Never Cry Woof by Shafer Hall
(No Tell Books, 2007)
In the commonly known moral tale, the little boy learned his lesson when he “cried wolf”. There may not be a clear lesson to be learned from Shafer Hall’s book of poetry, Never Cry Woof, a perplexing change to the name of the childhood fable; nevertheless, Hall’s poetry is capturing the eyes of many, and with due cause. Hall opens doors of imagination for the reader in his latest book of poetry. Each poem is paired with whimsical illustrations by Amanda Burnham, which adds a one-of-a-kind touch. Similar to the title of the collection, the pictures and playful font add to a child-like theme that emerges from the poems themselves; however, Hall’s poems are not to be taken lightly. Often, the poetry is about the little things in life. This theme is prevalent throughout most of the poems. Perhaps Hall wants the readers to focus on the little things in life because people in general are living life too quickly and pass things by. The idea is to think about life, not ignore it.
Sometimes, only Hall knows what he is writing about. The poem “Shaw on Dickens” can be considered one of Hall’s more perplexing poems. The poem is about the book Tale of Two Cities by Dickens and Arms and the Man by Shaw. Choosing these particular books to write a poem about is bold, and the rest of the poem lets the reader contemplate the meaning of reading classic literature down to the very basic “weight” of the literature itself.
Hall’s skill in writing poetry lies in his ability to make the reader think. His poems are not a quick read, and at times are not understandable at a first glance. This seems to be the goal. With obscure metaphors, some obscene language and ideas, and stream of consciousness format, this collection of poems is baffling, in a good way.
Though Hall’s poetry is contemporary, he still holds true to some of the traditional devices of poetry. One of many examples would be his use of personification in “Sparking Rail/Trailing Twine”:
that Amanda’s briefcase
will be late to work
is no concern
There is a disconnect between Amanda and her briefcase; perhaps Amanda’s briefcase is more useful to her job than Amanda herself. Hall shows this idea by saying that the briefcase will be late, not it’s owner. This personification can be extended to an emerging idea that people are losing meaning to life, or that jobs run people’s lives. Hall uses repetition to enhance the meaning of some poems. “Winter, Coney” is one of the shorter poems in the collection, but memorable because of the repetition:
Off the train
And down the ramp
And we are the third
And fourth men
On the moon
Note that the first line begins with “Off” and the last line begins with “On”, with “And”s in between. It seems that the key to using repetition is to either make the repetition subtle or blatantly obvious. Hall chose the latter, and for this short poem, this works quite well.
Curious about Shafer Hall and his poetry, I decided to do an online interview with Hall himself. Below are my questions and his answers.
1. Your poetry seems intentional in their sense of the line and stanza, but they don't seem to use traditional forms. What is your writing process from mind, to paper, to final draft? What leads you to a particular line length or other formal decisions in each poem?
Hall: My writing process doesn't always start with the mind these days. (But maybe I shouldn't tell anyone that.) I used to write poems starting with an interesting line or an interesting image. "How to Survive on Land and Sea" was written that way. I started with the boys eating Popsicles, and I built the poem around that image. "Nautical Selection" started with only the phrase "nautical selection." I thought it was funny (funny meaning interesting and unusual, not necessarily ticklish.)
These days, though, I find myself starting from a blank page and just adding words until something happens. I think it's something that I did before, but I do it more frequently now. I think it's something that's easier to do after you've written a whole lot of poems. It's not always successful, but it's successful often enough to be worthwhile. I probably worry less about the success of a poem these days, too.
Also, I find myself more often lately deciding on a specific topic ahead of time. To return to "How to Survive on Land and Sea," when I wrote that poem, I didn't think to myself, "now I'm gonna write a poem about Popsicles and loneliness." These days I find myself thinking "wouldn't it be interesting to write a poem about the steel refining process?" and then I'll sit down and write one.
Regarding form, I usually don't make formal decisions ahead of time. Usually I'll break my lines so the piece LOOKS like a poem, and then I'll go back and re-break lines, usually on the phrase, but if a line break takes on an unappealing meaning that I do not intend (or if I see a line break that might create a new meaning that I like) I'll re-break a line to encourage or discourage a particular interpretation. But most of the time it's about making the poem look like a poem.
