Wednesday, December 20, 2017

An Abolitionist Walks into a Bazaar...

Yes, this season can mean gray skies and the glint of the silver chip on a credit card, but this is also true: The holiday shopping season began with a humanist cause. Before the Civil War, anti-slavery societies held annual charity fairs, featuring crafts that were handmade by women. “Buy for the Sake of the Slave,” was the slogan for these bazaars, which were often held before Christmas.

What is it about this story that makes me happy? Is it the idea that we can mold the clay of consumerism to create something beautiful and good? Is it the image of hushed, corseted Victorian-era women finding their public voice? Or the uniting of two causes – feminism and abolitionism – to make a powerful force?

Maybe this anecdote from my country’s history is like the minute flame on top of a birthday candle or a tiny, single bulb in a string of lights. Maybe it’s a suggestion, whispered, in my ear, that there’s no need to sit and wait for a certain star to shine. Maybe the light I crave in December is already flickering in each of us.

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Whole Picture

My mother has taught me to see color. Whenever we go anywhere together she's alive to every pink blossom and russet leaf along the way.

Two of my favorite Portland poets, Claudia F. Savage and Carolyn Martin, are also especially adept at seeing a full range of colors and textures, without looking through rose-colored lenses. Luckily for all of us, both women have new books out, so we can share their visions. 

Bruising Continents by Claudia F. Savage
Reading Bruising Continents is like sinking your teeth into a pear still warm from the sun. As earthy and generous as a sumptuous feast set out on a table, the pages of this book pulse with images from the natural world. Cells are “suspended fish,” a man has long limbs like a tree, a woman’s hips are “ripe figs.” Celebrating the physicality of being human, Savage lovingly uses the names of body parts throughout her poems – tibia, medulla, clavicle, rib – while also drawing images of the body of our world as she writes about rain and sky and river and hill. In this lyrical love story, the lines between nature and people are erased. While lovers ache for each other, pine needles also “desire to be splendid.” Savage’s poems make us see – and feel – that, like the naked lovers on the cover of Bruising Continents, the environment and human beings are intertwined.

Thin Places by Carolyn Martin   
It’s no wonder I’ve used Carolyn Martin’s poems so often as prompts in my creative writing classes. In her latest book, Martin takes us on a journey from the Japonica that grows in her yard to a Little League game in Taos, New Mexico and a side street in Puerto Vallarta. As her poems travel from place to place, Martin's work maintains a delightful accessibility. Like the former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, her writing style is as conversational (and entertaining) as a chat with a good friend who has a genial sense of humor combined with a keen eye. In the title poem, she cheerfully writes of “squishing Pacific sand” and sitting at a “smudged computer screen,” and we nod in recognition. Also like Collins, though, Martin never fails to take her poems – and us – someplace unexpected. By the end of "Thin Places," she has moved on from more familiar images to the "quiddity of stars" and "frogs that listen with their mouths.” Nudging this idea even further, Martin's unique vision urges us to close our eyes and “let the darkness concentrate,” a profound concept that leads us into the depths of this perceptive collection.

To hear these two stellar poets reading, join them – and me – on December 4 at the Northwest Library.

Free Range Poetry
Monday, December 4
6:00 - 7: 30 pm
Northwest Library, 2300 NW Thurman, Portland, OR
(the event begins with an open mic – sign-up is at 5:45 pm)

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

News Flash

Many thanks to the editors of little leo journal for including two of my flash fiction pieces ("After Hours" and "Lucky Me") in their first issue!

You can read the stories at

"After Hours" started out as a dashed-off freewrite in one of my own recent creative writing classes. In contrast, I wrote "Lucky Me" in 1998 and have been polishing it ever since. Such disparate experiences, and yet both were pure joy.

If you have a quirky poem or short piece you'd like to get published, take a look at the submission guidelines for little leo:

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Dark Materials

Halloween 2003: Hester and Pearl hang out with
their pals Darth and Leia.

A prison door studded with iron spikes swings open, and a young woman with an infant is led onto a scaffold above a sea of stern faces belonging to her neighbors, who've gathered to witness her humiliation. One person in the crowd thinks the prisoner’s forehead should be branded. Another suggests she be executed.

