October 3, 2013

Ivy Alvarez

Ivy Alvarez is the author of Disturbance (Seren Books), and Mortal (Red Morning Press). Her poetry has featured in anthologies, journals and new media in many countries and has been translated into Russian, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. Ivy has been selected for Best Australian Poems 2013 (Black Inc.) and is Our Own Voice‘s Resident Poet. Born in the Philippines, Ivy grew up in Tasmania, Australia. Having lived previously in Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and Wales, she now lives in Auckland.

Electric Language

“My strongest influence as a poet is Sylvia Plath. I was introduced to her work at school by an English teacher. It was the poem Tulips: he asked us to read it and it was like a lightbulb went on in my head: ‘Oh! They’re not all dead white males’. Her language made sense to me; it was immediate, electric. It felt transparent to me, more so than a lot of other poetry. It was rich, and there was a lot to unpack, but it didn’t feel like there was a veil in front of it – something that had often prevented me from enjoying the quite opaque poetry I’d previously read.

“I love research. I studied English at the University of Tasmania. I wrote my Masters degree on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes – my dissertation was about literary theft and borrowing.

“I write to satisfy whatever the poem wants to be. It’s about listening to the poem. It’s analogous to a novelist saying their characters come to life in their novel and they can’t tell them what to do. I don’t really read poetry for pleasure. For me, it’s research. As I read, I’m working out the mechanics of the writing: what are they doing here? What are they saying? It’s involuntary. I see the poem and I think, here’s a rhyme, here’s a rhyme, here’s a rhyme… that’s a nice phrase… would I do that? It’s not like with a novel – I can relax into a novel.

“To begin with, I write in my notebook, then I transcribe to my computer. I didn’t used to write longhand. When I first got my Mac, I was seduced by the screen, the formatting: it looks so professional… it looks like a complete poem. It looks like a book! Then I came to realise I was losing something – a connection with my own words, maybe? Writing longhand felt a bit more like going back to the source. When you write straight onto the computer, it feels like there’s no filter, or the editing is lost, or you lose track of drafting. There’s a lot to be said for ‘analogue’.

“Digital media, though, has expanded my access to a lot of other people’s poetry. From my tablet, I can read books that wouldn’t have been accessible to me, growing up in the Philippines. This kind of connection makes me feel like I’m living in a sci-fi world. Digital media has affected me in a creative way – showing me what other people are doing.”

Connecting with Words

“I live in Wales, or Cymru… and I did do a couple of Welsh ‘taster’ courses. If I had known I’d be living in Wales for so long I would’ve learnt more. Croeso means welcome. Diolch means thank you. The y is like an ‘a’, and the w is an ‘oo’ sound. It’s an interesting language to study because through it you can really get a sense of Welsh history. It’s a language that very much developed in isolation. I think there are a couple of Latin words in there. Ci or cwn (dog/dogs) is related to the Latin word canis.

“I don’t speak, fluently, any other language but English, though I have studied Latin. The English teacher who introduced me to Sylvia Plath was also very much into Latin. I thought it was a good way to learn more about language at a basic level, being able to break language down to its components. I studied Latin at school and at uni. The conjugation is very useful. I speak a little Spanish. I speak a little French, Tagalog… When I was growing up in the Philippines, that was the official language, but I learnt English alongside. I wasn’t encouraged to keep going with Tagalog when I moved to Australia. Tagalog has its influences from Indonesian; there’s a little Chinese in there. Spanish is also quite prevalent. It’s certainly a language that displays a history of colonisation.

“I’d like to learn Korean. I’ve spent time in Seoul – firstly through an Australia-Korea exchange organised by Cordite Poetry Review and Asialink Arts (The University of Melbourne.) Subsequently, I was invited to the Seoul International Writers’ Festival – my second visit. I just loved Korea, Korean culture. As part of the Australia-Korea exchange, we went to the Joint Security Area in the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). There were lots of rules. No cameras. Make sure you don’t make eye contact with anyone… You might start off WWIII! I only wanted to read a poem! I found it a very emotional experience. There was a pressing psychic weight, not helped by the fact that you have to toe the line and follow the rules.

“I still very much want to go back. I made good friends in Seoul.”

Form and Structure

“Sometimes I think about structure, when I write, sometimes I think about language. It depends what stage I’m at with the draft. I do the poem-a-day month. You don’t ask, ‘Will I be inspired today?’ You just do it. You work with whatever comes. You see a picture – you go for it. I usually try to get it as finished as possible and say, this is a draft. I occasionally get to a synergistic state where everything’s working. I write something down as soon as I’m thinking about it and the result is well-formed enough to leave alone.

“Obviously I think about themes when I’m writing a series of poems; if I’m trying to unpack an idea, then I’ll go back, and see if there’s something else I want to explore.

