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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

A conversation in a garden with Ingrid Andersen

Janet van Eeden - 2010-12-08

Rosehurst Cottage was once the lovingly tended home of eccentric Pietermaritzburg resident Lorraine Kettley. Kettley lived in the Victorian cottage with her husband for many years and after his death she resolved to reject the trappings of the 20th century. Legend has it that she stopped using electricity completely and chose to dress up only in Victorian clothes. She was a well-known figure, walking with her basket in her long gowns, to and from her cottage. Towards the end of her life she gave up eating food too, trying to live on air alone, according to the tales told about her. Obviously, this abstention was one too many for her body. She died soon after her conversion to a diet as solid as air.  

Fortunately her beautifully maintained garden has lived on as a tribute to gentler times where beauty was all-important and delicacy was paramount. Behind the demure façade of the Victorian cottage which fronts on to a busy, almost industrial city street, an elaborate garden hides, full of unexpected delights. Apparently Kettley based her garden’s design on that of Sissinghurst Castle in South-East England. Today the topiary hedges and quaint decorations stand just as Kettley left them when she died. The cottage has been converted into a much-loved coffee and gift shop, continuing Kettley’s vision for living life with beauty before all else.  

It is fitting that it is in this secret garden I meet Ingrid Andersen to discuss her latest publication of poetry, Piecework. Here, among the sundials, topiary, roses and gazebos it is a perfect place to talk about her work. Ingrid’s poetry is a little like Rosehurst: apparently simple from the outside at first glance, but rich with depth and unexpected surprises for the attentive visitor.

Ingrid is known widely for her social activism as she constantly searches to redress inequality wherever she finds it. Externally, she is a priest and an ardent supporter of those without voice, those whose words are powerless. On the inside, however, she is constantly assessing reality through her measured use of words, using those words to carry weight through the pictures she creates in describing her worldview.  

“I wrote my first poem when I was about 11,” Ingrid explains, “about a cat I loved very much which had killed a defenceless bird. The dichotomy of feeling created by the cat’s cruelty forced me to re-examine my view of the world. Writing helped me explore the unusual conflict of feelings I had then. And I’ve had to write ever since.”  

Not all her poems are the same, however. “Some poems have their own integral existence and wait to be born,” Ingrid says. “These are patient and wait like wallflowers at a ball, leaning shyly against the wall, waiting to be asked to dance. Then there are those that come barging in fully formed, usually when I’m angry. These demand to be put down on paper.”  

Never Again  

For as long as I can remember, it’s been
Lest We Forget.  

Lighting Holocaust Candles,
mindful of Rwanda, pogroms,
Bosnia, the Killing Fields,
necklacings in the next neighbourhood.  

And now, this man,
in our bright new nation,
unclaimed for days.  

How does one emigrate from the human race?  

“Writing about issues helps me deal with atrocities, but then I also have to do something about what I’ve seen,” Ingrid says, describing her feelings after seeing a refugee burnt in a xenophobic attack. She formed an anti-xenophobic group in the city and became actively involved in helping the group of pitiful refugees looking for shelter in Pietermaritzburg.  

“Often I write about something that upsets me first and then I do something about it afterwards. I can’t say which comes first: the writing or the action. But I think I aspire to do what my favourite writers do in their novels. Authors such as AS Byatt, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carol Shields, among others, put their internal life lessons into words. I aim to do that with my poetry.”  

Not all Ingrid’s poems deal with social events, however. She is often moved to write about something that’s purely beautiful or quite simply funny. But in all her writing she’s drawn to writing poetry as a distillation of thought.

“I make my words work very hard,” she explains, “and want many layers of meaning to come through with each one. I like to make the poems an intellectual challenge for the reader. Part of that comes from not imagining that my readers are stupid. My job is to allow the readers to make the connection themselves.  

“At a recent poetry reading where Phillippa Yaa De Villiers and I shared a platform, a chap at the back of the room who’d never been to a poetry reading before said how delighted he was by one of my poems about coffee. He said that he loved the fact that I trusted my readers enough to complete the poem themselves. ‘You make the coffee,’ he said, ‘and I have to make the bacon and eggs.’ He was so delighted that he’d been allowed to make the deductions for himself.”


