The AVBOB Poetry Competition | Blog


Megan Ross’ poetry sets a compass for Mental Health Awareness Month    
Wed, 13 October 2021

In Mental Health Awareness Month, the AVBOB Poetry Project features the award-winning writer and journalist, Megan Ross. Her debut poetry collection, Milk Fever (uHlanga Press, 2018), is a profound and magnificent exploration of childbirth and its aftermath which, for many women, descends into postpartum depression.
This powerful collection explores the vulnerabilities of the human psyche with a finely wrought sensibility born of first-hand experience. These are disruptive poems that voice uneasy truths about unexpected motherhood. Megan’s reconfiguring of herself after giving birth is alive in her poems, which evoke the state of discomfort, disbelief and disorientation known to many mothers in those first raw days and exhausted weeks facing a howling, hungry infant.
Megan remembers a particular moment, three days after leaving hospital with her newborn. “My son was sleeping, and I had an overwhelming urge to write a line of poetry. So, I wrote something about having this horrible, bloated stomach… this C-section wound, and my injury from childbirth. It was one line, but it was a compass that set the direction for my poetry collection as a whole. It became a means of exploring my experience of new motherhood as well as a way with which to protect myself from its harder aspects,” she says. For many people encountering a new, engulfing and/or unwelcome reality in unstable times, poetry serves as a vehicle for naming and containing the experience.
Looking back today, she sees how motherhood and writing are activities (or perhaps ways of being) that feed and nurture each other. Initially, however, her experience was ambivalent. “At the time I was pushing myself to write because I considered falling pregnant as a failure to live up to the experiences I’d set for myself, personally and professionally. This was unhealthy since I never let myself rest. Besides the financial need to continue working, I didn’t take time off. I couldn’t step aside from work to just be with my son and myself. I felt I had something to prove to everyone: that I, Megan Ross, had not failed. And that nearly killed me.”
An extract from her poem "Women with houses for heads" expresses this reality all too poignantly:
I want to be anything but 
this tired wash of veins
bleeding my chest (a new clutch of 
teeth), this child who tastes my
sweet waters (knows not its sinking ships),
the false wintered setting of a cosy diorama.
(I swim right to the horizon where it splits 
the world like a razorblade opening a wrist.)
Megan’s writing is haunted by the violence done to women’s bodies, but also by demons closer to home. She explains: “Because of my family history, the idea of addiction and being ‘cursed’ with familial predilections towards pain have always ridden shotgun with me. I’ve leaned into that idea when I’ve been self-destructive, but I’m trying to define myself less as a product of my family, and rather someone trying to ‘change the genes’, to step away, to move outside the many dark ways of being and suffering.”
Milk Fever clearly demonstrates how poetry can help to rewrite and reconstruct such stories, restoring wholeness and balance by naming our experience more accurately. Megan’s recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder has changed her experience of mental illness. “It’s a helpful way of shelving what I live with every day. It’s given me ‘permission’ to be sick, if that makes sense, because it’s been explained to me that I have been very, very ill. And now I don’t feel so bad for feeling so bad.”
The poems in Milk Fever reveal a deep sense of being haunted. Ross chronicles incidents of “second sight” in her own family, though cautions that such experiences are often linked to depression and illness. She remains interested in traditions that try to map and describe such phenomena, especially those rooted in the Eastern Cape where she grew up. 
“Unless it is in a religious context, white people in this country don’t enculture much in the way of spirituality, so we don’t have many ‘ways’ to turn towards. I’m interested in the spiritual history of the Eastern Cape. Being raised catholic, with Irish priests, in a Xhosa province, has provided a kind of syncretic way of understanding the world.”
Megan emphasises the importance of external validation for poets, including the recognition embodied in literary awards, which have been “…a big source of affirmation for me, especially being ridiculously, and cruelly, hard on myself. I like awards like the AVBOB Poetry Competition, which are open to writers in all 11 official languages. Writers benefit – especially for African writers, financially and professionally – since it's a channel for securing artistic representation and financial opportunities.”

The AVBOB Poetry Competition invites all writers to find their own compass points in Mental Health Awareness Month. Enter up to 10 poems online that offer consolation and inspiration before 30 November 2021 via the website: