Interview with Kevin Ridgeway
Jenny: When Ariana asked me to pick a writer to interview for the relaunch of s&s, I thought of you right away, not just because you are one of my favorite living humans, but also, and more importantly, because you were one of the first writers we published way back in the day. It’s been nearly a decade since we debuted, and I know that was near the early days of your career as well. Can you tell us a little bit about your creative arch in the last 10 years?
Kevin: My first publication was in December of 2010 in the Left Coast Review, an annual college journal overseen by a few professors who were supportive of my work. One of them was John Brantingham, an amazing poet and writer who taught at Mt. San Antonio College alongside Syd Butler Bartman, who was my writing professor. I met Syd via my longtime companion Sandra Walker, who was a gifted poet and literary scholar. Sandra forced me to take Syd’s classes in memoir, which influenced my poetry in moving it toward realism and true stories from life as I knew it so far–narrative free verse that debuted in that and several little journals, zines and magazines of the independent and small presses of America and abroad. Another early supporter of mine was Dr. Gerald Locklin, who inspired, encouraged and schooled me–he was the professor emeritus of English at Cal State Long Beach. He was a prolific and remarkable poet, friend and peer to Charles Bukowski. I’ve spent the past ten years in a real flash–i started writing poems about mental health and traumas of my childhood, no longer fearful of stigma–I am putting together a collection of poems about my current experiences in Long Beach and less so of the distant past.
My themes are starting to move away from the past and into the present, beginning with my latest chapbook, “The Purple Crayon Poems” which was just published in the U.K. as a limited run from Analog Submission Press, who’ve published a few of my best chapbooks in recent years My themes are focusing more on mental health issues, the world of mental health care, drug addiction, poverty, street life and the taboo subjects that make people uncomfortable to talk about.. I have begun to learn the gift of revision when paired with a voice that I’ve been shaping, making it clearer and stronger as I move forward. I experienced so many set-backs and calamities in these past few years with the death of my mother and my girlfriend’s untimely passing–I’ve been writing about these traumas while they unfold.
Jenny: If anyone is lucky enough o follow you on social media, they will know that you post a number of pictures of yourself in your skivvies. Talk to me about underwear selfies. What’s this all about? Is this a poetic move?
Kevin: I’m obsessed with underwear, and have been for my entire life. I think it’s so weird, this obsession, and so I’m writing poems slowly for a future collection. Themes are self-esteem and my struggles with my identity as a man with numerous situations of me sans pants weaved into it. Growing up, I was really insecure and had tons of body image problems. When I went to college, I spent the three weeks of the first semester hiding in fear of other people. I went to a party, got drunk and started to dance around in my underwear in front of everyone. It is exceedingly embarrassing to me and still is–I met most of my college friends with no trousers on. Made a lot of friends that night.
My Dad went to prison when I was eleven months old and my mother kept his clothes in the dresser, which was filled with a galaxy of boxers. I looked in there everyday. My Dad was arrested for armed robbery during a raid at our house that I don’t remember. He was arrested in his boxers. I got busted and sent to jail only one time in my life. And they took me away in my boxers. Like Father, Like Son.
I make mistakes with my friends at times due to my moods and isolation, and so I strip down to my boxers as an apology to them on social media.
A friend lost a close friend of hers and I was trying to console her while she was crying and her tears turned into laughs after she checked her Facebook and came upon one of my more daring underwear selfies. My underwear selfies helped her get through her pain.
My confidence in myself has gone up physically for the first time ever as many friends, family and peers agree that I have killer legs. So along with the boxers, I will get them insured.
I have an at times outrageous, screwball sense of humor. This lady I know had heart surgery and while she was under and they conducted surgery on her, she had a dream about me giving a poetry reading in my underwear after following my selfies on Facebook–the gift that keeps on giving.
Jenny: It’s not hard to see echoes of the classic CA blue collar writers in your work, men like Fante and Bukowski, how do you feel about this classification? Do you feel a chasm or hostility between the MFA/academic writers and the lowbrow writers these days?
Kevin: I choose not to take sides. Many of my friends have told I’m overly advanced and an MFA program could spoil my work. I’ve got nothing against people who have masters degrees, they write good poetry like me and the many people who do not have MFAs. There are friends of mine that detest MFAers. To join that fight would be so lame for an artist like me. There is tension at times with some poets regarding that. It’s one of the few things that I don’t let get to me.
Jenny: You have been on a publishing hot streak for quite a while now. In your opinion, what’s the state of small press these days?
Kevin: Small press publications have been folding on and off–especially with Covid. There is a fuck load of passion and greatness–magazines fold but new ones open up. I intend to help keep that spirit alive–the community I’ve found has been the greatest blessing of my entire life.
Jenny: Have you felt the impact of this last year directly in your writing? At the start of quarantine people were posting all kinds of irritating things about how Shakespeare wrote McBeth during the plague and that kind of thing. Has the calamity an isolation of the past year fueled your writing and reading? Hurt it? No effect?
Kevin: My new chapbook The Purple Crayon Poems (Analog Submission Press) touches on personal Covid experiences around my social isolation and hospitalization in November. Being mentally ill during Covid has been one hell of a ride so far. I wrote a poem last year that RD Armstrong published in Lummox 9. Poem’s called Quarantine #9. It is a humorous poem, as humor is so greatly needed in any form, from boxers to chapbooks. I’m trying to write more about contemporary situations, get in the now and push for ever more universal issues. I’ve been dealing with a lot of deep issues after quitting dope in 2019. And I have not taken a drink or a drug during Covid–I am facing personal demons and surviving unpleasant experiences and so there is hope for me as these trying times that are slowly making me stronger and aware and ready to heal.
Jenny: You talk openly about your own battles with mental health (thank you). As cliché’ as this question is, what role does art, your or others, play in mental wellness for you?
Kevin: Art saved my life as a man afflicted with bipolar disorder–whenever I achieve creative flow, I experience a catharsis that puts me into my wise mind. People with my diagnosis include many creative artists gifted with an intense surge of prolific work. I have done well as a writer these past ten years–half of the time I was going through hell, was quite impaired and still kept at it–my writing is what carries me through the darkness of this lonesome life–art is my higher power–it saved my life. I’m thinking of doing an anthology of poems written by my fellow mental health patients. My writing is the strongest thing within me that I’ve ever known.