Helen Ivory is a poet and artist who, together with her husband Martin Figura, runs the Norwich-based literary organisation, Café Writers. Written on the wide canvas of the everyday, her poems create small, eerie resonances in the spaces just beyond what happens.
Poet-critic James Sutherland-Smith has said: “A visually precise poet, with the gift of creating stunning images with an economy of means . . . Her poems are like mobiles suspended on invisible threads, charming to watch as they seem to spin by themselves in the air, but capable of administering more than a paper cut on the sensibility of the reader.”
Helen Ivory was born in Luton, and has been living in Norwich since 1990. She has a degree from Norwich Art College and produces assemblages and collages which “create a troubled yet beguiling world rich in irony and disquiet” – as Penelope Shuttle has said of her poetry. She has three collections out with Bloodaxe Books and a fourth, Waiting for Bluebeard, will be published in 2013.
After moving to Norwich in 1990, Helen Ivory “spent most of her 20s and early 30s working as a free-range egg farmer, and a labourer and bricklayer”, won an Eric Gregory Award for her poetry in 1999 and now works at the University of East Anglia as a course programmer and teacher, and as an editor for the Poetry Archive. She is also a tutor for the Poetry School and the Arvon Foundation, gives tutorials for the Poetry Society, and edits the e-zine Ink, Sweat and Tears.
Her poems are spare and dreamlike – indeed, often are about dreams or dream-states – and, as she has said of them, they “sit more comfortably alongside the animations of Jan Švankmajer than any English poetic tradition”.
Time collapses, space expands and contracts, everything is somehow animate. Poems like 'The Tooth Mouse' draw on well-known folklore to create a disjointed view of the everyday world.
All of the teeth
brought by the Tooth Mouse
are piled high in an out-of-town
warehouse . . .
(‘The Tooth Mouse’, from The Breakfast Machine, 2010)
In ‘Sleep’, from The Breakfast Machine, an entire house falls asleep around a woman who seems to congeal:
Even the walls have relaxed
and the roof is too tired
to hold up the weight of the sky.
Inside it, a girl turns into a woman, who “sleepwalks” even in her “waking moments” and sees “the bird skulls on the window-sill,/ how cobwebs have laced them together”.
As I wrote in a review of Ivory's third collection, The Breakfast Machine, Ivory takes “a direct approach, via deep folklore and dream imagery, to the conundrum of being a woman . . . in keeping with what I think we mean when we say ‘women’s writing’; mischievously dark, rich with anti-logic and harnessed to the power of something we used to call magic”.
This poetry echoes the assemblages Ivory makes in her studio, at her house which proclaims its old identity, ‘The Butchery’, across its frontage. Using the back of an unused painters’ canvas as a frame, Ivory’s assembled objects include dismantled doll limbs or eyes, tiny wings, bird feathers, buttons, dried flowers, egg shells, coins and other small everyday objects, and often combine poignance, suggestiveness and humour with a creepy quality.
Ivory is co-editor, along with George Szirtes, of In Their Own Words: Contemporary Poets on their Poetry, which will be published by Salt in September 2012.
The Double Life of Clocks, Bloodaxe, Tarset, 2002
The Dog in the Sky, Bloodaxe, Tarset, 2006
The Breakfast Machine, Bloodaxe, Tarset, 2010
Helen Ivory's website
Ink, Sweat and Tears
Helen Ivory at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival
Helen Ivory on writing the visual for the StAnza blog