Maggie Helwig is the author of Girls Fall Down and six books of poetry
André Forget interviews author, poet, and priest Maggie Helwig for her opinions on poetry, activism, and her role in a church with a tradition of radicalism.
André Forget: At least in the popular Canadian context, poetry has a reputation for being an elite art form, one patronized and appreciated by the bourgeoisie, if not created by them. As a poet, have you encountered this characterization? Is it fair, do you think? If it isn’t, whence does it arise?
Maggie Helwig: Well, here we have to unpack a few different concepts, because “elite” and “bourgeois” are not the same thing at all, and the poetries which would fall in those two categories are quite different. Bourgeois poetry would be, maybe, Maya Angelou? But on the whole, the bourgeoisie doesn’t really have much interest in poetry; it doesn’t have utility value, and it’s rarely comforting, so what’s the point?
“Elite” is a whole different kind of accusation, and strikes much closer to the truth. In most of the contemporary developed world, poetry is created and read almost exclusively by the intelligentsia, mostly by people with limited economic capital but very high social capital. Mostly, in fact, poetry is read by other poets. This hasn’t always been true, and it isn’t true everywhere in the world, but it’s the context in which a Canadian poet is inevitably working right now. At least some of this is the result of an educational system and a wider culture which treats poetry as a rare, difficult, endangered species. Any art form is hard to grasp until you’ve had enough exposure to get the protocols, but since poetry isn’t, for the most part, something people encounter early or naturally, the protocols seem mysterious and forbidding. If you grow up in a particular sort of family, you avoid that—I knew a great deal of “classic” English poetry from hearing it recited around my house when I was a child. But that in itself, in this culture, is an obvious sign that I grew up among the intellectual elite. I think about my great-grandparents, who memorized the same poetry, and they were self-educated, working-class people from the slums of Leeds, so it wasn’t always this way. But it’s the situation we’re in at the moment.
I’m interested in what can be done with poetry in public space, partly because of this, as a way of creating the kind of exposure which makes it less foreign, less elite, but I don’t suppose I’ve had a lot of success with that.
André Forget: One of the preoccupations of your work in general is marginalization, and you seem particularly interested in economic marginalization. You’ve worked practically to combat poverty for many years, and I’m curious to know how you see the relationship between your activist work on poverty and your writing—does the writing serve an ideological purpose, do you think, or is it a way of processing the ugliness?
Maggie Helwig: This is the number one most popular question I have been asked over the course of my career, and I still don’t have an answer to it, really. I can certainly say that I don’t think poetry is the least bit useful in trying to achieve specific political goals; fiction maybe a little bit more so, but still a very poor advocacy tool overall. If I want to create policy change, I have many political tools—the whole range from writing letters to nonviolent direct action—all of them more useful than writing a poem.
On the other hand, I’m not particularly happy with the idea that I write poetry to deal with my feelings about poverty or something like that. I have never been sold on the idea of poetry as “self-expression,” I think this is where most bad poetry comes from, and as a writer I’m just not that interested in me and my feelings. What I’m really interested in is playing with language and sound and image, with linguistic structures, with narrative structures, with arranging ideas into patterns, collapsing chronologies, things like that. So the driving impulse isn’t political, as such—but it’s true that the content ends up dealing with a lot of what I deal with in my political work, and I do try to be responsible to my political principles when it comes to issues like whose voices are represented, and how. So I suppose that much of my writing reads as political in that way, although I also think there’s a tendency to read my activism back into the writing because it happens to be a fact people know about me.
This is not to say that my writing and my political work exist in entirely different spheres, nor is it to say that “poetry makes nothing happen,” a statement about which I am dubious on several levels. But if I have any hope that my writing can create any kind of change, it’s more about changing how people look at things, how people think about things; what kind of semantic structures they can apply to their worlds, to put it in the most obnoxious sort of way. Broadening the possibilities of understanding, perhaps. If you have new language structures in which to think about things, maybe you can think new thoughts about them, and maybe even better thoughts.
St. Stephen-in-the-Fields c. 1930
André Forget: In addition to being a poet, you are also a priest—a very particular kind of priest, I should probably add, one working from a radical, activist tradition that has deep roots in this country. Preaching and poetry involve a similarly creative use of language, but preaching carries with it weighty liturgical, theological, and ethical baggage. How do you see the relationship between the writing of poetry and the act of preaching?
