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Massy Interviews / Brianna Ferguson

One could argue such things

in this world where the earth

can be argued flat and vaccines

dangerous. With words,

all things can be accomplished.

If enough people

believe something, how

can it not be true?

– Excerpt of Just Words, in A Nihilist Walks into a Bar


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On Friday, Jan 28 at 6:30pm, join Massy Books, Massy Arts, and Okanagan Valley-based author Brianna Ferguson for the in-person launch of her debut poetry book: A Nihilist Walks into a Bar (2021, Mansfield Press).

At the event, Ferguson will be joined by writer Kevin Chong to address her manifesto for the disenfranchised, a provoking literary work to anyone who’s ever looked out the window and thought: Yes, but why?

Besides Ferguson’s reading of her poetry, Chong will also read passages from his new book “The Double Life of Benson Yu”, to be released in 2023.

The event will be hosted at the Massy Arts Gallery, at 23 East Pender Street in Chinatown, Vancouver.

The book launch is free + open to all of our community, and registration is mandatory.

Click HERE to register

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To celebrate the author’s debut, and understand more about her poetic work around the theme of nihilism, Community Engagement Coordinator Rafael Zen interviews Brianna Ferguson for Massy Books, questioning what it means to write nihilist poetry – and how it feels for an emerging artist to go through the publication process.

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Brianna Ferguson: Unnecessary poems to confront language’s hierarchy of meaning

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Rafael Zen – The title of your upcoming book is “A Nihilist Walks Into A Bar”. Why evoking nihilism as the philosophical image to follow your first book? What does it mean to write a nihilist poetry book?

Brianna Ferguson – Poetry is often seen as such this passionate thing–you love someone, you write them poetry, or you write poetry about them–and it’s flowery and over the top and totally unnecessary. I know poets like to say we would cease to be a society without poetry, but I also know a lot of people who’ve never read a poem for fun, and they’re all kickin’.

At any rate, poetry is a luxury of sorts–it’s this thing you can buy and make when you’ve got disposable income to spend on art and culture, but it’s quite unnecessary. The difference I see, though, is that most things are unnecessary.

Most things are unimportant, and the few things that are important–putting food in your mouth and having clean drinking water and shelter–are only important so far as survival is concerned. “Important” and “meaningful” are these words we strap onto certain things, but it’s like okay, important to whom? And why?

We’re always going after these things that are supposed to be “meaningful” and “important” and they’re either dull or totally finite. Nihilism, to me, just points to the fact that there’s no real structure or narrative to being alive and doing the things you do. No inherent value system.

You can’t waste your life sitting on the couch watching movies if that’s your favourite thing to do, anymore than you can waste it by being a big corporate lawyer or a poet–unread, or otherwise. It doesn’t mean nothing’s lovely or fun or worth pursuing for your own happiness, it just means there isn’t this objective hierarchy of “Capital M Meaning” or value.

If you love poetry, awesome, love poetry. If you love reality TV and Hallmark movies, awesome, love those things. It doesn’t matter, and I think poetry should be a bit more honest about that. You’re not The Most Artistic or Passionate Soul because you love poetry.

You just love poetry.

It’s just a thing like any other.

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RZ – Your book’s synopsis affirms that, as a writer, you are railing against careers, religion, sex, drinking, and all the usual signposts on the road to self-fulfillment, stripping away the facade of old ideas and shouts and laughs at the chaos that lies beneath. What are these “old ideas” that you claim to protest against?

BF – One of the least helpful things I’ve ever heard in my life is “everything happens for a reason,” and yet I seem to hear it over and over. When I was younger, I made mistakes that came entirely from trying to figure out what I was “supposed” to be doing or who I was “supposed” to be with and so on.

Maybe other people don’t take things like that to heart, but I did, and it brought me to all kinds of decisions that made sense in a narrative or a logical way, but totally didn’t fit me as a person.

My book is largely a collection of the little moments of a regular, millennial life–trying to exercise, trying not to lead an embarrassing life, trying not to drink or snack too much–and all the ways we make meaning out of our daily lives.

I love life and I love so many parts of my own life, but I’m also aware that I’m the one assigning meaning to the things I love, rather than discovering their inherent meaning.

I feel like we don’t talk enough about the power we have to assign meaning and value to things. It’s liberating to free yourself from a belief in narrative. You can be and do whatever you want. You don’t have to love or want anything in particular.

I hope that anyone reading my book can walk away with a sense that they’re the center of their own story, and it’s a good story, whatever they happen to be doing.

You don’t have to be a gorgeous, famous, rich, Hollywood actor or a billionaire entrepreneur to be the best version of yourself. You don’t have to go on crazy adventures or see crazy things.

