In the Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Bernard Ferguson
Tell us about your poem “The Weekend” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
It came, firstly, as a response to SZA’s song “The Weekend,” leaking like syrup into my ear, on repeat, for what felt like a full year. I wrote the poem last fall and still the song is playing right now, SZA’s “My man is my man, is your man. / Heard that’s her man too. / … I just keep him satisfied through the weekend” coming out like cool smoke from my laptop speakers.
I was fresh into a long distance relationship. My partner was in Minnesota and I was in New York. A whole few states of distance between us, but my desire was large and held me captive as if she were near and within reach. It ransacked me really, so much so that I started desiring everyone, everything—the woman in the auburn jacket sitting across from me on the A train, the man playing the jazz saxophone on the platform at Nostrand Ave. I craved touch and taste, so I craved the juices of the apples at the market right outside my subway stop, and the gold hue of each individual sunflower gathered into a bouquet. They were only seven dollars you know? Those sunflowers I mean. I could fulfill one desire so quickly and conveniently, but my partner, the real want, remained so far away.
I’d argue SZA was expressing a similar feeling—to be so overcome with your desire for someone that you’d make do with sharing, make do with seeing them only on the weekend. The poem “The Weekend” became an opportunity for me to channel my kinship with SZA. It became a canvas where I could record what desire was doing to me, a place where I can try—and also fail—at answering those desires on the page.
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
I’m so easily excited about writing. The sounds of words together! I don’t think I can ever be bored with such a bounty. (Bored and bounty! What a fun pair of words to put together in a sentence.) I really can find pleasure in almost anything I read if I try hard enough, if I squint long enough, which is why I think I’m such a slow reader. And so the pieces I eventually turn away from are the ones where I might be required to try too hard to arrive at that pleasure. I’m perhaps hedonistic in this way. The writing that gets me most giddy—syntax, topic, the audacity of it all—are the ones I turn to face for longer periods of time.
(I think it’s important to also mention that I am way turned off from harmful pieces—writing that doesn’t take care of the reader. I like writing that traverses difficult, painful or violent landscapes with nuance or at least a fair bit of care for a reader.)
What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
Hanif Abdurraqib used to often tell a particular story while he performed. It’s the story of how he went to see Anis Mojgani in a basement somewhere in his undergrad years, I think, and from watching Anis read and perform poetry, he learned how to write in one night. I went to see Hanif Abdurraqib feature at a Button Poetry slam in 2016, and then, because I loved his work so much, I flew to New York that September for my birthday to see him, Anis Mojgani, Sarah Kay and Clint Smith read poems at The Sheen Center. That night, Hanif told the story, again, of how he learned to write in one night from Anis. I left New York the next day after mulling over all of the poems Hanif read; after writing some of my favorite lines down, riffing off of them in my own way; after, like him, learning how to write in one night.
The fun thing about this story is that it echoes. Since 2016 I’ve spoken to numerous, down right many poets who love Hanif’s work, who say they learned something new, learned something about their own writing from finding his.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
I’ve said it already (in probably too many words I’m sorry), but I’m a writer because of Hanif Abdurraqib. I’m a writer because of Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Ross Gay and Aracelis Girmay. Because of John Murillo. Because B. H. Fairchild, sure, sure. But I’m also a writer because of Nancy Huang, and Peach Neely. Because of Elliott Case, Janelle Tan, xtian, and Kamelya Youssef. Because of Catherine Chen and Sonja Bjelić. I’m definitely a writer because my homies are writers. We nourish each other, I think. And how lucky is that?
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
I sing in the shower (haha). I love music, and I really do sing a lot while walking down the street, or while waiting for the cashier at a bodega to ring me up, or loudly while inside my room while my roommates are trying to find rest.
I think my love of music really translates to my love of music in poetry—that is, my love for the sound of language (see “bored” and “bounty” in the same sentence in question 2). I’m driven heavily by how things sound in my poems. The same reason I sing songs often in my leisure is the same reason I, at random times, repeat lines I love that are stuck in my head from poems I’ve heard at some point. Right now doing the rounds is a poem by Danez Smith. I just remember the words, the “boy after boy after boy….pulling me down … into the dirt.”
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
Editing can be difficult for me. I’m alright with small edits, with changing a word or a phrase so it’s closer to the thing it’s trying to translate. But substantial edits, re-entering a poem after I’ve written it, after I’ve walked away from it for a bit, can be hard. It’s hard to hear its music again. It’s hard to re-enter the world of a poem after I leave it. Memorizing the poem helps. Rewriting it from memory, as I remember it, helps a ton (thank you for that tool, D. Allen!). Anything I can do to trick my psyche back into the world of the poem helps.
How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
I’ve been coming to terms that the current political climate is the same political climate that has perhaps always hung over this country like a plump, gray cloud. Which is to say: There is maybe no specific time period that has ever been “good” on this planet. And so I’m fascinated by the act of writing poems and how poems can perhaps change that, can perhaps get us closer to the world we thought we had, the one that’s better than this one. I think poems pull us toward a better way of being. I think they tug me out of these decades, these centuries, and pull me toward the bevy of possibility, pull me toward the world that me and all my homies try to imagine, the one where we dismantle “the current political climate,” even the language of it, and start anew.
What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
I’ve recently learned that wonder twirls at the core of my craft. I’m always in delight with something, or else finding a way into delight by presenting questions to the things that enamour or trouble me. I spend a lot of time wondering about masculinity, about love and desire. I’m wondering today about birds and wondering what kind of bird is on the branch outside my window (fyi it’s a house finch) and wondering what kind of tree is the branch attached to (fyi I’m not yet sure of it’s name, but I hope I find a way to it soon).
What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
I tend to write any/everywhere. When the moment strikes, I can sometimes get whole poems in one sitting, i.e. sitting on the bus or subway train, or sitting in a diner while a friend laughs over pie. Otherwise I try to write whatever fun language comes to me, and then I figure the rest out later when I’m sitting down at a laptop, trying to jostle a poem free from a wild and rowdy Google Doc of found language.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I just finished a draft of a poem about how my professor said something like “This year might be an emotional hurricane year” many months before it became a literal hurricane year, a year where Hurricane Dorian ransacked two islands of my country, the Bahamas. I’m beginning the early work on a nonfiction project that aims to unravel the effects of Dorian while trying to educate readers on the status and stakes of the current climate crisis.
Elsewhere I’m working on a manuscript of poems, June, that is mostly about the sudden death of my two friends while they were traveling in Turin, Italy.
Bernard Ferguson (he/him) is a Bahamian immigrant poet and MFA candidate at NYU. He is the winner of the 2019 Hurston/Wright College Writers Award, a winner of the 2019 92Y Discovery Contest, winner of The Cincinnati Review’s 2019 Robert and Adele Schiff Poetry Prize, winner of The 2019 Breakwater Peseroff Poetry Prize, winner of the 2019 Nâzım Hikmet Poetry Prize, and an Adroit Journal Gregory Djanikian Scholar. He has served as Assistant Editor at Washington Square Review and has received fellowships from the Atlantic Center for the Arts, NYU’s Global Research Initiative, and New York City’s Writers in the Public Schools. Bernard’s writing is published, featured or forthcoming in The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Narrative, The Southampton Review, Winter Tangerine, and the Best New Poets 2017 anthology, among others. You can learn more about Bernard’s work on his website.