Jesse Patrick Ferguson was raised in Cornwall, Ontario, and has studied in Ottawa and Fredericton. His poems and reviews have been published in nine countries, in both print and online formats. Recently, his work has appeared in Canadian Literature, The New Quarterly, The Dalhousie Review, Prairie Fire, Grain, Poetryand Harper’s. He is the author of five poetry chapbooks, most recently phoney phonemics (No Press, 2007). He is a poetry editor for the Fredericton literary journal The Fiddlehead, and his first full-length poetry collection, Harmonics, is due in fall 2009 from Freehand Books, the new literary imprint of Broadview Press.
Jesse is also a singer/songwriter and a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, bodhran, mandolin, violin, harmonica, and pennywhistle. He is interested in traditional Celtic and Canadian music, especially in how traditional music can help musicians connect to past generations. He thinks of his various artistic endeavours-poetry, music, visual arts-as springing from the same source.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
There was no specific point at which I decided to pursue poetry; instead, my interest developed naturally out of my earlier work in other art forms, chiefly visual art (drawing mostly) and music (I was a songwriter before I was a poet, and I believe there is a difference). In high school, I began to engage more fully with poetry, though we weren’t exposed to nearly enough of it. The first poem that really moved me was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” which my teacher read to us with much enthusiasm.
After some unsuccessful attempts at conventional formal verse, I picked up a few life-changing books at the Cornwall Public Library: the first was The Broken Arc, a collection of eco-poems written by prominent Canadian poets, edited by Michael Ondaatje; the second was The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood; and the third was Apology for Absence, the selected poems of John Newlove. Once I had these books under my belt, I felt freer to explore modern and even post-modern themes and ideas. I realized that I was a poet when my poems captured some scenes from my childhood with simple, rhythmic language.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
I find inspiration just about anywhere: an excellent poet, whom I am proud to call my friend-David O’Meara-summed it up well when he said that a poet should be curious about everything and should read widely. I think of myself as someone who tries to know it all and tell it all. More specifically, my university education began in the biological sciences, and this influence appears in much of my work, including “Chainsaw,” which includes some medical terms like “meninges.”
What is your writing process?
To write, I need to feel comfortable that I won’t be interrupted. Living in Fredericton, I often try to do my writing by the St. John River, which both inspires and provides seclusion. I also need to be reading something stimulating, usually some great poetry. I think of this as taking a “poetry bath,” which gets my mind in the right creative space, ready to bounce ideas and rhythms around. If I’m lucky, a poem starts to emerge, and after the first burst of writing is over, I’ll continue to read other poetry, returning to my own piece whenever another line or image comes to me. The “active phase” of my writing typically lasts about a day; during that period the “metal is still hot” and ripe for striking.
What is your revision/editing process?
I generally write my poems out longhand in a journal, so revision usually entails rewriting the poem again in longhand to straighten out all the arrows and transpositions that accrue. After this, I type the poem, spell check it, and fact check it. I then read it aloud to get the rhythm running on track. I typically leave it for a few days, or even weeks, then come back to it with fresh eyes, and if I’m happy with this more objective reading of it, I send it off to a magazine for possible publication. I also sometimes workshop poems with other poets, which can be productive at times.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
Yes, see my answer above. Like other poets I’ve talked to, I found it frustrating to write poetry in high school because I thought my friends would view it as nerdy or not macho enough. A poet whom I greatly admire, Don McKay, went to high school in my city (Cornwall) and reports similar feelings. I didn’t feel like I could talk about it with anyone, and that likely hampered my growth a little. A sense of community is very important for emerging artists, in any genre. My advice to young poets in high school is to talk about your interest with a good English teacher; he or she might know of other students who also write. Also, take advantage of the internet to connect with other writers. There are some good student publications out there, and they can be a hub for other young writers who may be looking for community, too.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
There are two excellent websites that list places to send your work, and they also contain other useful links:www.placesforwriters.com and www.duotrope.com. Duotrope’s Digest is particularly useful, as it allows writers to search for publications with specific characteristics (e.g. “student-run”). I also use a few books when I’m writing: In Fine Form (Braid and Shreve) and The Handbook of Poetic Forms (Padgett) when I’m writing closed-form poems, and A Glossary of Literary Terms (Abrams) for everything else.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
If you feel lonely as a poet or other type of artist while in high school, take heart. There may be other people in your school or city who would like to share work with you. Also consider sharing your poetry with another type of artist. You might be surprised at how much understanding there is between a poet and a painter, for instance. But even if there isn’t anyone in your immediate vicinity, there’ll be a lot of opportunity to share once high school is over and you go off into higher education or work. The point is, don’t give up on something that makes you feel complete. Take it from someone who has lived it: it’s worth persevering.