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 https://littleleojournal.com/linda-ferguson/.

"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: https://littleleojournal.com/submissions/.


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 (https://brilliantflashfictionmag.wordpress.com/), 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?


Thursday, June 29, 2017

Beach Read

Not all of the art in Manzanita is in galleries.
If you happen to be near Manzanita, Oregon on August 26, I'll be joining a group of writers and visual artists who'll present their work at the Hoffman Center for the Arts from 7 to 9 p.m.

Twelve visual artists have been paired with twelve writers, and we're each busy creating new pieces inspired by our partner's work. The art will be on display in the gallery, and the writers will be reading their poetry and prose. Books featuring the art and writing will also be for sale at the reception.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Em

Mother-daughter selfie, circa 1986.


In 7th grade I was in the midst of my southern belle kick. I made a hairnet for myself out of a pair of pantyhose and flounced around in one of my mother's old bridesmaid dresses and called her Miss Barbara with such a sweet drawl you'd have sworn I was born and bred in Georgia. After a while, I got lazy, dropped the accent and abbreviated my name for her to M.B., and then just Em.

I still call her that.


A few years ago a poem I wrote for my mother won a prize from the Oregon Poetry Association. In this piece I imagine what it would be like "If I were a mother to my mother," which is my way of saying to her "Thank you" - for the fun, the kindness, the care, the food, not to mention the matching shoes.

A Pantoum for Em


If I were a mother to my mother
I'd brush her hair until it shone like newly polished shoes
and I'd curl her bangs around my finger,
and weave her hair into two dark braids

I'd brush her hair until it shone like newly polished shoes
I’d kiss her cheek and send her outside to play
and weave her hair into two dark braids
and watch her race the breeze

I’d kiss her cheek and send her outside to play
and I'd iron the pleats of her red plaid skirt
and watch her race the breeze
and when she fell I’d forget to breathe

and I'd iron the pleats of her red plaid skirt
and I'd sew a button on her prim white blouse
and when she fell I’d forget to breathe
and press her wet face to me

and I'd sew a button on her prim white blouse
and I'd feel the sun on my face
and press her wet face to me
her small-girl's sorrow spreading like a stain inside my body

and I'd feel the sun on my face
and I'd curl her bangs around my finger
her small-girl's sorrow spreading like a stain inside my body
if I were a mother to my mother.




Dig This




Congratulations to Shawn Aveningo Sanders and Robert R. Sanders, the publishers of
the beautiful new collection The Poeming Pigeon: Poems from the Garden. With over a hundred pages of poetry (and three stunning photographs by Robert), the pieces in this volume dig deep. Beneath the bright blossom of a tulip or the hard shell of a ladybug is a world where spiders weave, worms crawl and humans search for meaning in the impermanence of their world.

While the collection celebrates the food and color (and humor!) found in gardens, it also invites the reader into an Eden of ideas, as rich as fertile soil. One poem, "Chamomile for Molokans" by Katy Brown, explores the theme of looking for something in the garden - an herb, a blossom - that can comfort a sorrowing heart. In "Unnamed Ghost," Cindy Rinne writes of a grave for a stillborn baby at Manzanar, the infamous California internment camp. And "While Deadheading Lavender, I Think of My Late Father," a piece by Amy Miller, offers the hope of new life stirring in a plant that survived the winter.

Also in the collection, you'll find lawns and bees, japonicas and maple seeds, as well as my contribution, "And on Earth, the Garden of the Universe." This piece sounds different from my usual writing voice. One poet at the book launch commented that the tone was almost Biblical. I'm not sure how that happened. Maybe it's because the first line came to me while I was in the shower - a place, like a garden, where I can do some of my best, and deepest, thinking.

To order your copy of the Poetry Box's Poems from the Garden, visit http://www.thepoetrybox.com/_DetailPagesBookstore/TPP-GardenOrderPage.html.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Emily and Her "Gorgeous Nothings"


This Emily Dickinson doll wears - surprise! - a white dress.

Quick, when you hear the name Emily Dickinson, what do you see? A ghostly white dress? Or maybe a strangely skittish person who never had the nerve to leave her house? Over the decades, such myths have been faithfully preserved by various books and movies (and even a very funny poem by Billy Collins). Today, though, intrepid scholars have started to sweep away some of the cobwebs that have persisted in clinging to our image of this great American poet.

