“The Intersection of the Self and the World”: An Interview with Caitlin Ferguson
Mar 12, 2021
Caitlin Ferguson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University-Newark. Her work has appeared in Tar River Poetry Review, Twickingham Notes, Cathexis NW Press, and Colorado Review, among others. Currently, she lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she works in a bookstore and is an adjunct professor. On February 24th, Colorado Review editorial assistant and podcast editor C Culbertson spoke with her about her poem “Aubade for the Anthropocene” (Fall/Winter 2020), ecopoetics, and climate justice. [This interview transcript has been edited for clarity. The full recorded interview can be found at the bottom of the page.]
C Culbertson: So, Caitlin, before we start, I wonder if you would read your poem aloud?
Caitlin Ferguson: Because everything stopped happening, I haven’t actually read this out loud before, so this will be my first reading of it—except to myself of course.
READING (The poem in full can be found here.)
CC: Thank you for reading! I think that getting into the sound of the thing is so important, especially now.
I’m really struck by how apt the aubade is for talking about the Anthropocene (and, just, our moment—now). In your poem, the city should be greening but isn’t. Then we’re brought inside—inside the hospital room—and witness this incredibly intimate human moment that sort of opens up again. So it’s a poem about parting, of saying goodbye to a loved one at the end of life . . . But the world outside is grieving alongside us. I had this thought when reading, and listening to you now, that when we’re trying to talk about climate change . . . it’s just so impossibly vast a thing to imagine, you know?
CF: Like you, I get anxious when I think of something as big as climate change. I can’t comprehend it myself. The enormity . . . the global consciousness of it. As someone who’s interested in the intersectionality between environmentalism and the personal, I want to find those spaces where the two connect and create this different world . . . .
When I write my poems, I tend to radiate outwards from an initial image. I lived in this apartment complex, and these huge trees had to be taken down. They were dying. Just falling apart in the wind. I mean, I live in the desert, we don’t have the spectacular greens and colors of summer. It’s always a little dried out, crunchy and exoskeletal almost . . . during the hot months. I’ve wanted to look at grief and grief associated with climate change . . . . This sense of loss the aubade brings. So it was a natural inclination for me to—to look at this kind of parting. Parting from our consciousness about the environment. And, really, from our care.
CC: Yeah, this idea of care you’re talking about makes me think about where our attention goes. There’s this lovely (but devastating) anaphora in your poem when the speaker repeats this phrase: “Say the sky’s the sickblue . . . Say her name as she coughs . . . Say we are nurtureless.” Her voice is so palpable, and the repetition sort of gets at that disconnect.
CF: Definitely. I’m looking at my own surroundings and I’m trying to comprehend my own part in this puzzle. Then, there’s this dichotomy between the part of ourselves that has given up or has moved past it . . . . There are people that don’t see the world around us falling part. But, really, there are people that are doing the work, that are showing up, that are hurting, that are asking how to help. The turn towards the end . . . it’s not rage exactly but a little more like anger. The repetition is a way for me to understand that in myself and in others.
CC: Starting right from the first line, too: “Outside, a tree, dried out & skeletal, moans.” I take that moan as the speaker’s voice, but there’s this slippage between points of view. Sometimes I’m sure the speaker is right there in the hospital bed, but other times I’m not sure.
CF: Right. There’s this murkiness, and I really like poems that do that—that kind of destabilize the reader, because the reader is not quite sure if the speaker is the subject. And how the reader considers their own place or relationship to the speaker and the subject. And I’m just now thinking of this . . . I interrogate myself to create this kind of unease or unreliability in a poem, kind of like the unreliable narrator in fiction. That creates more of an active reader, someone that goes, “Oh, but wait, where am I in this space?”
CC: Yeah, the environment’s changing all the time, and putting ourselves back into that space, recognizing we’ve always been part of it but figuring out which part—it’s sort of all encompassing.
CF: Right. The environment intersects probably every part of our lives. That’s why I tend toward ecopoetics. I had this professor in my MFA program . . . [who] told me after one class, “You should write about landscapes. You’re a landscape poet. They’re gorgeous.” And I thought, No, I don’t want to be pinpointed to that. I’m not just going to write landscape poems. But later, I was thinking, you know, internal and outer landscapes create who we are, right? How we connect with the world. How we navigate our lives, our connections with people, with history even. So, now, I’m able to interrogate not only myself and my speaker, but also the world around me. And I think that’s probably what my professor meant. I was not ready, I think, to look at my writing in that aspect. I see ecopoetics happening at the intersection of the self and the world in this vein in my work.
CC: What is that landscape for you? In your life and in your writing . . . how do you engage with it?
