let me too be flung into that selfsame lucky span: A Conversation with editor and poet Alexis Ivy about Barbara Helfgott Hyett’s Come Thunder — curated by Tiffany Troy

Barbara Helfgott Hyett’s literary career began with her first book, In Evidence: Poems of the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps (1986). She published widely in the years that followed, including The Tracks We Leave (1996), a pioneer in the genre of ecopoetry. Her other books, Natural Law, The Double Reckoning of Christopher Columbus, and Rift are all highly acclaimed. Helfgott Hyett has been the recipient of many awards, including The Boston Foundation’s Artist Fellowship Award, The New England Poetry Club’s Gertrude Warren Prize, and two Massachusetts Cultural Council grants, among others. Her extensive work as a literary citizen includes co-founding the Writer’s Room of Boston in addition to teaching poetic craft across all levels. The vibrant community she fostered through her signature workshop, PoemWorks, continues to thrive today.

Alexis Ivy is a 2018 recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship in Poetry.  Her first poetry collection, Romance with Small-Time Crooks was published in 2013 by BlazeVOX [book] and her second collection, Taking the Homeless Census (Saturnalia Books, 2020) won the 2018 Editors Prize at Saturnalia Books. Her most recent poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Sugar House Review, Saranac Review, and Poetry East.  ​She teaches in the PoemWorks Community in Boston.

According to Brittany Perham, author of Double Portrait, The poems in Come Thunder “speak of and from the lost world—the world of childhood, first, and later, the world of a mind. They charm us with, as Helfgott Hyett might say, Barbara Bravado—but make no mistake: these poems fight for their lives.”

Tiffany Troy: In the “Foreword,” you described the process you and Barbara Helfgott Hyett took to complete the collection. How did the two of you pick the poems in the collection?

Alexis Ivy: Barbara had hundreds of bulky folders, each with a title of a poem, some current, some fifty years saved, spanning her whole poetry career.  The sestina in Come Thunder was typed on a typewriter!  The process we used for her chapter, “Atlantic City”, which focused on Barbara’s childhood, was asking the poem the following questions: “If I kick this poem out of this book, can it live in the next book?” That answer was always No. Next question, “Is this poem saying enough?”  If not, we then would make it say enough by way of gluing two poems that were not saying enough together, then revise, revise, revise.  After revise, revise, revise, we then ask, “Is this poem now good enough?”.  This is how her pile of folders went from hundreds to less than forty.  As for the rest of the book, everything Barbara had turned into a poem for the last decade had a tone that was very consistent. It was a self-realized voice of curiosity and insight.  This process taught me that not every poem you write will end up in a book.

TT: Wow, the two-step process really winnowed down Barbara’s massive poetry archive into Come Thunder. Let’s turn to form: how does form inform Come Thunder?

AI: Barbara had quite an awareness of poetic meter and she paid close attention to this when drafting her poems. As for formal poems we see a sonnet, a sestina, and broken pantoum, but the form I see as a bridge throughout Come Thunder is persona.  Barbara’s ease to take on identity is through true empathy and research.  These two components are how a poet is able to speak not only as themselves, but as whoever they are personifying.  Barbara speaks as a sloth, a fortune teller, a horse on a carousel, the bible, and other creations throughout the book that Barbara can see herself in through experience, ancestry and myth.  

TT: Barbara’s mastery in taking on personas is brilliant, and your insight about true empathy and research being the core components in writing persona poems are brilliant.

In what way do the poems speak to not only Barbara’s personal interests/ childhood/ female awakening but that of her times (like the World War, the Cold War, etc.)?

AI: The imagery in her “Atlantic City” chapter evokes the 1950’s through the games that were played, and the appliances and technology used.  Barbara is not only sharing her experiences but documenting a place and time of a white lower class girl’s experience growing up Jewish in Atlantic City in the 1950’s.  In her third chapter, “Proof of the Spinning World”, she speaks on today’s horrors of the Boston Marathon bombing, of climate change, of classism and of the repetition of history.  She touches on these subjects in a relational way.  It’s more than a helpless witness to the world, current events and social and economic problems, but in a voice that reconstructs the hardships into tangible localized experience through language and modality of poetry.

TT: Barbara’s poems often document her personal history through the decades, revealing the personal, perhaps embarrassing side of things, toward a kind of revelation in an unflinching way. I am wondering if you could speak to what Barbara’s writing process is like?

AI: Barbara doesn’t have intent when she writes.  She always said that a poem knows more than you do.  All of her poems came from freewrite notebooks.  When I say that I mean she had a weekly group that met at her workshop table for two hours every Monday morning, I was a part of this group for some time.  We would find fragmented lines and phrases in Barbara’s childhood edition of The Book of Knowledge.  We would write off each line for four minutes and nineteen seconds, without thought, just moving our writing utensil to whatever comes.  Some have substance and would become the beginnings of poems, others would end up just staying in her notebook. Once the moment and revelation are found in her freewrite, Barbara would start working to see if a poem was possible. 

TT: Barbara’s poems often arrive at some kind of truth at their ends. Structurally, what are some techniques you & Barbara utilized to keep the narrative tension/ lyrical intensity of the poem?

AI: Barbara comes to not really an answer, but a direction, a declaration, or arrives at another question.  I love this technique as she is grappling with unanswerable things.  The poem comes to understandings and shares them in a metaphorical way which is way more exciting than a conclusion, instead of closure she leaves the reader to open it themselves even further. 

TT: Could you speak to the significance of “Monarch in a Jar,” which is a longer poem as well as the second section of Come Thunder?

AI: “Monarch in a Jar” is a poem of transcendence.  It gives the breath of time, migration, rebirth, protection, devotion, witness, so much humanity.  I believe it was Barbara’s way of freeing herself as she does at the end of the poem with the butterfly.  The monarch knows exactly where to go, as does Barbara from her childhood experiences.  This poem speaks to trauma in an allegorical way.  She placed this poem in between the first and last chapter of her book which was the perfect way to transition from childhood into her later years. 

TT: I agree with you that “Monarch in a Jar” fits in as a transitional poem between her childhood years and later years, and I love what you said about the monarch as a kind of Barbara, too. Before we end, do you have any closing thoughts for your readers?

AI: Barbara taught poetry for half her life.  This shows throughout her collection.  Each poem was its own exercise and experience to get it to this final draft.  She is about sharing her process within the writing which makes her poetry so accessible and profound.  She bears such a heartbreaking collection because she doesn’t leave a part of herself out.  Barbara shows us in Come Thunder she is always holding the reader’s hand.