Poet/spoken word artist Rich Ferguson talks about Ginsberg, Patti Smith, Wanda Coleman and music

"I hope that artists continue to be more open and expressive, collaborate more, continue to learn from one another, and are never afraid to express their ideas, no matter the state of politics, war, religion, or whatever else is going on in the world."

Rich Ferguson: The Voice of Poetry

Rich Ferguson has performed across the country and has shared the stage with Patti Smith, Wanda Coleman, Exene Cervenka, T.C. Boyle, Loudon Wainwright, Bob Holman, and many other esteemed poets and musicians. He has performed on The Tonight Show, at the Redcat Theater in Disney Hall, the New York City International Fringe Festival, the Bowery Poetry Club, the South by Southwest Music Festival, the Santa Cruz Poetry Festival, the DocMiami International Film Festival, the Topanga Film Festival, and Stephen Elliott’s “Rumpus.”

"Music opens doors, opens hearts, opens certain states of mind, and allows the accompanying poetry to take on a whole new language."                                    Photo by Cat Gwynn

He is also a featured performer in the film, What About Me? (the sequel to the double Grammy-nominated film 1 Giant Leap), featuring Michael Stipe, Michael Franti, k.d. lang, Krishna Das, and others. He has been published in the LA TIMES, has been anthologized by Uphook Press (gape-seed), Smith Magazine (The Moment), TNB Books (The Beautiful Anthology), spotlighted on PBS (Egg: The Art Show), and was a winner in Opium Magazine’s Literary Death Match, LA. Ferguson is a Pushcart-nominated poet, and also a regular contributor and poetry editor to the online literary journal, The Nervous Breakdown.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently?

Some ideas have been triggered by simple things: a line I’ve read in a book, a bit of overheard conversation, a dream I had while sleeping. But a good deal of my poetry has been inspired by moments of extremes: extreme joy, extreme humor, extreme horror, shame, or ridiculousness. Case in point: Some years ago, a Friday night, I was cleaning my ears with a Q-Tip while getting ready for sleep. At one point, the Q-Tip’s cotton tip got stuck in my ear. The more I tried to extract it, the further it burrowed itself into my ear. I phoned a couple friends, hoping someone could come over, help me get the Q-Tip unstuck from my ear. No dice. They were doing what most normal people were doing on a Friday night, out having a good time, while I was stuck at home with a cotton swab stuck in my ear. So I got dressed, and drove myself to the emergency room to get it removed. I was mortified by the experience. Swore I’d never tell anyone what had happened because I was so mortified. But the more I thought about, the more I realized that I had to share this experience because of all my shame and stupidity. When it comes down to it, we’ve all done things that we’ve been ashamed of, and have wanted to keep secret. So in that way, this poem was my way of tapping into that universal experience. It’s called “On Becoming an Urban Legend,” and, even to this date, it’s one of the poems I have the most fun performing live.

What have you learned about yourself from your poems? How would you characterize the philosophy of Rich Ferguson?      Photo by Andrei Rozen

Some of my better poems have taught me that I can be humorous and humanistic, observant and extremely passionate about certain matters. Some of my lesser poems have taught me humility and perseverance; that there will be times when what I say, and how I say it, haven’t been fully thought out or realized. Maybe I should slow down, look more carefully at the world. Invent more creative and caring ways to express my feelings. As far as any type of philosophy, I don’t know if I really have one. I just do my best to live an honest, well-meaning life. Do my best to not harm others. Of course, I’m not perfect. I screw up from time to time. So I just put all those experiences, the good and the bad, into my work.

What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life and writing? How important was music in your life?

I’ve been interested in both music and poetry/writing for as long as I can remember. I have vivid memories of being a child of two or three, and beating on the sofa, playing couch drums to whatever song was on the radio (I’d really drive my parents nuts with “Wipe Out”). I’d also love to hear my mother read books to me, and also to hear the sound of my own voice when I’d read to her. I was completely mesmerized by words. It wasn’t until I was in college, however, that I began putting my writing and music together. I was on the East Coast at the time: attending Rutgers University in New Jersey, and studying drums in New York City. It was then that my love of music, and my love of writing poetry/fiction, really began taking shape. After graduating, I promptly packed my car and moved to California so I could fulfill “the rock and roll dream.” I ended up in San Francisco. First stop: City Lights Bookstore in North Beach. I picked up a copy of Gregory Corso’s Gasoline.  Right then, I knew I’d made the right decision to leave Jersey, and pursue the poetry/music lifestyle.

To me, poetry and music are one and the same: both very rhythmic, lyrical, soothing and savage, depending on the occasion. Over the years, I’ve performed solo word in various settings with great success (and failures). But whenever I’ve had musicians accompany me, I’ve been more energized; have been able to tap into greater emotion and meaning; have been able to reach certain audience members that might have been adverse to poetry on its’ own. Music opens doors, opens hearts, opens certain states of mind, and allows the accompanying poetry to take on a whole new language. Look at artists like Jim Morrison, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, the list goes on and on. Their words read amazingly well on the page. But their music and voices also take that poetry to even greater heights.

That’s what I aspire to do in my own band We Voice Sing. Musician/composer Bo Blount creates beats and musical soundscapes that bring new meaning, new resonance to my work. His music gives me the freedom to try out different ways of interpreting and performing my words. Ultimately, that helps me to grow as an artist because I’m trying out ideas that I might not have thought of on my own. That’s very exciting. Very liberating.

