Brianna Ferguson is a writer from the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. A current MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia, she also holds a BA in Creative Writing and a B Ed in Secondary Education from UBC. Her poems and stories have appeared in various publications across North America and the U.K. A Nihilist Walks into a Bar is her first book.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I promised myself at the beginning of this year that I’d make an actual effort to get my book published. I sent it out to a couple Canadian presses in January, and by the end of February, I had an email from Mansfield Press saying they would like to publish it. I was very lucky in the quick response--I know it usually takes much longer than that. So far, the book’s only been out for a week or two, so it hasn’t really had much time to take the world by storm yet. Just knowing my poetry was good enough to end up in a book, though, has been life-changing. I was fortunate enough to work with Stuart Ross as my editor, and he really dove in. He didn’t hold anything back, which was exactly what I’ve always wanted. With pretty much every prior publication I’ve had, there was maybe a single back and forth about content or grammar and that was it. With Stuart, though, by the time the book was finished, we’d discussed every single comma and word choice.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I can definitely go into the way, way back origins when I was a wee child and I used to make up rhymes and poems and keep them in a little collection, but that’s probably less interesting than my honest-to-goodness adult self just falling in love with poetry. I love words and I love things that don’t require the longest attention span and poetry is all about brevity and specific word choices. I always wanted to be the type of writer who makes up characters and falls half in love with them and their plights, but that’s never been me. I’m far more obsessed with the minutiae of daily life and the beauty and horror that can come from commonplace things. There’s so much drama and excitement and poignancy in just the regular, daily things that go on, and I love to capture it as best I can. I also really do not have the attention span for anything longer anymore. Maybe once, but not now. I like short, punchy pieces. Just tell me what you want to tell me so we can all move on.
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?
First drafts of poems usually come to me in a burst. Some little exchange or moment will happen when I’m out and about, and the first lines will happen suddenly. I’ll get those down, then the rest will trickle in after. As I’m getting things down, my mind will start making connections to whatever overarching philosophical thing I think the poem might relate to, or capture. I’ll tweak things just a bit to paint a fuller picture and pull everything together, and voila.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction 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?
Nihilist was the first time I ever really started to aim for a theme. I mean, a lot of the poems are from years ago, before I realized I was focusing on specific ideas, but I definitely started to hone the collection a few months before I submitted it anywhere. It’s hard for me not to write on the themes I’m interested in, though. Like Bukowski, always drinking and gambling and dating random women and then writing about those things, I can’t help writing about belief systems and beer and the embarrassing things we don’t like to talk about that nevertheless take up so much time in our days. Eventually, after writing about them long enough, I’ve got a book.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I used to love them during my BA, but my BEd was much more comprised of people who wanted to teach (go figure) than of straight-up writers, so I wasn’t part of the scene really when I was doing my teaching degree in Vancouver. And then my entire MFA has been online, due to covid, so honestly I haven’t really been behind the mic in five years or so. I do find enormous value in reading my stuff out loud to someone I want to impress, though, like my husband, who’s not really a natural poetry lover. If I can impress him, or keep him listening through the whole thing, it’s a good sign I’m doing something right. If I don’t read my stuff to him, I run the risk of getting a little too obscure and stuck in my own head. And then I’ve got a friend I always bounce things off of, and my sister, who loves reading my first drafts, too. Naturally, most of her responses are more gushing than constructive, but it helps just as much.
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?
I don’t want to accidentally hurt anyone’s feelings, and I don’t want to accidentally say something super incendiary or stupid without realizing it. Sometimes, when you’re taking risks or just being super honest, it’s easy to say something horrible without realizing it. I desperately want to add something useful to the conversation of “who are we” “what is this all for” “is there a point to life” because I feel like awe and wonder are too often shoved aside for easy answers. Or, if not easy, then at least answers. And I don’t think there really are answers for some things--not that we can comprehend in any sort of meaningful way. Like my poem about my dog being afraid of the vacuum cleaner, and me trying to tell her--in English--that it’s okay and necessary, and her never understanding, and us going through this weekly rigamarole of necessity and fear and drama, I think life is just this swirl of attempts and missed connections and chaos that can’t really be cut through with the tools we have. If you’ve got seven names for colours, and an eighth colour comes along, and you just can’t really describe it, I mean, that sucks but I guess that’s that. I love that language can try--I applaud it for that--but I also want people to be able to embrace the unknowable without always trying to cram it into the things we do know, or think we know. Sometimes unknowable means “beyond any stupid theory you can cobble together” and that’s fine.
