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Interview: Kevin Ridgeway

It's five a.m. when most of us are asleep or trudging toward the shower, Kevin Ridgeway sits in his home office with a cup of coffee, an abundant supply of cigarettes, and Warren Zevon or the Stones or Muddy Waters on the record player, which is always within reach.

Having grown up in a single-parent, working-class home, headed by a hard-working mother who, in her younger days, was a blues singer, Kevin inherited the tremendous work ethic that defines his reputation in the small press. Kevin is the embodiment of the artist who applies a working-class ethic to his writing life. He writes daily, starting at five a.m. and works for the first six hours or so, when his mind is most active, only taking breaks when absolutely necessary. Five days a week, he engages in the long and sometimes lugubrious process of submitting his work to publications, receiving “plenty of rejections and the occasional acceptance.”

Kevin is well-respected by his readers and fellow artists not only for his skill and persistence as a poet, but for his kindness, modesty, and sincerity, which, o the outsider, may seem effortless. Actually, Kevin’s passion and enthusiasm for art and artists, for people and their stories, has helped him overcome crippling social anxiety.

Kevin has battled drug and alcohol abuse and severe bipolar disorder, and while the dark times are gone, he acknowledges by choosing to make healthier decisions that maintaining mental health is an active, daily process. Though substance abuse prevented him from writing, and his output was uncharacteristically sparse, the knowledge that he was a creatively driven person served as a sort of guiding light.

A Southern California native, having also lived in New England and New York, Kevin is back in SoCal temporarily, but would someday love to return to the Northeast, where he has left a part of himself. To the friend, fellow artist, and loyal reader, there is no question that Kevin’s
determination, resiliency, positive outlook, and thirst for adventure will bring him wherever he chooses to go.

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BRIAN LE LAY: What song or artist have you been playing on repeat lately?

KEVIN RIDGEWAY: Warren Zevon. His music creeps into my record player every few months and lingers there for a while. He’s probably my favorite singer-songwriter. I’ve also been into “Exile on Main St.”—Rolling Stones. I consider the Stones to be my dad’s band.  The Stones album “Let it Bleed” is probably the soundtrack to his life.  “Exile” is more a part of my soundtrack.  It’s nice and dirty, but also soulful and grandiose.  I listen to a lot of old blues, too—Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson…but I always return to the music of Warren Zevon and think to myself: This combination of music and words sums up my spirit and keeps me grooving through life with some peace of mind. And you can never go wrong with The Band and Bob Dylan. The music of The Band brings me to tears—just the sound of it puts chills up and down my spine. Great stuff, music is.

B: Absolutely. Though I don’t listen to them often, for me the Rolling Stones are definitively rock ‘n’ roll. I remember being three or four, sitting in the backseat of my grandfather’s car and hearing “Satisfaction” on the radio. When I asked, “What is this?” I was told, “rock ‘n’ roll.” In that sense, their music is ingrained in my mind and, I think, preserved in the part of the mind where poetry comes from.

What function does music serves to your poetic process? Is music primarily a motivating force, a vehicle that brings you to your creative space? Or would you say that, for you, music contains some subliminal data, which inspires words and imagery and colors, such as, for example, that highly active mental state between wakefulness and sleep? I suspect that to some extent, both apply to your process.

K: Music can inspire words and imagery to start dancing in my mind. “Subliminal data” is a good term for it. Listening to a song can get me motivated, get the creative juices flowing. My favorite time of day is five in the morning when I’ve just woken up from the most insane dreams and I’m listening to music in the dark. That’s when I write the most—in the early hours of the day with a secret song and coffee slowly waking me up while I laugh at myself in the dark.

B: You are active on Facebook and keep up regular correspondences with your readers and fellow writers. Has socializing, and thereby networking, always come easily to you?

K: Socializing doesn’t really come easily to me. I have serious social anxiety, even when it comes to cyber land. But my enthusiasm for other people and their work helps me overcome that. That and people responding to my own work. I love what I do, and am inspired so much by other people’s work that I am able to transcend my crippling shyness to say “how-do-you-do.” I love writers and artists. It’s gotten easier over time and I’m lucky to have a lot of great friends, especially in the small press world.

