In the 1960s, Alexis Ivy would have been in San Francisco wearing a flower in her hair. In the 1940s, you might have found her on the road with Jack Kerouac and friends. And she still does spend time on the road—or she did, before the pandemic grounded us all. Based in Boston, Ivy regularly travels to inspiring places—most recently New Mexico and the Mississippi Delta. When she’s not traveling, she works as an advocate for the homeless in Cambridge. Her most recent book, Taking the Homeless Census, published by Saturnalia Books in May 2020, deals largely with this subject, turning a frank and humanizing eye toward people who often go unnoticed.
Ivy is a 2018 recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship in Poetry, awarded for the crown of sonnets that appears in her most recent book. Her first book, Romance with Small-Time Crooks, was published by BlazeVOX in 2013). Taking the Homeless Census won the 2018 Saturnalia Editors Prize. Her poems have recently appeared in Saranac Review, Poet Lore, and Sugar House Review. She works as an advocate for the homeless in Cambridge and teaches in the PoemWorks community.
I met Ivy at a local Boston workshop and have always felt a special kinship with her. We spent some time discussing her poetry practice and how it relates to her life as a recovering addict—an experience she shares with many of her clients.
The Rumpus: Tell me about the crown of sonnets you wrote for Taking the Homeless Census.
Alexis Ivy: The crown of sonnets was never planned; it just happened. Once I wrote a few sonnets, I decided this had become my project. It ends up that this is the perfect form for this content, because the addicts I work with suffer from severe patterns of behavior, such as obsession and compulsion, which is what the form of a crown takes on. Everything is connected in a web, and as an outreach worker and a poet, I’ve taken it on as my job to make sense of the chaos in my client’s lives and my own life. Writing in this way allows me to put order in this disordered world.
Rumpus: How long did it take from the first few sonnets to the finished work? Who helped you polish it?
Ivy: The sonnets took me two years to write. The whole collection took me seven years. Once the book was accepted in 2018, I reordered and polished the poems even more. I owe a wagonload of gratitude to the poets and editors involved in this process. From 2012 to 2019, with the attention of my mentor Barbara Helfgott Hyett and the writers of her workshop, these poems became heartbreaking.
Rumpus: Tell me more about your teacher and the workshop.
Ivy: I have been a member of PoemWorks: The Workshop for Publishing Poets since 2002, founded and directed by Barbara Helfgott Hyett. It was here that I truly found my voice and became a poet. PoemWorks was my “home group” as they say in AA. Her approach to teaching worked for me and pushed me beyond the limits I knew I had. She could always make something out of my nothing and could find the heart of what I was trying to say. She ascribed to the poem knows more than you do. Every poem I’ve written has taught me something about myself I did not know. Poetry makes me into a more self-realized being. All her lessons have been invaluable to me, not just as a poet, but as a person. I attended her poetry of place retreats in New Mexico, Newfoundland, France, and Maine. It was in those places she taught me true observation and how to translate unfamiliar culture and landscape into poetry without suffering from the language and tone of a travelogue. Last year, Barbara retired prematurely and is now living in long-term care. Not only was I her operations manager and a participant of PoemWorks, Barbara was my mentor and is one of my greatest friends. Her life’s work has inspired me to become the leader of my own workshops.
Rumpus: Wow, it sounds like PoemWorks was a really significant force in your development as a poet. Had you been writing poetry before you started with Barbara’s workshop?
Ivy: Yes, but not well. I hadn’t read anything other than the poets of the Beat Generation. I was writing like mad but had no idea of the revision process or the purpose of a stanza break. At the age of sixteen, I had one poem in print at Spare Change News, a homeless newspaper in Boston. I also had a reading at this all ages club with a backup band of friends, improv jazzing behind my words. I loved my beatnik life, though it was 2002. Once I got connected to PoemWorks, the workshop taught me how to tighten my language and bring a revised version of my poem at least thirty times. I was introduced to all sorts of poets—from before the 1950s and since the 1950s. I learned that some poems are made to feel as if they came right off the tongue that way. I came to tone. Came to know I’d rather sound like myself than Allen Ginsberg. This was a real exciting time for me. Also, it was the first time people were taking me seriously and so I had to begin to take myself seriously.
Rumpus: You had to take yourself seriously in other areas of your life, not just in your poetry?
