Together with 93 year old Lewis Watling, Gus Ferguson entertained the audience at the Fish Hoek Library’s March Literary Tea with his humorous verse and charming poems. I had the pleasure of chatting to him over a cup of coffee at Fish Hoek beach.
It was one of those extraordinarily beautiful autumnal days in Fish Hoek, the mountains across False Bay looking exceptionally close and clear – a scene we could not help commenting on.
“My wife, Nicky, and I have been living in Fish Hoek for a year now, after living in Plumstead for many years. Fish Hoek is very isolated but it is unbeatable. I don’t complain about the wind – it is exciting!” smiled Gus appreciatively.
The small talk over, we naturally zoomed in on Gus the Poet.
“When I was 25 years old I was trying to stop smoking, which was very difficult! So I thought I would do something more difficult and chose to write a long rhyming poem. My first poem was about a snail and for the next twenty years I wrote mostly about snails. It must be a deeply mystical Freudian thing.
I became known as ‘the snail man’ even by the staff and pupils at my kids’ school. And then I wrote a selection of poems about people getting on in years. These went down well because they caused laughter. I guess I can say I am slightly obsessive! I started with comic verse to amuse my friends and family. I write essentially because it is fun and intriguing.
I was always interested in poetry – it must be my Scottish blood. I was born in Scotland in 1940 and spent my early years in the Outer Hebrides. My family moved to South Africa when I was nine years old.”
(A brief interlude for a snail poem …)
Snail Christmas Poem
Of Orient there were three snails
Who followed ancient bedouin trails.
To see the birth in Bethlehem
Their names were Nathan, Gar and Shem.
They crept behind a shining star,
The going slow the distance far.
And came, just thirteen years too late.
The gospels don’t record their fate.
But lucky Nathan, Shem and Gar
Were present at the Bar Mitzvah.
(and an ageing poem or two!)
Love amongst the Middle-Aged
Each morn at dawn the slanting light,
Romantic in my failing sight,
Surrounds, like love, her perfect form.
She moves about our nuptial dorm
And murmurs as in deep despair;
‘Whatever is a girl to wear?’
I watch with tea cup in my grip,
Its rim obscures my trembling lip,
And realise how much I am blessed:
Awakening from a long night’s rest
To witness, freed from lust’s blind curse,
My daily striptease in reverse.
How wonderful to age:
two moons and a double
plenitude of stars.
The conversation continued. “And who are your favourite poets?”
“Norman MacGaig is my favourite – his poety is so beautiful. So rich. And then there is Ingrid de Kok, Finuela Dowling , Vladimir Nabokov, JM Coetzee, Kippie Moeketsi….. I am slightly inclined towards the women poets – there is something about their pace and style. We are lucky in the South Peninsula. There are lots of poets living here, and very good ones at that.”
Apart from publishing several anthologies of verse, Gus has also produced three books of his cartoons. In response to the question as to how he came to do so, Gus replied: “Jack Cope asked me to do a drawing for Contrast. I really responded to the art form. I have been cartooning for the past ten years or so.”
Asked whether he was a great reader, Gus had this to say: “My eyes are not good. I read about three books a year. If you ‘get’ poetry it is much nicer than trundling through a whole story. Once a poem clicks for you it becomes the most exciting form of human ‘connectability’.
Poetry is a small but crucial art form. It doesn’t take up much time. It is easy to read and easy to understand. People run away from poetry because they were scared off it at school. One should not have to study poetry for marks.”
“It’s a matter of interpretation, isn’t it? We all look at things differently. What inspires you to write?”
“I am mostly inspired by words themselves. I like writing haiku every now and then because it is short. I go for compression rather than expansion. Which is why I would never write a novel or read many books. I would prefer to watch a play lasting about ten to twenty minutes. I don’t understand why things have to be padded and lengthened!
One of the poets whose works appear in Carapace once said to me: ‘We know you and very often cut off the bottom of our poems so that you will publish them!’
(Another poetic interlude…. for a sample of Gus’s brief poems)
Goldfish coming to Cape Town
seeks bowl in city flat.
Highrise, seafront, apartment block:
an eyesore with a perfect view.
Tired of rejection?
Publish your poems
in our classified section.
“I have also noticed that about five years ago I would have a flash of inspiration while riding my bike and would be able to hold onto it for at least 35 minutes until I got home and could write the idea down. Now I have to hop off my bike immediately and grab a pen for the ideas disappear in two minutes. Compression takes its toll!
“I see you arrived on your bicycle.”
“I have cycled since I was 22 years old. I enjoy it and, riding, I don’t have to feel guilty about using fuel and polluting the environment. I have done all the Argus Cycle races except the first three. I ride well for my age but am not competitive enough to brag about it!”
“Coming back to poetry, what advice would you give to aspiring poets?”
“Read as much poetry as you can and find out what you really like. Dylan Thomas wrote: ‘I, myself, do not read poetry for anything but pleasure. I read only the poems I like. This means, of course, that I have to read a lot of poems I don’t like before I find the ones I do, but, when I do find the ones I do, then all I can say is, here they are, and read them to myself for pleasure …. Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing…’.”
“What made you choose to become a pharmacist? Despite the fact that I know several scientifically minded people who write extremely well, I never associate an interest in the sciences with an enthusiasm for words!”
“I did not really know what I wanted to do when I left school. I thought of becoming a commercial artist but then a friend of my mom who was a matron in a hospital suggested pharmacy – and that is what I ended up studying. I have enjoyed my work.”
“Being semi-retired now are you writing more poetry?”
“I am not writing much at the moment as I have been hectically busy at work! Although I am working on another book of poems I am not settling into it. Retirement has not been as easy as I thought it would be.”
“But you are still very active in publishing. Tell us about your magazine, Carapace.”
“It is an A5 booklet that I publish three times a year, featuring the works of a number of well-known and aspiring poets ….Annwen Bates, Keith Beavon, Margaret Clough, Janice Warman and others. We are heading toward our centenary issue. South African subscribers pay R250 for six issues while overseas subscriptions cost R350. To subscribe, readers can email email@example.com. We have about 350 subscribers but need more to remain buoyant.
Publishing Carapace grew out of my publishing a free magazine, Slug News, years ago when in the corporate world. It was great fun – full of humour and all sorts of things. After several years it became a chore to put it together so I stopped doing it. Then I missed it and started it up again. I will carry on publishing until I can’t anymore.”
Gus published his first anthology, Snail Morning, in 1978 and has followed up with another seven – Doggerel Day (1982), Carpe Diem (1992), The Herding of the Snail (with Niki Daly in 1995), Icarus Rising, Light Verse at the End of the Tunnel (1996), Stressed-Unstressed (2000), and Arse Poetica (2003). His most recent anthology is Holding Pattern (2009).
He has also published collections of his cartoons which include Love Amongst the Middle-Aged, Waiting for Gateau and Dubious Delights of Aging and Other Follies. For four to five years he had a column in the Cape Times. “I published mainly little word jokes. It was considered bad form to have poems published in the Cape Times but they drew a huge readership!”
That said, our conversation drifted off in other directions, irreverent and irrelevant to this article which will conclude with a couple of Gus’s cartoons.
Should readers wish to purchase some of Gus’ anthologies, he may be contacted at the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org