The fantastical body: an interview with Joanna Ingham, author of Ovarium

Interviewed by Pema Monaghan.

Hi Joanna! Would you tell us a little about yourself and your interests as a writer?

I live in the countryside with my husband and 10-year-old daughter. Until last year we lived in Watford, Hertfordshire, but Covid and home-working gave us the chance to move to Suffolk, where I come from originally. I write mainly in school hours, working on poems and my second novel. At the moment I’m enjoying my writing, reading, walking, decorating and spending lots of time with my daughter. 

As a poet, I’m working on my first full collection. It was shortlisted for a prize last year but I feel that it still has a long way to go before it’s as strong as I’d like it to be. I’m experimenting with a new sequence of poems around the figure of Boudica. The themes of the collection include motherhood and daughterhood, sexual threat and violence, the body, desire, domestic life, women’s anger; also the landscape and nature of Suffolk, and ideas around belonging and returning. 

The fiction I’ve written so far is for a teen/YA audience but I’d like to try writing for adults next. I like writing books set in the past with a magical edge, plenty of romance and a strong sense of the natural world. My novels and poems seem to come from different parts of me. Poems from my gut, prose from somewhere between my heart and my head. I think poetry will always be my first instinct, but fiction is really fun and liberating. I always fall completely in love with my characters.

Can you talk about your use of nature imagery – food analogies and wildernesses – in Ovarium?

The fruit analogies had their starting point in something quite literal. When I was diagnosed with the cyst, I remembered an acquaintance describing her own ovarian cyst as ‘the size of an orange.’ I felt that I needed to see and touch an object that corresponded in some way to the thing that was growing inside me. I got a bit obsessed with measuring fruit, trying to find something the same size as mine – a medium melon, it turned out. Fruit imagery seemed to come naturally because of that, but also because fruit is actually the ripened ovary of a plant, and it can go bad, and rotten fruit can be disgusting. My cyst disgusted me, so I think the fruit analogies are my attempt to make it seem more palatable to myself. 

There are quite a few animals in the poems, I realise, especially sea and water animals. With the possible exception of childbirth, it’s the time I’ve felt most animal. Medical professionals are, understandably, only really interested in you as a body, and in hospital I felt much more firmly situated in my physical self than I usually do. After surgery, all I could really manage to focus on was the needs of my body; how to move to minimise pain, how to eat without feeling sick, how to go to the toilet when it seemed insurmountably hard. My body became a disobedient, untrustworthy, sometimes hostile thing, so paradoxically I felt a separation from it too, as if it was the wild animal and I was the threatened human being. 

The shark poem came out of the research I did around ovaries; I was weirdly comforted to think that some animals have only one functional ovary, for example birds and some sharks and rays. I started writing, imagining myself as a shark, and realised that I was writing about how I felt post-recovery. That I was alive and moving forward, but that I wasn’t the same. The analogy of the shark allowed me to explore those feelings by distancing them, usefully, from myself. And the anaesthetist really did tell me to be a shrimp, so I had to use that! She liked her metaphors.

Your descriptions of encounters with medicine and treatment often give way to more fantastical imaginings or long-ago memories. How does fantasy function within your poems?

I enjoy reading and watching fantasy, and I would describe my novels as historical fantasy. I think I use fantasy in the pamphlet as a way of writing about things that are perhaps too difficult to manage another way. 

When something frightening, unpleasant or painful is happening to you – an epidural, for example – the only way to escape from that moment and that room is to imagine yourself an alternative. I had to have a nephrostomy the day before my surgery, which involved a tube being inserted through my back, into my kidney and down through my ureter into my bladder, and the wonderful nurse who held my hand the whole time kept asking me question after question about my favourite holidays. It was a conversation you might have at the hairdresser, but strangely it really did help to have part of me in California, or Japan, while the rest of me was undergoing that pretty horrifying procedure. I think the way I use fantasy and memory in the poems is just an extension of this.

The poem about my MRI scan ended up as a flight of fancy because I was trying to find a way to write about an experience that was brutally, relentlessly real, but at the same time surreal. I got lost on the way to the scan because no one had told me that it would take place in the Cancer Centre and that I’d have to walk past the chemotherapy suite to get there. I kept wandering around outside, completely confused. Later, I was lying in a very narrow tube, listening to cheery 1960s music and the machine’s bizarre, jerky clunking, doing my best to stay absolutely still and not to panic, while people in another room somewhere worked out if I had cancer. At that point I had no idea if my cyst – or tumour as the doctors preferred to call it – was cancerous, borderline or benign. The anxieties in the poem grow ever more far-fetched, reflecting but also distracting me from my real fears. 

