Denise O’Hagan

Ivy Alvarez in conversation with Denise O’Hagan

Ivy Alvarez is the author of Diaspora: Vol. L (Paloma Press, 2019), The Everyday English Dictionary (Paekakariki Press, 2016), Disturbance (Seren, 2013), and Mortal (2006). A five-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her work appears in many publications, including Best Australian Poems (2009 and 2013), with several poems translated into Russian, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. Born in the Philippines and raised in Australia, she lived almost a decade in Wales before moving to New Zealand in 2014. In 2017, she became the international editor for the first Aotearoa/NZ edition of Atlanta Review.

Denise: Good morning, Ivy, and thank you for generously making time for this conversation. You’re an editor and writer as well as a poet. Let me start by asking you: What first drew you to poetry?

Ivy: Good morning, Denise! The first time poetry made sense to me – as in, I actually had a physical and emotional response to it – was in high school, though I had been writing for a time before that.

I read a lot, and I wrote a lot. From a very young age. Letters, poems, and short stories.

But that first time! It was Sylvia Plath’s ‘Tulips’. And in my body’s response to the poem, I knew. An electric thrum, like a tuning fork struck. This! This is what a poem can do.

I wanted to do that, make something like that poem, and have someone feel like I felt. I don’t know if I have yet made a reader respond like I did to Plath’s poem, but it’s fun to keep trying.

Denise: Judging from the responses to your work, from your very first collection Mortal, I think you may be confident of eliciting an immediate, often visceral reaction from many. Which leads me to wonder: What does poetry mean to you, and what or who is the source of your inspiration?

Ivy:  Poetry demands exactitude in both form and expression. So, to me, it is the highest level of writing accomplishment – if you can write it well. It is Art, with a capital A.

Emotion is the source of my inspiration, and a vital element, alongside form and expression. To evoke it in my writing, to make someone feel. If I can do that, then it is as if I have reached across time and space, and taken their hand in mine, in private communion.

Denise: Yes, there is a great feeling of intimacy to your work. There is also, perhaps not unexpectedly given your background, an intense linguistic awareness in it; for example, the sound of words in your recent publication Diaspora, Vol. L, which explore various Filipino idioms. Yet how ‘translatable’ are words or idioms without an understanding of the culture that gave rise to them?

Ivy: The poems in Diaspora, written in response to Filipino idioms, do not purport to be pure translation, which gives me immense breadth to explore. The thing I have in common with someone new to Filipino culture is that I am also coming to these idioms fresh. Through these poems, I am negotiating my own understanding of them. While I was born in the Philippines, the ways in which I engage with my heritage and culture is complicated by the life I have lived outside of the Philippines.

Nevertheless, I think it’s fun to be shown glimpses of how an idiom might arise, like a volcano slipping upwards from the depths of the ocean. Here’s a poem from Volume L.


Maybe we can be together. Maybe I can say the words. What

can I whisper? My shoes brace against the metal gate. I am a key now

and somehow, I slip in. It’s not magic. Once I lift the latch,

I am inside your kitchen, up the stairs, hitching my lungs

to silent walls, the windows. The rails. Did you never wonder

how I arrived at your bed? Or did you merely accept, take

in your hands the gift of these limbs, the scent on my neck,

the throb beneath my ribs, something trying to leap out.

Filipino idiom meaning giving gifts when courting (literally, Chinese courting)

Denise: This is wonderful, thank you – such a highly charged yet typically distilled poem! How is your work, with its regular use of Tagalog, received in the Philippines compared with overseas?

Ivy: It would be interesting to find out! Most of the responses to Diaspora: Vol L stem from those of the Philippine or Asian diaspora. Michael Caylo-Baradi, in a comment on Facebook, described it as a page-turner.

In her review for harana poetry, Natalie Linh Bolderston wrote: ‘In a way that is unique to her, Alvarez’s engagement with […] idiomatic language creates a sequence of works that illuminate the beautiful — and at times disquieting — rhythms of living in the Philippines, and far beyond.’

Denise: You’re known for your versatility, moving between free verse, using the page as a visual field, and prose poetry, and your writing is both vivid and precise. Does subject determine form, or something else entirely?

Ivy: The poem leads the way. Always. I’ve often started a poem thinking it is free verse but it insisted it was a prose poem, and the other way around.

I pay particular attention to the music in the language, listening for its heartbeats and arrhythmias. That’s probably where it all begins for me.

After that, it’s a matter of finding the right container or canvas for the poem.

For both The Everyday English Dictionary and the Diaspora series of books, they each have their own particular form. Luckily, there is sufficient latitude within the form so that I don’t get bored with it!

Denise: Indeed, you stretch form into new and exciting directions! What are you working on at present, and could you tell us a little bit about it?

Ivy: This year, I worked on a number of Volumes towards my Diaspora series. I was fortunate to have been awarded an Australia Council of the Arts grant last year, which enabled me to write towards Volume B. I’m taking a break from that at the moment, but the last poem I drafted is ‘Binakbakán’, which ends with the following lines:

My body hasn’t let me sleep in months, not all the way through. I miss oblivion. The dreaming. I can’t remember what I gave up. It must’ve been something.

Denise: After the year we’ve had, the sense of dislocation in these lines is particularly poignant. Have you found notable differences in the approaches taken to poetry – be it in how it is read, taught or performed – in the different countries in which you’ve lived?

Ivy: What a great question! Back when I used to teach poetry workshops in the UK, folks there tended to apologise before reading their poems aloud, whereas Australians and Kiwis just go for it, haha! No apologies. Also, more men signed up for my poetry workshops in the UK, compared with more women in Australia. I’m not sure why that is!

Denise: That’s an intriguing point of difference, certainly… On a more general note, what are you reading at the moment, poetry or otherwise?

Ivy: I went through a bit of reading paralysis because of the lockdowns this year, being unable to focus my attention on books (or movies, or TV, for that matter). I think it’s because it did not like the uncertainty. I adore novels, so it’s been disconcerting feeling blocked in this way.

Re-reading favourites, however, turned out to be okay because I knew how they ended. Strange, right? Among my re-reads is The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox. A beautiful, beautiful book.

Anyway, this paralysis ended recently and I went on a book-binging bender of light-hearted reads, the most enjoyable being The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang.

My hand physiotherapist recommended Normal People by Sally Rooney to me, saying she enjoyed the TV series, so I’m reading that at the moment, as well as Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman.

Denise: Thankfully, we are (at least in this part of the world), finally emerging from this period of lockdowns. In this context, my final question is: With all the challenges facing us today, and the growing concerns over the future of our planet, what do you feel poetry offers us, youngsters in particular?

Ivy: Poetry is a deep dive into immersive emotion, a sudden moment in the mirror that reflects something of the world. Its intensity cuts through the bullshit. A poem will tell the truth in a way that no other artform can. Poetry is the rope that ties you to solidity, to stop you feeling unmoored and adrift.

Denise: Ivy, we appreciate for your insights into your work and what poetry means to you. You’ve given us much to think about. We wish you all luck with your continued re-engagement with Volume B of your Diaspora series and look forward to reading it in due course.

Thank you!

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