Joel Robert Ferguson is a poet of working-class settler origins. His first book, The Lost Cafeteria, was published in 2020 by Signature Editions, and his writing has recently appeared in Confluence Magazine, EVENT, The Malahat Review, Riddle Fence, Queen's Quarterly, and Train Journal. Born and raised in the Nova Scotian village of Bible Hill, Ferguson now lives in Winnipeg, Treaty 1 Territory, with his partner and their three cats.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Publishing my first book felt great. It was something I’d worked at for years and it was an amazing experience to see it come together. That said, it hasn’t changed my life too much; a small part of me was worried that once The Lost Cafeteria was published I would find myself running out of things to write about, but the opposite has been true.
A lot of the poetry in my first book could best be described as “coming of age” poetry, whereas the poetry I’m working on these days feels a lot more focused on the external world and less about figuring out who I am as a person and a writer. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I’m not really sure yet.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
In a way I was primed for poetry from an early age, as my mother is a poet and ran a literary journal out of our dining room for much of my childhood. I sometimes try to write prose with the intent of publishing, but as my process of thinking and writing is disjointed I always seem to come back around to poetry as it seems best disposed to messy thought.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It can vary widely- occasionally a poem will come to me and not really need any changes (I think of these as “freebies” and they don’t really feel like I had much of a role in writing them). Far more often though I’ll be making edits on a poem off and on for years without ever feeling like the piece is truly finished.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I’m the sort who mostly just wanders around, bumping into life until a poem knocks loose. Once I have a couple dozen or so poems, I start to get a better idea of what a book-length project would look like, and my writing starts to bend towards that end.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings can sometimes be a part of the process for me, in particular listening to other people’s poetry can give me ideas for new experiments writing my own writing. I do enjoy doing readings, but it's a fraught enjoyment that’s bracketed by hours of low-key anxiety.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
The question of how to exist within a community without losing one’s selfhood to it underlies a lot of my writing. I grew up in a fairly hardcore Evangelical Christian family/church/town, so 20th century issues like the individual versus coercive societal forces still mean a lot to me.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think that writers ought to be able to inhabit a plethora of roles, e.g., I think it’s important that there are plenty of writers eloquently and effectively addressing issues of politics and social justice, as well as poets writing about life on a smaller, more human and day-to-day scale. Ultimately, to paraphrase Karl Ove Knausgaard, I think that the only absolute responsibility placed upon writers should be to avoid being boring or redundant.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Often useful but never difficult. I’m always bouncing new poems off friends, both poets and non-poets, and making changes based on their responses. For The Lost Cafeteria, the manuscript was going through an editorial process with Signature Editions at about the same time that my thesis supervisor was helping me get it ready to be defended as my MA thesis... I found all of this editorial advice from different sources to be really helpful in understanding the collection better and making changes to both its structure and to individual poems that made the whole thing more cohesive.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
During my first encounters with John Ashbery’s work, Winnipeg poet Colin Smith helped me wrap my head around what Ashbery was doing by suggesting I look at his poems as a series of solid images within ephemeral framing. This has been an approach I’ve kept since in my own writing, starting off with a few clear images and finding ways that are expressive and revealing to move between them.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I didn’t have much of a routine even before COVID, and less so now. I tend to do most of my editing in the afternoon though, and work on new poems at night.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Long, directionless walks around the city are usually a great help of course, but also reading & rereading particular poets for new approaches and ways of seeing- lately Karen Solie’s and August Kleinzahler’s work has been really useful for me.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Pine cones and Nag Champa incense.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Music has always had a big influence on my writing. Some of my first attempts at poetry came as a result of listening to Sleaford Mods on repeat while stuck in a janitorial job I wasn’t happy in. Similarly, movies are a major point of reference for me and allusions to them find their way into my poetry frequently; one of the poems I most recently wrote is all about the Terry Gilliam movie Twelve Monkeys in the context of COVID-19.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Thomas Hardy, James Baldwin, A.F. Moritz, Roberto Bolano, George Oppen, Seamus Heaney, Stefan Zweig, Charles Simic, Donato Mancini, Thom Gunn, Susan Sontag, Inger Christensen, J.H. Prynne, Tomas Transtromer…
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I wish I could travel, a sentiment that many folks share right now I’m sure. I haven’t seen much of the world, so that will be a priority when it becomes feasible to do so again.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Probably a long-haul truck driver; I’ve always been drawn to the overlooked spaces between communities.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The desire for knowledge. I wouldn’t be able to understand myself and the world the small amount that I do without articulating my thoughts in writing.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, an oral history made up of interviews of women who served in the Soviet Red Army in World War 2. It’s an incredible achievement, pulling together hundreds of individual narratives to create something right in the ellipses’ edge of what literature can say about human experience. I haven’t seen too many movies lately, but one that stands out is Memories of Murder, one of Bong Joon-Ho’s early films.
19 - What are you currently working on?
These days I’m working on/editing/shopping around the manuscript for a second poetry collection that I’m calling Cold Pastoral, which I’m treating as a sort of extended interrogation of the bucolic literary tradition and its continued influence upon how the rural is imagined.
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