The weeks after my diagnosis definitely had something unreal and fantastical about them, like it couldn’t really be happening, especially not to me. And the cyst itself was very sci-fi, very Alien. The way it was growing inside me all that time and I didn’t know, the way it would have gone on growing until it killed me. Even benign ovarian cysts like mine have killed people in the past (and maybe in some places they still do). The first successful operation to remove one, which I write about, happened in 1809, but the mortality rate was extremely high for many decades after that.

Did you look to the work of any other writers and poets for guidance while crafting the pamphlet?

I don’t think I drew on the work of any other poets directly during the writing process, but there are certainly poets who have influenced me in a more general sense. I am attracted to writing that is honest and open and bold, especially about the body and the more hidden, shameful, knotty parts of women’s lives. Sharon Olds and Vicki Feaver, of course, but also poets like Romalyn Ante, Fiona Benson, Liz Berry, Rebecca Goss, Ramona Herdman, Alice Hiller, Rachel Long, Kim Moore, Helen Mort, Katrina Naomi, Jacqueline Saphra, Julia Webb and Sarah Westcott. Writers like these have definitely helped to free me to write about the things I want to write about, even if the poems are uncomfortable or transgressive in some way. I probably should have read more of the excellent poetry out there on illness, but I think at the time it all felt too close to the bone.

What was your writing practice like during the making of Ovarium?

After I had been diagnosed with the cyst and was waiting for surgery, I found it impossible to write anything creative. I was too scared and preoccupied. I did manage to write an application to Arts Council England, though, for their Developing Your Creative Practice fund, because I wanted to work with a mentor. My first pamphlet was in the process of being published and I was ready to build up a new body of work, and I wanted guidance and support to do this. I was recovering from my operation when I found out that my application had been successful and that I would now have funded writing time and be able to pay a mentor for a year’s worth of sessions. My surgery took place in June 2019 and I started working with Rebecca Goss in September of that year. I had to send her batches of 10 poems every 6-8 weeks; she would read them and send feedback, which we would then meet on Skype to discuss. It was very useful to have this structure and pressure, and it wasn’t a way I’d worked before. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found that a significant proportion of the poems I was sending Rebecca related to my cyst and that experience. I was worried they were too personal or unpleasant or strange, but she was very supportive and encouraging about them. At first we saw them as part of a potential future full collection, as I write a lot about the body more generally, but then the poems seemed to come together to form a pamphlet-length sequence. I’m not sure the poems would exist without the mentoring process and the time I was funded to write. I had to become very professional about my practice, and the money gave me permission to take my poetry seriously. Without it, and without Rebecca’s support, I think I would have had more self-doubt about writing around this subject area. It’s quite a challenge to write 10 decent poems every few weeks – especially after lockdown happened and I was having to home-school my daughter – so it helped to have a topic that I wanted to explore deeply and thoroughly, rather than flitting from subject to subject, which is how I’d worked in the past. I think I also felt more urgency around these poems than I usually feel, a need to bear witness, both to my own life and what had happened to me, but also for the people I’d been in hospital with. They asked me to put them in a poem, and I did, and that felt really important.

Some of the poems in Ovarium say things that I would never be able to say in a conversation, even with my closest friends, and I think that’s what poetry is for. To communicate the stuff that’s impossible to express another way, the stuff that’s too complicated or deep-set or overwhelming to do anything else with.

Order a copy of Ovarium.

[‘Nurse Shark’, from the sketchbook of William Gould, author of Gould’s Book of Fishes. Held by the Tasmanian Archives and State Library, accessed via FlickrCommons.]

Joanna Ingham writes poetry and fiction. She grew up in Suffolk and has recently returned to live there after many years in London and Hertfordshire. Naming Bones, her first pamphlet, was published by ignitionpress in 2019 and she won the Paper Swans Press Single Poem Competition in 2020. She has worked in community arts, facilitating creative writing workshops in a wide variety of settings. She lives with her husband and daughter.
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