As a literary form and commercial endeavor, the modern memoir is overwhelmingly popular. A quick perusal of the non-fiction stacks confirms this. From Donald Rumsfeld to Annie Dillard, the memoir is ubiquitous. Too, as a confirming note, there is the backlash, as there is always a backlash against things trending popular. I site Neil Genzlinger’s recent anti-memoir diatribe in the New York Time’s Book Review of a few weeks ago. It begins: “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.” In his essay Genzlinger reviewed four memoirs, giving just one the nod. He took the others to task for various reasons. One author, for instance, had not earned “the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy.” Ouch. He argued that if you did not have an extremely unique experience or were deemed to be less than “a brilliant writer,” you were “obliged to keep quiet.” The current plethora of memoirs is, he reasons, a result of “our current age of oversharing.” His essay trespassed to the edge of being mean-spirited and the dust-up caused a flurry of activity in literary circles. (A backlash to the backlash confirming the maturation of a trend, indeed.)

Please explain what just happened.

I just finished the film and moved to Berlin. I have citizenship because my grandparents were German Jews that fled during WWII.

 

What is your earliest memory?

Being in the womb. What are all those bubbles mommy?

 

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what other profession would you choose?

Zoologist. Animals are a lot nicer to deal with than humans. When I was a kid I wanted to be a garbage man or junk man.

Note to iSelf

By J.S. Breukelaar

Salute

Must update the nano. All my music’s on my classic, but you can’t run with a classic, so the nano has my running playlist on it. Also, it seems, last year’s Halloween Party list, and I’m sorry, but “Monster Mash” just won’t get me off today. Neither, for some reason will Pantera’s “Cowboys from hell.” Must be all the glittering water and sunlight. ‘High noon, your doom’ just doesn’t feel right.

It’s that time of the week, time for me and my beat-up ASICS to hit the road. Not the track or the treadmill, just some good old asphalt. The Sydney Bay run is a short, hard run and you don’t want to over-think it. The terrain is basically flat apart from a two-story flight of steps leading up to the nasty Iron Cove Bridge.

Rich Ferguson - More Cowbell!

Street poet, cadence carpenter Rich Ferguson (Where I Come From), who could somehow make enchiladas relevant in the post-post-modern jib jabs of verse, rhythm, and rhyme, is an American spoken word artist to behold. Street meets soul as if a lingering piece of San Fran gold mysteriously appearing from the gluts of the LA Basin, liquefied reverb, straw cap, cawing through air spaces in his gums, “The Earthquake is Here! Where’s the Kick Drum?”

Tapping into the arterial vein of Los Angeles street life, Ferguson’s poetry oozes raw emotion with a pink underbelly. Be it the “boom-boom beat of all these bombs dropping” after the loss of a dear friend or the recollection of one night’s cross-dressing exploits (“The panty hose was the hardest to get on. Every inch of the way, the elastic material constricted movement, bound blood, itched the skin”), Ferguson’s inimitable interplay of lyric and language, culture possessed and exorcised by words and wordsmiths, haunted shadows on sidewalks, beckons the listener/reader line by line to sway side to side like a healed Stevie Wonder to the beat of a song wholly his own in statu nascendi inter spem et metum.

Ferguson has studied poetry alongside the poetic voice of the Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg (Howl), shared a stage with the likes of the Godmother of Punk, Patti Smith (Horses), and even recently appeared—as in Monday, July 12, 2010 recent—on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” accompanying musical guest Tracy Bonham (Masts of Manhatta). If you thought the cowbell went out of style with Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken, think again. Ferguson could play the spoons or a musical instrument made from the cardboard remains of a toilet paper tube, strung tight with rubber bands, and you would still be hypnotized by a soulful magician not to be confused with Rich “The Ice Breaker” Ferguson.

Ferguson’s words are not silky smooth like white clouds in blue skies peppered with pretty birds singing love sonnets. The man is less Wordsworth and more Whitman. Whitman 2.0, 2010, Los Angeles, California. Rough to the touch like sandpaper grit that picks at the epidermal layer of your skin in little square, flaky bits.

Cue Clark Griswold. Drum roll please . . . .


*

THE INTERVIEW

JEFFREY PILLOW: First Rich, thanks for taking the time to dissolve this East Coast/West Coast beef between Biggie and Pac and talk with me. How would you describe the parallel of music, rhythm, and rhyme in your spoken word/poetry?

