An Interview With Dr. Jim Fergusson

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THE MUMBLE : Hello Jim, so where are you from & how did you end up in Glasgow?
Dr JIM : I came back to Glasgow in 2004 to write a biography of the Paisley weaver-poet Robert Tannahill (1774-1810). I got funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to do it as a PhD project. It was very good funding from the point of view of a poet who earns almost nothing. There are a lot of documents and letters held in Glasgow University Library that relate to Tannahill, and Glasgow is very handy for visiting Paisley, so it really made sense to move back here. I’d been living in Edinburgh since about 1999 and written most of the novel ‘Punk Fiddle’ there, there’s a very short final chapter to ‘Punk Fiddle’ which I wrote when I got re-settled in Glasgow. I don’t think I’d have written the same ending had I stayed in Edinburgh but I’m pleased with how it turned out.
I’ve always had pretty strong family connections with both Glasgow and Edinburgh. My mother came from Govanhill in Glasgow and met my da there in the 1950s. They both worked on the buses out of Larkfield Garage, my mother was a bus-conductress and my da was a bus-driver. They moved out to Barrhead, which is where the Ferguson’s are from. It’s right on the southern edge just outside the Glasgow city boundary, and I was brought up there, went to school, played a lot of football and walked in the surrounding countryside, which was great. My mother’s father was brought up Edinburgh. He was a street-orphan but was taken in by a family who lived on Beaverbank Place. Somehow he ended up in Glasgow, in Govanhill, he worked as a plumber but was a committed communist and had a strong interest in music and literature. His name was Sanny McLean. He was a strong influence on me during childhood. As a wean I spent a lot of time in Govanhill at his hoose on Morgan Street. In the early 1970s Glasgow City Council demolished Morgan Street and the surrounding tenements on the hill at the east side of Cathcart Road, in what was, and remains to me, an unforgivable act of destruction.

THE MUMBLE : When did you realise you were a poet, what was the catalyst?

Dr JIM :I started writing around the age of 14 or 15. I won a prize for history in the 3rd year at secondary, and you got to go to a book a shop to pick a book as your prize. I picked an empty hardback notebook and a volume of Wordsworth. I didn’t think of being a poet, it was just something I did. To me it was writing. I started to fill the empty notebook with poems, stories and song lyrics. It seems to me it was a teenage phase that I never really grew out of. And if there is one thing that’s true about writing it is that you get better with practice. I loved the feeling of writing by hand. When I was 25 I bought a typewriter and started to write in a more organised way: I was living in Paisley at that point.

************

a right mess

hoosis a

right mess

canny find

thi hoovir

anywherr

sumjunkies

mibby been

n blagged it

a right mess

wioot ma hoovir

**********

THE MUMBLE : Who were your poetic inspirations then, & who inspires you today?

Dr JIM :Not long after I’d bought the typewriter I started going to Tom Leonard’s writing group in Paisley. It was an amazing group, with strong characters and robust debate. Tom is an excellent teacher and a great poet, his ideas on language, class and power were really liberating for me. Before meeting Tom it seemed like I had been writing in the dark. I hadn’t figured out for myself the essential connectedness of language and politics and the mechanics of how the connections operated. I was groping towards those ideas but Tom’s work switched on a light in my mind that opened myriad creative paths for me. It felt like all the disparate parts of myself had come together, it was a wonderful process. I could see how I could be a literary artist. I’d already been reading a lot of Beckett, cummings, Wordsworth, Percy B. Shelley, Burns, Plath, Stevie Smith, Thomas Stearns Eliot, Ted Hughes, Wilfred Owen, some of the beats, Dylan Thomas, Erica Jong, J. P. Donleavy and Jack London. The folk I met at Paisley Writers Group still inspire me, Graham Fulton, Bobby Christie, Margaret Fulton Cook and Brian Whittingham. Folk from Glasgow I met around the same period were Karen Thomson, Freddie Anderson, James Kelman, Rab Fulton and John McGarrigle. In Edinburgh there was Sandie Craigie, Duncan McLean, Viv Gee and Rodney Relax. Graham Brodie and nick-e melville came along a little later. Other writers I liked were Tom Pickard, Gerrie Fellows, Tom Raworth, Eveline Pye, Brendan Cleary and W. S. Graham. Graham’s collected poems sits on my desk most of time, he covered a great breadth of work in his lifetime. Right now my favourite poem of his is ‘Implements in their Places’ which is a magnificent piece of writing. Mayakovsky, Erich Fried, Pablo Neruda and Brecht were influences too.

THE MUMBLE : What is the main driving force behind your writing?
Dr JIM :I don’t really know. I accept that I want to write and it makes me feel good when I do it. I don’t think I have much of an agenda other than some vague idea of empathy, a sense of being human and humane and wanting to share that with others. Fear of death, maybe? Fear of loneliness, maybe? A desire to understand everything better? But probably the simple hedonism of feeling good when I do it is the main thing for me.

