; my poems are long collages/assemblages too. And my glasses again have black frames.

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Phil Hall has lived in Windsor, Vancouver, and Toronto, and now lives in a log house outside Perth, Ontario. A decade ago, Pedlar published his collection, The Little Seamstress.