So begins The Scarlet Letter, the 19th century novel of New England puritanism that high school students often fear more than peer pressure, cafeteria food and SAT scores.

Don't worry, teens—there is hope! Here are a few reasons why The Scarlet Letter is a masterpiece of dark entertainment:

The Bold and the Beautiful. At the heart of the book is Hester Prynne, who gets pregnant while her husband is away—a bold move considering she lives among a group of religious zealots, including “iron-visaged…old dames” and sober men “in sad-colored garments.”* Although the novel begins by describing her punishment on the scaffold, Hester is no quivering victim. Hawthorne describes her as being “tall, with a figure of perfect elegance, on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glassy it threw off the sunshine with a gleam….” In short, she’s a powerhouse; Wonder Woman in a long grey dress.

Portrait of an Artist. Hester, though, is more than strong and stunning: She’s also wildly creative. Sentenced to wear an A (for “adulteress”) on her breast, she pulls out all the stops, crafting her version of the letter “in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread.”

Rebel, Rebel. What’s supposed to be a symbol of shame within a strict society becomes, in Hester’s hands, a celebration of individuality. She has made the A “with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy” that it's “a splendor” and “greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.” Such unique needlework isn’t just a skill; it’s an expression of the deepest self—a forbidden act in this society. Even Hester’s cuckolded husband (Roger Chillingworth), who’s horrified when he shows up and sees his wife standing on the scaffold—with another man’s baby in her arms, no less—is “unable to restrain a thrill of admiration” for this gutsy gal.

Black and White and Red.  Of course any good story isn’t that simplistic, and standing apart from society is never a barrel of laughs. Hester’s individuality gives her the gumption to survive the pitiless scrutiny of her soul on the scaffold, but it also sentences her to a life of slow torture. In the community’s eyes, which are fixed to her breast every time she walks by, she’s no longer a human being, but a “general symbol at which the preacher and the moralist might point.” The scarlet letter is both torment and triumph for Hester.

The book's ending is similarly complex. Hester and her daughter manage to get away from this awful place and its iron rules. Then, for some reason, Hester voluntarily returns to her old cottage and resumes wearing her old gray garb with the symbol of her sin attached to it. Why in the world would she do that? Has she internalized the harsh lessons of her community and truly believes she deserves to be punished? Or is the scarlet letter her only living connection to her now-dead lover? Symbols mean different things to different people. What Hester—and we—read into the A appears to go beyond the original intent of the Puritans.

Funny Ha-Ha. For a book that’s about sin and punishment and suffering souls, The Scarlet Letter is surprisingly full of humor. The name of Chillingworth is one obvious example, considering the character’s heart is about as warm as the steel blade of a scalpel. Hawthorne, who finely shades so many of his sentences with a sly irony (like when he refers to the prison as the “black flower of civilized society”), is happy to make sure we get this particular joke.

The name of Hester’s unfortunate lover, the Reverend Dimmesdale, is a similar gag. Even if you didn’t know that the man has a pale face and trembling hands, you could tell by his name alone that Dimmesdale doesn’t have half the spark of his paramour.

In a sneakier way, it’s funny, too, that Dimmesdale is the pride and joy of the community. At the beginning of the book, he publicly tells Hester to name the father of her babe in hopes of saving the sinner (a.k.a. himself). What the townspeople don’t know is that he’s simply not up to confessing his own guilt. Later, he does tell his congregation he’s a sinner (without saying specifically what he’s done), but they just think he’s being modest and love him even more. The same stern-faced folk who’d like to chase the "evil" Hester out of town don’t guess that their angelic reverend is her partner in crime.

This joke is at the heart of the novel…and it’s a dig both at the hypocritical community that has condemned Hester Prynne and at anyone who’s ever had a sense of their own superiority…meaning, maybe, most of us.

On the outside, The Scarlet Letter may look like a musty bore, but inside is a sumptuous story with a labyrinth of relevant ideas for modern readers to explore.

*Quotes are from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, first published in 1850 by Ticknor and Fields.

Friday, August 11, 2017

It's a Sign

Of all the crazy things, there's an intersection in Beaverton, Oregon (the town where I grew up) where the names of the crossing streets happen to match my husband's name and mine.