By the time she was in her fifties, Dickinson was, in fact, a bold literary artist who liberally peppered her work with weird dashes, seemingly random capital letters and an abundance of experimental rhymes. Pretty radical acts for someone who was supposed to be such a shy mouse.

Despite the story of her sister finding 800 small handmade booklets of poems after Dickinson died at the age of 55, her literary genius wasn’t a complete surprise. In her lifetime, Dickinson penned well over 1,000 letters (many of which sound like poems themselves) and sent her actual poems to close friends, including her beloved sister-in-law, Susan, who received 250 of them.

The myth that Dickinson always wore white also isn’t true: Photographs show that she did indeed wear other colors. And while her one remaining dress is white, the garment had a practical purpose, being outfitted with a pocket where she could always keep paper and pencil close at hand. Since these slips of paper had to be small enough to fit into the pocket, she sometimes composed her work on chocolate wrappers and pieces of newspaper, not to mention an assortment of new and used envelopes, which are beautifully displayed in Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings, a coffee table size book by Marta L. Werner and Jen Bervin, that features images of all 52 of Dickinson’s envelope poems.

Thumbing through The Gorgeous Nothings is a revelatory experience. With each page, I was struck by the fact that every line was written not by some ethereal oddity but by a living woman, as real as the members of my own Tuesday afternoon writing group. Adding to the sense that this genius was a human being, is the sight of her handwriting (which was notoriously hard to read) and the cross outs, erasures and inserted words that reflect her exacting standards for her self-expression. The primary pleasure of the collection, though, just may be the sheer beauty of seeing the fragments laid out on pages that highlight their unique shapes (sometimes torn and often fully opened to reveal the insides of the envelopes), many of which resemble autumn leaves or snowflakes or birds in flight.

It makes sense that such an innovative poet would choose to compose her work on shapes she created herself. I can imagine an image or phrase popping into her head while she was doing something else (like pruning a plant in her conservatory) and how eager she must have been to scribble down her idea before it flew from her head.

As in her more polished poems, the envelope writings show her pondering big questions that are relevant today (and always). In one she wonders if facts become dreams when we ignore them. She also asks if “Death warrants” are “An Enginery of Equity,” and ponders different types of people, noting that some are “shallow intentionally.”

According to Ellen Louise Hart, a passionate Dickinson scholar, such depths of mind suggest that far from being a timid creature, the elusive poet stayed at home a lot simply because she needed more time to write. After all, it would be awfully hard to compose an average of 300 poems in one year (as Dickinson may have done in 1862) and still keep up with a full schedule of social calls. At any rate, it’s not like she kept herself locked in a crypt. She was, Hart stated in a recent lecture, a nature lover who relished noting the bird that “came down the Walk” as well as mushrooms, which she referred to on an envelope as “the Elf of Plants.”

As the introductory essays in The Gorgeous Nothings point out, studying Dickinson’s life and work can lead to as many new questions as answers. For example, was there any significance to the names she wrote on the outside of some of her envelope poems? Did she write these pieces with a particular individual in mind? And was she just being frugal in repurposing envelopes that she received, or did she somehow feel freer when she had such a small space to fill, as opposed to a full-sized empty page?

Of course one of the most common questions is to wonder why this trail-blazing poet wasn’t more ambitious. She didn’t, for example, seek publication. Was she happy writing for herself and friends or did she fear the scrutiny of less sympathetic readers?

Perhaps the answer is that her life, as it was, was rich enough. Can a life lived through the eyes of an expansive mind be considered too confined? Emily Dickinson was equipped with a scrap of paper, a stub of pencil, and time to write. Maybe that’s all she needed to travel far and wide.

 * * *

 If you’re hungry for more detailed information on Emily Dickinson’s life and work, read these:

Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin. Christine Burgin/New Directions Books, 2013.

Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith. Paris Press, 1998.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Plummy Party







Come celebrate the launch of The Poeming Pigeon: Poems From the Garden this May.

Saturday, May 6, 2- 4 pm
The Pond House at The Ledding Library
2215 SE Harrison Street, Milwaukie, OR 97222

Among the readers will be: Annie Lighthart, Brad G. Garber, Brittney Corrigan, Carolyn Martin, Cathy Cain, Liz Nakazawa, Marilyn Johnston, Rosemary Douglas Lombard, Pattie Palmer-Baker, Stan Zumbiel, Suzanna Sigafoos, and Tricia Knoll.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Spring Flights


My spring classes are starting soon!

