I’M AFRAID OF POETRY.
There, I said it. Felons, death metal or frothing German Shepherds—no problem, I’ll find a way to relate, but poetry…not so much. The very concept has confounded me since my earliest exposure to it in junior high school (excluding those storied sonnets celebrating the anatomy of a certain resident of a large island off the coast of Cape Cod). For the vast majority of my life, I believed poetry to be an infuriatingly unnecessary process whereby one takes a straightforward idea and instead of simply writing it down, dresses it up in maddeningly obtuse verse and thorny metaphor, simply to appear clever.
Please don’t think me a hater, because I’ve honestly tried to get on board, time and again. My bookcase betrays my honest, yet ultimately fruitless campaign to “get” poetry—barely-cracked volumes of Ovid, Rumi, Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda pepper a wall full of rock biographies, metaphysical treatises and historical non-fiction. Strangers might regard my myriad poetry collections as indicia of a refined quality of worldliness; however, the truth is that these barely-cracked tomes stand as humiliating monuments to my literary ineptitude, all but cackling at me each time that I pass by them.
Eventually I abandoned my vapid quest and released all expectations of ever enjoying poetry. Then I saw Rich Ferguson.
A few years ago, at a literary event in Los Angeles, a number of authors were reading from their latest publications, and as the inevitable moment approached when sweat pooled on my brow and my faculties could not absorb one more spoken word, out strolled Rich Ferguson, sporting a floppy straw hat and capri pants, followed by Bo Blount, a tallish fellow with a laptop and guitar. As Bo plugged in, Rich gazed down at the stage, drew an audibly deep breath and then exploded in a fiery hail of syncopated couplets, jiggy rants and streetwise verse. In those first few seconds, my jaw dropped and my mind was blown. It was poetry, but yet it was pure rock and roll.
Gesturing with the untamed fervency of a Baptist preacher, Rich channeled the virile swagger of Robert Plant, the bouncy snarl of Chuck D and the lyrical incision of Jack Kerouac, while guitarist Bo unleashed chunky waves of thick, filthy riffage. In that explosive wash of sight, sound and verse, I finally got poetry.
Between these live performances, a YouTube channel and his online writing, Rich has transcended the archetype of the humble, dedicated poet, sharing stages with musical icons such as Patti Smith, Exene Cervenka, Loudon Wainwright III and Ozomatli, and he has performed on The Tonight Show, at South by Southwest and in a number of music, film and literary festivals across the world.
Most recently, Rich and Bo released their debut album, Of Wishbones & Gunfire, as We Voice Sing, a full-length album featuring all-new material. I sat down with Rich to discuss the methods to his madness and his hard-rocking defense of one of mankind’s greatest art forms.
Most would-be poets channel their urges into rock and roll fantasies, rather than lives as poets. Where did your own personal road diverge?
I grew up in the east coast and until I was thirteen I spent most of my time in North Carolina, and I really think that’s where the beginnings of my poetry/storytelling came about. My mother loved to turn me on to the folk tales and the local tales, all these scary folklore stories coming out of North Carolina. I was completely mesmerized by the idea that you could sit on the porch and tell these amazing stories to each other. I really think that I’ve carried that with me through out my entire life. At the same time, I was also living in the South, and seeing these old Baptist churches and stuff–not really spending too much time in them–but on television, seeing these fiery Southern preachers like Martin Luther King and these fiery people who put so much heart and so much soul into their message. Those elements have been with my my whole life.
Your big break was the LA Times piece called “The Los Angeles Book of the Dead.”
Well that was definitely a big, big deal for me, and it’s really funny how that came about. I had read The Tibetan Book of the Dead and I was intrigued by the idea of a manual that can help you go from one life to the next. I took that idea and thought about L.A. and how there were so many different areas in L.A. and how the life you lead in one area of L.A. could look so different from the life you lead in another. The life you lead in West Hollywood could look so much different from the life you lead in West. L.A., versus the life you lead in Venice or Echo Park; and so I kind of did a mash up of those ideas and I said, OK, I’m going to write this piece.
How did it go from your notepad to the L.A. Times?
