Poet Of The Week

Bernard Ferguson

     March 29–April 4, 2021

Bernard Ferguson (he/him and they/them) is a Bahamian poet and proser. By great luck, he’s a winner of the 2019 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers and the 2019 92Y Discovery Contest, among others. His work has been supported by NYU’s Global Research Initiative, New York’s Writers in the Public Schools, the Atlantic Center for the Arts and the Joshua Tree Highlands Artist Residency. By the kindness of friends and editors, his work has been featured, published or is forthcoming in the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, the Georgia Review and elsewhere. He’s currently working on a nonfiction project, The Climate Sirens (Graywolf Press), about Hurricane Dorian, the Alliance of Small Island States and how small islands have been facing the climate crisis for decades. On Thursday, April 1, Ferguson will read as part of the Brooklyn Poets Staff Picks reading series.

Mr. Jailer

for Gbenga & Karisma

 

in Ethiopia, t’ej, their honey wine, is made

when honey is added to six parts water, stirred & left

for days. beneath the low hanging bulbs

in Bunna Cafe, i look at the Wikipedia entry for the wine

while my tongue gathers, like a secret, what is left of it

on my lips. close by, a man plucks his guitar, his fingers

a pendulum across three perfect chords, his voice

like Marley’s or like any of his sons or any of theirs.

it is modern-day Bushwick so he could be playing the common bop

or some unfortunate thing from this country’s country

but the silk dusk is thick & glinting & so the man sings island reggae, an Ethiopian

flag hanging above his head & above the head of the violin player & above

the head of the man on the conga drum, steady hands, his entire palm

slapping the skin. the man sings stop calling me a prisoner & like this

he hands me back my fortune. i am on some bullshit again, jiving & dipping

through bougainvilleas, banana trees in my yard, cousins at my back,

the song falling like honey from the neighbor’s window, the clouds rain-

plump. the woman next to me shakes my shoulder & it seems she has seen

a ghost. who sings this? i say Jah Cure, a man who, on the proper shore,

might look a little like me or else look a little like another man

who might have looked like me. the Nigerian man who i had once confided in

who, too, has to cross an ocean to return to where he is from, says

i am wrong, says the song is by Asa, a woman who might look like him.

& the woman, whom i once thought as comrade, the one with

the afro & the gold chain with her name hanging

from her neck, concurs that the song is Nigerian. & with words

glimmering like flint, the diaspora has come alive again, ruckus with debate

& privy memory. the wine in my glass hums like bees & my phone tells me, like anything,

the t’ej will eventually sour & one might use additional honey to undo

the rules of time. the woman with the afro, who is no longer a comrade, looks up

from her phone, tells us the song was written & sung by the woman that might look

like the Nigerian, & then later sung by the man who, beneath

a fresh sunset, might look like me. just like she & he & i have found ourselves

in the place we were not born, so too has the song that falls like nectar about

our ears, a smile soothing what the year has done to our faces.

rip the injera, stack it with feast, all at once, unlike the wind we know that blew against

the curled roof of the woman’s afro, before it tickled the nose of the man

when he was once in Nigeria, before it dipped

inside the only dimple of my cheek. it has taken

this long for the song to arrive. for us to finally meet.

 

—Originally published by the Hurston/Wright Foundation, 2019.

Brooklyn Poets · Bernard Ferguson, "Mr. Jailer"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I think the making of the poem is included in the poem itself. It was before time ended, before the pandemic, and I was in Bunna Café in Bushwick, drinking honey wine and talking with friends I am in love with when the featured band started playing a song from my childhood. Sometimes the poems write themselves, and all I have to do is take out my phone and my notebook and capture what happens while I watch.

What are you working on right now?

The pandemic has made it difficult, but I’m currently (supposed to be) writing a book that chronicles the story of Hurricane Dorian’s destruction in my Bahamas while also telling the stories of how the climate crisis has affected Small Island States all over the globe. It’s for sure the largest and longest thing I’ve worked on in my life, so there’s a good cocktail of excitement and fear that stirs beneath the ribs every day as I make my attempts to push against the effects of the pandemic; to gather my mind and chip away at the work.

Elsewhere, I’m also thinking and dreaming on other things: the idea and ethics of revenge; The Count of Monte Cristo and the revolutionary Black, French soldier’s life that the story takes inspiration from; and how to find new and more holistic ways to hold the griefs and regrets that linger in the wake of a best friend that was killed in Italy in June 2019. There’s an arrow that can thread and connect all these coordinates, and I’m working on pulling it from the quiver.

What’s a good day for you?

A day that I’m alive.

And then further, any day where I notice something new, or else re-encounter a thing that makes me giddy. These past few years and this pandemic have unleashed a few unrelenting anxieties upon my mind and body. And so a good day is one in which those warblers and those sinister hawks in my head stop babbling their songs of dread long enough for me to notice the world again. It’s still there, you know? The planet is still here, we’re still on it. And it’s been so hard for me to remember.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I moved here to attend the MFA program at NYU.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I currently live in Flatbush, and it’s the best neighborhood I’ve encountered in my entire life. I’ve only lived here for six months, and unfortunately it seems I’ll likely be moving out of the neighborhood in the very near future. But since coming to New York City in 2018, I’ve always wanted to live here. I could walk right outside my apartment building, hear the sing-song and tenor in a person’s voice while I walk down Ocean Avenue and immediately know that a person is from the Caribbean. There is guava jam and sorrel and peanut cake in the grocery stores I frequent. There are evangelists driving around in vans with loudspeakers affixed to them, singing worship and preaching their asses off, trying to share the good word of the God that gives meaning to their lives. Flatbush feels like the Bahamas, like Nassau. It feels so close to home.

