Wunderkammer with Black Coffee: Helen Ivory Interviewed by William Bedford

Before too long the summer issue of The High Window will be published in two instalments across the month of June. Its various sections have been ‘in the can’ for some time now, so I have decided to publish the following conversation between Helen Ivory and William Bedford as a supplementary post. This means that Helen, William and regular readers of The High Window will not have to wait till the autumn to see it. NB: The High Window’s rich store of  supplementary posts can be browsed at any time via its main menu.

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Further information about Helen Ivory and her latest collection, The Anatomical Venus, can be found here.

Note also that Helen will be reading at the following event hosted by Anthony Howell: http://the-room.org.uk/performances/poetry/

William Bedford is well known as a poet, novelist and reviewer. His latest collection of poems is Chagall’s Circus published by Dempsey and Windle. Further information can be found here.

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This interview takes place just outside the gates of the Abandoned City. There is wolfsong filtering through the trees and we have set up a trestle table with a plate of ginger snaps and a fresh pot of coffee in the centre. We are as relaxed as any two poets can ever be.

WB: When we talked about Waiting for Bluebeard, that was in your studio in Norwich. Surrounded by jars of eyeballs and teeth and boxes of keys, with a scalpel and pair of pincers on the table. Your own Cabinet of Curiosities.

HI: Yes indeed! The studio ‘sensibility’ extends to the rest of the house which is populated by taxidermy creatures, wax poppets and other oddments. My husband has a collection of old cameras and bus ticket machines and other contraptions. It’s only when other people visit us for the first time and start looking about the place, I realise we probably live inside a Wunderkammer!

WB: Yes, I did feel vaguely threatened. Though in that earlier interview you did say something about being an artist and being a poet . . .

HI: That I’d always thought I was an artist who wrote poems, but by then thought of myself as a poet who made artwork. I try to combine the two sometimes as collage poems and assemblages – I like the way words and images bounce off against each other and enhance and skew each other’s meaning.

WB: That was in December 2012. Before we start talking about your work since then, I wanted to ask you about a couple of other things you said in that conversation. That Waiting for Bluebeard was the first book you thought of as a whole piece and also the closest you’d come to autobiography.

HI: Yes, I’m still happy with that. I was excited about Waiting for Bluebeard, but a bit worried it was so personal people might read into it things that are not there, and worse – things that are there! I’d found a way with the Bluebeard poems, to write about an abusive relationship I was in for half of my twenties and thirties. That’s way too long to be inside Bluebeard’s Castle by anybody’s reckoning, but when you are inside Bluebeard’s Castle you can’t see that you are. It was only four years after leaving him that the poems started to appear unbidden. And only after I’d written them that I discovered they held all of the signs of symptoms of domestic abuse as detailed in an article I read online. In retrospect I find it alarming how much I put up with, and how abusive treatment becomes ‘normal’. Not long after the book was published Bluebeard contacted me to tell me he objected to ‘this treatment’. Indeed!

WB: I’m mentioning it because The Anatomical Venus also has a theme to explore, but the theme is found out there in the world and in history. So what is implied by the subjective experience – your subjective experience – in Waiting for Bluebeard becomes systematized objective experience in The Anatomical Venus.

HI: Yes, that’s where I was going with The Anatomical Venus. So many women approached me with their own Bluebeard stories of abusive relationships in which they were made to believe that there was something wrong with them, I started to think of the universal story of the othering of women.

WB: Given that, what I’d like to ask you is whether or how the three small press publications you’ve worked on since Waiting for Bluebeard influenced The Anatomical Venus. You actually mentioned the first in Norwich, when you told us you were writing some poems based on Tarot cards. That became Fool’s World in 2016, a collaborative text with the artist Tom de Freston. Tell us how that came about.

HI: I’d been aware of Tom’s work for a little while and wrote from one of his paintings for The Charnel House (Bridgedoor Press). That he creates an alternative world within his work, rich with symbolism and transformation, chimes with my own methods. When Tom asked whether I would like to work on a collaborative pack, it seemed a natural fit and an exciting project to be involved in.

WB: And the Tarot pack more generally?

HI: I’d been drawn to Tarot for a very long time and the more research I did into their mythopoeic meanings, the closer I saw them to possessing the same kind of quest for understanding about the world and ourselves as myths and folktales have.

WB: And the actual writing, the process of writing?

HI: I was mindful that the poems would both need to embody my own interpretations of the cards and also to respect the tradition. I hope whatever came out in the mix as I was writing, does both of these things.

