Angela Andrews has just released her first book of poetry, Echolocation. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University. She’s also a doctor, daughter, wife and mother of two. So how does she fit it all in? RENEE LIANG caught up with Angela by email (which required Angela to wait until the kids were asleep, and to liberate the computer from under a pile of ironing...).

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ANGELA ANDREWS is one of those multitalented people you would love to hate, but can’t because they are so nice. By all counts she seems to have it all: a first book of poetry which has attracted critical praise, a professional career as a doctor, a closeknit family and two precocious toddlers. But like most writers, what is visible on the surface is only part of the whole.

Echolocation reads like a family photo album, full of fleeting, transiently focused images of Andrews’s family life. At first glance the images are ordinary ones: taking down the family Xmas tree, grandma baking cookies. But these poems reward rereading. One senses but never quite grasps the family secrets buried within. A dark undercurrent pushes these poems together, a counterpoint to the emergent joy of pregnancy which is introduced in her title poem Echolocation: “In the/pool of silence/you are a glimmer/of tissue -/the presence of a heart/and the distance/ between poles/tell us when to expect you.”

As the book continues, one gets the sense that in the journey of her first pregnancy, Andrews is also walking backwards through the lives of her “others”: her childhood self, her medical self and her family, particularly the family members who are absent or soon to become absent. “Our lives are left as hollows/ on the carpet, and heavy dark spaces/ on the walls. I can name them.” (Leaving Glenview Road).

“Having my first child was a time of reflection about the family this baby was being born into,” Andrews says. Indeed. Andrews’s poems communicate the nostalgic longing of childhood, seen through her now-adult filters. The immigrant experiences of her Dutch grandparents, her Oma and Opa, feature in the first section. Andrews’s grandfather died before she started the MA, and many of her most moving poems are about him. In Wedding Present Andrews details how her dying Opa dragged himself out to the garage, hooked to an oxygen cylinder, to make her wedding present: “The mornings began cold,/ his fingers stiff/beyond the contraction/of age.” Here the concerned eyes of a loving granddaughter combine with the precise observation of a doctor. And one of the most lingering images of the book occurs in a poem about her Opa’s last Christmas: “We looked through albums//at night, pages/ like moths’ wings./Mottled and thin,/my breath held//with each turn,/the dust brown on my fingers.” (Christmas 2002, Titirangi).

Although the implied period of the book is the nine months of a pregnancy, in reality Andrews wrote the book over the course of two years, and two pregnancies. Life was hectic for Andrews at the time, as she worked as a doctor until she was 30 weeks pregnant with her first child, moved cities, had her first child, and started an MA when he was two weeks old. “That was a bit nuts really,” comments Andrews with notable understatement, though one gets the sense that she handled it all just fine.

“I find writing provides a lovely counterpoint to everything else I do. Compared to motherhood, it is completely solitary and sort of selfish. And compared to medicine, well, there’s no algorithms or guidelines, and you’re totally in control of it. I don’t get grumpy if I can’t write, just wistful.”

Andrews says that she has always written, although not always consistently. “I loved English at high school – I had a great teacher who was very encouraging – and that's when I became interested in reading and writing poetry. But then (I went) to med school and slowly those other parts of my life shut down, and when I was working it was hard to find the mental/emotional energy, and the time that poetry requires. So I didn’t write much after high school, and really seriously started when I did the MA in 2005.”

Like most writing mothers, Andrews snatches her writing time when she can. “The routine is constantly changing. I haven’t actually written much in the last six months, it’s been crazy with this moving around the country thing for Nick’s (her husband’s) specialist training, and he’s studying, so I’m spending a lot of time and energy supporting him in that, and with two kids it’s a bit harder to fit it all in. I really write when I can, and... because my time alone is so scarce, I do make pretty good use of it. I don’t procrastinate, because I usually only have an hour or two at a time. I wish I had more time of course, but that will come later. I find writing provides a lovely counterpoint to everything else I do. Compared to motherhood, it is completely solitary and sort of selfish. And compared to medicine, well, there’s no algorithms or guidelines, and you’re totally in control of it. I don’t get grumpy if I can’t write, just wistful.”

Which brings us to a perennially fascinating topic, that of the relationship between medicine and poetry. Are doctor-poets just freaks of nature or is there something about being doctors that makes them turn to poetry (or vice versa?) “The obvious thing is that both doctors and poets are great observers,” Andrews says. “But then why poetry, why not prose? The process of diagnosis requires a distillation of experience, of the history and physical signs, which you condense down into a line or two to describe your impression of what’s going on. And poetry is also a distillation of experience. I guess also the experiences in the hospital do tend to make you reflect often on those unanswerable questions, about life and death and love and suffering, and poetry is a “way into” all that stuff. I really like the way poetry is about exploring experience, and about asking questions, but you don't have to come up with answers.”

Andrews feels that sometimes poetry can be healing for the healers: “I think this idea we doctors have of “getting on with it” can be quite ridiculous and destructive... we have to try and be detached, and yes we need to put things to one side in order to get the work done, but to think that we can have all these intense experiences and meet some horrible things in our day to day work and just march on – it’s not a human way of responding.” Her own response is to write poetry. Many of her poems are very personal reflections on the cycles of living and dying, and the isolation of working as a doctor: “Night shift felt like/ standing on a ledge.// ... you lay awake/ listening for a car pulling up,. a telephone call, an old man falling.” (Grey Hospital).

She says that family and friends have been supportive of her ‘coming out’ as a poet after a promising early career as a doctor, especially husband Nick: “I think he really likes the fact that it’s given him another “world” too... you know how medicine is, it can be a narrow little world to live in sometimes, we can tend to talk a bit of shop, and it is refreshing for him to see me angsting over line-breaks, and the placement of a comma.” The poetry grew naturally out of a need to listen to her own instincts about starting a family and forge a second career as a writer. She is frank about her anxiety regarding whether she will be able to restart her medical career after having a family and a writing career, “but I just have to keep those in check, because I am doing exactly what I want to do right now.”

And reading her poems, a gently powerful debut collection which seems to touch a common emotional pulse, one has to agree that she must be doing the right thing.

» Echolocation is available from VUP. RRP: $25.00