Rich Ferguson interview with Karen Stefano
Rich Ferguson is a writer of exceptional talent who delivers line after stunning line in his pieces “Seven Cards,” and “New Jersey Me:”
“He lay his seven cards on the table. The first one read, Death. He’d deal with that one later."
“Again, he recalled that Tampa dancer. So intoxicating was her breath pollen…”
"I slam-danced to the music of her heart. Slow danced to her easy sleeping breath. With fistfuls of blood and placenta I scrawled graffiti all over the walls of her insides.”
Rich, you’re a poet, a musician, a writer of flash prose, and now I understand you have a novel coming out? Tell us about that novel.
New Jersey Me is the story of Mark McDaniel, the son of the local police chief, and a Mary Kay mom high on Vicodin and Bloody Marys. Mark is a Bruce Lee and Bruce Springsteen-devoted lost soul, of sorts, journeying toward adulthood in the troubled town of Blackwater, New Jersey. Within Blackwater, there’s a nuclear power plant, a tragic beauty named Baby; Baby’s hell-bent for prison boyfriend, Terry; and an old bloodthirsty oak tree. Mark dreams of one day escaping. But until that time, he lives life Blackwater style: netting fish that have been killed by sudden coldwater emissions from the nuclear plant; kidnapping a chimp from the traveling circus; selling dirty socks to a local eccentric; dating a one-legged girl; and observing the increasingly mysterious behavior of his best friend, Jimmy.
Tyson Cornell and Rare Bird Lit will publish New Jersey Me in the spring of 2016. I’m extremely grateful to Tyson for the opportunity, as this is my first published novel (a pretty big accomplishment for a poet/spoken word artist that figured he’d only be releasing poetry collections for the rest of his publishing days). I’m also extremely grateful to my editor, Seth Fischer. Seth helped me to dig down deep into the novel’s guts, get real messy with it, tear it apart, then reconfigure and layer it in a more compelling way. This was a challenging process, one that took me an additional year (not including the time I’d already spent writing the book) to complete. There were days when I wondered if I’d be able to see my way through to the end. But every time I faltered or doubted myself, I came back to Mark, tried to stay focused on his story and journey. I must say that the process was well worth it. Thanks to Seth’s guidance, I ended up adding another character, and was also able to learn new things about the characters that already existed.
Sounds fantastic. I can’t wait to read Mark’s story. Tell me, how do you shift among these different forms of expression? Is it seamless for you, or does it present a challenge to adapt to these different forms?
First and foremost, I’d say that poetry comes most naturally to me. So when I take that poetry, that love of language, then try to write a novel it’s not an easy process. During the process of workshopping New Jersey Me with my writing teacher, Sid Stebel, he’d often say: “You’re too much of a wordslinger here, Ferguson. You’ve gotta remember, you’re TELLING A STORY!” For me, there’s that constant search for balance between love of language and storytelling. While it can present challenges from time to time, it’s an incredible experience. It’s a bit like weeding a garden; pulling away all the rubbish until you find the true beauty, the true radiance of your story. As for writing flash prose, I’d say it’s an easier process. The boundaries are a bit more flexible. My love of language can shine through a bit more as that terrain already seems a bit more poetic and dreamlike to me.
What’s your process when writing fiction? How does a flash of inspiration transform itself into a finished piece? And how do you know when something is finished?
When writing fiction or a flash prose piece, I’ll generally start out with a seed of an idea, either a line or a compelling image. I’ll keep working and reworking the idea or image, trying to approach it from as many angles as possible.
Some years ago, I took a writing workshop with Janet Fitch at Squaw Valley. She discussed how to use our senses to deepen detail, and to layer in whole new dimensions to our stories with those lush details. I try to do that, too, when working on a piece—bring in the sounds, sights, smells, and so on. Janet is a master at that. Me, I’m still learning. But that use of the senses to enrich the world of your characters, and the characters themselves, is definitely a technique that I employ to help transform my work.
Also, thanks to my work as a poet and drummer, I’m quite keen to the music and rhythm of words. During the editing process, I’ll read my work aloud to see if the lines sing, or sound clunky. If I detect a clunker I’ll work and rework it until it has that music in its voice.
Additionally, I’m always trying to tell a story to the best of my abilities. Sometimes I’ll workshop my writing with Sid Stebel and other writers that I trust to see if I’m missing something that I can’t see because I’m too close to the work. If certain details need to be added or deleted, I’ll work and rework those aspects of the story until I get it right.
