Michelle McGrane in conversation with Ingrid Andersen
Ingrid Andersen has lived most of her life in Johannesburg, relocating to Grahamstown during 2003. She worked as a theatre publicist in the 1980s at the Market Theatre and PACT. As South Africa began to rebuild after the first democratic elections, she became active in community development, most recently as CEO of the Rosebank Homeless Association.
Andersen's debut poetry collection, Excision, was published this year. Her poetry has appeared in literary journals including Imprint, Green Dragon, Carapace and Slugnews. She presented her work at Wordfest at the National Arts Festivals 2004 and 2005.
Ingrid currently works at Rhodes University as the Community Engagement Manager. She is also researching for her Masters in Development Theology.
I was a solitary child who lived in a world of words and music, of imagination and the arts and I felt keenly the vast divide between myself and the children about me. It felt very much as if I’d been absent on the day they gave out the handbook on how to relate to other children and how to be a part of the group. It was only as an adult that I found other people who saw and experienced the world as I do.
You started writing poetry at the age of eleven. Did you have poetry read to you? What drew you to writing?
The first poem in my childhood notebook was written when I was eleven. It was a poem about the conflict I felt when my cat had slaughtered a bird. I don’t remember much about my writing before then, just that I always escaped into words.
I devoured books. I will never forget turning the page in my third reader to discover that the big sister Ruth had a pony. I was supposed to read those pages the next day, but I defiantly finished the book. It was irresistible. English was always my strongest subject at school, and I had some remarkably dedicated English teachers who encouraged my writing.
I remember being read to as a child. I read to my own son every night until he was able to read books for himself. I confess that I enjoyed it as much as he did. I did all the voices. I loved Where Wild Things Are and the Narnia series. Did you know that there is a line in The Cat in the Hat for which you have to prepare with a very, very long breath?
My mother started her Eng Lit studies when I was nine, which continued until she got her doctorate when I was in high school, so our house was filled with literature. Literally. Piles of books and the sound of method actors intoning on vinyl. I grew up saturated in words – I remember everything from Shakespeare, Hopkins and Chaucer to Bosman, Conrad and Plath. Unisa was very tolerant. I’d sit quietly at the back of lectures and seminars and drink it all in. It was a rich childhood.
In the eighties you worked as a theatre publicist at the Market Theatre and PACT. Was it an enriching experience and have you maintained links with the theatre community over the years?
The eighties were exciting and challenging times to work in the theatre, particularly at the Market. I worked under Mannie Manim, with John Kani and with Alan Joseph, who is greatly missed. We were pushing the envelope all the time, challenging the government. I worked with Athol Fugard on two productions. He was a very private person with a delicious laugh. I’ll never forget Janet Suzman’s Othello with John Kani and Joanna Weinberg in the lead roles – across the colour bar, in bed together, kaal, sowaar! Imagine! The Market staff could swear that throughout the run, security police got to see a lot of Shakespeare. Which was a good thing.
Festival time in Grahamstown is always reunion time – I see many of the actors I used to work with. I saw Janet Suzman this year, and I see Mannie Manim from time to time. Every year I see Mandie van der Spuy, who headed Drama at PACT when I was there and now manages Standard Bank’s jazz sponsorship. And of course, I see Lynnie Marais very often in Grahamstown – she moved from PACT to the Monument to head up the Festival many years ago.
Tell me about your involvement with homeless people. What have you learned through your work with them?
I’m an uncomplicated person – what you see is what you get. What I really appreciate about working with homeless people is that when you get to that basic level of survival, all the human pretence is stripped away. There is no bullshit. You are who you are.
One would think that all a person needs is food and a dry, warm place to sleep. And that’s true. But most of all, what people need is love and affirmation. Homeless people are invisible – Johannesburg people in their cars ignore the beggars and the people selling Homeless Talk and plastic gadgets at the robots. They say that we are all only four paycheques away from living on the street. It could be any of us.
The most important part of my ministry to homeless people was knowing their names and their stories and loving them just as they were. Counselling the homeless couple whose baby died before his first birthday. Listening to yet another long wheedling scam story from a guy asking for money for a train trip to a new job. Laughing with him that he thought the story would actually work on me. And then helping him in ways that were better than giving him money to buy skokiaan at the shebeen on the streets amongst the corporate headquarters in Rosebank.