O.K., this is probably a coincidence and not proof that we were destined to get together, but it's still uncanny. Especially since you don't hear my husband's name (Murray) all that often in the United States, unless you're into binge watching Mary Tyler Moore episodes.

Even if you don't believe in using signs on streets and buildings to predict the future, they can make great writing prompts. What could you do with "Pirate's Cove," "Help Wanted," or "Rough Road"? Look around and see where random signs can take your writing.

As for me, I'm glad Murray's path crossed mine. Here's a poem for our 33rd anniversary.

The Surprise Inside the Cake*
by Linda Ferguson

We were still a couple of kids,
all dressed up like adults –
his charcoal suit with tails,
my white dress with a lace-edged train –
we had Pachelbel playing on the church piano,
boutonnieres pinned to our brothers’ lapels,
and bridesmaids holding bouquets
the same shade as their chiffon gowns.
The reception, though, was a different story –
a party in my parents’ backyard,
with my high white heels a little stained
from sinking into the soft grass.
We had a keg of beer and some
food set out on a picnic table,
plus a wedding cake with a surprise
inside that first slice. Instead of
the vanilla layers with the skim
of raspberry filling we’d ordered,
here was a silly, garish thing,
as if we’d pulled back a curtain and revealed
an out-of-town aunt with spangled fingers and a brash,
knowing laugh as big as her hat. Instead of a pale,
well-behaved pastry, this cake was flaming pink –
like the thick flamingo lipstick on a drag queen
about to step on stage or the mini-dress Barbie wore
the night she tore off for Malibu in her plastic car.
How to describe what we fed each other
with our fingers that day –
was it simply sugar and shortening or the gaudy
flavor of caramel corn and carnival rides
that its glaring hue implied? Or maybe our tongues
were touched with something else –
a hint of salt, and the essence of
a small borrowed boat setting out to sea;
maybe we opened our mouths and tasted
not the cake, but the white peaks of promise
folded into some weighty substance
we could not yet name.

*Published in The Poeming Pigeon: Poems About Food  (The Poetry Box, 2015). To order your copy of this delicious journal, which includes work by Carolyn Martin, Claudia F. Savage, Dan Raphael, Elizabeth Moscoso, Shawn Aveningo Sanders, Tricia Knoll and many others, you can click

Monday, July 24, 2017

Spanish Lace

Believe it or not, this mildewy doll in a tattered dress was the inspiration for a poem that won a prize in 2014 from the Oregon Poetry Association.

Spanish Lace
by Linda Ferguson

I love the bite of childhood –

like the imprint of my imperfect teeth

in a slice of orange cheese

or the spiked scribbles of my first

freewheeling tries at cursive writing,

which looked something like Poseidon’s

temper-tossed waves.

Those playing cards told a story too

when I stuck them in my spokes and turned

my girl’s bike into a motorcycle

racing round the corner in a blur

of rolling R’s and blue fumes.

And how about the trumpet-call

of the silent doll on my shelf? With her

black eyes and red Spanish lace, I could hear

her flamenco-style stamp send a message,

like Morse code, only louder and more clear –

I’m strong, I’m fast, I’m here.

If you're feeling the itch to write, the inspiration for a new piece could be right under your nose. Look around you. The mustiest, most ordinary object might have a story -- or poem -- to tell.

*"Spanish Lace" by Linda Ferguson published in the 2014 volume of Verseweavers: The Oregon Poetry Association's Anthology of Prize-Winning Poems.

Monday, July 17, 2017

New Shoes

My creative writing students often want to give fiction-writing a whirl, but wonder how to begin.

One way is to picture yourself literally in someone else's shoes. My story "This Heady Thing Called Love" started just that way. In this short piece, which was just published by Brilliant Flash Fiction (, I imagined a 19-year-old narrator who's getting all gussied up in a short dress and a pair of heels to impress a cad who cheated on her. In real life, at 19 I was sneaker-wearing student who was already in a long-term relationship, but in crafting this story I had the fun of trying on a metaphorical new pair of shoes, with the added benefit of gaining some understanding of an experience that was so different from my own.

If you've been tempted to try your hand at fiction, you might want to do something similar. Take a scenario that you've observed, and try putting yourself in that situation. How would you feel? How would you act? What shoes would you wear?