“I’m interested in both traditional and modern poetry forms. I was first introduced to the hay(na)ku when I read about it on (Filipino-American poet) Eileen Tabios’s blog. The hay(na)ku is a six-word, three-line, Filipino and diasporic poetic form, officially inaugurated online on 12 June 2003 (Philippine Independence Day). I felt an odd sense of satisfaction to discover the links in its genesis with my own Filipino heritage and, as with any new toy, I had fun experimenting with it, even dreaming up a variant called the worm hay(na)ku. The form reminds me of an Olympic gymnast: athletic, bendy and  resilient. I’ve taught the form as part of my Traditional and Invented Forms seminar workshop. My students often remark on how less fussy it is compared with the haiku. I was working on a series of longer poems about poisons and the original plan was that these would be my second book. (Disturbance soon derailed that idea.) I could not completely let go of the idea, so I wrote the poems for One Dozen Poison Hay(na)ku. While often the hay(na)ku  is used as a stanzaic form, in this small collection I use it as a discrete one.

“My new book of poetry, Disturbance, is a verse novel, very much inspired by Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask. Her work is a later influence. I deeply admire Dorothy Porter. I regret not having met her. I thought I would have more time – but there you go. The book has a very dark theme – not really a surprise. It’s what I gravitate towards. I tend to find the work I’m interested in exploring… I like looking at the dark, the underside of things. The book is about a man who kills his wife, his son and then himself, leaving a daughter as a sole survivor. It has a spiralling structure. The poems circle in from the neighbours to the officials – policemen, medical people – to the heart of the crime, then it moves outwards.

“The poems are much longer than those I’ve previously written. In the past, I’ve written sonnet-length poems, double sonnet-length. These are ranging up to 12 pages. In the end, however, the whole book is a single poem. I did write separate pieces but the intention is that they interlock.”

Sonic Qualities

“On an atomic, cellular level, I think in words – but also in sounds, especially if I’m creating a ‘way out there’ kind of a poem that doesn’t necessarily depend on sense, rather on sound. Then, I’m trying to see whether the poem is balanced sonically. The words don’t necessarily have to make sense next to each other but they have to sound good next to each other.

“In my book, Mortal, there’s a poem that contains a word that my editor wanted to change. The editor didn’t think it made sense, in terms of meaning and the rest of the poem. But I very strongly felt that that word belonged. To take it away, it would feel like the poem wasn’t complete. The word was lumpen. I meant it as a textural thing – for example, texture on the back of a spider. Sometimes they have lumpy bits! I fought for the word – it’s still there.

“For a poem, a word’s visual appearance has less of an impact than its sonic qualities, though I do enjoy looking at certain visual echoes when I encounter it. For example, how ‘black’ and ‘blank’ when placed near each other evokes a measure of visual aesthetic pleasure, though how they sound — the lingual and labial feel of the ‘bl’, the short gasp of air in the ‘ah’, the sharp ‘k’ at the back of the throat — for me embodies a greater pleasure that is nothing short of sensual. I think it’s because there is a physical distance when one looks at (or touches) a word. Whereas when one says a word aloud, or when you hear it, it is embodied. It is in your mouth and, in saying it, you can feel how it moves on your tongue. You hear someone else saying it and you can ascertain how it sounds in your ears. It is, for a fleeting, intimate instant, inside your body – and it is hard to escape it.

“Words are convenient for attempting to clarify or augment communication, even as they are likely to cloud or confuse matters. When I’ve travelled somewhere and I didn’t speak the language, I’ve always been agreeably surprised by how much the face, or the body and its wordless gestures, can communicate. There is no more ‘natural language’ than body language. Sometimes it’s good to take a rest from words, to seek solace from the visual, to engage with other ways that work to carry and evoke emotion. Words, at times, can feel like blunt instruments, especially when compared with other art forms. When done well, however, the feeling of satisfaction from creating with language is immense: ‘Right, like a well-done sum,’ as Plath put it. Language becomes elevated, a higher art form – something to which many writers aspire.

“Words are my metier. I communicate better through writing than almost any other way. Even so, I am still learning how to do it well.”

“I seem to have a fondness for diphthongs…” 


“I discovered this word while I was reading Under the Skin by Michel Faber. Isn’t it marvellous? I like how it contains all the vowels. I collect words like that – tuck them away in my head. You never know when you might need one: playing Scrabble, maybe. It means covered with glaire or egg white.
From Old French glaire, from Latin clarus, ‘bright’, ‘clear’.


“No direct English translation. According to Wikipedia, the University of Wales, Lampeter attempts to define it as “homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed.” This is an interesting essay about it.


“This is another word I like to say. It means resembling marble. From the Greek marmaros, ‘marble; gleaming stone’.”

Ivy’s portrait by Rachael Duncan