Of course, in addition to that could come advocacy, job creation initiatives and skills training projects, soup kitchens and food collection. I was very active in advocacy for the rights of homeless people displaced during the World Summit for Sustainable Development when they “sanitised” Rosebank.
When I left to go to Grahamstown, there was a lot of emotion about my leaving, and in my last week people came one by one to say goodbye and to give me gifts they had made themselves. It was very hard to leave, but the poverty here in the Eastern Cape is so much greater – the need is so much greater.
How do you define yourself spiritually?
I think people make this all too complicated. Love God with everything you have and everything you are and love those around you as you love yourself. The rest is just detail. We get too distracted by the detail.
What is Development Theology?
Development Theology explores how God sees the poor, what the Bible has to say on the subject and how we as a people of God respond to the development needs around us as an expression of the love of God for his people. I believe that the church has a vital and practical role to play in binding up the broken hearts of the poor and in rebuilding the nation. I am so passionate about this that I set my life aside for this work as an Anglican priest.
You moved from Johannesburg to Grahamstown in 2003. Did you settle down easily in your new home? Tell me about your life in Grahamstown.
I love Grahamstown. I wanted to move here years ago when I was a theatre publicist, but the time wasn’t right. When my son was awarded scholarships to St Andrews College three years ago I jumped at the chance to move down. My friends thought I would struggle to settle down in a small town, but I’m a very gregarious person. I love having four people hoot “Hello” as I walk down High Street. I am guaranteed to meet at least five friends or colleagues when I go to Pick ‘n Pay, which is our village marketplace.
Some people find the goldfish bowl difficult to live in – I thrive in it. There is no peak hour traffic. The cathedral bells ring on Sunday and Thursday evenings in the mist. The sunsets are spectacular. You can find a donkey cart (with a set of donkeys) parked neatly in a bay between a BMW and a Golf, and there are often cattle in my street. Cattle have right of way.
Will you describe what your current role as Community Engagement Manager at Rhodes University involves?
Grahamstown is incredibly impoverished. In the East Grahamstown townships there are over 100 000 people, more than 70 percent of whom are unemployed. You cannot avoid seeing the divide between the rich and the poor here – the town is so small. My role is to co-ordinate the relationships between the variety of community outreach initiatives within the university and to facilitate strong reciprocal relationships with community development partners in Grahamstown and the Eastern Cape. I believe there is potential for great change to happen out of intelligent networking and intervention. I suppose I am a matchmaker. I know this; I love my job – I have the best job on campus.
What inspires your commitment and passion for your work?
Someone has to do something about the pain and the poverty, and I’ve been given a good set of resources to do it. So I get stuck in and I get very motivated by watching the change take place in people’s lives.
In the biographical sketch at the back of your poetry collection, Excision, you describe your voice as having been "silenced". How was your voice silenced?
I married very young – to a brilliant and immensely destructive man whom I met at university. Twelve years of that marriage nearly destroyed me. I chose to end the marriage and to survive.
Did you have an epiphany, a moment when you suddenly realised you wanted to change the direction your life was taking?
As I grew in my spiritual journey and I came to know what true and unconditional love was, I came to see that what I had was not what marriage should be. I chose life. I staggered/crawled away from the devastation and it took years for me slowly to become the person I was meant to be. And life has been deeply rich and rewarding in every possible way since then.
How did you recover your voice and your creative power?
God is a great recycler – he took a broken, shattered woman and slowly breathed life into her again. I began to trust people enough to make some wonderful friends. I began to believe in myself again.
I began writing again after seven years of silence when I had to write a poem as part of a theology assignment. I wrote “Sacrifice”. It just poured out of me. It was as if I had been given permission to express all the anger of the infidelity and the pain and outrage of the way I was treated. I have been writing ever since.
Ingrid, you have a sixteen-year-old son called Michael. What has your son taught you about yourself? Has motherhood changed you?
Mike’s a witty, wise, warm human being. I’ve loved raising him. Being a mother has been the greatest shared adventure possible. For sixteen years I have got to journey with a new human being who is discovering the world around him. And I see it along with him. It’s part of my growth as a human being. I’ve learned as a mother that it’s important to be honest and to apologise when you make mistakes. And you will make mistakes. The most important thing I’ve learned from motherhood is to love your family and your friends as much as you can and let them know as often as you can. Parenting keeps you humble and grounded. So does the effort it takes to learn to see the brilliance in Linkin Park and Unreal Tournament!
