Helen Ivory is a poet and visual artist. Her most recent poetry collection is the semi-autobiographical Waiting for Bluebeard (Bloodaxe 2013). She edits the webzine Ink Sweat and Tears and is tutor and Course Director for the new UEA/Writers Centre Norwich creative writing programme.
Fool’s World – A Tarot is out now from Gatehouse Press. She is working currently on a book of collage poems for Knives Forks and Spoons Press and a new collection entitled The Anatomical Venus for Bloodaxe Books.
Hi Helen. I hope you’re well. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Firstly, congratulations on the recent launch of Fool’s World, your tarot card collaboration with Tom de Freston. It’s great to see projects where poems appear somewhere other than in the covers of a book. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
Thank you very much! I’ve always been interested in the archetypal aspects of the Tarot and I began writing from them when I was casting about for something to focus on after Waiting for Bluebeard came out. That book was so personal, so writing about the mythopoeic seemed a perfect cure!
As it turns out Tom has always been interested in the Tarot so when I posted something on my website about my new Tarot poems he contacted me to ask whether I’d like to collaborate on an ekphrastic project. Our process was largely me writing from the cards and Tom making work from my poems and his own interpretation of the cards.
We are very much interested in what might happen next in our Tarot’s journey now the packs are finding their way into peoples’ homes. And to quote Tom, from the introduction to Fool’s World – ‘A good poem, painting or Tarot card reading is not about projecting something onto the reader, but about holding up a set of mirrors which allow them to find stories of self in the echoed shadows.’
I get the impression visual art is close to your heart as well as poetry. You produce your own artwork and you have a dedicated Words & Images section on Ink, Sweat and Tears. To what extent do you think the two disciplines are the same and are there things you can express in poetry that can’t be done in visual art and vice versa?
Yes, I went to Art School and started writing poems after my Foundation as part of my Cultural Studies Degree. George Szirtes was my poetry tutor, and he also began as a visual artist. I think there are a lot of poets who began as, or who also practice as visual artists – Paul Farley, Charles Simic, Jen Hadfield – I could go on!
I wanted to be a theatre designer at one stage, and I think there is a similarity with the way I write or think of poems. I think of them of as little environments in which things can happen which are separate to, although analogous with the ‘real world.’ I didn’t make any visual work for over ten years for various reasons including not having enough space to work – you don’t need masses of space or materials to make huge things happen with words.
When I did gain a small studio after we moved house, I began arranging objects around in boxes to create assemblages, and also to make collages which include words cut up from various sources. I am now painting and collaging words into the paintings. I have a book of these collage poems coming from Knives Forks and Spoons Press in a few months and will be launching the book and exhibiting the work at Anteros in Norwich.
I don’t think I could have found my voice as a visual artist if I didn’t learn to write poems first. I think metaphor and puns are a large part of my visual practice – I wasn’t taught this on my Foundation, but I was taught about the elements of design and colour theory. I think the work I am making now is an amalgam of everything I have gathered together in my head so far.
You work with creative writing on an academic level too and have a background of teaching workshops in addition to being involved with WCN/UEA. There has been criticism in some quarters in the past that these environments end up producing poets who write in a similar manner and churn out ‘workshopped’ poems. From an insider’s perspective, what is your own take on such criticism?
When people come to me to help them with their writing I feel a responsibility in helping them find their own voice. I have largely taught adults for the past 17 years and I think that the criticisms are usually leveled at the MA programmes and younger students. I couldn’t think of anything worse than encouraging everyone to write like everybody else!
Your husband Martin Figura is a poet as well which must make for a well-read household! Do you ever find yourself bouncing ideas off each other and offering feedback on the poems you write? To what extent (if any) do you influence each other’s work?
The best thing about living with another poet is that it makes writing poems an everyday type of thing, rather than something that separates you. We can happily go off to poetry festivals together and generally chat about what we are each working on with empathetic ears. We always read the first drafts of each others’ poems though I am pretty sure I’ve not been influenced by Martin’s work – he’s a bit more down to earth than I am.
What does the rest of the year hold for you in the world of poetry?
I’ve just started working on a new collection of poems for Bloodaxe which is called The Anatomical Venus. This will be a sequence of poems dealing with the treatment and mistreatment of women with mental health issues since the birth of the term ‘hysteria’. ‘Hysteria’ or the ‘wandering womb’ was a term first coined by Hippocrates. I see this book as a natural relative to Waiting for Bluebeard, which was about living in an abusive relationship.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
It is from the new Anatomical Venus poems. I am writing a sequence of Wunderkammers – (literally ‘wonder chambers’) those Victorian cabinets of curiosity. Inside my wunderkammers we see women in various states of distress.
Wunderkammer with Furniture and Broken Bones
She is learning about gravitation from the inside;
her body a simple arc of muscle and bone;
each fall a glaring event in space and time.
And when she thinks she has said all there is to say
to the table, the wardrobe, the floor,
there will be further, swift, uncalled-for skirmishes.
The bruises on her face possess a geometry at first
and as blood seeps into tissues, oh she is art!