"To me, poetry and music are one and the same: both very rhythmic, lyrical, soothing and savage, depending on the occasion."                                              (Photo by Allison Schallert)

Which has been the most interesting period in your life? Which was the moment that changed your career?

This is a difficult one to answer because there have been so many interesting periods in my life. The moment I take one thing for granted, thinking it has meant less than another moment, the more I realize that there was most likely a kernel of something in that one moment—no matter how seemingly trivial or mundane—that led me to a greater understanding or experience later on. In other words, one experience builds upon the next. No moment ever exists in a vacuum. Nothing should ever be taken for granted. That’s easier said than done, I suppose.
That being said, one of the finest moments of my artistic career was when I hooked up with directors Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman—creators of the double Grammy-nominated film 1 Giant Leap. After seeing 1 Giant Leap, I wrote Jamie and told him how much I’d enjoyed the film. That began a correspondence between the two of us. During that time, Jamie saw one of my spoken-word videos, “Bones”, on You Tube. He thoroughly enjoyed it, and told me that he and Duncan were going to be coming through L.A. to film segments for a 1 Giant Leap sequel (What About Me?), and asked if I’d like to be a part of it. Needless to say, I said yes. I was fortunate enough to end up in the final cut of the film, performing right between Krishna Das and Michael Franti: two of my favorite artists.

Are there any memories from Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, Wanda Coleman, and Bob Holman that you’d like to share with us?

Back in the 90s I took a writing class with Allen Ginsberg in Santa Monica. He had us do some very fun and inventive exercises with our writing, definitely showed us how we could be more open-minded and creative with the way we approached words. That was only a few years before he passed, so I felt extremely fortunate that I’d had a chance to spend some time with him, and learn from him.
I also performed with Patti Smith back in the 90s at the Knitting Factory in NYC. At the time she was producing a record for Janet Hamill, and was joining Janet on some musical pieces. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to speak with Patti like I’d wanted to. But the one thing I do remember was that she was absolutely mesmerizing. On stage or off, she radiated an energy and magnetism that seemed otherworldly.
With Wanda Coleman, she and I had performed together a few years ago at the Santa Cruz Poetry Festival. By that point, we’d already crossed paths numerous times at various parties and readings, so there was a certain amount of familiarity between us. I’ve been an admirer of her work for years.  Was so sad to hear of her passing. Wanda was an artist that was never afraid to speak her mind, either on the page or in person. I miss her dearly, but her words will always live on.
As for Bob Holman, I am forever indebted to that guy: he was the one that set up the Patti Smith show. He has taught me so much about poetry and performance through the years. He’s got such a big heart, and is such a super talent. I was fortunate enough to have him write the forward to my first poetry collection, 8th & Agony (Punk Hostage Press).

What is the best advice a poet has ever given you, and what advice would you offer to the new generation?         Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher

The best advice a poet ever gave me, and the advice I’d offer to others is this: “Don’t be afraid of silences, and don’t be afraid to stand still. There is great power to be found there. “ That has definitely been a hard one for me to learn because I came up in the school of poetry: If you shout a lot, and are animated with your gestures, people will love you more. Yes, that’s sometimes the case, but not always. Often, the greatest thing a poet can do is to interject silence and stillness into their work. If done at the appropriate moments, it can be quite powerful. It’s not easy though. It takes a lot of guts, and a lot of confidence in one’s work to simply be still. It’s a lesson I’m still learning to this day.

What do you miss nowadays from the music and poetry of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

The one thing I suppose I miss to some degree is that recordings (visual or audio) sound a little too clean in this digital age. I miss the scratch of records, the warm sound of reel-to-reel tape recordings. Still, if I want to listen to any older music, or read any older poetry, I can always access those materials through books, or the Web. That’s one of the great things about our technological age: you have far greater access to so many artistic gems. They’re right there at the click of a mouse.
And while there have been so many great poetic movements like the Beat Generation, and so many great music movements throughout time, I wouldn’t want anything to stay the same. I like how things change and evolve. I believe the real challenge, the real creativity comes in when the artists of today and tomorrow are able to synthesize all the great art that has come before them, borrow what is meaningful; then with that, create their own artistic language to express their own feelings. I hope that artists continue to be more open and expressive, collaborate more, continue to learn from one another, and are never afraid to express their ideas, no matter the state of politics, war, religion, or whatever else is going on in the world. In fact, those are the times where we truly need the voice of the artist, to rise above society’s din of rage, greed, and confusion.

Where would you want to go via time machine?

I’d like to go back to August 28, 1963 to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I’ve only seen videos; have only heard audio recordings of the speech. Even to this day, I’m still moved to tears whenever I hear King’s words, and all the emotion and meaning behind them. I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to experience those words first hand. It’s all the more tragic when you realize what would later happen to him at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Still, King knew he was hated and hunted by many. But that didn’t stop him. That’s what made, and still makes his words and vision all the more powerful, courageous, and inspirational.

What would you say to Pablo Neruda and Frank Zappa? What would you like to ask Dylan Thomas and William Faulkner?

To keep things brief for this interview, I’d probably start my conversations something like this:

To Neruda:
Your love poetry really helped me to break the ice with some pretty amazing women. Thanks for that.

To Zappa:
Wow. Just wow.

To Dylan Thomas:

You have got one of the best reading voices ever.

To William Faulkner:
Thank you so much for all your work, and especially your Nobel Prize speech. It gives me chills. It gives me great hope for the arts, and mankind.                                                                Photo by Cat Gwynn

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