ZM: Were you exposed to poetry and art growing up in the Southeast of England?
HI: Not deliberately! I mean, nobody took me aside to teach me and nobody in my family made art or wrote. I was always good at drawing and used to copy images from magazines. I loved English too, but my English teacher told me I couldn’t, even in creative writing, have one-word sentences. Anyway! I remember writing a long story with illustrations and making a book to house it all, and thinking one day I’d like to write children’s books and illustrate them – because that’s how I’d been exposed to words and images together. I don’t come from the kind of background where poetry was ‘a thing’; we had television and I had Bagpuss, which was probably my poetry. Definitely a gateway to the imagination. There were also some weird Eastern European animations on at teatime, which opened eyes and lit small fires of imagination in my head.
ZM: You mentioned theatre design seemed the most likely choice when you were considering a career in the arts. What initially drew you to the stage and live performance?
HI: I liked the idea of creating tense little spaces in which things might happen. I have always been attracted to doll’s houses and saw the models I was making on my Foundation Art and Design course as extensions of those. I made some model-sized environments based on the work of William Blake and Salvador Dali. As it transpired, I was more interested in the assemblage of the housing itself, rather than a scaled-up version for actors to work inside. In many ways, I see my poems as such spaces.
ZM: Have poetry and art always coexisted in your creative work? Were you first drawn to one art form? HI: I was introduced to writing poems at Norwich at School by the poet George Szirtes, who originally trained as an artist. Prior to this I was only aware of a few of the classic war poems the teachers dragged us through at school. (I think poetry teaching in many schools has been better in recent years.)
I took to writing poems very naturally once I was shown what poetry can do by somebody who loves it. I did a Cultural Studies Degree, where were had ‘Word and Image’ projects and were encouraged to use both media together, which felt like logical – I was at home in that place. Even though visual art came first for me, I didn’t start finding what I consider to be my voice as a visual practitioner, until I began to learn how poems are made. My visual work uses metaphor and pun, a language I discovered through poems.
The Foundation Art and Design course I did at Barnfield College in Luton in the 1980s was excellent in terms of teaching the basics of design, which indeed laid the foundations of my visual practice. I take things like composition, colour theory and line, tone, texture and form etc. for granted now – even though learning about them felt clunky and abstract. I can now apply them to the things that I make, instinctively.
Helen Ivory is a poet and visual artist. She edits the webzine Ink Sweat and Tears and is poetry tutor for UEA/National Centre for Writing, online.
ZM: How do your ideas for a poem or art work materalise?
HI: I write books of poems, rather than individual ones, which is probably a little unusual. That means that the poems I write are part of a large project and they will centre around an idea or theme. My most recent three Bloodaxe books have begat each other,
so to speak. Waiting for Bluebeard is autobiographical and focuses on domestic abuse. I had written some poems loosely based on my childhood, and then I started writing about somebody called Bluebeard - that monstrous bridegroom of fairytale. The penny then dropped that after five years of leaving him, I was ready to write about our eleven-year relationship. I read an article about domestic abuse and what I went through ticked most of the boxes. Only by writing about it was I able to unpick everything, and the only way I was able to write about it was using the Bluebeard story.
The Anatomical Venus is about the ‘othering’ women – and how the person I refer to as Bluebeard, made me feel. I did a lot of historical and cultural research for The Anatomical Venus and I wanted to focus on the idea of hysteria and how women’s voices have been silenced for literally ages and how we have been disempowered. (Think recently of #metoo) Speaking to women about Waiting for Bluebeard made me realise that my experience was not an isolated one, so I wanted to cast the net wider and I have dedicated that book to all of the women who have ever spent time inside Bluebeard’s castle.
ZM: When you start working on a new poem/poetry collection or piece of art, do you have a clear idea of what you are trying to achieve and what the final work will be?
HI: When I make visual work, I am always guided by what materials I have to hand. At the moment, I am working on a series of shadowboxes. I collect things like a magpie when I see them, and past Helen had bought a lot of small square deep box frames which I happened upon in one of the rare times I tidy my studio. I also collect old postcards and photographs which I find in flea markets and junk shops. You can buy somebody’s wedding photograph from a hundred years ago for fifty pence, for example. Also, hand-tinted Edwardian postcards which pose young women and couples romantically among flowers. I find this quite poignant and like to rescue them from the silverfish and give them a new life. Both the box frames and the postcard images have gravitated towards each other in the past couple of months.
I have a fetishism for old, foxed paper and books, and I have a stash of those too. I slice words from old children’s encyclopaedias, fairy tale books and women’s magazines of the 40s and 50s, juxtaposing them with the images so they talk to each other in some way. I try not to be illustrative, and let the words cast a new light on the images and the images cast a new light on the words. Ultimately, everything comes together and does a new little dance that each component didn’t know the steps to before the moment they met. The reader or the viewer is part of this new making, and I enjoying playing with the materials in the first place. I think I am essentially a feminist, and this appears in all of my work. The visual work is more playful though, and often makes me chuckle as I put words and images together to create new meaning.
ZM: Do you have a daily work routine?
HI: Not really. I am self-employed and have periods of time which are intensely about teaching or editing. I cannot make any new poems when I am doing that, though do sometimes step into my studio and play with collage, just to take a break from the words. I have tried to have a work routine, but it just makes me anxious when I cannot get on with my own projects, so I try to relax and work when I am able.
ZM: Are you working on something at the moment?
HI: The new book I am writing for Bloodaxe is called Constructing a Witch and will be published in September 2024. It is about the monstering and scapegoating of women, and the fear of ageing femininity. It springboards directly from The Anatomical Venus. This has been another research-based book, so I have done a lot of reading – the witch is a very popular subject, so there is almost too much information! The book explores both the witch as archetype, and the witch as human woman. It examines the nature of superstition and the necessity of magic and counter-magic to gain a fingerhold of agency when life is chaotic and fragile.
I have made a series of collages which will appear inside the book, in monochrome. I have been working on this project since 2019, and am very much looking forward to seeing the book appear in the flesh.
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