THE MUMBLE : You have been given the title of Doctor – how did you get this?
Dr JIM :Glasgow University gave me that title for my thesis on Robert Tannahill. That was the only route to fund the research I had to do to write the book. Tannahill was a great poet and songwriter, more folk should read him and hear his songs. I took the doctorate gladly.

THE MUMBLE : How does being an accepted member of the establishment fit in with your punkish roots?Dr JIM :I’m not a member of any establishment. Don’t be absurd [smiles].

THE MUMBLE : You have released a number of books & pamphlets in recent years, can you tell us about them?
Dr JIM :I did two prose pieces and two poetry pamphlets, a cd and DVD. I was very pleased with ‘Punk Fiddle’ and with ‘The Pine-box-jig Involves no Dancing’, Graham Brodie published those on his Whirlpool Press imprint and I’m very grateful to him for that.
The poetry pamphlets felt ok. ‘Songs to Drown a Million Souls’ was published by Etta Dunn, who is a very fine person. I like my poem about Billie Holiday in that one. ‘My Bonnie Scotland’ published by Tapsalteerie has a great cover. They are all a matter of trying things out. Sometimes they work, sometimes not. It’s up to other folk to judge. I’m never really sure.

clocks tick – nature is silent

when she waited for her wages

yet they failed to come

and she smiled down on her children

sleeping safe and warm

  • were they monetised yet?
  • converted strictly to cash
  • were they dropped off in the pawn?
  • possessions of an ugly kind of love

did the Gods see her coming

did her work take her soul

and did she give of her off-spring

to take home Faustian gold?

no, no, no, it wasn’t like that

she was never, never, in control

all she had was stale bannocks

and some mouse-sized cheese

  • were they hungry yet?
  • were the crops doomed to fail?
  • feeding innocent mouths on thimbles of brine
  • clocks tick and yet nature doesn’t tell the time

as a hundred massive airships filled the skies

hoped against hope, hope would tumble down

not some black-snow sorrow yet unseen

but quiet nutritious love that might sustain

  • when will we see home again
  • her children wake and wonder
  • when will we see home again?
  • her children wait and question everyday

when grown, they bury her in sand and clay

but don’t see home again

no, no, no, it is how it is,

just don’t see home again

a mirage in their minds arises very near

yet remains so very very far away

the guards won’t let them pass, the fences reach so high

it’s here they’ll stay and here they’re sure to die

clocks tick          yet nature does not tell the time

clocks tick          yet nature does not tell the time.

*****

THE MUMBLE : What are your thoughts on the Scottish Poetry Scene?

Dr JIM :I like a lot of what is happening now. Though I worry about the use of a standard Grime/Rap rhythm, which can get a bit tedious to me at times. There are lots of good live performers with a good breadth of language use. I’d like to see more poems written in Arabic coming out of Scotland. On the page I liked Jackie Kay’s pamphlet ‘The Empathetic Store’ published by Mariscat Press recently.

THE MUMBLE : Who in your eyes are the poets we should be keeping an eye on in 2017?

Dr JIM :Anything by Sandra Alland, Kate Tough, Calum Rodger, Rachel McCrum, Robert Kerr, Craig Birrell.

THE MUMBLE : What does Jim Ferguson like to do when he’s not dallying with the muses?

Dr JIM :I like playing pool, pub bands, and drinking and talking to wae auld dudes in auld pubs. My main hobby is the pub or listening to music at home while drinking beer. I like smoking too.
THE MUMBLE : What is the poetical future of Jim Ferguson?
Dr JIM :I have two books coming from Famous Seamus, a small press based in Brighton. The first is ‘For Eva: selected poems 1990-2016’ which will be launched at The Clutha, in Glasgow on March 2nd. The second is short stories called ‘When Soup Turns to Acid’, I don’t have a launch date for that yet.I’m also collaborating with Graham Brodie, nick-e melville and Rodney Relax on a pamphlet called ‘Nose Music’, that’s a Whirlpool Press / Second-space-poetry project. So I hope to have a busy year and keep pushing the boundaries if I can. I finished a short novel about Palestine just before the new year. It’s called ‘Neither Oil nor Water’. I’m on the look out for a publisher for that and other items. You always have to be optimistic. At least that’s what I think.  Aw the best.
*******

from ‘for Eva’ –  19. often the rich complain

often the rich complain

that the poor are living too long

the poor just use up resources

that could better be used by the rich

those unproductive ones who live too long

are draining the rich of a source of their profits

yet i don’t see the rich all queuing to die

before their natural time – in reality quite the reverse

i wept for my wee dying mother

who didn’t have time

to do all the things that she wanted

all of her life she was poor

all of her life she worked in a job

where the air poisoned her body

i did not hear the rich complain

about such working conditions –

though they were busy aboard their yachts

catching sun-tans and sending out orders –

it is always all right for the poor to die this way

but the rich never say, please let me die this way too

*****
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