Interview with Helen Ivory


AM: Waiting for Bluebeard has the wonderful Ivory trademark of observing the world from off-kilter perspective, but this is a story rather than a collection of poems. What was the inspiration behind it?

It’s my life! Well, it’s a metaphorical truth of how parts of my life have felt. I suppose I’ve been thinking about writing poems about my childhood for a while, and then about trying to make something positive out of an abusive relationship I was in for a decade, but it takes a while to transfer deep experience into any art form.
When I first met Martin Figura, he was writing the poems for Whistle, which are based on his own childhood, and for the whole of the time he was writing those poems, my own childhood seemed like a series of petty annoyances in relation to what he lived through. Then one day, when the show Whistle was being developed, I just started writing my own childhood. Seeing and also being in some ways part of the development of Whistle, made me think in terms of a body of work rather than a collection of poems which are grouped together and how you can tell a story through a series of fragments.

AM: If you were to categorise this collection would you say it was confessional or magical realism or a combination of the two?Ivory-Waiting-for-Bluebeard

It’s a combination of the two. Magical realism is a way of taking metaphors literally and trying to get at a realer real, if you like. Magical realism shows an alternative reality and it tries to convey other worldviews that exist, or have existed. I have always been interested in the otherworld, and while I was growing up, the women in my family did the Ouija board and there were ghost cats in our house. These things were givens, and existed alongside the more commonplace ideas of the real, which I think is one of the definitions of magical realism. I am also a visual writer and always take transformations literally – I see them happening so the poems are just the written interpretations of the slideshow that goes on in my head!

By going into the realms of the ‘magical’ I was able to explore the ‘real’ or the confessional more fully and brightly. I have been greatly influenced by Eastern European poets such as Vasko Popa who use metaphor to talk about things they cannot, for political reasons, say outright. The Bluebeard character in the second part of the book was my way in to writing about a complex person and tries to make the reader feel as I felt when I lived in his house, which represented an alternative reality for me.

AM: When you began the book did you have the two distinct sections or did they evolve as you wrote it?

I wrote poems about my childhood for about three years and then suddenly they stopped coming and I one day wrote a poem called ‘Waiting for Bluebeard’. Then more Bluebeard poems arrived. I thought initially that I was writing a different book, but then saw it was part of the same narrative. I was trying to understand what happened to ten years of my life, and retrace some of my steps that led me to Bluebeard’s door.

AM: At times your disappearing woman reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s Marian in The Edible Woman who becomes separated from her body as she loses her identity. How important is the theme of identity in the book?

HI: It’s hugely important – especially during the second part of the book. The narrative ‘I’, which slightly falters in the first part of the book, is removed entirely, as the ‘I’ becomes a ‘she’ in Bluebeard’s house. Here, it’s almost as if I am watching my life and the woman who lived it. I was 24 when I crossed Bluebeard’s threshold. He was a lot older and I didn’t know fully who I was, and he went on to explain me to myself with great authority.

AM: Thanks Helen.

Helen Ivory’s Waiting for Bluebeard is out now from Bloodaxe.

First published in newbooks magazine