WB: Hear What the Moon Told Me was published in 2017. It’s a mixed media/collage/acrylic painted book of collage poems. Would you like to talk about how that work came together?

HI: 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 Sixites – 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 encyclopaedias.

I began making collages using the process as an exercise for students on a starting to write poetry course. I was directing them to find surprise in juxtaposition as a kick start for writing poems, but I quickly realised that actually these WERE the poems, and whatever background you stuck the words to, or images you added, became part of the meaning.

WB: You must be collecting material all the time.

HI: I am – I always have! It’s just now I have a reason for it, am not just a hoarder of bits and pieces!

When making the collages or assemblages nothing is arbitrary, a logic is created and then stuck down with glue – sometimes dream logic rich in metaphor and symbolism. 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.

WB: So this is true in the sense that many works of art seem almost random, accidental assemblages of experience – the kind of free association Jung talks about – though clearly in Jung the unconscious is doing the organising.

HI: What you hope will happen – what I hope will happen – is that meanings and connotations are/will be shifted in the juxtaposition of tone, by the wit and mischievous imagination of placing text from old educational books, fairytale books  and women’s magazines into the arena of a contemporary reading. They are far more than a simple ironic take on an earlier age; they inform where we – and women in particular – find ourselves now by digging deep. There is heartbreak in the innocence of their dreams; beauty and strength in the weight and imbalance of societal expectation. They are also songs to remind us of wonder: the habits of bees and small crawling creatures; electricity and other sorcery.

WB: Maps of the Abandoned City followed early in 2019 a few months before The Anatomical Venus. I especially liked the Serbian epigraph: ‘Get your moustaches together, you’re going on a journey.’

HI: Ah! That’s from Vasko Popa’s The Golden Apple: A Round of Stories, Songs, Spells, Proverbs and Riddles – it’s one of the jewels on my bookcase. I wanted people to be fully prepared!

WB: Are we free to imagine that the cartographer who maps the city is the poet herself?

HI: Of course! I hadn’t thought of it this way before – I just thought of her as one who tried to make order from chaos, but that’s why we write poems isn’t it?!

WB: One of the things that interested me was a sort of Animism I thought was there: mirrors ‘are hungry as hungry can be’, darkness ‘comes home’ and ‘heaves off its boots by the fire’, a staircase stops to consider whether ‘it is going up or down’. That’s very much the kind of humour people often miss in your work, but I suppose it could just as easily be described as Surrealism. But weren’t you uneasy about Surrealism when we first talked?

HI: I am glad you got the humour – I think it’s often disguised in my work because of the tone and the storytelling voice.  And it’s often dark humour, skewed play, not roll around in the aisles stuff.

Since we last talked, Anatoly Kurdryavsky, editor of the surrealist press SurVision very kindly approached me about publishing a chapbook of poems. I didn’t have one to hand, as I had only just finished writing the poems for The Anatomical Venus. I wrote Maps of the Abandoned City in a fever last summer, directly from my imagination and with a great deal of liberation after the heavily researched work I did for Venus. It must also be noted that I am listed on Wikipedia as a ‘Surrealist Poet’, so I suppose if the pipe fits you must smoke it, even though it’s not a pipe and you don’t smoke! (with vast apologies to René Magritte).

What I don’t like about the word ‘surreal’ is the word ‘irrational’ which is often associated with it. I, at all times try to be rational and whenever I am making an image or metaphor it needs to make sense – I need to be able to see it. And the trick is to get other people to see it, to make something sound rational.

If we are saying that ‘surreal’ means ‘dreamlike’, I am more comfortable with that because there is a logic to dreams – they are like theatres for metaphors to play out. Having said this, I never remember my dreams, so all this is theoretical as far as I am concerned!

Having said all of that, maybe only I think my poems are rational and I’ve created a world where to me things are just so. Like having a stuffed fox curled up on an armchair in your lounge – that’s just home to me!

WB: The final poem, ‘The Cartographer Unmakes,’ imagines a time ‘when there is no one left/to remember the City’. That seems quite resonant at the moment.

HI: I actually can’t get away from the apocalypse. I have just begun a collaboration with the artist Paul Marsh, and we are imagining an end of the pier/ world show. All bleak carnivalesque, and chipped paint on the strongman’s face.

WB: You’ve always been very good at titles – the transformations of The Breakfast Machine, the dread of the inevitable evil in Waiting for Bluebeard – and The Anatomical Venus is especially powerful, a sort of eighteenth century sex-toy which can be ‘opened up and pulled apart’ by all the men who own her. You must have been excited when you came upon the image, like a magnet drawing all the stories together?

