Friday, March 9, 2018

above/ground press 25th anniversary essay: Phil Hall

This is the ninth in a series of short essays/reminiscences by a variety of authors and friends of the press to help mark the quarter century mark of above/ground. See links to the whole series here. 

Notes from Underground 

In Praise of Small Press (One in Particular)

Not one title from above/ground press has been defended on Canada Reads.

Not one title has caused Shelagh Rogers to laugh her throaty laugh.

Not one title has been optioned for a movie.  Or even an animated short.

These are jokes—sure—but also points of pride.


To leave as low a profile as possible above the dark line of the landscape

I have been published by above/ground press 2 times—well 3 (another is forthcoming)—well 4 (more about that ghost one later).

I am an above/ground author because I was invited to be.  Did I have something? 

Yes.  I don’t send poems out anymore—that’s a young person’s game.  But if asked I try to always say yes.


If above/ground is indeed above ground—it is so only slightly.

One of its affinities is with the 80s Zine Culture—pre-blog.  There’d be a black smudge on our hands from trying to read those punk collages… 

We say press—but it is really a banner (a name) under which to copy things & share them

hopefully recouping the copier costs—with the added kudo of attaching ISBN numbers to each chapbook—a big legitimizer.  

My own Flat Singles Press (1976-1992)—in its first rough & fly-by-night incarnation—was a similar personalized banner under which to copy things cheaply & share them. 

Too small to kill—was its tag-line.  No legitimacy.  Squeak. 


The first chapbook I did with above/ground was Verulam (2009)—the 2nd was Shikibu Shuffle (2011).  

Shikibu Shuffle was in collaboration with the poet Andrew Burke of Perth Australia.  

The 3rd—out this spring—Alternative Girders—is also in collaboration—this time with the Ottawa artist Stuart Kinmond.

That 4th title—the ghost chapbook—was actually the first one—2006?—& was called Baby Pictures of the Country Stars—or Baby Photos of the Country Stars.  

When that chapbook was published we realized that the title was wrong—it had changed from “Pictures” to “Photos”—or from “Photos” to “Pictures”—so on launch night we scrapped the whole edition!

What a stupid title that was anyway!  And how great it is that both author & publisher could say—Let’s dump it! 


Democratic—& distributed by subscription—above/ground is an un-doctrinaire & eclectic press.  

Some might say it publishes too much—or that much of it is forgettable—but I say—Who cares?  Forge-able & Forgettable are twins. Feed the swell / not the pinch. 

As in sequence poems—it is the flow not the preciousness that matters.  In this case—the community service—not king-making.

I see the sonneteers—& the one trick syrup—but overall above/ground is an experimental press.  Experimental & welcoming—in the bpNichol tradition.


From young Ottawa locals—to coast to coast poets—it has—it seems—nearly everyone on its roster

(the way Fiddlehead Press used to with their plain chapbooks back in the 70s).

Is anyone turned down for publication at above/ground?  I like to think not.

Also—this press—with its production values barely—above the dark line of the landscape—resolutely  furthers a Gift Economy—almost…

Below profit—in the margins—underbrush writing—wayward—skittish.


At readings we poets like to have small publications to exchange— above/ground press is there to help us.

When we want to try a test-run of something we are working on—like those absurd early flying contraptions…

as we run jerkily off cliffs—to show ourselves & others what we are underway with—above/ground press lets us crash or glide.

When we want to issue a small project that is a one-off—there will be no gathering into a larger book later—this is the only place it will ever appear—above/ground press has been interested.

When poets just starting out are ready to risk a first small publication—it will be an actual credit—thank you—it will mean you can apply for grants—thank you—above/ground press has been there.

With folded single POEM flyers that are free & make good calling cards—leave one on each chair before an event—above/ground press does that.

As a venue for its publisher’s own poetry—a prodigious outpouring of on-going projects—above/ground has served well…

Plus if any title from this press is nominated for an award—you can be sure that the judges have not been seduced by colophon or paper—the writing has been noticed in & of itself.

Plus when a chapbook is accepted you don’t have to wait three years to see it in print—in a few months you will have it at hand.


I used a batch of above/ground titles as teaching tools for review & imitation when I was writer-in-residence at the University of Ottawa in 2014.

Poets in the graduate class I taught produced their own chapbooks as a final project.

There are elegant chapbooks—works of art really—such as from Cameron Anstee’s Apt. 9 Press—also in Ottawa—but for class purposes it was above/ground that served best.

In fact the publisher brought a box of older titles to the campus for us!


I do have a favourite above/ground title: Vertigoheel for the Dilly (2014) by Pearl Pirie.

Another crazy title! I gather that vertigoheel is a herbal remedy for Meniere’s Disease.

It’s a modest-looking chappy—as they all are—but I think it might be a major long poem

in that—being by a woman—it subverts (by its music & gender & argument) & takes a whacky complex stance against

those stale male tropes in the long poem we have been accepting as a template for too long.  

To me—Vertigoheel is useful—brave—smart—& funny.   Physical / political / & ecological too.


Some will look at these chapbooks—bright oranges, blues, lime greens—they are basically folded Xerox pages with a coloured page for a cover—& think “Why bother!”

Some will forget that TISH (the important West Coast journal 1961-1969) was only stapled & mimeographed foolscap sheets.  That pale purple mimeo smell. 

Some have forgotten how almost accidental the first blewointment press chapbooks seem now.  And the great bill bissett still going strong today! 

Don’t even get me started about jwcurry or d. a. levy…or Alta or Judith Copithorne…so many…

There is an ignoble tradition here.  Called small press or micro-press—it continues to offer a communalism that has nothing to do with Exceptional.

Almost underground—almost samizdat.  Despite everything.  Too small to kill.  

Our underbrush-writing pokes its head up—above/ground…


Another game show.  Another waste of time.  Another talk-show host.  More cartoons.  Wasted time.

Not one title from above/ground press has done more than be available.  On a table at a small press fair:  The Wastes of Time.

More attempts at little music by intense focus on paper… 

Ph . Guyana . 2018

Phil Hall’s [photo credit: Geoff Hancock] most recent titles are The Interrupted (with Erin Moure; Beautiful Outlaw, 2017), Notes on Assemblage (JackPine, 2017) & Conjugation (Bookthug, 2016).

Hall is the author of three (at least, officially released) above/ground press chapbooks, including Veralum (2009), Skikibu Shuffle (with Andrew Burke, 2012) and the forthcoming Alternative Girders (with Stuart Kinmond, 2018).

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