B: Now for some questions in regard to your writing process, which I know is something of a mystery to your readers, who admire your tenacity and your ability to consistently produce quality work. How often do you write, and how much work do you usually produce in a given session?

K: I write every day, especially during the first six hours after waking up. My mind is fresh and ready to roll with ideas for either a poem or a story. I tend to write at least one poem, or I work on the revision of one. This is usually the case, however, yesterday for instance was different—I didn’t write a word until around ten at night. Some days are like that, but usually I do most of my work in the morning and then I go off and experience life for the rest of a given day.

B: For a poem, do you work in drafts, or is the editing process embedded in the writing process, later requiring only minor edits?

K: It varies. Some poems need extensive revision, and some need a lot less. I’ve written and completely revised one poem in twenty minutes, for instance, and another takes months of work!

B: How long do you let finished work marinate before submitting?

K: I always walk away from the work before I submit it, to give myself a chance to look at with fresh eyes. A few days pass, I’ll read it and if I think it might be ready to send to an editor, I send it off.

B: How often do you submit?

K: Five days a week. I take two days off from it, because I get overwhelmed! By doing it that frequently I get plenty of rejections and the occasional acceptance.

B: Typically, do you begin to write with an idea or an image you want to convey? Or are you inspired to write by a sudden remembrance or an observation in which you detect poetry?

K: Both of those roads usually lead to a poem for me. I might see something in my head or catch an image when I’m out in the world, and that is enough for inspiration. Someone might tell me a story or one will come to mind and I find a poem in that. I relax most of the time and let one or the other form the catalyst for a piece of work.

B: Do you spend a lot of time thinking about writing when you are not writing?

K: I do. I think it’s important to carry a notebook with me if something screams out to me for later exploration. I try to live my life, though—enjoy my time away from the drawing board—for good or ill.

B: Give us a portrait of your usual writing day. How much sleep do you get?

K: I used to not sleep at all and just wrote through the night. I can’t do that anymore. I get up very early in the morning when there is less distraction, examine my notes or listen to music. Inspiration usually strikes the most during this time and I work hard at whatever that is for a number of hours in the morning. I like to rest my mind at night. It’s constantly spinning and needs its rest, otherwise wild and crazy things can happen!

B: What time do you wake up? When, where, and how do you begin? How often do you take breaks?

K: 5 AM, most days. I always have something to prompt me to start writing—I usually get situated with my morning cup of joe, plenty of smokes and a song playing. I have an office space where I live, and that’s where I do most of my writing. A picture of Bob Dylan sneers at me and the record player is at arm’s length. I’m sure I drive my girlfriend crazy with my frantic early morning typing. I take a break when necessary—that varies—I usually stop when I feel like I’m going to fall over. That’s when I pause and take in the necessities of life, and then I light my smoke and it’s back to work. On a productive writing day, that is. Like I said, I might take a rather long break and live this strange thing called life.

B: Do you have any small rituals to help along the process, such as cleaning and arranging your workspace, putting on a pot of coffee, listening to a certain song, etc.? Given that music is an influential part of your writing life, do you listen to music when you write, or is it mostly a catalyst?

K: Caffeine and nicotine are helpful, stimulating substances that I utilize. Music is good, but I only listen to instrumental music if I’m writing. No singing, I get nothing done that way! Music is definitely a catalyst. I also like to play with my cat as a sort of relaxing meditation before I work.

B: Do you write every day?

K: I write at least a little bit each day. Some days are more productive than others. I write a lot of crap, of course, but I like to get something flowing outward every single day.

B: And how, for the love of God, do you deal with ennui?

K: I read a lot—I’m also a huge film buff, so if I’m feeling that way I take in a lot of movies. Art of any kind soothes that problem for me. I try to get the hell out of the house! Even if I’m broke, I’ll ride the bus uptown and people watch. I’m guilty sometimes of becoming overwhelmed by everything and I stare at the wall in despair, but as I get older that seems to become less frequent.

B: I consider you the epitome of the artist who applies a working-class ethic to the artistic process. You seem consistently driven, unhindered, and relatively free of the drama and psychic frenzy to which creative types are often drawn, although having read many of your poems, I know this was not always the case. You do not strike me as the type who feels a messy personal life is imperative for a productive creative life.