Of course, like most places in Brooklyn, it’s gentrifying and gentrifying rapidly. There’s a massive highrise in construction on my block and it’s currently taller than any building within at least a three-block radius. I walk past it whenever I go to my favorite grocery store. There are many families in the neighborhood who are suffering due to the pandemic and yet the construction of this highrise has not seemed to have once relented its climb. Even though I am Black and Caribbean and have moved to a Black and Caribbean neighborhood, I know my moving here adds to this engine of violence and change, of erasing who and what was here before. While I walk past the construction site, taller and taller each few weeks, I often think to myself, How much of this is because of me?

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

Bleakly? Walking down the block to the new and still-open ice cream joint while passing several decades-old family-run businesses that had to close due to the pandemic.

Less bleakly? Once, I walked past a white van surrounded by people speaking Russian, and I peeked inside to find two men sitting at a wooden table (yes, a well-made wooden table inside a white van) signing some sort of contract while, nearby, a woman danced to loud soca music and a line of people waited near a fire hydrant while a man with a wrench tried to crack it open.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

I think a poetry community, to me, is one that is dedicated to finding and uplifting the ways its poets can keep returning to poetry, whether that’s gleefully sharing work with one another, putting on or attending readings, or sharing opportunities with one another. I think of it as a circle of solidarity and camaraderie. It’s through community that we merge our individual attempts to pay better attention to language, to find the awe in the world, both on and off the page. My seeing helps your seeing, and your seeing bolsters mine. I’m really very grateful that Brooklyn and New York City as a whole are so good at attracting poets. I’m grateful for the new and life-long kin that I’ve found here.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

All the poets whom I’ve met in this city have played important roles in how I’ve come to understand myself as a poet. And in a larger sense, the work of Audre Lorde continues to be a beacon to my own.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

I’m really grateful for the mentorship of poets that have been traditional teachers to me, like Terrance Hayes and Catherine Barnett and John Murillo and Roy Guzmán and numerous others. As well as those whose work on the page shows me more paths into my own, like B. H. Fairchild and the great Brigit Pegeen Kelly.

But honestly, my best mentors are my homies, my friends. Nancy Huang reads poems late at night with me sometimes, and offers me sober critiques. imogen xtian facetimes me on a sunny afternoon and we talk about our poems; we imagine ways to move through the world more tenderly, gently; we push each other to be better poets, and so better humans. Jaz Sufi sends me a text that tries to put language to how she feels about crows and it turns out to be one of the most beautiful little essays I’ve ever encountered. A few times, my former roommates (Peach and Catherine Chen) and I would sit in our living room together and share poems and gasp in awe of them, pointing out our favorite lines and commenting on the beautiful audacity of our favorite poets. And here I am, on purpose, talking about community again. It’s because I’m moving through the world alongside this community that I show up to the page with awe and tenderness. I’m eager to share everything I’ve learned because of them.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Kyle Lopez recently tweeted about a poem by Taylor Johnson, and it’s one of the most stunning things I’ve read in a while. My encountering of the line “Like any american what haunts me is my addiction to private property, not time or blackness” will likely ripple into my future and solve some sort of spiritual, interpersonal or racial conflict that otherwise would have cast a shadow over my life for a while. It’s a special kind of thrill to read a thing that you know will free you later.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

The list of books that I’ve been intending to read but haven’t touched is much longer and more copious than anyone else’s, or so I’ve told myself. But what’s paramount on that list right now are Joan Didion’s essays and B. H. Fairchild’s The Art of the Lathe.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I tend to like to focus on books, to be able to watch the trajectory of things change. I try to read one book per genre I’m interested in, so I’m often reading a book of poems along with a book on craft, a book of nonfiction, and oftentimes something academic. I tend to have a project-based approach to writing, so I end up planning out books ahead of time, making a small stack of those I know I want to read in the near future as I make progress on different projects. The pandemic has made that pretty difficult, though. And I’ve just been able to focus on one book at a time, if any.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I think I can manage to get more formally strange in my poems, for sure. I think it would be nice to write something that isn’t concerned with making complete sense, or something that isn’t based on associative thinking, since associative thinking is where I live.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

Oh, I like to write any and everywhere. While reading tends to take place mostly at home, most of my writing strikes me while I’m out in the world. I often have to pause a conversation, or stop mid-stride to pull out a notebook and write a line or thought down. I think this maybe explains why writing has been so hard during the pandemic, since being out in the world has been rather challenging.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Prospect Park is truly the best place in the city. I can go there and it feels like I’m not in the city anymore. It’s such a good trick to be able to play on myself. The further into the park I go, the more the energies of the city seem to fade. It’s as though someone slowly turns a dial and lowers the city’s opacity and volume. It surprises me every time.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate tenderness,

And what I sing you sing,

For every song that cures me as good soothes you.

Why Brooklyn?

Of all the cities in America, as a whole, New York City likely has the largest population of people from the Caribbean. And so it could be argued that these little chunks of land, these islands hanging off the continent are just far removed islands of the Caribbean. Or at least that’s what one of my Caribbean Studies professors once told me. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for three years now and I wholly believe her.