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 had a prof in my BA, Sonnet L’Abbe, who talked quite a bit about the importance of writers in the scientific community, and how necessary it is that people who understand communication and nuance be the ones to communicate things. You see it sometimes in science where something happens or something’s discovered and there’s a press release around it that makes no sense or sounds entirely different from what actually happened, and everyone’s confused and drawing their own conclusions and it’s like okay, maybe this could have been prevented from happening if a writer or two had simply been part of the conversation from the get-go. I mean, look at politics and the ways that narratives and catch phrases totally decide elections. That’s the collective fates of entire countries and millions of lives that are decided entirely by the words used to describe things. Even things as simple as “global warming” vs “climate change” and how necessary it was to explain to people that cold days can still happen--that doesn’t mean the Earth isn’t heating up. Look how many years we wasted on that one, because of a couple carelessly chosen words.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)? Having Stuart go through all my poems and give me his honest suggestions--always with the understanding that I could take or leave his ideas--really opened up my mind about my own work. Seeing what someone else saw when they looked at my work--the things they were confused about, the endings they felt were too tidy or obvious--really helped clarify my thinking. There’s a terrible movie that I absolutely love called Total Eclipse, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis, and it’s about Rimbaud and Verlaine. There’s this exchange where Thewlis (Verlaine) asks DiCaprio (Rimbaud) if he thinks poets can learn from each other, and DiCaprio says “only if they’re bad poets.” Obviously, I think that’s stupid, but on a lonely, insecure day, sometimes I’m like “that’s absolutely correct. If I were a genius, I’d have all the best words from the get-go.” Naturally, that’s stupid--I learned tons from working with Stuart, and it doesn’t matter at all that I learned them from another writer--but every once in a while it’s fun to pretend there’s such a thing as a totally self-made anything.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
One of the best conversations I ever had was with my husband, Marshall, after a really dull work day. I felt like I was wasting my life, and the added pressure of trying to “make something of myself” or do something “great” just underlined how little my daily grind meant to me. Marshall kind of threw my nihilistic approach back at me and said that if nothing means anything in any sort of narrative arc, then it’s literally impossible to waste your day, or waste your life. In a narrative sense, anyway. You can’t be in the wrong place or doing the wrong things, because there’s no right place or right things. That just released me from the whole added pressure of trying every day to make my personal story a good one. After that, I just did what I felt. I mean, as much as a poor person can. If I felt like writing, I did that. If I felt like writing a poem about beer or bodily functions, I did that. I didn’t judge it for not being the next Grapes of Wrath. I just did it. And now I have a book. It’s like Bukowski’s whole “Don’t Try.” Just do what comes naturally. For me, that’s sporadic poems about beer and butts.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
For most of my writing life, I saw The Novel as the holy grail of writing. It was just The Thing you do if you’re a real writer. It’s what sells. It’s what gets turned into movies. It’s what struggling writers agonize over until they have their big break. I didn’t know where else to aim. I brought up the whole “holy grail” thing with some poet friends at a party once, though, and they were like no, absolutely not. That’s stupid. You can do whatever you want. If you gravitate to poetry, be a poet. If you naturally write scripts or songs, do that. There’s no ultimate best form. That really freed me up. I still wasn’t sure what I preferred to write, though, and I wrote a ton of short stories and four or five first drafts of different novels, but where I usually enjoy my poems once they’re done, the novels were--to me--so bad, I wondered if I was actually literate. It just didn’t really work for me. Short stories still work from time to time, because their brevity gives me the chance to just say the thing I want to say as fast as I can, and they give me a little more space to explore things than poems can at times, but poetry just comes far more naturally to me. Any time I have to work on something longer, my gut reaction is to write poetry instead. I never get as much poetry done as I do when I have an essay due. It’s just where I go to cool off.