Once again, the Monday morning group will be just for women. All experience levels are welcome to join this encouraging group. Write from prompts that you can take in any direction - poetry, fiction, memoir or a hybrid of your own.

Creative Writing for Women - Mondays

April 3 - May 22
10 a.m. - 11:30 a.m.
$12 to drop in for a class or $80 for all 8 classes
TaborSpace Library, 5441 SE Belmont

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Prick up Your Ears!



A reprint of my story "Some Tigers - A Story in Two Parts" has just been published by the online journal Psychopomp. https://psychopompmag.com/digital-reprint-issues/some-tigers/

The piece was originally published in the 2014 issue of Gold Man Review, who kindly nominated it for a Pushcart PrizeTo order a copy of this issue, which also includes work by Judith Arcana, Paulann Petersen and Penelope Schott, click http://www.goldmanpublishing.com/. Many thanks to the editors of both Gold Man and Psychopomp.

Psychopomp. Now there's a name that grabs your attention. Taken from a Greek word, a psychopomp is a creature that guides spirits to the next life, which makes me think of the women who participated in my most recent creative writing class. Not because they were scary, but because each one of them so skillfully transported the rest of us to other worlds.

This was a particularly cold, wet Portland winter, but thanks to these talented writers, everyone in our group got to imagine what it's like to take a kayak out on soothing waters or to play on an attic floor with an array of paper dolls or to walk on the sunbaked bricks of a distant city. 

Listening to my students read their work reminded me of how important it is to keep trying to hear what other people have to say, even (or especially) if their experience is radically different from my own. Maybe in those moments when we stop and listen we start to move closer to understanding and empathy. And maybe those are two traits that help distinguish humans from other animals.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Love, baby




Many thanks to Imitation Fruit Journal for publishing my story "The Badminton Champion of the World." This piece, which features a badminton player from India, starts out as a romantic love story, but ends up being about a different kind of love. To read the story, click here http://www.imitationfruit.com/Issue_15/badminton/badminton.html.

Here's to all the forms of love we enjoy -- from the affection we feel for other people to the sweetness of taking one full, conscious breath.


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Only Connect

Me, at the apex of my "Hey Jude-loving" days.

I'm happy to say my poem "Dia de los Muertos" won second place in the Member's Only category of the Oregon Poetry Association's Fall 2016 contest. This was a fun piece to write. Since poems for this contest have to be six - twelve lines, I took four haiku I'd written a few years before and linked them together.

As a teacher of creative writing, I love this type of play. Take a line from your journal, a line from your grocery list and a line from a medical bill or a concert program or a Valentine and see what happens when you combine them. Of course some of our greatest works were created by following a carefully drawn road map, but it's also fun to be surprised, to follow some hidden paths and make new discoveries along the way. In my poem, I wouldn't have consciously sat down and made a connection between dry cookies and my brother's silver trumpet, but as I began to weave my haiku together, I found that when I united these images, they expressed something that went beyond the ideas I'd set down in the two separate pieces.

In the Poet's Choice category of the same OPA contest, my longer piece, "Hey Jude, Hey You," won an honorable mention. Once again, in writing this piece, I had the pleasure of making some unexpected connections. I took the song and scribbled away until I found what it meant to me. I actually thought this piece was going to be about my brother, but the poem took me to an entirely different country.

If you're interested in entering an Oregon Poetry Association contest, you can learn more about them at http://oregonpoets.org/. At the same site, you can also order copies of Verseweavers, the OPA's journal of award-winning poems.

Here's to a year of traveling to new places and making new connections!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Certain Women



As I make plans for a new season of women's writing classes, I've been thinking about all of the women who've inspired my work. I've also realized that the list is nearly infinite because it includes famous writers (Jane Austen! Kate Atkinson! Naomi Shihab Nye!) as well as friends, family members, neighbors, students and even cyber friends I don't know all that well who enrich the lives of others by sharing snippets of their personal stories online.

If you live in the Portland area and are looking for creative inspiration from other women, my winter writing classes begin January 9.
Creative Writing for Women: Explore the depths of your imagination and memory. Write from prompts that may lead to new poems, stories, personal essays and other creative pieces. All experience levels are welcome to join this encouraging group.

Mondays, 10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
January 9 – March 13
TaborSpace, 5441 SE Belmont
 $80 for all 8 weeks or $12 to drop in
(No class 1/16 & 2/20)