HI: Thank you – I got the titles for Bluebeard and Venus pretty much from the beginning.  I found it very useful to have an umbrella idea for both books.

And it’s true that these Venuses were made and studied by men as clearly women were not allowed to be doctors as they couldn’t be trusted because of the whole flying on broomsticks thing (!). I first happened upon an Anatomical Venus in the Wellcome Collection – a heady mix of sex and death and scientific empiricism.  The Venuses are uncannily beautiful, usually made of wax which looks like human skin. They would often have long and flowing human hair which made me think of all the women who would have to sell their hair to live. So, plenty going on there, to be going on with . . .

WB: And going back to something I mentioned at the beginning, am I right in thinking The Anatomical Venus is as much a whole piece of work as Waiting for Bluebeard?

HI:  They are absolutely both bodies of work, but I am not sure Venus is whole. It would be arrogant to think I have written the whole history of the othering of women, but I’ve certainly put the lid on Bluebeard and nailed it shut.

WB: So: when we were talking about Waiting for Bluebeard, you told me that you’d begun writing poems about your own childhood, and once you’d finished, ‘the Bluebeard poems started appearing’ and you ‘realised it was a continuation of the same narrative’. I wonder if something similar happened with The Anatomical Venus: that you began with the persecution of witches, moved inevitably to the medical treatment of women, then the husbands and fathers of the wider patriarchy. There’s a logic there, isn’t there?

HI: The first poems I wrote for The Anatomical Venus were a handful of the Wunderkammer ones for my friend who died from complications of an eating disorder. She saw those poems and gave me her blessing and appreciated that I was trying to understand about self-harm. I went on to read The Female Malady by Elaine Showalter, and then to the often-picturesque visual representations of the hysteric by Charcot at Salpêtrière in the 19th Century. One of the doctors treating an anorexic woman in a Victorian asylum remarked once she’d got better and put weight on, she had lost her sexual allure and vulnerability. I’ll leave that there!

By then I was trying to get to where all of this men-looking-at-women, being scared of them, aroused by them and trying to puzzle them out, came from, which took me to the Maleaus Malfecarum. This is one of the most misogynistic texts you could ever read, and the manual for all of the witchfinders of the time.

WB: The persecution of witches is described in extraordinary language – a witch’s ‘womb is a wandering beast’, ‘rabbits, kittlings, polecats and rats’ spilling from her skirts – and presumably some of that comes from your research?

HI: The idea of the wandering womb comes from ancient Greek medicine – which put down any pathology of the female body to the womb wandering about her anatomy. And by 1856, the science hadn’t moved on much – Francis Adams describing the uterus thus: ‘On the whole, the womb is like an animal within an animal.’ So yes, the research gave me these gifts!  The creatures spilling from the woman’s skirts are witch’s familiars as ‘documented’ in the Essex Witchtrials. The idea of the witch as a bad, unseemly mother, suckling creatures from her witch’s pap is hinted at there too.

WB: But what struck me was the inventive and exuberant language – ‘Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peck in the Crown’ – almost as if your imagination felt freed, which I suppose means you felt personally freed, or freer, perhaps after Waiting for Bluebeard?

HI: Those are the names given to witches’ familiars in the Essex Witch Trials. I can take no credit for the imagination – nor any of the other spectacular facts therein reported as gospel! Honestly, I was agog!

WB: The gift is in the noticing, Helen! Witchcraft persecution was also fairly obviously a symptom of a wider patriarchy, supported by religion in the Old TestamentExodus and Ecclesiasticus – and the Primitive Methodist Hymn book. You talk of girls being ‘strung up in cages/when they waxed unclean/lest milk turn to vinegar/or sea lay siege to fishermen’. We’re moving out into the wider culture now?

HI: Well, yes and no.  There is plenty in the bible about the uncleanliness of the menstrual cycle – for example:  “You must not approach a woman in her menstrual impurity to have sexual intercourse with her” (Leviticus 18:19). I think the bible is a good gauge of how women have been thought of in a wider culture. The reasons for moving menstruating women into cages above floor level, or shipping them out to menstruation huts away from the village (as still happens in places like Nepal) are twofold: Practical – the smell would attract predators – all though this theory has been disproved latterly. And also, superstitious – pretty much everything to do with the female fertility cycle (nay – women!) has been associated with the dark arts in some culture at some time or other. Even the words used to describe women thought of as sexually attractive or unattractive come from witchy places – for example glamour (a spell) , bewitching (ah the siren playing tricks on an innocent man to lure him!), a besom (a broomstick or an ugly woman) and of course there is hag, crone and harridan.