RICH FERGUSON: Before I began performing spoken word on a fairly regular basis I started out as a musician. Drums were my first instrument. I gradually moved on to singing lead, and later learned how to play the guitar so I could write songs. Over the years while playing music in various rock bands, I was always doing spoken word on the side. Sometimes within the band as well. During those years of training, rhythm and rhyme was obviously a big part of my diet. Once I began performing spoken word, and writing material for performance, I found that some of those skills crossed over quite naturally into the material. In regards to spoken word, however, I’ve been very fortunate to have people champion my work. One person that comes to mind is Bob Holman. He’s a fantastic NYC poet/educator. I feel very blessed to have him in my life. He’s really opened quite a few doors for me in regards to performing opportunities and meeting various writers over the years.

JP: I believe it was Duke [Haney] who said this once over at The Nervous Breakdown, though I may be misquoting him (or someone else if it wasn’t Duke), that music was the creative instigator, that it all started with music at a young age. Music does that, doesn’t it? Sends a pulse right through your veins. It only takes one song during the years of teenage angst to send you on a path where you never look back.

RF: Yeah, I’d say that music was a definite creative instigator for me as well. From a very early age, as early as 3 or so, I was always listening to the FM radio and beating the hell out of the naugahyde sofa, and singing along at the top of my lungs–even when I didn’t know the words. Music’s always been the engine that has fueled me throughout life. I’ve been very fortunate to play music as well. And when I say fortunate, not only do I feel it’s been such a blessing to play music, but I’ve also had the good fortune to meet some of the most amazing people I’ve ever known through the experience of playing music. That gift led me quite naturally into performing spoken word. Whether I’m playing or recording with actual musicians, or performing by myself, I always aspire to bring a certain musicality to everything I say and how I say it.

JP: Influences? Anything really: music, fiction writers, nonfiction, neighbors, oddballs, circus clowns, carnies, et cetera.

RF: Musical influences: I get a lot of crap for this one, but Rush is really one of my first musical influences. Or I should say that Neil Peart is the guy that got me interested in playing drums. Terry Bozzio is another drummer that’s been a big influence over the years. I actually had the extreme good fortune and honor to meet him last year and collaborate with him on a spoken word/music video piece entitled, “From Within to Without.” I think it’s on my YouTube page.

Fiction writers: I love Raymond Carver. Not so much because I feel like I write like him. Mainly because I don’t write like him. Let me explain . . . sometimes I feel like I use way too many words to get my point across. Carver is one of those writers that is able to go straight for the heart, straight for the jugular vein in the fewest words. His work is very lean and to the point. I admire that greatly.

JP: I hear ya’. I’ve tried to train myself to not be so longwinded yet I still fail miserably. I get it from my Mama. That woman can straight release some words from her gut, which is fairly amazing since she has a blib on one of her lungs. Collapsed way back when from blowing up a pool float.

Your thoughts on pool floats or other inflatable devices?

RF: So sorry to hear that your mom had such a hard time with that pool float. As for me, I can’t recall a problem with pool floats or inflatable devices. Now that I think of it, though, not long ago I went to see Brad Listi interview Chuck Palahniuk here in L.A. During the course of the interview, Chuck threw some inflatable toys into the audience. Some were huge Oscar-like statues. Others were giant-sized hearts. Everyone in the audience–and we’re talking a pretty big theater–were huffing and puffing trying to blow up these toys. Me, I damn near thought I was going to get a collapsed lung while blowing up that heart. But I made it. In fact, I currently have it sitting in my living room.

JP: Sorry, sorry. Influences, yes. Back to that.

RF: There are other writers that I love reading for inspiration: Neruda, Rilke, Rumi. I love the mystical and lyrical nature of their voices. I also enjoy the poetry of Patti Smith, Mayakovsky, and Saul Williams.

A couple other fiction writers I enjoy: Richard Brautigan, George Saunders, and Mark Richard. I just love their sense of imagination and word play.

In regards to other inspirations: Heck, inspiration is all around in everyday life. I’m trying to get better at picking up the clues.

JP: Six degrees of Kevin Bacon, I have to ask: Patti Smith . . . you once performed on the same stage with her. What was this experience like?

RF: Performing with Patti Smith was amazing. A dream come true, really. The amazing NYC poet, Bob Holman, was the mastermind that put that show together. The only thing that could’ve made the evening even better would’ve been having the opportunity to hang out with Patti and pick her brain a bit about her experiences and let her know how much she’s influenced not only my creative work, but my life. But she was pretty much keeping to herself that evening, so I didn’t bug her.

