Madison-area midwife’s debut collection is influenced by Sweden’s and other family-friendly social systems

Q&A with Ingrid Andersson, author of the poetry collection, 'Jordemoder: Poems of a Midwife'
Ingrid Andersson
Courtesy of Ingrid Andersson.
"Jordemoder: Poems of a Midwife" is the debut collection from Madison-area midwife Ingrid Andersson.

“Poetry is a liquid, and a poem is a vessel.” That quote by essayist Elisa Gabbert aptly distills what poet Ingrid Andersson believes is the life force connecting us all, an undercurrent she witnesses daily both through the act of writing and in her work as a certified nurse midwife. It’s this latter role that may be more familiar to local readers. “I attend births at home and have caught over 1000 babies in the Madison area,” Andersson says.

But clients and others may not realize she is also an accomplished poet, twice-nominated for a Pushcart Prize and winner of an Eastern Iowa Review’s Editor’s Choice Award. Her writing has appeared in numerous articles and poetry and medical journals, but “Jordemoder: Poems of a Midwife” is her first published book. “Jordemoder,” the Swedish word for “midwife,” was released in April by award-winning Minnesota-based publisher Holy Cow! Press. Andersson will be reading 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 poetry collection come from and how long have you been working on it?
The collection was conceived on a Swedish island. I began work on it there, and continued to work on it back here in Wisconsin for about six years alongside my full-time midwifery practice.

Have you always considered yourself a poet?
No, I haven’t. Though I’ve always considered myself a writer. Both the book and my identity as a poet began to take shape on the island of Gotland.

Why poetry?
For me, poetry holds space for what is possible. I believe that is what midwifery does, too — in intimate individual as well as in political ways. My learning and growth both as a poet and a midwife are deeply intertwined.

You’ve “caught” more than 1,000 Madison-area babies. What simultaneous role has poetry played in your life as that was unfolding?
My plan on the island of Gotland was to spend a year researching and writing about more family-friendly social systems than what my American families were experiencing — how such systems can feel and look, up close and personal — from gun control, inclusive health care and paid parental leave to the uncontested right to parent if, when and with whom you choose. I’ve written many articles and op-eds connecting the dots between our health and the systems in which we live, love and work. But living and working 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 may lie in the making of stories and repeating them until they become reality. Now, learning to nurture and respect the power of story-making and storytelling feels inseparable from the practice of midwifery. I find myself agreeing more and more with Oscar Wilde, that human “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

Has midwifery translated to how you communicate and/or see the world through poetry? (I’m thinking of all the terse or even wordless language that happens during birth. But also you are literally witnessing new life — what could be more extraordinary or profound?)
What a lovely question and thought. In Sweden, removed from the daily activism that life in America can entail, I was able to embrace the extraordinary and profound spaces I’ve shared with other human beings and escape getting stuck in the right-and-wrongs or us-and-thems of life. Even language such as “provider” and “patient” feels too divided and hierarchical to me — I don’t use it. In love, pain, joy and grief, humans — mammals — are so much more alike than different. Even now, facing the destruction of Roe, I feel my own best activism may lie in cultural bridging — in other words, in poetry.

You are already an accomplished poet, but was it difficult to assemble a collection?
Yes, assembly was hard. It occurs to me that a first collection may be like a typical first labor and birth — longer and harder than subsequent ones. It may leave you with places you wish you could do over, or that feel unfinished. I remind myself that Leonardo da Vinci was working on the Mona Lisa until he died, feeling the painting was still not finished. Maybe being on the journey is as good as it gets, and feeling 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, given that it was right in front of me. “Jordemoder” is a Swedish (also Danish and Norwegian) word for midwife. It means literally earth/soil/world-mother, and captures the scope of my practice both as a poet and a midwife. Every poem speaks literally or metaphorically to an identity that is relational and to a caring of the whole.

The book is divided into five parts. Is there an arc you traveled from start to finish of each section? If so, was that intentional or a surprise?
Yes, the book travels the arc of my life, yet isn’t linear. The sections are also loosely chronological: Daughter, Midwife, Mother, Invandrare and Home. “Invandrare” is the Swedish word for immigrant and means literally “in-wanderer.” I suppose “immigrant” has a similar meaning and speaks directly to the journey of identity on which immigrants inescapably find themselves. The book’s cover photo by Finnish photographer, Samuli Jortikka, framed the book in a surprising way. It is an ancient tiny door, almost like a book cover itself, set in the wall of a house in the medieval city of Visby, Sweden, where I lived. When you open the book or turn the page to a new section, I like to think you step through a portal.

What themes embed themselves in you and won’t let go? Conversely, are there any themes you’ve explored in this collection that you feel free of now?
Wonderful question. Those embedded themes are the “red threads,” as Swedes call them, that run through good stories as well as through life. Themes that don’t let me go include identity, home, mothers, the human potential for death, division and destruction alongside our breathtaking potential for creation, trust and love — and how such potential co-exists on every level of biological life. Forging these poems and then releasing them did lighten me of the weight of my own brilliant, suffering, exalted, artistic, perpetually homesick mother and some experiences I shared with her. They did lighten me of weight that a midwife inevitably carries from stillbirths and other embodied losses. But being alive is less about feeling free than about learning how to stay present and to flow with life on its terms, which are far bigger than us. “Imagine You Are a Midwife” is a poem that speaks to this.

What has your path to publication been like?
I had the notion that after the arduous job of writing a book and finding a publisher, my job would be done. But like every process outside of one’s wheelhouse, you have no idea! Even though my publisher Holy Cow! Press did the layout, printing and distribution, I had a ton of on-the-job learning to do about timelines, finalizing drafts, procuring photos, cover images, blurbs, a launching venue and finally, about outreach and publicity. “Holy Cow!” sums it up.

How do you train your mind and heart to say so much with so little?
It’s a great question. I’ll probably be forever in pursuit of the answer. I do know that you get good (or at least better) at whatever you do a lot of. I write every day to think better, to pare and clarify. I write to reach the center of 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 by the name of Elisa Gabbert said that. Call it by any name you like, poetry is a universal undercurrent, a river of running through life. It is accessible to everyone and is not limited to a poem. It’s yours to do with as you will. A poem is a vehicle that some of us choose, hopefully — in a word, in a line, in an image here or there — to give form and meaning to poetry, to hold us and connect us. You can return to the solace or insight of a poem again and again. But you don’t have to read or write poems to feel the power of poetry in your life.

Is there anything that readers are sharing with you that surprises you about your own work?
I have been surprised in deeply gifting ways. For many people, as they grow up, poetry gets stuffed in a pulpit or perched on a pedestal or up in an ivory tower. The messages I’ve received during and since the launch of “Jordemoder” have voiced unanimous gratitude — for inspiration, for resonance, for contemplation, for connecting midwifery or health care with poetry. For permission to show up as you are — unfinished, real, raw — to life. So, despite the flaws I see in my first collection, I guess it might be good enough.

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