The Madison area’s midwife’s debut collection is influenced by Sweden’s and other family-friendly social systems
“Poetry is a liquid, and a poem is a vessel.” That quote by essayist Elisa Gabbert distills aptly what poet Ingrid Andersson believe is the life force that connects us all, an undercurrent she witnesses daily both by writing and in her work as a licensed nurse midwife. It is the latter role that is perhaps more familiar to local readers. “I go to births at home and have caught over 1,000 children in the Madison area,” says Andersson.
But clients and others may not realize that she is also a skilled poet, twice nominated for a Pushcart Award and winner of the Eastern Iowa Review’s Editor’s Choice Award. Her authorship has appeared in many articles and poetry and medical journals, but “Midwife: Poems by a midwifeIs her first published book. “Midwife”, the Swedish word for “midwife”, was released in April by the award-winning Minnesota-based publisher Holy cow! Print. Andersson will read at ArbCo in Madison on June 2 and has a public reading and conversation planned at Verona’s Kismet Books later this summer, as well as literary festivals this fall.
Where did this collection of poems come from and how long have you been working on it?
The collection was created on a Swedish island. I started working with that and continued to work with this in Wisconsin for about six years together with my full-time midwife internship.
Have you always seen yourself as a poet?
No I have not. Although I’ve always seen myself as a writer. Both the book and my identity as a poet began to take shape on Gotland.
For me, poetry holds space for what is possible. I think that is what the midwife also does – in intimate individuals as well as in political ways. My learning and growth both as a poet and midwife are deeply intertwined.
You have “caught” more than 1,000 babies in the Madison area. At the same time, what role did poetry play in your life when it developed?
My plan on Gotland was to spend a year researching and writing about more family-friendly social systems than my American families experienced – how such systems can feel and look up close – from gun control, including health care and paid parental leave to the undisputed right to parent about, when and with whom you choose. I have written many articles and magazines connect the dots between our health and the systems in which we live, love and work. But when I lived and worked in Sweden, I came to believe that human systems are outgrowths of culture, rather than the other way around. Culture is shaped by storytelling, meaning-making, religion, art, poetry – whatever your given culture calls it. I came to believe that the greatest human power can lie in creating stories and repeating them until they become reality. Now it feels inseparable to learn to nurture and respect the power of creating stories and narration from midwives. I find myself agreeing more and more with Oscar Wilde, that human “life imitates art much more than art imitates life.”
Has the midwife translated into how you communicate and / or see the world through poetry? (I am thinking of all the concise or even wordless language that happens during birth. But you too are literally witnessing new life – what could be more extraordinary or profound?)
What a wonderful question and thought. In Sweden, removed from the daily activism that life in America can entail, I was able to embrace the extraordinary and deep spaces I have shared with other people and escape getting caught up in right-and-wrong or we-and-them of life. Even languages like “provider” and “patient” feel too divided and hierarchical for me – I do not use it. In love, pain, joy and sorrow, humans – mammals – are so much more alike than different. Even now, before the destruction of Roe, I feel that my own best activism can lie in cultural bridging – in other words in poetry.
You are already a skilled poet, but was it difficult to put together a collection?
Yes, the assembly was difficult. It strikes me that a first collection can be like a typical first birth and delivery – longer and more difficult than subsequent. It can leave you with places you wish you could redo, or that feel unfinished. I remind myself that Leonardo da Vinci worked on the Mona Lisa until he died, and felt that the painting was still not finished. Maybe it’s just as good to be part of the journey, and to feel unfinished is a gift.
What were the guiding principles you used to determine what made the cut?
The collection could not fall into place until I landed on the perfect title. This took me a ridiculously long time considering it was right in front of me. “Midwife” is a Swedish (also Danish and Norwegian) word for midwife. It literally means earth / earth / world mother, and captures the scope of my practice both as a poet and midwife. Each poem speaks literally or metaphorically to an identity that is relational and to a care for the whole.
The book is divided into five parts. Is there an arc you traveled from beginning to end of each section? If so, was it intentional or a surprise?
Yes, the book travels in the arc of my life, but is still not linear. The sections are also loosely chronological: Daughter, Midwife, Mother, Immigrant and Home. “Immigrants” is the Swedish word for immigrants and literally means “immigrants”. I assume that “immigrants” have a similar meaning and speak directly to the identity journey that immigrants inevitably find themselves on. The book’s cover photo by the Finnish photographer Samuli Jortikka framed the book in a surprising way. It is an ancient small door, almost like a book cover itself, set in the wall of a house in the medieval town of Visby, Sweden, where I lived. When you open the book or turn the page to a new section, I like that you go through a portal.
What themes are embedded in you and will not let go? Conversely, are there any themes you have explored in this collection that you feel free from now on?
Wonderful question. The embedded themes are the “red threads”, as Swedes call them, that go through good stories as well as through life. Themes that do not let go of me are identity, home, mothers, the human potential for death, division and destruction along with our breathtaking potential for creation, trust and love – and how such potential exists simultaneously at all levels of biological life. Falsifying these poems and then releasing them relieved me of the weight of my own brilliant, suffering, exalted, artistic, constantly homesick mother and some experiences I shared with her. They weighed me down as a midwife inevitably carries on from stillbirths and other bodily losses. But being alive is less about feeling free than about learning to stay present and to flow with life on its terms, which are much greater than us. “Imagine you’re a midwife” is a poem that speaks to this.
How has your path to publishing been?
I had the idea that after the arduous job of writing a book and finding a publisher, my job would be done. But like all processes outside your wheelhouse, you have no idea! Although my publisher Holy Cow! The press did the layout, printing and distribution, I had a lot at work to learn about timelines, complete drafts, get photos, cover photos, blurbs, a launch site and finally about outreach and publicity. “Holy cow!” sums it all up.
How do you train your mind and heart to say so much with so little?
That’s a great question. I will probably be in search of the answer forever. I know you will be good (or at least better) at whatever you do a lot of. I write every day to think better, to sharpen and clarify. I write to reach my mind and heart.
What do you most want readers or other writers to know?
Poetry is a liquid and a poem is a vessel. A wonderful essayist named Elisa Gabbert said it. Call it whatever name you want, poetry is a universal undercurrent, a river that flows through life. It is accessible to everyone and is not limited to one poem. It’s yours to deal with as you wish. A poem is a means that some of us choose, hopefully – in a word, in a line, in a picture here or there – to give form and meaning to poetry, to hold us together and connect us. You can return to the comfort or insight of a poem over and over again. But you do not have to read or write poems to feel the power of poetry in your life.
Is there anything readers share with you that surprises you about your own work?
I have been deeply surprised. For many people, when they grow up, poetry is stuffed in a pulpit or perched on a pedestal or up in an ivory tower. The messages I have received during and since the launch of “Midwife” have expressed a unanimous gratitude – for inspiration, for resonance, for contemplation, for associating midwifery or medical care with poetry. For permission to appear as you are – unfinished, real, raw – to life. So despite the shortcomings I see in my first collection, I guess it can be good enough.
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