TS Eliot said, "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood." What are your thoughts on this?
I think that’s rich coming from a poet whose work now generally comes bristling with footnotes. And I like Eliot. I see life as intrinsically simple. It’s about relationship. When we strip away all the facades and write about realities, we cut across the barriers. When there is unselfconscious truth in the writing, that’s when those flashes of recognition come – when I can read a poem, see into the life of a writer tens of thousands of kilometres away and see myself.
Define yourself as a poet.
How does one define oneself? That’s a two o’clock in the morning with lots of red wine undergraduate discussion. As a poet I am as I am in every other sphere of life. I’m real and flesh and blood. I don’t write to impress people or use clever allusions or references. I did all that when I was still at university, and it was rubbish poetry. Now I write only because the poem needs to be written. And it has its own life and its own personality – with its whimsical little in-jokes and its musicality. And if someone else likes the poem, then it’s probably because at the bottom of it all we have a shared human experience.
Can you explain your writing process? Do you write every day? Do you begin with an image, an idea? Can you sit down to write a poem and then actually write one?
I am not a disciplined writer. I have friends who keep journals or who write morning pages. Not me. Each poem demands to be written. When I was a child I used to say, “I am going to write a poem”, and my mother would ask me what it would be about, and I wouldn’t know until it was done. I’d just have a welling-up pregnant feeling inside me. That still happens. It’s usually almost completely formed when I put it down. I can begin with an idea or an image, but more often a poem is formed out of something I feel intensely about and I have no rest until I put it down on paper. Then it’s excised – hence the title of my collection.
Tell me about Lionel Abrahams's workshops which you attended in the early nineties.
Lionel had a powerful physical presence from the instant that he shuffled in, half-carried, to his chair at the end of the table. He looked almost leonine until he laughed with that infectious puckish grin of his that invited you conspiratorially to laugh along with him and not to take any of this seriously. He had a dignified way of staying quiet as others had their say on the work under discussion, no matter how off-base they were. He courteously allowed each his or her turn. But what we all waited for was his comment, which was always carefully and slowly delivered and always completely respectful, validating and relevant. He had a way of getting right to the heart of the matter – I believe that was because he listened carefully to every word with a keen and insightful mind. I liked to think that he was passing on in turn the mentorship he had received.
Do you currently belong to a writers’ group? Are there fellow poets you feel comfortable sharing “work-in-progress” with?
Grahamstown is a fertile literary plain. There are many very good poets here and there are informal gatherings for readings quite often at NELM or the Rhodes English Department. I get together on Monday evenings with my two closest poet friends here, Crystal Warren and John Forbis – a sort of café society thing. We write together and sometimes listen to one another’s work – it’s good for one’s writing. We each have a very different voice, which is a good thing – we grow one another. I prefer the safety and intimacy of that environment.
You took part in WordFest at the National Arts Festival in 2005. Tell me about that experience.
My participation in WordFest in 2004 and 2005 involved readings of my poetry. I launched my collection at this year’s WordFest. But in a sense, WordFest in 2004 was the first time I took the courage to read my work to non-poets – I read to a large lecture theatre full of Festinos. It also firmly outed me as a poet in the Rhodes University academic community where I work – fortunately I received a lot of encouraging comments.
Why did you decide to take the self-publishing route with Excision?
Reality. It is a first collection, and there are no South African publishing houses that can afford to take risks on poetry collections anymore, let alone new poets. I believed in the work and wanted to put it out there. And bless you, Gus Ferguson, for all you’ve put into poetry over the years.
You write: "There's a parallel in this collection between my own struggle for liberation from my dysfunctional marriage and my growing awareness of the issues surrounding the struggle for freedom in South Africa." Can you elaborate …?
In writing the poem for Ingrid Jonker, I realised that I was struggling for liberation from trauma in my own life at the same time as South Africa was struggling through the last days of apartheid. I really like the idea of that parallel, and the idea that as I am healing from past oppression, I am playing my part in the healing of the people around me. There is so much hope for this country if we could put self aside and think of ourselves as individuals who are defined by our integral relationship with other people.
Your collection is separated into three parts. What distinguishes the poems in each part?