I had originally written it as a performance piece, and after I wrote it, I kind of surprised myself when I realized that it looked pretty good on the page, too. So I sent it to some A-List outlets and after a month or two passed, I kind of forgot about it. Then out of the blue I got a call from this woman Donna Frazier at the L.A. Times. She loved the piece and I was completely floored. It was a long-ass piece and she said, “I’ve never published poetry in my section before, but let’s give it a shot. Why don’t you try some edits on it and I’ll try some edits on it and we’ll talk again at the end of the week and see where we stand.” Interestingly enough, a lot of our edits were very close, so we were able to agree on a final form. She ran it by her chief editor and eventually it went on the front page of the “California Living” section on September 10, 2001—the day before 9/11. I’ll always remember that.
Walk me through the gestation of a poem, from conception to the final period.
I’ll give you an example. We were talking about “The L.A. Book of the Dead,” and that was one that took a bit of time. The idea came to me sort of effortlessly, you know? Los Angeles…The Tibetan Book of the Dead… So that was one of those ideas that tickled me and I thought, Hmmm… interesting. That one’s gonna take a lot of work, but that could also be a lot of fun. I wanted to get clear on what I wanted to write about and I started taking copious notes about Los Angeles and what Los Angeles means to me, and different areas of L.A. and what I thought were different images and cliches that were tied to certain areas of the city. Then I started to actually interview some friends who I thought had certain connections to certain areas of L.A. I asked them, “Tell me what West Hollywood means to you,” and “Tell me what Venice means to you.” So that was one that was very labor-intensive in compiling the notes and taking all the information and editing it it down. That one was edit, after edit, after edit…
But unlike other poets, in your case, the final edit really is just the halfway point—is that fair to say?
Well, if I want to perform the piece, the whole memorization piece kicks in and that’s its own animal. I will basically chunk a poem into pieces and I’ll memorize a part of it. I have to be active, like I have to go out for a walk or something. Around the time I wrote that “L.A. Book of the Dead” piece, I had been living in Santa Monica for a couple of years, and I’d just go for a walk through Santa Monica. People probably saw me as just another homeless guy walking around Santa Monica, talking to himself… (laughing) So I chunk a poem, memorize one section and then move on to the next section. Once I get that section, I go back to the first section and kind of build it that way. Some of my best editing work is done while I’m thinking a piece out loud. If I find there are areas in a poem where I’m tripping on words, that’s a signal to me that something’s not working there. I’ll often edit on the page, but just as often some of my best edits occur when I’m speaking a piece out loud. Sometimes I find mistakes that I don’t catch when I’m just looking at it on the page.
Artistically what turns you on now?
As far as music goes, I’m pretty wide open. I could point to bands like The Flaming Lips. I love Wayne Coyne and that band so much; there’s a certain playfulness to them and a creativity that really pulls at my heart. First of all, those guys are survivors; they’ve been around for a long time, and they’re doing the art the way they want to do it, and they’re making some really fun, creative music. I’m also really drawn to visual arts, like photography and painting. There’s a photographer here in L.A., a woman named Cat Gwynn, and she did some of the photos for We Voice Sing. I really love her work, which is more esoteric. As far as painters go, I can’t really think of too many contemporary painters at the moment, but people like Gerrit Greve and Salvador Dali.
How did you and Bo decided to merge your artistic visions into We Voice Sing?
He was working with a guy named Glenn Still up in Seattle, and they had a collective together called “10K Poets.” Glenn was getting poets together and Bo was creating musical tracks for them. Glenn had seen my work and he contacted me and asked if I could contribute a poem, so I did. Bo had originally produced a piece of music that he was going to use for my poem but when he heard the poem he felt like that piece of music didn’t do the poem justice, so he wrote a brand new track of music. When I heard the final track, I loved it and then I found out that Bo lived in Los Angeles, so we just got in touch and he came to one of my gigs and saw me perform and it just kind of came together. I liked what he was doing and he liked what I was doing and we just decided to write more songs together and see where it could go.
A number of your videos reflect some big-budget, Hollywood-sized production. How do those come about?
