Have you found it easier to motivate yourself as an editor, a poet or an artist during lockdown?
The editing goes on the same as usual as we publish something new every day, and the motivation is that I must keep up with submissions or the bears will get me! The nature of the work submitted has changed, of course, as people are writing about what has been happening to them and the world over the past year. The quality of those poems is quite variable, as I think it’s difficult to write about such a huge thing when you are right in the middle of it – everything is just so raw and overwhelming. We have also received around double the number of submissions because people have been grounded, so have more time to write and send work out. This means I have to turn down a lot of good work, which makes me sad.
As a poet, I am ‘between books’ and it’s always a bit of a struggle for me to find the next project. I always need a project to work on and usually have a book title from the outset. Before the pandemic, I wrote Maps of the Abandoned City, a chapbook which SurVision published. It imagines a city which humans built up, and then just left after some apocalypse. It was, I thought a work of the imagination, and I had just started to think in terms of developing it into a full collection. And then the streets of the city I live in began to resemble too closely the one I had imagined, so I needed a bit of escapism and took to my studio.
As an artist, I have learnt how to needle-felt over the past couple of years with a view to make faux taxidermy dioramas. Having shared pictures on Facebook and Instagram of creatures and poppets I’ve made, I have spent the past five months or so making commissions for people. I think we have all needed some kind fuzzy edges, and it’s been a pleasure to make people happy. The poppets I make have red felt hearts, they are for me, representations of love, light and hope – the spirit of Spring.
How would you describe the link between your art and your poetry?
I have come to the conclusion that I am an artist and I use whatever media feels right at the time. I originally did a foundation course in art and design and left English behind at O level. I didn’t do an English Degree as many poets have, so have always felt I’ve come into the poetry room by the wrong door. But it’s the door I found, so here I am.
I began to write poems in the late 90s at Norwich Art School, whilst on the BA (hons) Cultural Studies degree. I found I could more tangibly create images with words than I had been able to do with paint, and learnt to use metaphor more subtly through reading and writing poetry. Poetry became my prime focus and I left my visual practice behind.
My visual work was rooted in the theatrical. I toyed with the idea of designing for theatre, but was quite protective of the little sculptural environments I was making and having them scaled up for actors to act in didn’t appeal to me. I found that through poems, I could fulfil my megalomaniac urges to create the scenery, the lights, the actors and the drama. I think of my poems as little theatres.
When we moved house ten years ago, I gained a studio space. I started collecting the kinds of strange objects that have always interested me, but never had the storage room for. Mostly found, or more like, foraged objects, from flea markets and so on – the kind of objects that arrive with their own stories. I like to put them alongside other objects and try to invent new stories for them. Most of my practice involves play. I place things together in the same enclosure to see how they will get on. I need some kind of logic before I reach for the glue-gun to make their relationship permanent. Often that logic is a dream-logic, and sometimes this is cemented using words cut from old books and encyclopaedias, or my own whole poems. I am interested in the way that words and images play against each other and shift their meanings and connotations.
I have always been fascinated by Cabinets of Curiosity, the way unrelated objects are gathered together in a microcosm of the world and think this aesthetic has unconsciously crept into my work. I have a fetish for boxes, and tend to see poems as boxes – methods of containment that offer a semblance of order.
Can you tell me something about your Cut-ups and Collage eg Hear What the Moon Told Me?
The poems are made in the play of word and image. Materials are sourced from flea-market foraged photographs bought for a song; from women’s magazines of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties – their drudgery and pragmatic glamour; from the magic and innocence of vintage fairytale books and from the marvel at the glory of the world found in the 1950’s Arthur Mee children’s encyclopedias.
Hear What the Moon Told Me grows from the same family tree as the assemblages of Joseph Cornell and the imagining, singing mice who live with Bagpuss, stitching new stories from discarded threads. Meanings and connotations are shifted in the juxtaposition of tone, by the wit and mischievous imagination of placing them into the arena of a contemporary reading. I chuckled a lot making those poems – the surprise of the juxtapositions gave me a lot of pleasure. I love the way you can alter the course of events by adding a snip of fairytale into a scientific explanation of how the human eye works.
The poems are far more than a simple ironic take on an earlier age; they inform where we (and women in particular) find ourselves now – there is a strong feminist thread running through them. There is heartbreak in the innocence of the dreams of women who wrote into The Housewife magazine, and beauty and strength in the weight and imbalance of societal expectations.
Are you working on a book or pamphlet now?
After a year of not writing anything apart from a really rewarding and enjoyable collaboration with George Szirtes, published in the Magma collaborations issue, I feel finally able to return to The Abandoned City. I am toying with the idea of a full collection called The End of the Pier Show, which will take a handful of those poems and build on them. I don’t want to say too much as I will jinx it, but I do have a title and some of the building blocks and a plan of the floor space, which seems like a start.
I have asked you for an image of your artwork for a writing prompt. What have you selected and why did you choose it?
I originally made a collage for people to add some cut up words to, to complete the poem. I scanned it in and looked at it on my screen, and it looked way too flat! Collage for me, is a lot about the layering of paper and the history of the materials. If anyone did the exercise, it would involve them printing the image and the quality of the image would be more about their printer and their paper, rather than the original paper. I am such an annoying purist! So, I invite people to, if they have a mind to, make their own cut ups. Collect some materials and play.
Gather things that use different registers such as instruction manuals and children’s story books – you will be attracted to different phrases like a very individual magpie. Because we are sense-making, story-making creatures, some kind of logic will appear. I usually go into an out-of-time trance-like state when I am searching for words. It’s a brilliant cure for writer’s block – and such a liberating feeling to know you don’t have to come up with any words yourself!
Alternatively, you could use this image as a starting point. It’s one of my foxes and one of my poppets, needle-felted and out on their own. When I first put this on Facebook, there was a general agreement that it would make a good writing prompt. So here you are . . .
Helen Ivory is a poet and visual artist. She edits the webzine Ink Sweat and Tears and is tutor and Course Director for the UEA/National Centre for Writing online creative writing programme.
She has won an Eric Gregory Award and her fifth Bloodaxe Books collection, The Anatomical Venus was short-listed for the East Anglian Book Awards (2019) and won the East Anglian Writers ‘By the Cover’ Award (EABA 2019). The Anatomical Venus examines how women have been portrayed as ‘other’; as witches; as hysterics with wandering wombs and as beautiful corpses cast in wax, or on mortuary slabs in TV box sets, is available here: www.bloodaxebooks.com
Fool’s World a collaborative Tarot with the artist Tom de Freston (Gatehouse Press) won the 2016 Saboteur Award for Best Collaborative Work. Hear What the Moon Told Me, a book of collage/ mixed media/ acrylic painted poems was published in 2016 by Knives Forks and Spoons Press, and a chapbook Maps of the Abandoned City was published in January 2019 by SurVision. She lives in Norwich with her husband, the poet Martin Figura.