JP: And [Allen] Ginsberg? Jeez man, you studied with Ginsberg? I keep a copy of Howl and Other Poems at my cube at work. I jokingly said to my wife when I started writing for TNB that the crowd there is like The Beat Generation: 21st Century Edition starring [Brad] Listi as Jack Kerouac, and if anyone should play Ginsberg then it’s gotta be Rich.

RF: Frankly, I don’t think I should be the one playing Ginsberg. Actually, that should be another TNB contributor: Milo Martin. Some years ago when he was living in S.F. he was propositioned by Ginsberg at City Lights Bookstore. Milo graciously refused the offer. Still, near blowjobs over writing workshops–I think that officially puts Milo at a lesser degree of separation from Allen than me.

JP: How are you different than Rich “The Ice Breaker” Ferguson, the magician?

RF: This is a funny question. I never became aware of this guy until someone once wrote me and said: “So I googled your name and this magician guy came up. Some other guy named Rich Ferguson.” I did a little bit of investigating and saw that this guy has TONS of videos on YouTube and stuff. In fact, I think when you google the name Rich Ferguson, his name comes up before mine. At one point, when you googled the name, he came up, I came up, then there was this cross-dresser in London that also came up. Since then, I think the London cross-dresser has changed his name. I think he was really starting to feel the heat. Ultimately, it’s one of the my life ambitions to beat the magician Rich Ferguson in the Google pool. I actually spoke to him once on the phone, and we had a great conversation. He’s a super sweet guy.

Jeffrey Dahmer Pillow

JP: I feel ya’ Rich. It took me a while to climb Google’s ladder too. Back in the day, the first search results you’d get when you googled me were Jeffrey Dahmer pillows and Jeff Gordon pillows. But no more. The Jeffrey Dahmer pillows still trump me sometimes in the Google Images search. Unfortunately for some likely cannibals and future serial killers out there, they sadly come upon my website from time to time when searching for Jeffrey Dahmer collectibles. Google Analytics has clued me in.

I had to ask about The Ice Breaker. When I was doing research for my article, the magic man appeared. I think as me and Greg [Olear] discussed once, when you do a search of Brad and The Nervous Breakdown, you get links to a Brad Paisley song of the same name . . . .

I’m sure you’ve been asked this a dozen times already but how was the experience on ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno?’ You were groovin’ dude. In synch hand claps. The cow bell. You were straight jamming on stage.

RF: The Leno experience was great. The crew was great. The band that I played with [Tracy Bonham] was amazing. Here’s the thing, though. There’s a tremendous amount of waiting around. That’s the one thing I wasn’t prepared for. I got there at 9:30 a.m. There was a sound check at 11:00. Then there was a lunch break. At 1:30 we did a tech run-through with cameras. Then we had to sit around until 4:45 when we did the actually taping. Yeah, the most challenging part of the whole deal was to have to sit around for all that time, then when they said, “You’re on” you really had to be on. Because we basically just had one shot at the whole thing.

JP: Well, you guys damn sure nailed it . . . .

What’s a good web address where folks can listen to your work?

RF: Two places where people can check out my spoken word/music tracks and videos are MySpace (www.myspace.com/richferguson) and YouTube (www.youtube.com/fuzzydoodah).

JP: One last thing, Mrs. Butterworth or Aunt Jemima? Who makes the best maple syrup? Inquiring minds want to know.

RF: I’ll go with Aunt Jemima. If for no other reason than I grew up with her. Gotta stay loyal to my homegirl. She gave me many fine, sweet mornings during childhood breakfasts.

JP: Thanks for your time Rich. Best of luck in your continuing beat in the literary world.



RICH FERGUSON has performed across the country and has been heard on many radio stations, including WBAI in New York City, KCRW and KPFK in Southern California, and World Radio. He has shared the same stage with Patti Smith and Janet Hamill, Exene Cervenka, David Thomas of Pere Ubu, Holly Prado, and many other esteemed poets and musicians. He has performed at the Redcat Theater in Disney Hall, the Electric Lodge (Venice, CA), The Knitting Factory (NYC & LA), the South by Southwest Music Festival, the North By Northwest Music Festival, the Henry Miller Library, Tongue and Groove, Beyond Baroque, and the Topanga Film Festival. On the college circuit he has performed at UC Irvine, UC-Santa Barbara, UCLA, El Camino College, and Cal State Northridge. He is a featured performer in the sequel to the film 1 Giant Leap. It’s called What About Me, and also features Michael Stipe, Michael Franti, K.D. Lang, Krishna Das, and others. Ferguson has studied poetry with Allen Ginsberg and fiction writing with Aimee Bender and Sid Stebel. In addition, he has been published in the LA TIMES, spotlighted on PBS (Egg: The Art Show), is a regular contributor to The Nervous Breakdown, and his spoken word/music CD, entitled Where I Come From, was produced by Herb Graham Jr. (John Cale, Macy Gray).