I really owe a lot to a guy who I’ve created two of my videos with, a guy named Mark Wilkinson, here in Los Angeles. Again, it was a situation where we met innocently enough; we met in a yoga class. I didn’t know that he did videos or commercial work, I just gave him a flyer for one of my shows. He didn’t know that I did spoken word- he just thought that because I was playing drums in a yoga class that I was going to be playing drums, so he was completely blown away. He came up to me after the show and he was like, “I do film making for a living, can I do a video for you?” So the first video we did together was “All the Times,” which is still one of my favorites, and then a couple years later we did “Human Condition” together, and currently in the next couple of weeks, “Human Condition is going to be shown at a video music festival in England. The woman is having Mark and me be the judges at the contest– we’re judging other films– but “Human Condition” and “All the Times” have all shown in places like Vancouver and Berlin, so Mark’s been a real godsend.
Poetry used to be a prominent and highly-celebrated art form. Why do you think it no longer occupies that place of prominence in our culture?
You know, that’s a good question and one that I don’t have an answer to. (laughing) It’s funny, but like every ten years or so, poetry will sort of bubble up, like some “Russell Simmons Presents Poetry!” deal on MTV or something, and then it will bubble back down and no one will hear about poetry again for another ten or fifteen years. I don’t know! The funny thing is, if you look around, it’s prevalent. Some of the rappers are dropping amazing fucking poetry! I mean, it’s around. I wonder sometimes if the way it’s sort of packaged and presented–this thing where some people step up to a podium and sort of stuffily read their works, and it’s this holier-than-thou thing, and people think that poetry is some unapproachable form. Or some people are like, Well, I don’t really understand poetry. And yeah, I get that. I mean, I look at some poetry and I struggle trying to get it myself. I’ve played shows where I’ve come on stage and people will come up to me and say, “You know, I never really liked poetry until I saw you perform, and now I feel like I have to give poetry another chance.” I’m getting goosebumps on my arm as I’m saying that because I think, Wow… my job is done here! To me, that’s the highest praise. If I can go out and do something that helps rekindle someone’s interest in poetry or inspire someone to give it another chance, then how cool is that? Because you’re right—poetry is this thing that’s sort of out on the sidelines and it sort of pokes its head out every once in awhile, and people have all these different ideas as to what it is… So when somebody comes up to me and says, “You know what? You made me like that again,” I just think, Hell yeah…
One of your most-popular live performance pieces is “Urban Legend.” Is that based on a true story?
(laughing) Yes it is! That was also when I was living out in Santa Monica and most of my friends were back here on the east side. One night I was getting ready for sleep, innocently cleaning my ear out with a Q-Tip, and I got it stuck in my ear. It was a Friday night and I was calling people and no one was answering, and I couldn’t get it out myself and I was like, Holy fuck…I’ve gotta go to the hospital This is fucking insane. So I drove myself to Cedars, and when they ask you, “What are you here for,” I’m like, saying it really low, really ashamed, “Uh..I’ve got a Q-Tip in my ear…” I could see that the woman was trying not to fucking laugh at me. There were people in there with far more serious conditions. (laughing) As I was going through the thing, I was thinking, I am happy no one was available to bring me to Cedars. I am never going to tell a single soul about this experience. I’m so ashamed. Then a week or two passed and I was thinking to myself, What am I thinking? I’ve gotta write about this! It’s too fucking crazy! That’s an example of a piece that literally flew out of me. Once I committed myself to telling this story, I could hardly hold on to the pencil.
What’s next for We Voice Sing?
We’re at a place where we’re promoting the CD and lining up more shows to play live and do a bit of touring. So we’re kind of in the trenches right now, and it presents a bit of a conundrum, because we’re not an average band, and we don’t really fit into poetry venues either; we’re kind of in this grey area and it presents a bit of a challenge as to where we can play shows. That’s one of our challenges now- finding places where we can play live, because that’s what we want to do. We’re chomping at the bit to play live, so we’re actually thinking of renting a theater here in L.A., just so we can put a big show together.
Zeppelin or Dylan?
Hah! (laughing) Oh, man… alright… you know as much as I love Bob Dylan and as heavy as he is with all his lyrics, Zeppelin just gets into my belly and John Bonham’s drums just rock my boogie to no end. Those double bass drum hits he does on “Good Times, Bad Times…” Yeah, Led Zeppelin.