Sometimes certain rhymes and repetitions will pop up in a poem. Usually they're unintentional, but if I like them, I will play them up. A poem sometimes finds its own form, and sometimes I'll take a form and break it down. I like my poems to look like poems and to sound like poems. Forms are good for that.
2. What other poets do you feel have influenced you and/or your work? Have
your tastes have changed over the years? What are you reading right now?
Hall: I was influenced at an early age by Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Ogden Nash. These days I am most influenced by my contemporaries -- Maureen Thorson is my favorite poet. I regularly read Octopus magazine and Lungfull! magazine to stay abreast of other contemporary poets. I recently read some Mark Doty poems that I liked a lot too. I don't think my tastes have changed over the years so much as widened.
3. I like the title, it adds a nice spin to the child-hood fable. Why did
you title your book of poetry Never Cry Woof?
Hall: I'm really glad you like the title, I like the title too. My friend John Cotter told me I could've walked down the street and picked the first three words I saw, and they would've made a better title than the one I picked (he can be quite pithy.) I took a bit of a beating about the title from some folks who are close to me. Everyone had an idea about what the title should be, and everyone had strong dislikes for the titles I was considering. I got a bit sick of it all -- the idea of a collection of poems under a title became distastefully fetishistic to me. I like to think that each individual poem is much more important than the collection of 'em.
So, one night I was thinking of a movie I saw when I was a kid, "Never Cry Wolf," about this dude who went and lived up North. It made a big impression on me, and I still think about it a lot. The phrase "Never Cry Woof" occurred to me, and made me giggle. And this was when all this drama about the title of the collection was going down, and I thought, fuck all these people, I'm gonna give it this stupid title that doesn't have anything to do with anything. And you know what, Nicola, I'm gonna title all of my future books the same way, to fight the sort of jingoism that comes with collecting a bunch of poems.
4. I especially liked your poem "Shaw on Dickens". What was it that sparked your imagination to write this poem?
Hall: I love this poem too, and I have had a few folks tell me they like it, and for some reason it always surprises me to hear. When I wrote the poem, I was living by myself in a weird apartment in Houston, Texas, and basically slowly going insane. I was drunk all of the time, and I spent most of my time either at work or in my big living room in the middle of big piles of books and my own filth. When my friends came over I would berate them until they left, and I wasn't self-aware enough to realize I was really angry at myself and depressed. It was a funny time, but definitely a time I never want to see again. It made me realize how much l like and need other people.
The poem originally had a "you" in it; the "you" was entirely imaginary. The poem is really just about me piling things on top of each other and totally losing my shit. I am doing much better now.
I wonder if and how this information changes how you feel about the poem?
5. What poetry are you working on now? How do you feel it's related, or unrelated to Never Cry Woof?
Hall: I am always writing more poems. Meanwhile I am assembling a collection of some of the poems I've written since "Woof." I haven't told anyone this, but I am gonna call it "Conjugal Visits in Hell," from something my friend James Strickland said in 1999 in the courtyard of an apartment complex in College Station, Texas. I sincerely doubt that any of the poems in the collection will have anything to do with sex between married couples in the afterlife.
Sometimes I think about writing a bunch of related poems for some kind of a book. But I think that in answering your questions tonight, I am realizing that there might be some very good reasons not to do that.
So thanks. As self-absorbed as I often am, I am rarely particularly self-aware. So it's really nice to have someone ask me questions like this.
I enjoyed hearing from Shafer Hall himself. Receiving insight about his poetry process reinforced my views on some of his poems and yet steered me in another direction for others. Since Hall is a contemporary poet who is not well known yet, reading about his life helps one understand his thought process and thus become a step closer to appreciating his hard work.
Forget structure, obvious ideas, or well planned thoughts. Write what no one else has the courage to say. Write what is on your mind. Shafer Hall did.
Nicola Trumbull is a first-year student at Augustana College in Illinois. An English major with a writing emphasis, she plays clarinet in the Symphonic Band and competes on the Equestrian Team.