K: I’ve come a long, long way. I’m not productive at all if my personal life is a mess. When I was five years-old, my personal life was void of drama and I was happy. I created art in various ways (poems, plays, stories, pictures) with such abandon. I was astonished and wide-eyed with wonder. That stopped and I grew up to become a totally miserable human being. I’m trying to get back to my five year-old self in spirit. I’m nowhere near that yet, but I’ve made some progress. My life may seem boring compared to my very melodramatic early adulthood, but I have a hyperactive mind that keeps me busy. It’s not good to want to be like Anne Sexton or Robert Lowell. I love their work, but they died too young and seemed rather unhappy. I’d stop writing if it meant I had to live a horrible life in order to create.

B: That is a rarely expressed sentiment, and I wholeheartedly agree. I used to think that I would sacrifice even mental stability if it somehow meant a deeper devotion to writing, but that typically results in vanity, abusive or negligent behavior toward those who care about us, and emotional breakdowns that inhibit our ability to create freely and to grow aesthetically. But your work ethic seems to keep you well-grounded. To whom or what do you owe your singular work ethic?

K: I come from a single parent, working class home. My mother worked her ass off and even in retirement she still works very hard. My brother is a working artist and he works his ass off. I am a lazy bastard compared to them, but they both inspire me to work harder, and yes, I do work quite a bit at writing. Just don’t ask me to take out the trash, I’ll drag my feet and moan. I keep the counterproductive forces away for the most part, when it comes to my creative process.

B: Historically, what has been the relationship between your art life and your personal life? In other words, how have your personal relationships and life choices affected your art life, and vice-versa, for better and worse? Would you say that your work ethic has served as a compass during times when you felt particularly lost and/or helpless? If so, how?

K: Writing and creating have always helped me get through the hopeless, lost times. I can be very open about my personal life in my work—not always, but I can be. I am happy to say my girlfriend operates as a muse for me. People in my life inspire with their great storytelling. I keep those types of people very close because it has a huge impact on my creativity in a good and positive way. I used to make terrible choices, still do sometimes, in my personal life, which has negatively affected my work. I used to try to cope with life by abusing alcohol and drugs to excess, and not only did it nearly destroy me, but not a poem or story was written under the influence of those destructive forces. I try to keep my mind clear and my heart open—more positive things come that way, and I create more.

B: You mentioned having previously used alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms. In some of your poems, too, you refer to experiences with alcohol, drugs, and depression. Can you tell us more about your experiences with these things, and how you overcame them?

K: Well, I’m bipolar, and I take a few medications that work for me and keep the symptoms from that in control. I used to drink like a fish and do whatever I could to numb my inner pain. I don’t do 12-step programs because they go against my own spiritual beliefs, and I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’ve been clean and sober for however many years.  I just choose to make healthier decisions, and part of that means putting the kybosh on the drinking.  I don’t do street drugs and I rarely smoke pot, the latter of which being the only substance I’ve ever truly enjoyed at all.  I write about it because it simply gives it less power. The further I get away from the dark times, the more I am able to laugh at them. So I try my hardest to walk the line.

B: I am interested to know about the dark times. I wish more writers would matter-of-factly discuss the dark times, so that aspiring, struggling, self-doubting writers would not get the false impression that creative excellence is effortless, and believe that because they experience difficulty they are somehow inferior, not “meant” to write. In retrospect, when you hear the phrase “the dark times,” which period of your life immediately comes to mind? Tell us a bit about that period, its causes and conditions, and how you dealt with them.

K: I think of my early twenties as the dark times. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but I have bipolar disorder, am one hundred percent manic-depressive. My late teens and early twenties were the beginning of my illness, and I chose to cope with it by abusing alcohol and drugs. I got married to a nice girl who is about as crazy as I am, and we were divorced within two years. I moved back on my mother’s couch and was a miserable, suicidal drunk for most of my early adulthood. It was a tumultuous time; writing and creating, while rather minimal in those days, is one of the things I’m convinced kept me hopeful and kept me alive. I shared my writing only with my closest friends then–was terrified to send it to any editor.