Maggie Helwig: I love preaching, I enjoy working in the homiletic genre, because it really is a specific literary genre. But I do worry a bit that as a poet, I have an ability to make things sound nice without necessarily having much content. When I’m writing poetry, as I said above, I really am concerned almost entirely with the linguistic content, and hardly at all with the ethical content. Fiction raises more ethical issues, but it’s still primarily a language act. Preaching, though, is supposed to be about the ethical and theological content; preaching isn’t supposed to be about language and what it can do as its primary focus. And I worry that I can do preaching as a language act, in a way that may make people think they’ve heard something meaningful, when in fact it doesn’t really have much ethical content, and is actually about just doing pretty things with words.
My other worry is that, because people hear very little good rhetoric these days, they’re terribly susceptible to it. Actually, people are susceptible to rhetoric always, I suppose—it’s one of the most dangerous things about us. I’m very uneasy with the idea of using words to make people do or think particular things, and that’s partly why my poetry and fiction are written the way they are; they’re meant to be almost anti-rhetorical, meant to be such that they can’t be used that way. I used to do more political speaking, and I stepped away from that partly because I was suspicious of my own ability to get a crowd onto my side. I mean, I speak in support of positions which I believe to be right, but I still don’t like the sense of manipulating a crowd. But you can’t get away from that in preaching. You are, in fact, trying to tell people what to think and do, that’s in the nature of the genre. And I’m not wholly comfortable with that.
These two problems are probably contradictory, so perhaps I can’t win either way.
André Forget: You are currently serving as the rector at the Anglican Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, which is right on the north edge of Kensington Market, in Toronto. One of the things you have done in your time as priest in charge there is invite poets, artists, and fiction writers into the space to talk about their work with members of your community. You’ve also hosted readings there. Can you talk a little about the relationship between poetry, or art more generally, and public space? Could you also say a little about the complexities of hosting performances of art in a sacred space?
Maggie Helwig: I know that people perceive the presentation of art in sacred space as being complex. But it really isn’t, for me. The sense of complexity, I think, comes from some deeply-rooted sense that there are things from which we have to protect God, that somehow God is going to be damaged by bad language, or sex, or anger, or lack of belief. But the divine is in no need of our protection. There is nothing that can’t be brought into the presence of God—that isn’t already in the presence of God—so there shouldn’t be anything that you can’t bring into sacred space. We ought to be, if we believe in our own theology, the most radically open place there is, because, on some level, there is nothing of which we need to be afraid. Sure, art is sometimes going to go into areas which aren’t traditionally “churchy” or nice, but this insistence on staying in the nice churchy zone is probably the main thing wrong with the church. If we can’t be a space for dealing with issues of aesthetics and meaning and the potential of human thought and creativity, really, what are we here for?
This doesn’t mean that the concept of sacred space is unimportant—it’s very important, and quite a few of the artists who’ve come here have remarked on it in some way. It’s hard to be entirely frivolous in sacred space. It does compel you to think about what you’re doing and why, it makes you aware of depth and significance, it places you in a framework of tradition—what is done in sacred space has a kind of automatic importance by virtue of being there, and perhaps there’s a greater sense of being responsible to that importance, not by avoiding difficult material, but by being driven past surfaces into some more substantial level of meaning.
As for art in public space, this is a long-standing interest, but I’m not sure the church is really public space in the fullest sense. It is non-commercial space, which is important; you don’t need to purchase a drink to have permission to be in it, which sets it apart from some poetry venues. And it’s a space which people with relatively low social capital feel safe in entering, unlike, say, an art gallery—but we do share this with public libraries. So we’re somewhat open space, but much less public than, say, a park, where you can just accidentally encounter things.
I worked for some years at the Scream Literary Festival, which was partly about putting poetry into really unexpected places—parks, street corners, and, in one wonderful case, poetry was read over the public address system at Value Village. During the summer, St. Stephen’s does hold our arts-based Saturday night service in the park, and we do occasional other services in parks, especially our Lammas Day eucharist, and that gets towards the same kind of thing we were exploring with the Scream. You just can’t do that year-round in Toronto, so that’s necessarily a bit of a seasonal experiment. But it continues to fascinate me, and perhaps stands as at least as an embodied metaphor of the kind of radical openness and availability that I’m working towards.
Maggie Helwig has published six books of poetry, two books of essays, a collection of short stories and three novels, Where She Was Standing (ECW Press, 2001), Between Mountains (Knopf Canada, 2004), and Girls Fall Down (Coach House Books, 2008). A human rights activist as well as a writer, she has worked for the East Timor Alert Network in Toronto, the Women in Black network, and War Resisters’ International. She lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.
Maggie Helwig’s essay, “Street Legal,” appeared in The Puritan Issue 26.