WB: So when you describe the Scold’s Bridle, the point is clear: violence against women doesn’t only come from witchfinders general? The Scold’s Bridle was used to silence disobedient wives, popularly enjoyed by entire villages, and the men who thought such treatment of women made ‘a manful man of you’?

HI: To be completely clear, men were also punished this way, but it was mainly women. The fact that this horrific instrument takes its name from a word used to describe a nagging woman demonstrates its main uses. The idea also was to humiliate the woman too by leading her around the village on a leash. There is one in the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle. In the same display, an iron weighing-scale, large enough to take a woman on one side, and a two volume Southwell Family Bible on the other. I think the idea is that the books should be heavier than the women for her to be innocent. I find this type of pre-science empiricism terrifying – especially as its findings carry a sentence of death.

WB: The treatment of mental illness grows logically out of the witchcraft phenomenon. Even the obsession with menstruation, the language of ‘lunacy’ and its connection to the moon . . .

HI: Yes, for thousands of years the moon’s cycle has been linked to the menses – which comes from the Latin for ‘month’. And Luna is of course the Roman goddess of the moon, where we get the word ‘lunatic’ from.

WB: And water . . . from withchcraft to waterboarding . . . a source of life being used to torture or destroy life.

 HI: The connection with water and purging comes with the ‘swimming’ of suspected witches and water treatment used in 19th Century treatment of hysteria.  As if something will come out in the wash, so to speak! That’s what I was getting at with the poem ‘By Water’ and how the last stanza of that poem came about.

WB: And the treatment of hysteria in ‘The Fainting Room’?

HI: Yes, you thought I was talking about ECT. A Fainting Room is a space found in well-to-do Victorian households for ladies to retire to when they were swooning under the strictures of their impossible corsetry, or just generally malfunctioning. That poem is actually about the invention of the vibrator which was created by Dr J Mortimer Granville as a treatment for hysteria. Rich women regularly went to the doctors for treatment to achieve a ‘hysterical paroxysm’, or as we commonly refer to this state now both in men and women as an ‘orgasm’. Doctors would be paid for this treatment, but it was taking too much of their time, so Dr Granville invented this labour-saving device which could be installed in the Fainting Room.

WB: One of the subtle points being explored in The Anatomical Venus is the role of the ‘father-husband’ in ‘By Water’ and the husband in ‘The Fainting Room’ who quietly drops ‘some coins into’ the doctor’s hand as he leaves. I suppose Freud is a sort of father-figure in ‘Housewife Psychosis’, which is about the famous ‘Dora.’

HI: And there is the hooded doctor-priest in Wunderkammer with Ophelia and Hospital Bed! As well as fathers and husbands, I was thinking of male authority figures. As in Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, where the narrator’s husband is also her physician and sentences her to a ‘rest cure’. Or the many other instances in literature/life where a woman has been institutionalised by her husband/father/doctor because she wasn’t behaving.

And of course, the male authority figure isn’t consigned to history. Since I have been writing the Venus poems the extent of Harvey Weinstein’s abuse of power has come to light, and the #metoo movement which has arisen since then has highlighted many instances of such abuse. Deborah Alma included my poem Scold’s Bridle in the recent #MeToo: Rallying against sexual assault and harassment – a women’s poetry anthology, which also includes work by Kim Moore who is currently writing about what she calls ‘everyday sexism’ and describing how we are not entirely out of the woods with this.

WB: With the end of the collection, we have come back to the Anatomical Venus, only now with an AI Application called ‘Real Doll X,’ an ancestor of the eighteenth-century model.

HI: Absolutely. Though there is something darker about these new dolls – the way they can be abused and how they perpetuate the idea of the female body as an object.  You can personalise them and also send them back to the factory to be fixed when parts wear out. The poem The Goddess Gets Her Close Up also shows how Anatomical Venuses are in most modern thrillers, where mostly a young beautiful woman is murdered and we see her displayed, naked on a mortuary slab.

WB: I can’t imagine where you are going to be in another seven years, but this is exciting stuff, and it feels as though your imagination has a long way yet to go.

 HI: I can’t imagine either . . . It seems that after writing a collection – which appears to take me three years, I need to do a few smaller projects or collaborations with other people.  As I mentioned earlier, I am working with an artist at the moment, towards an exhibition destined for Nunn’s Yard in Norwich at the end of August. I am also about to embark on a collaboration of notional ekphrasis with George Szirtes.

WB: So the imagination is endless . . . because what’s out there is endless? Thank you again, Helen. And for the coffee and ginger snaps. Do you think those wolves are getting closer?

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