Ivy: At that time in my life I had no awareness of my issues around substance abuse. I was uninterested in going to college and carried no confidence. It wasn’t until a few years later, until I quit using, that I was able to really finish a poem. You see, I was too busy being in the experience and could never reflect on the experience. Once I got sober I went back to school to study literature. I reclaimed my seat at the PoemWorks table without judgement and it was here that I took a hard look at my truths and shaped them into poems. The biggest part of my recovery is poetry. But that was really the focus of my last book, Romance with Small-Time Crooks. With my new collection, Taking the Homeless Census, I attempted something new for myself in both my writing and my work—I share courage and alliance with my clients in each poem with the knowledge that the therapeutic value of writing is how I survive my story. I am not just concerned with my own transcendence anymore, but one that reaches beyond me.
Rumpus: So, poetry was central to your recovery from addiction. Do you think it can replace more traditional approaches, such as therapy and support groups?
Ivy: Writing was a huge part of my recovery work, which I loved. I do believe having a creative outlet should be encouraged through the recovery process. I don’t think it could be a replacement, but to be used alongside traditional approaches, more of a trinity—art, therapy, and support groups. This together has given me over twelve years of clean time. I believe one reason relapse wasn’t part of my story was that I had a healthy community to welcome me back once I got sober. The more communities you are a part of, the better. I’ve learned it takes more than one guide, more than one foundation, to stay well.
Rumpus: In my experience, the life of a publishing poet involves three different kinds of effort: generative work, which requires the spirit of play, intuition, and the unconscious; revision, which requires analytical thinking (and a touch of intuition); and the po-biz, the business of poetry, which requires organizational skills and emotional intelligence. How do you balance (or juggle) these three kinds of work?
Ivy: Great question. I know I need generative writing not just to get a poem but also to feed my soul. A two-hour Monday morning session gets me grounded. I read my free-writes to see if I actually say something or have an image anywhere that may be a good starting place for a poem. I am pretty fluid and don’t get too sentimental over my own lines. I love when I have to research and learn about the folklore of crows or the world history of the ivory trade. Love realizing when a dead poem needs form to kick out useless language. Love when my tone is all wrong and change all my answers into questions. What every poem needs to have is a direction. That is the hardest part to find in writing. What does it want to say? I don’t worry about what it needs to say until I begin compiling a book. As for po-biz, I have a rule of having my work out to at least twenty-five mags. Rejections don’t bother me; I signed up to be a struggling artist. Once I have over twenty published poems I calm down on sending out and really focus on the book—start putting an order the poems, then, figure out what I’m saying, what I haven’t said and need to say. I really enjoy this process. Poetry is my life’s work, so it never feels like a job, more like a survival skill.
Rumpus: A survival skill. I like that. Do you ever find that your creative well is depleted? What do you do to refill it?
Ivy: I don’t really ever feel my well is depleted. If I need inspiration, I usually go to a completely new place and write that place. Or, I research something to get new language. I can write write write, but sometimes there is no poem to make out of what I’ve said. I like to give myself challenges—the latest is to write a few erasure poems. This requires me to read through all sorts of documents. Find the erasure-worthy ones, and then start playing around. This whole project will get me a new vocabulary of words and terms, and ideas for the chapter I have yet to write.
Rumpus: How does teaching fit in with your writing practice? Some poets get energized and inspired by teaching, but others find it draining.
Ivy: Teaching makes me a stronger poet. When I look for poems to teach, I ask the question: What makes this poem great? What is this great poem doing that I’m not doing in my work? I learn so much from the poems I teach. I enjoy being the facilitator, creating a space of playfulness and collaboration between poets. When I am leading a workshop, I get the chance to really see a poet’s process—choices made, intention, tone, etc. Being outside of my own process allows me new directions to the profound. Another important task of the teacher is to ask something of the poet, and in turn I then must ask that of myself. Teaching is a way I hold myself accountable.
Rumpus: So you’re saying that when you challenge your students to go deeper on a particular subject or craft element, you have to do that yourself as well?
Ivy: Yes. I cannot ask them to do something I have never tried before. I am now working on a political poem using the musical rhythm of “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. This is me practicing what I preach. I really do enjoy challenging myself, it makes me a better poet. And so that is what I teach. The feeling of writing a successful villanelle is worth the sixty revisions and frustrations. You then learn something about the power of repetition and rhyme that you would’ve never known before. And then it’s way easier to write a second villanelle. Trust me.
Rumpus: What do you wish someone had told you when you were just starting out in your poetry career?
Ivy: I was lucky to have a great teacher in the beginning of my career. The advice I should have taken from her—read full length collections of poetry regularly. This is important because a career as a poet usually involves publishing a book of poems. The more books you read the more you see a poet’s process. Shaping a book of poems and coming to realize how your poems work as a book is an amazing and difficult process. Just as tough as writing the poem itself.
Photograph of Alexis Ivy by Alyssa Clemenzi.