Does your voice chafe? A book launch, a crowd of people, and two dentist appointments

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I went to the book launch to see what Helen Fogwill Porter had to do with the the world I lived in.

It was one of those things. I’d clicked ‘going’ on a facebook invite without actually knowing if I’d be able to attend. Like a lot of people, I have a lot on the go and I never know how my day will shape up until it arrives. But when my husband stepped up to take our daughters to their dentist appointments, that Thursday afternoon became unexpectedly clear. So I went. 

I googled her name on my phone in the cab on the way there. She was born on the Southside  of St. John’s (and wrote a memoir about it). She’s been writing since the 1960s, novels, stories, and poetry. She’s a feminist. She was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in 2016. The year before that, in September of 2015, a footbridge in St. John’s was named after her. It’s the pedestrian crossing that connects the west end of Water Street with the southside. Oh, and she’s 88 years old now. This will be interesting, I thought.

The book being launched was Full Circle, a collection of poetry Helen had written over decades. I hadn’t read her poetry before I got out of that cab and walked into Breakwater Books. But I write poetry too, in the ink of a sleepless night, or the bracing hour before the children come looking for breakfast. That may be why I wanted to go without knowing if I’d like her poetry or not. 

Liking a writer’s work isn’t the point, though, is it? Sure, when you’re relaxing on a weekday evening after a full day of work, you’ll reach for the book that fits your curves and angles and doesn’t chafe at your folds. Yet, one of the more interesting thing about literature is the way a book can argue with your life, can talk to the news you listen to in the car on the way to work, can flesh out a geography that you’d never want to go to, not really. Writers and their books aren’t always easy. They can pick the locks on your doors and steal away with what you thought you knew about the world. I went to see what Helen Fogwill Porter had to do with all that. 

I was early to the event, so I bought the slim, elegant volume and sat down to read as people arranged chairs (should I have helped? No, I had a book of poetry on my lap, and was meeting a like-minded soul: the room would come together without me) and moved the podium again. People kept coming in, saying hello and how are you doing? 

I suppose I should say here that my first degree is in journalism. Learning the craft at that age shaped the way I learned to look at and interrogate the world. For this reason, I adore a compelling, clear, true story that shows me a moment in another person’s life. And I love to laugh at the world. Helen’s poetry satisfied all this, and took me further. Each poem I read as I sat in Breakwater Books before the launch was like that one piece of jewelry paired with a simple black dress, worn by a woman who loves to laugh. There was nothing chafing at me at all. 

Which Porters do you belong to? That’s the first question Helen asked me as I set up my tape recorder to interview her in the minutes before the event began. Not the Porters here, I said. My father’s Porters are from Ontario, but I grew up out West. There are, I said, large clans of Porters in every province. That’s when she told me about all the other Helen Porters out there and how that was the reason she started using Fogwill between her first and last name. 

I asked her why do you write poetry? and she told me about having to wear dresses made from organdy, a material that scratched and chafed, that hurt to wear. She told me about not liking poetry when she was in school, because she thought all poetry had to rhyme. That was a long time ago, 30s, and 40s, and a bit of the 50s, she said. 

I asked her what do you write about? and she told me about the first poem she ever wrote. Her grade one teacher has asked each student in the class to write a poem (we called them verses then, Helen said). She asked them each to write about a pet dog. She said: And I didn’t have a dog. I had a cat. I just thought I wasn’t allowed to write about a cat. So I wrote about my grandmother’s dog, who I knew quite well. I remember the poem: I have a dog/His name is Laddie/He’s a very nice dog/but he barks at daddy. 

I love how even in writing of her very first poem Helen was already grappling with the tension between truth, a creative interpretation of the truth, and her readers’ expectations. She said: That was a bit of fiction because he never did bark at daddy.  And then it was really my grandmother’s dog, because we always had cats. 

Her favourite poets are Tom Dawe, William Blake, and Emily Dickenson. I can’t explain why. They just do things the way that nobody else does them, she said. 

I didn’t ask her about voice, but she said I’m determined to be my own voice. 

Helen writes poetry the way I like it best: plainspoken, irreverent, subversive and gently rebellious, and with a reporter’s eye for moments that matter. She tricks you into relaxing over what you think is a straightforward scene and then makes a sudden turn at the end. In “Mea Culpa,” a man who lectures about how to avoid stress dies of a heart attack and “tomorrow he’ll join the others/ in the cemetery/ stressed out and stressless/ laying side by side.” In the same poem, the man suggests people hire a nanny to reduce stress, and the line “he didn’t mention the cleaning woman’s stress” is wry and filled with laughter. “A Cure For Pessimism” is about an anxious man who welcomes a fatal diagnosis because all his dire predictions “couldn’t happen to him now/ because there wouldn’t/ be time.” “Conversion” is a quick observation about how capitalism is today’s new religion (without using the word capitalism, you’ll be glad to know). There are poems that reflect her feminism in their close attention to women’s bodies and lives, but with Helen’s sense of fun, as in the final poem in the collection “The Lady Vanishes,” in which an aging woman notices that she is losing in height while gaining in years. 

By the time I finished talking with Helen and found my seat again, the entire store was full and the people still coming in had to stand at the back of a crowd. That hardly happens for poetry, I think, and could it be said that it happens even less often for poetry about everyday things seen through a woman’s wise, wry eye?

Photo by Michelle Porter / Helen Fogwill Porter talks with a friend at the launch of her new book Full Circle, featuring poems she’s written over several decades.

I stayed as long as I could, but slipped out to go to a workshop I’d registered for the week before. I was going to learn beginner’s Mi’kmaw from teachers Marcella Williams and Shane Snook at the LSPU Hall, who were in town as part of the Identify festival. It’d be another way of playing with words and language. I had Helen’s book in my bag and I knew that after the class, after a dinner my husband would cook, after hearing about the dentist appointments and the day at school, after helping with homework and signing permission slips, I’d find time to sit with a glass of wine and pour over her direct-talking, political verse, and think about my own poetry, about life, and the things that chafe and the things that don’t chafe. 

Helen Fogwill Porter’s new book of poems Full Circle was launched on April 12 at the Breakwater Books store.

Michelle Porter is the lead editor for The Independent. She holds a BA in Journalism, an MA in Folklore and a PhD in Geography. She is the recipient of 2005 Atlantic Journalism Award for feature writing and the recipient of 2016 NL Arts and Letters award for poetry. She has been long-listed for CBC Poetry prize in 2016 and 2017.