I sought treatment for this bipolar beast, and I’ve been mostly abstinent from alcohol and drugs in recent years. I take medication, which helps me a great deal with my mania and my blackest moods—it’s an ongoing struggle. Once I became stable, I began to write again. I met some local authors who gave me such great encouragement to submit my work to journals that I got over my fear of rejection. The past three years have been the most productive and happy years of my adult life. There are always problems. Life is never perfect. I don’t ever want it to get as dark as being drunk in the back seat of my dad’s Honda shooting heroin over on Skid Row again. Life is too great a privilege to waste, and even with this annoying mental disorder I soldier on, ready to be inspired and have new adventures far away from those horribly dark times.

B: Earlier you mentioned that your mother’s work ethic has served as a major inspiration for your own. What is the nature of your relationship to your parents and siblings, and how have these dynamics contributed to your development as an artist?

K: My mother was a blues singer before she had kids. She is a very creative, intelligent, and loving human being. We’re close and she encourages the best in me.

My brother is a working actor in New York City. I’ve always looked up to him, his talent and his drive. My relationship with him has always brought out nothing but positive energy—I am a better person and artist for knowing him.

My father is in prison for bank robbery. He’s battled a heroin addiction since he was fourteen years-old. While he has had a very negative impact on my life at times, I still love him and have learned so much from him and his stories.  He is one of the best storytellers I know.

My great-grandmother was the closest to a saint that I’ve ever known. She was very loving and nurturing. She represents my conscience—as a person and as a creative artist.

B: You mentioned that your brother lives in New York City. When you lived in New York, you slept in the windowsill of your brother’s apartment. What brought you to New York? How long did you live there, and what was your life like at the time?

K: My brother and sister-in-law were very generous and let me stay with them right out of high school in upper Manhattan. I wanted to be a stand-up comedian and playwright. I took classes in playwriting at the New School at night and tried to get a job during the day. I couldn’t cope with big city life and did not last there beyond six months! And I never got onstage with my comedy. So I just write a funny poem here and there to satisfy that lingering urge.

B: You have lived in New England, New York, and Southern California. Ideally, given the right sum of money and the appropriate circumstances, where would you like to live?

K: I’d love to live in the northeast again—New England or New York. I have such fond memories of those places. Southern California is where I’m from—I can cope with living here for now, but eventually I’m going to have to move on.

B: How have your experiences traveling and living in a variety of environments enriched your writing life?

K: The experiences and the great people I’ve met along the way have fed me with inspiration and spirituality. I love the experiences I’ve had, especially in New England where part of my heart still resides. And I continue to travel, so it’s an ongoing, beautiful thing.

B: To which artist(s) do you feel an aesthetic kinship, that what he or she communicates or communicated is similar to what you hope to transmit through your work?

K: I guess I go back to Warren Zevon. His work had a great literary quality to it, and the music was amazing. He stood in the fires of life and survived his own personal demons. That inspires me and I hope to keep surviving and creating like good ol’ Zevon.

B: What do you want the reader to take away from your poems? In other words, what is at the heart of your poems? Some people write out of a pervasive sense of loneliness and disconnect, which is embedded in the work, and the work is then a way of reaching out, a way of joining the world. Others write out of anger and resentment and the work is de facto therapy, a tool for relieving those emotions and for finding answers. Others write to advocate a particular message, whether a political point-of-view, a social cause, or a general theory of how we should live our lives. Others write simply because the creative process is invigorating. Why do you write?

K: I’d go with the latter, that the creative process is invigorating.  It can be therapeutic, too—the most I can hope for with my poems is this:

a)      Someone actually read my poem, and

b)      Perhaps it entertained that person for a minute

I choose to leave the analytical stuff to other people. I like entertaining and inspiring people when I can. The heart of my poems is not to take oneself so seriously. I used to write out of all of the things you listed, but where I’m at today is just simply to create and hope it moves someone in some way.

B: Lastly, have you thought at all about the “legacy” that you hope to leave behind? How do you hope to be received?

K: Not really, no. I’d like to be remembered as someone with a sense of humor and a flair for creativity. I’m sure this thing about my legacy will continue to evolve as I grow older and hopefully wiser than I am now!


Kevin Ridgeway’s latest chapbook, Burn Through Todayis now available. His next, All the Rage, is forthcoming from Electric Windmill Press.