Steam lifts lazily
from the marbling milk
in my cup of morning coffee.  

Ingrid said that when she’d first graduated from university she was tempted to write poetry as an intellectual exercise. “I wrote very clever poetry,” she explains. “But then I decided to leave that cleverness behind and find my own voice. So much so that when a reviewer said that my poems used imagism, I had to go and look up the term. I then rediscovered that Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle and the early TS Eliot poetry were all inadvertently part of the Imagist group. They were highly influenced by the visual arts and haiku and the French Romantic poets in their work. Then I remembered how much I’ve always loved Bashu’s haikus and how I’d had to translate the works of the French Romantic poets as part of my matric syllabus. The poems of Verlaine, Appollinaire and Rimbaud, for example, are wonderfully rich and full of musicality. So without being aware of it, I’d drawn on this repository of knowledge that I’d absorbed almost unconsciously. Now if references come up in my writing, it’s not because I’m trying to be clever, but rather that the poem is writing itself drawing on my unconscious repository of knowledge. When I wrote ‘Burning the Fire Break’ something rang a bell after I’d written the last line. It was only much later that I realised it was a line Gandalf used to stop the Balrog in Lord of the Rings. What better line could I have used to express my fight against all the dangers which were threatening me at that time, epitomised in the bush fire?

Burning the Fire Break

The fire flings up,
reaches into
longer grass nearby:
an angry wall that
spits and roars
towards me.  

I face the flame,
stand firm.  

You shall not pass.  

Ingrid believes that a poet has to trust herself enough to tap into the subconscious. “One of the things I realised is that I stopped hiding behind my mind and I allowed myself to be present in my poetry,” she explains. “But this does not mean that my poetry has become confessional. There are many people who think all women’s poetry is confessional. I don’t always write confessions of feeling in my work. Many of my poems are on behalf of others. For example, I’ve written on behalf of shack dwellers and others who suffer almost unimaginable things.”  

… It raised a memory:
Marie’s struggle story of a bag of bones,
hardly ashes:
a man whose kinfolk
could not pay the cost of travel:
a burden that she carried in her car
for months after she had had to flee her home,
until she buried them beneath a tree.
And the young woman that I met
by chance in Cape Town years ago,
in whose car glovebox lay a casket:
the ashes of her toddler
from which she could not bear to part.

“I don’t write for anyone,” Ingrid says in response to a question. “I don’t even think about publishing poetry when I write. I write in a hard-backed notebook and then when I realise that my writing voice has changed, I consider publishing a collection. But many poems aren’t published, because they are too personal. I don’t think of an audience, therefore. A poem has to have an integral existence of its own and it can arrive at any time: in the middle of a sermon, for example, though not one of my own, obviously! Or sometimes I make a fire and pour a glass of wine and then write the patient poems, the wallflowers, that have been waiting for some time. Many of my poems come to me in the form of an image. Like the moment my son Michael asked me about the seeds inside a melon. I then began to think about how right it is that a melon has to be broken for it to be reborn. Or else I see the kites that fly around here and I am awed by their beauty and I want to write the image of them.”  

The succulent winter melon

How do the birds get to the seeds? you asked.
I suppose it must get broken, answered I.  

Like the images of the kite and the melon, Ingrid says that she “draws from a palette of words to create the vision that I have at that moment”.   Most of the writing she does has to take place in solitude. “I need a lot of time on my own,” she explains. “I’m so open to experiencing everything with 100 percent intensity. I wear my skin inside out. I’m permeable and the world affects me deeply. Dealing with refugees and people in distress, for example, means that I absorb all their pain. I would not be able to cope without my faith. And I have to have solitude to put myself back together again.”  

I ask Ingrid whether she’d like to be remembered as a poet or as an activist. She answers without hesitation: “I’d like to be remembered as someone who loved, whether working with refugees or with my family and friends. I am someone who loves a lot and who laughs a lot.”  

I have no doubt that Ingrid will also be remembered for the deep humanity which comes through in her poetry. Like Lorraine Kettley and her exceptional garden, Ingrid Andersen’s poetry reflects the beauty of the world in all its guises.