Once all those elements are in play (which can sometimes take quite a bit of time), then I know a piece of writing is just about finished.
Seven Cards and New Jersey Me are two incredibly powerful pieces. What was the inspiration for each of these stories?
The inspiration for “Seven Cards” came out of a writing workshop with L.A. poet, Steve Abee. He’d given the group a prompt that began with the words, “He lay his seven cards on the table…” From there, I began writing. What I presented in Steve’s group that evening was pretty rough, but I kept working on it over the next couple months. I wanted to discover what those seven cards were, and what they meant to the man laying them down on the table.
As for New Jersey Me, the inspiration for the novel came out of a spoken-word piece entitled “Terry, Candy, Baby, and Me” in which Mark tells the story of being kidnapped by his nemesis Terry, and held for ransom until his father (the chief of police) hands over a bag of weed to Terry. I enjoyed writing and performing that piece so much that I felt compelled to write more pieces in Mark’s voice. Those pieces eventually bloomed into an earlier version of New Jersey Me that was told through a series of short stories.
But once I began working with Seth Fischer, the novel-in-stories idea was scrapped and I rewrote the book with chapters. Nonetheless, I still loved that intro piece and believed that I could find a home for it—separate of the novel—sooner or later. So thanks for accepting it, Karen!
The pleasure is all ours, Rich!
You once shared a stage with Patti Smith. I can’t even comprehend what that must have been like! Help me understand that experience –how it went down, how it felt.
First and foremost, I have to thank NYC poet Bob Holman for putting the show together. Without him, it would’ve never happened. It took place back in the mid to late 90s at the Knitting Factory in NYC. Bob performed, and I performed along with a dear friend of mine Jett Soto on lap steel guitar (RIP, Jett). I was pretty damn nervous to be performing in front of Patti Smith—someone whose music and writing I’ve admired for years. Looking back, I can’t even remember the pieces that I did. It’s all a blur now. I do, however, clearly remember Patti and how cool and humble she was to be supporting her friend Janet Hamill (at the time, Patti had just produced a CD for Janet and was there to back her up on flute while Janet performed her work). I was a bit bummed that Patti didn’t perform any of her own work. But it was also hella cool that an artist of her stature had chosen to take a backseat to support her friend. That Patti, she’s a classy one.
You’re the Poetry Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. I’m often asked, “What do editors want?” How would you answer that question?
Hah. I guess the short answer would be good work, no bullshit. But really, I’m quite drawn to work that’s passionate and interesting and inventive, whatever form it may take. I like a clear voice, one that’s not muddled or rambling. I also like it when a writer isn’t trying to impress me with a piece of work they think I may like. Because really, I appreciate such a wide range of writing—from the most sparse and simply told to the Beat-inspired and academic. But again, it comes down to that integrity. I love a clear voice, straight from the heart. No bullshit.
Do you have any pet peeves as an editor?
I HATE spelling errors. I mean, really, in this age of online dictionaries and computer spell-check, there’s no excuse for it.
What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you?
I don’t necessarily think it’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me, but definitely one odd incident that comes to mind is when I touched Harrison Ford’s neck. Happened when I first moved to L.A. some years ago. I was working in a clothing store in Beverly Hills. Harrison walked in one day to purchase a new button-up shirt. Since he didn’t know his size, he bent forward so that I could lift his shirt collar to check the tag. In the process, I touched his neck. As soon as he bought his shirt and left the store, I was on the phone to all my friends: “YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED!!! I JUST TOUCHED HARRISON FORD’S NECK!!!”
Oh, man! Nothing cool like that ever happens to me!
You have the coolest author photo! Who did this for you? A friend? A professional? Tell me about this person.
Thanks for the kind words. The photo was taken by L.A. photographer, Cat Gwynn. She always makes me look good (which is not an easy process). And yes, she’s quite the pro. She’s already released a couple of photo books, and is currently working with Tyson Cornell towards a spring 2016 release of Ten Mile Radius. Cat began Ten Mile after discovering she’d contracted breast cancer. She worked on the book through her chemo, surgeries, radiation, and recovery back to wellness. It was her way of being present and keeping herself open to everything that came her way. Cat is a very brave, very creative woman. I whole-heartedly believe that it’s her strength, creativity, and Buddhist practice that got her safely through the cancer.
Cat sounds like an amazing woman.
Thank you so much for sharing yourself so deeply, Rich. We are thrilled to feature you here at Connotation Press!
In order to preserve the artistic arrangement of the writing, this piece has been created with Print2Flash Flashpaper.