11 - 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’m a morning writer, for sure, but only once I’ve got something in the world. If I’m not teaching on a given day, and I’ve got something started, I get up, make coffee, and plop myself down on the couch with my laptop. If I’ve got nothing started, I go for walks, drive around, do some people-watching at the mall, and watch movies with dialogue that gets the juices flowing. Most of my ideas come from eavesdropping some inane conversation or seeing somebody do some boneheaded thing in traffic. Often, that somebody is myself. An idea will hit and I’ll chuck it in the Notes app on my phone as fast as I can. The first draft usually explodes out of me, and then the morning writing happens for edits.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’ve read Douglas Walbourne-Gough’s collection, Crow Gulch, a ton of times now. He’s so careful with his language, it always reminds me to revel in words themselves. When in doubt, focus on sensory details and the rest will come. I also delve into any random poems I can find by Catherine Cohen. Her first book of poems, God I Feel Modern Tonight came out this year from Knopf, and it’s hilarious. She just writes about anything and everything, and she’s just so funny. Laughing really gets my creative juices flowing. Reading a funny thing about some stupid random event gets my mind running full speed about all the inanities I saw earlier in the week that I didn’t pay much attention to.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Lilac trees--my mom had some bushes in front of our house, and there are a million wild ones in this grove near my childhood home. Also cleaning supplies. My mom’s a housekeeper and super clean, and our house always smelled freshly cleaned.
14 - 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?
Movies influence me literally 100% of the time. I’ve seen so many movies so many times over. I love the cadence of dialogue delivered by a good actor. I love pacing and cinematic moments. I love Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino and Joe Wright and Wes Anderson. Careful writers and directors and careful deliverers of dialogue. A good, musical line will stick with me forever. I’m terrible at hearing lyrics when I listen to music, but for some reason The Avett Brothers have a million songs where I hear and love every word. They’re proper poets who really understand rhythm and imagery, in addition to being fabulous instrumentalists and singers.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’ve read a million poems by Bukowski and all of his novels, and while I’ve largely moved on from him now, he did so much for me as a writer. His writing is so accessible and relatable. Obviously, Catherine Cohen has been the dominant poetic voice in my head the last year or two, and then the five or so movies I watch on repeat, which I won’t name because most of them are embarrassing.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’ve been working on a memoir for years--literally over ten years, and several different iterations, most of which have been fictionalized accounts of things--and I need to finish it before I die. It’s become my MFA thesis, and it’s this big unwieldy thing about my teen years. It’s not terribly poetic--all the iterations before this latest non-fiction draft have been novelized versions of things--but it is the story I have to tell in order to be able to move on with my life.
17 - 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?
As obsessed with movies as I am, I would have loved to be an actress. I’m so not an actor--I hate acting exercises, nothing about acting comes naturally to me--but there are so many movies I couldn’t live without. I’d have loved to be born a natural actor, but it just didn’t happen that way. That, or a banjo player in a bluegrass band. It’s so unfair we can’t choose what gifts we’re born with (if any) but that’s life.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
That’s a harder one to answer. I’ve always written, as so many writers will tell you. It just came naturally. I don’t know of a better way to communicate than to communicate. Anything can be misinterpreted, but I feel like the written word has the best chance of saying what it wants to say. I also have no talent for anything else besides probably knitting. If I’m ever lost or low, I just start writing. It’s cliche to say, but writing’s probably saved my life several times over.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently finished Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy, which I thought was pretty fantastic. It was fascinating to read about a life so different from my own, yet so relatable in so many ways. Moviewise, it’s tricky to say, because I watch the same movies so many times over. I’ve been absolutely hooked on Phantom Thread for a year or so now, though. Like so many other good little English majors, I adore Daniel Day-Lewis.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m always working on new poems about the neighbours, my mortality, my dog, etc, but in terms of more directed projects, I’m working on my MFA thesis, which is a memoir about learning I was intersex and bisexual and all that fabulous stuff in the early 2000s. I’ve written so many versions of this story before--a thriller, a literary novel, several essays, a novella---but I’m hoping I’ve finally landed on the right medium. You’d think a memoir would be the natural first choice for a true story about oneself, but I was so devoted to the idea of being a novelist, I couldn’t let myself abandon the idea of turning it into a novel. As it turns out, though, the only way to really get it off my chest and move on was to write it as it happened, and to explore the various ways it’s affected me throughout the subsequent years. It might still turn out awful, but at least I’ll be able to move on. I’m also working on a poem about how Fall is basically one big hangover after the Saturday night that is Summer. It’s a dazzling, towering metaphor, and no doubt destined for the New Yorker.