It sounds kind of loud where you are. What’s that music in the background?

I’m conducting this interview while waiting for an egregiously early flight from Kennedy to LAX. I believe that the song in the background is a smooth jazz version of Neil Young’s “Helpless, “ which may be one of the signals that the apocalypse is nigh, so this could be a short interview.

You’re right on the verge of the release of your first book. How does that feel?

It’s certainly exciting, but I’m a writer so I feel obliged to temper that excitement with equal parts anxiety and depressive defeatism. Mostly, it’s an extraordinary relief. I feel like I’m coming to the end of a particular cycle and I look forward to seeing what the next installment is going to be like.

Wow, that was a long awkward silence.

Sorry. Interviewing myself makes me feel put on the spot. I fell pressed to come up with deep and insightful questions. Instead my brain is making a noise that resembles the buzz of the lighting fixture in the crappy hotel I stayed at in NY.

How about just asking the question that you think interviewers are skirting around half the time? The one that goes like this: With your memoir, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, aren’t you just a narcissistic opportunist who is exploiting not only your experiences as an international teenage prostitute but also your relationship with everyone you’ve ever known?

Not everyone I’ve ever known. But seriously, I think that’s a question I asked myself many times throughout the process of writing this memoir. What are my intentions? Am I telling this story in an effort to get to the heart of something more universal, or am I just splattering salacious details across the page? It was a question I asked and then eventually it was a question I had to discard, because too much introspection about purpose can be paralyzing. In the end, I just had to sit down and tell the story in the most honest way I knew how. I’ll leave it up to the readers to decide if the product of my efforts is meaningful or exploitative.

You talked with an impressively bright group of journalism students last night. What was the most difficult question they asked you?

It’s interesting that the stickiest part of the evening for me wasn’t their questions about sexually transmitted diseases or even about my strained relationship with my family as a result of this book’s imminent release. Rather, the most uncomfortable moment for me came when I was talking about the real narrative drive of the book being my struggle to love myself.  I told them that I felt confident saying that I’m a beautiful woman today. As I was saying it, I realized that, in fact, I didn’t feel at all confident. Self-acceptance remains an ongoing struggle in my life. I think that when reading a contemporary confessional memoir, the tendency is to expect some big lesson will be learned. A sense of resolution is important, but it can also be a reductive demand to make on a narrative. In Some Girls, I tried to clarify some questions rather than offer answers.

What is the significance of Patti Smith in Some Girls?

In Some Girls, I call Patti Smith “the barometer of all things cool and right.” Throughout the book, when confronted with difficult decisions, I ask the question, “What would Patti Smith do? But Patti Smith plays a larger role than a just being a moral compass; she’s also the vehicle for forgiveness when I ignore that moral compass and go way off the rails. I refer to her as my fairy godmother, but she’s more of a shaman figure- an interlocutor between the known and the unknown, the possible and the impossible.

What was the coolest thing that happened to you yesterday?

I picked up a copy of Bust magazine and saw that Some Girls is written up in back to back articles with Patti Smith’s new memoir Just Kids. What are the chances? It was freaky. It actually brought tears to my eyes.

Did someone actually ask you yesterday in an interview if you thought you were as cool as Patti Smith?

It might be the most hilarious question I’ve been asked yet (and that includes the “sex tips to please a prince” kind of questions I got from German Cosmo). But I suppose if I had really learned the self-love lesson, I would have answered, yes. Yes, I am.  But I’m not there yet. It’s a work in progress.



Author’s Note: I’d like to thank TNB’s own Megan DiLullo for her invaluable comments as I created this piece.

 

When I was quite young, around a year old, my mom began reading to me. She started with Dr. Seuss books—The Cat in the Hat, On Beyond Zebra!, Green Eggs and Ham. My memories of those moments are extremely vague, smudged pastel impressions at best. But mom assures me that during those times I’d lay quietly in her arms, hypnotized by the sound of her voice, and the pages spread before me. With tiny fingers, I’d touch the colorful pictures. I’d touch the animated words practically leaping off the page.