CF: I grew up in the desert, and I didn’t realize how much that environment impacted me until I moved and lived in other places that didn’t have the same vocabulary. It’s not so apparent in “Aubade,” but other poems have this heavy desert imagery. But this didn’t happen until l lived in New York, in California . . . [where] there’s concrete and steel and sky rises. It’s a whole different world with different vocabulary . . . . I started realizing how my worldview has been created by the place I live in. And the desert is so full of incredible dichotomies and contradictions. Now I live in New Mexico, and you can see the environmental impact in the desert so easily. Things that look dead are alive. They dam off the Rio Grande during the winter months, and it’s so dry you can walk right down the middle of it. We’re getting less and less rain. Every year, it’s drier, and there are huge temperature swings. So this stark landscape I work with and live in daily really informs my writing.
CC: I love that idea . . . how whole environments have different vocabularies that enter our writing. But so much of what we’re reading comes in too. What writers (or books) are you gravitating toward right now?
CF: Brenda Hillman–she calls herself a desert poet–is someone I’ve consistently read and reread. The way she writes about global warming, but also the personal, has been really informative in my own life and writing. Another is Carmen Giménez Smith, especially Milk and Filth. I got to know her when she taught at NMSU in Las Cruces . . . . She works at the intersectionality of pop culture, environmental stuff, and feminist theory. She amazes me. Right now, though, I’m reading a gorgeous novel called High as the Waters Rise, by the German author and poet Anja Kampmann. Its main characters work on an oil rig, and it’s this stunning critique of globalism and contemporary environmentalism.
But, I mean, I’m an adjunct at NMSU, and I also work at a bookstore. So I’m always buying books and reading books and just go to this emptiness when I’m asked what I’m reading. I’m always juggling between six or more books.
CC: Totally. There’s so much out there. Given the hardness of what we’ve been talking about . . . it’s encouraging.
CF: Yeah, there’s so many people working in ecopoetics. I’m trying to read them all . . . and internalize what I can and learn. Because I think that’s what we must do as writers. Just read and learn. As cliché as that sounds. Yeah. Carmen Giménez Smith and Brenda Hillman have been big influences, and Forrest Gander’s Be With is a just stunning elegy that took my breath away.
CC: When I had emailed you, I asked you this question about the term Anthropocene, but now I’m realizing it’s such a wildly huge question. Like, how can we honor that?
CF: You know, this question kind of threw me for a loop this week. Because it is such a huge, huge question. We focus on the issue globally in a lot of ways. But I was thinking of how those solutions don’t reach the people experiencing the most negative effects. One example is California banning plastic straws, which—on one hand—I get it, but we have to consider how that impacts the quality of life of people who rely on making them. Or, this push toward solar panels and green energy . . . the people who can afford them are a very slim number. So you’re proposing solutions that don’t account for people living in lower economic thresholds or marginalized people or forgotten communities. Yeah. Moving away from the Elon Musks to the level of the community.
Okay, how do we start from here? How do we address, you know, the theory of the community, the family, the person that can’t deal with environmental concerns because there are bigger issues in their life . . . . Such as systemic racism . . . . Such as income inequality . . . . You know: X, Y, and Z. Those communities need to be a part of changing environmental wisdom and thinking up solutions.
CC: Are you currently working on a project? Or is there a direction you’re heading in? I feel like you’ve spoken to this, but can you tell me about it?
CF: I do. After I graduated, I kind of just threw my MFA thesis away and started over. I’m really invested in ecopoetics at the intersection of the personal, the environmental . . . through a feminist lens. And I’m hopefully going to start submitting it soon. But it’s definitely in its teenage years. The biggest thing is time. It’ll come into existence in its full potential soon.
I am a very picky writer and a very slow writer. So I like to put things away for a while and return to them. I also fall out of love with pieces a lot. I don’t know if you feel like that with your own work. But often when I return different pieces, I revise heavily, and they turn into different beasts—which is good, but also slow.
CC: There’s always that point on Zoom when we talk about how weird it feels. And also, like, how we cultivate the space behind us. I’ve got to ask about that chalk drawing behind you.
CF: So last spring I taught for half the semester until we sheltered in place. We went from in-person to Zoom overnight, right? And my roommate is at home, too. And so she’s like, I’m going to create a new drawing on that chalkboard for every class you teach . . . . Now I keep this one up because it’s something for my students to ask about or look at. Yeah. It’s Nessie. And I always thought I was like, Should I take it down? But I was like, No, it’s my Loch Ness Monster. And you know, the funniest thing is none of my students have mentioned it. They probably are just like, She’s really weird. I’m going to have to tell her you asked about it.
CC: It’s wonderful. I love that. I had so much fun talking with you today!
C Culbertson is a first-year MFA candidate and Gill-Ronda fellow at Colorado State University, where they are an editorial assistant and podcast editor at Colorado Review. Their poems have found a roost at Nat. Brut and Bomb Cyclone.