You can be 100% content right now, exactly as you are.

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RZ – You say the book is an invitation to anyone who’s ever looked out the window and thought: “yes, but why?”. I would like to turn that question back to you as a writer: Yes, poetry! But why?

BF – I don’t know about everyone else out there, but my attention span is shot. I can hardly sit still long enough anymore to get through a whole movie. Never mind a 600 page novel. Poetry gives me the chance to say or to read a quick, punchy thing that makes me laugh or choke up or pause and then move on, and I love that.

The highest value I’ve been able to find in any creative work thus far has been the ability to make me understand something quickly. If you can make me laugh with a sentence or two, or shudder existentially, or pause and adjust my thinking, awesome.

If it takes longer than a few sentences, you’ll probably lose me.

There’s just too much going on.

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RZ – This is your first book to be published. How do you understand the local publishing market after having achieved any emerging writer’s dream, to have your book released? What advice would you give for other emerging authors? How was this process?

BF – I was so lucky with the timing of my book. I sent out my manuscript to a few different Canadian publishers back in January of this year, and by the end of February I had an acceptance from Mansfield Press in Toronto.

I know it usually doesn’t happen nearly that fast, and I’m super grateful things played out as they did for me. Poetry presses–especially Canadian ones–tend to be quite small, so I didn’t need to go through a bunch of people to get things done. I worked with one publisher and one editor, and it was fantastic.

I’ve had plenty of publications in the past, but I’d never had a book before this, and I’d never had someone go through every line and punctuation mark and let me know what they thought. It was amazing to be seen like that–to hear someone else’s thoughts on my work and to have the chance to discuss every little thing that stood out to them.

I’m just so grateful to have had the experience I did. I definitely feel more legitimate now as a writer and a human being, but that’s just me. Having a book has always been my dream, and I’m so psyched it’s come true.

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RZ – In the poem “Just Words”, you establish a critical view on the artificiality of the world we live in, but also the artificiality of language itself. You say: “If enough people believe something, how can it not be true?”. As a storyteller, what is the power of words? And most important – how can someone protect themselves from a world that is constantly shooting messages, suggestions, models of capture, traps?

BF – We’ve seen it a lot with covid, with Trump, with all kinds of things in the past few years where a narrative can take hold and sway a good fifty percent of people away from their own interests. It’s insane.

You can make up a story and change the world. Back when I was a practicing Christian, a lot of the time when I’d find something that made no sense at all to me, I’d be like oh well, a lot of people think it’s just fine, so it’s probably just something I’m missing.

You get enough people doing that, and you can pretty much perpetuate anything you want.

I’m sure there are a ton of things about Trump that a ton of Trump supporters are iffy on, but they see the zeal in their countrymen’s eyes and hear the chants and they’re like oh well, I must be wrong. I like getting right inside that little bit of doubt, if I can, and being like no, wait, stay here with me, don’t disregard your doubt, look at it and think about it.

You’ve got the power to judge for yourself, or to look for answers instead of excusing things away. And that goes both ways. If you see something on the Left that makes no sense to you, delve deeper. Don’t just sit there and be like oh well, everyone’s doing that so I guess I will, too.

And don’t go with your gut instinct on everything. Like hating the other side. Just because you hear something about those on the other side of an argument–something crazy and outlandish–doesn’t mean it’s true. Few things are as simple or silly as the things we believe about each other.

Nuance is everywhere, even if it’s rarely there in the conversation.

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RZ – Who are your personal favorites in Canadian Poetry? Do you think your work pays some kind of tribute to them? If so, how?

BF – I love Kayla Czaga, Douglas Walbourne-Gough, Eva H.D. Erin Hiebert, Lorna Crozier, Michael V Smith, and so many of my friends and colleagues from UBC. I apologize sincerely for leaving anyone out. There’s so much talent in Canada right now and I’m just so happy to be part of it.

Douglas Walbourne-Gough’s collection, Crow Gulch, definitely got me writing about my family and the part of the country I come from, which I needed to do. Kayla Czaga got me writing about relationships a bit more after I read her collection, Dunk Tank, but all of these writers have affected my writing and thinking in so many profound ways that I probably can’t really describe.

Their work is like the love of my parents permeating all my earliest memories, filling me up with confidence and inspiration.

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Massy Books’ Suggestions

Click HERE to purchase Brianna Ferguson’s “A Nihilist Walks into a Bar”

Click HERE to purchase Kevin Chong’s “The Plague”

Click HERE to purchase Kayla Czaga’s “Dunk Tank”

Click HERE to purchase Douglas Walbourne-Gough’s “Crow Gulch”

Click HERE to purchase Michael V Smith’s “My Body Is Yours”

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