The first section is more general, and contains a lot of my earlier poetry, from the 1990s. The poetry in the middle section was written in the midst of the worst of the abuse and infidelity and has a specific message and quality. A lot of the poetry in the last section was written after I came down to Grahamstown and looks at my life from a more objective viewpoint, and deals with societal and justice issues. It was important for me to date the poems as milestones marking the journey.
In a 1962 reading prepared for BBC radio, Sylvia Plath introduced her poem, “Lady Lazarus”: "The speaker is a woman who has the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first. She is the Phoenix, the libertarian spirit, what you will. She is also just a good, plain, very resourceful woman." Was your poem “Lady Lazarus” inspired by Plath's work of the same title?
My poem “Lady Lazarus” is a conscious reference to Plath herself and her suicidal anger and despair, but also the power with which she speaks. It talks about pain, being angry enough to start over in simplicity, alone, without the burden of flesh. But it also speaks of hope – of beginning anew, burning, self-sufficient and powerful. In rebirth is victory over isolation and desolation. “A good, plain, very resourceful woman”? I like that.
You've also included a poem titled “For Ingrid Jonker” in Excision. Tell me about writing that poem.
There were times during my marriage that I wanted it all to end. I wrote a poem in one of my most tortured moments about the peace I would find if I walked into the sea and breathed. It was years later that I realised how close my life story was to Ingrid Jonker’s. I had been born just after she died. Somehow, I survived, against all odds. I felt connected with her, and wrote about it. I like to think that she knows that I wrote about it.
When and how did you write the poem “Nam”? What inspired it?
I feel injustice deeply. I thought I would get over that as I grew up. I never have. That’s how “Nam” was written. Both of those incidents happened to me just as they are written, and I was unable to forget them. And when I saw the facile comments on the travel show, I had to put my anger down on paper. It just never ends. We don’t learn. As a mother I am now even more outraged by senseless slaughter ordered by men who are never themselves in danger. And whose motives are based on greed and power-seeking.
What feelings would you like people to take away after reading Excision?
People have responded that the collection chronicles a journey through suffering into new life, and that it was thought-provoking. And that is what I wanted to express. That there is hope for new growth, for freedom, for change. For so many people who have suffered. And especially for our country. I really believe that.
How can we get hold of a copy of your poetry collection?
It is on sale at Exclusive Books and major bookstores.
Name three people who've strongly influenced your life. What have you learnt from each of them?
Frost is famously quoted as saying, "Too many poets delude themselves by thinking that the mind is dangerous and must be left out. Well, the mind is dangerous and must be left in." I truly admire the mind of playwright Tom Stoppard, who thinks with surgical steel. I don’t have a favourite poet – I have been influenced by individual poems. I was deeply influenced by my schooling with the Sisters of Mercy, who were no-nonsense, faith-filled Christian women with their sleeves rolled up, and very involved working in the township communities. I couldn’t pick out one particular person – it was the ethos I was raised in. I admired them for their guts and their compassion. The greatest influence of all has been the authentic life of a man who was so passionate about me that he gave in to torture to rescue me from myself.
What excites and inspires you? What is your dream for yourself?
What excites me? Now that I am beloved, I am a joyful and irrepressible woman, I do not laugh quietly and I’m always the last person on the dance floor at one in the morning at university functions. And I am not waiting to be old to wear purple. What inspires me? Humble people who just get on with helping to make a difference in this world. And who do it out of love, not self. So often people help others for reasons that have everything to do with themselves and nothing to do with those they are helping.
My dream for myself? To go back to Venice. My son Michael and I backpacked for three weeks across Italy four years ago, staying in youth hostels. Italy was rewarding beyond description, but Venice was a moving and intense experience. It was fading and old and beautiful and I loved it. I would go back there given half a chance.
How does it feel to be where you are in your life right now?
Very, very good. I’ve just turned forty, and I’m content to be Ingrid just as I am right now.
Two poems selected from Ingrid Andersen's debut poetry collection, Excision:
You are shut clean
Door and window shut tight,
Slipped new from your skin.
The body falls concentric
You burn clean and bright.
"Here we are in the beautiful Caprivi Strip."
I remember Ann, an English lecturer,
Returned from the border
And I remember James.
James, who I met in the street in Braamfontein
While I had been studying English Literature.
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