Poetry Interview: Helen Ivory

 

Helen Ivory Interview
Helen Ivory

Has any of the poets in In Their Own Words, your anthology (edited with George Szirtes) of thoughts and perspectives shared by contemporary poets, inspired you to take a different approach to writing?

I have always admired Pascale Petit and Matthew Sweeney, and while they probably haven’t inspired me to take a different approach to writing, they have given me permission, in a sense, to write the way I do.

Why are a lot of the poets in In Their Own Words young or not so well-known? You have left out some big names.

We wanted to get a sense of what is happening in the world of poetry right now, and also to listen in to different voices talking about poetry. Often in the poetry world we hear the same voices talking about poetry, and while they do it very well, we just felt the desire to hear a little variety. Some of the contributors to the book have emerged from the glut of creative writing MA programmes around the country and are just finding their way, some have moved over from different fields and haven’t studied creative writing at all, some are writing in English when English is not their first language. If this book is a teaching tool, it aims to show that there is more than one way to progress as a writer, and that process is complicated and in no means does a poem arrive neatly on the page of a published book. We wanted to show that flux and that poetry is a living, moving evolving art.

You must still admire the classics though as you work for the Poetry Archive? How important is it to bring back oeuvres of forgotten poets? If they are not remembered easily, is it not for a good reason?

The Archive collects both historic and living poets, so it’s not necessarily about remembering poets but drawing attention to living ones too.

A lot of the remembering is done through anthologies. One must think of who is putting anthologies together and their methodologies and taste and, where the Archive is concerned, how much funding it receives to make new recordings and to pay for usage of historic ones. The intention is to one day include every poet who largely writes in the English Language on there. It’s a big project!

Which poets do you like who aren’t around today?

The Serbian poet Vasko Popa was one of the first poets I was introduced to by George Szirtes at art school, and who remains with me to this day. Popa taught me about metaphor, and also about the sparseness of language and the importance of tone. Popa taught me about the poem-world, and his sequences inspired me to write Waiting for Bluebeard.

What is Waiting for Bluebeard, your new collection, about? And what came first, the poems or the theme?

The theme of the book is how could a girl grow up to be the woman living in Bluebeard’s house. It is semi-autobiographical, about a part-remembered, part-imagined childhood and then a stretch of living inside an abusive relationship. I thought I was just writing some poems that stemmed from childhood, but then I had sixty or so of the things. And then I started to write some Bluebeard poems, which I realised were actually about a past relationship. There are forty pages of those. The book is in two parts and there is a longer poem which hinges the two parts together. In the part of the book which happens in Bluebeard’s house, there is a sequence called ‘The Disappearing’ threaded through, where a woman slowly disappears. First, she needs to pay the tariff of a single layer of skin to cross the threshold, and she loses herself thus by degrees.

Tell us about your art projects?

I went to art school in the late ‘90s which is where I started writing poems. When I left I won an Eric Gregory Award and began to concentrate on writing. It’s more practical to write poems than make art, you need fewer materials and less space. I wanted to be a theatre designer at one stage, and for me the poems I write are like little theatres, little environments in which dramas can occur. If I want a woman to turn into a bird and vamoose herself off-set, then I will create that image with words.

So for years, I had no space to work but would habitually squirrel away materials which caught my eye. When we moved house a couple of years ago into an old Co-Op Butchery, I acquired a small studio and since then have set to work on making assemblages or shadow boxes, you might call them. I use the other side of box canvases (so they are boxes, not canvases!) and also old jeweller’s boxes or Kilner jars as environments and then I populate them with whatever comes to hand and feels to go together to make some kind of narrative or visual pun or metaphor. One of my spirit guides is Bagpuss, and I like the way objects are re-imagined into stories and ways of being.

Does your artwork inspire your poems, or do your poems merely replace your artwork?

Sometimes I will use my artworks as starting points for writing exercises when I am tutoring workshops. I can’t write from the pieces myself though, because it feels like I have already made the poem.

Most of the pieces I make will have words in too, collaged in from the 1950s Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopaedias. I hope that the words and the objects work together and do a little dance inside the viewer’s head, just like the components of a poem would. I guess the artworks and the poems come from a similar place.

Waiting for Bluebeard is out in May.