On the books: Ronald Dzerigian

When were you in the Fresno State MFA program, and what genre did you study?

I began the program in 2013 and graduated in 2016. I studied poetry.

What were your first thoughts when you learned that your full-length poetry collection, Rough Fire, would be published?

I was nervous as hell. I had been searching for publication and submitting like crazy. However, once publication became a reality, the idea that my manuscript was going to be viewed by others outside of my comfort zone felt daunting. After about 24 hours of shock, my anxiety shifted to acceptance and delight.

I know you are also a painter and mixed media artist, in addition to being a poet. What about having your poetry collection published pushed you out of your comfort zone, considering your previous experience with art shows, music performances, etc.?

I can, on the page, be more honest with my audience. Honestly, publishing a book feels more natural to me than an art exhibit or musical performance. Art shows and rock shows require an energy I simply do not have anymore — or maybe never had. In fact, and I’ve never really opened up about this before, I realize now that I do not have the internal real estate to accommodate the emotional stability needed for a lot of public appearances. Music gigs and art shows became, for me, more about quantity and attention, than quality of output. Plus, art is always too expensive to truly share with everyone and live music requires a venue and gear. I just want to put words on a page, find resonance with the human race in a way that is affordable, and doesn’t require my constant presence, so they can take that experience home and become enveloped without pretense.

Did parts of your book grow out of your Fresno State MFA thesis manuscript of the same name? If yes, what was the process like, taking what was your thesis and making it into something more?

Essentially, the core of the book is my thesis. Soon after graduation, I began making changes to the manuscript by divvying-up groups of poems into additional sections. Over a span of about 6 months, I saw a few poems that needed to be moved elsewhere — to future volumes or thrown away — and I had written some new poems that seemed to be a better fit for the book. The evolution of Rough Fire could have continued; however, I needed to stop myself. Editing can become an obsession for me, so stopping myself from making further changes was a huge and necessary obstacle to overcome.

You recently read the poem “Four Egrets” for the Fresno State MFA YouTube channel’s #FresnoWriters video series. I noticed that “Four Egrets” was not in your original thesis manuscript. How did the poem find a home in your book?

I began writing “Four Egrets” during my last semester as an MFA student. I take Fowler Avenue in rural Fresno County either to or from Fresno State on a daily basis, and there is a house along that route that keeps two horses and two llamas fenced in around it. It’s not a lot of space for them to roam. Then, I would often see these egrets that would be drawn to a particular small canal. The untethered egrets and the entrapment of the larger animals made me think about the way human beings perceive ideas of freedom. Some freedoms are ensnared by others and some freedoms are harnessed by hunger. I saw this picture, daily, for a majority of my time as a grad student and I still drive by those locations today. The poem came suddenly at the end of my time as a student, as I was turning 40, and seemed — for me — to sum up what the book is attempting to accomplish: the transformations, that can occur in a person, as they discover that they can feel free even when they are not. Also, that memory is precious and educational. Perhaps true freedom comes with those discoveries. And, of course, the San Joaquin Valley can serve a metaphor for all those things.

How did you land your publishing deal with Finishing Line Press, and what about their work is a good fit for your book?

I sent to Finishing Line on a whim and they snagged the book. I felt happy having found a home for the book after receiving 42 rejections from a variety of competitions and open reading periods. I had a distinct idea of what the book should look like. So their “hands-off” approach meant that it would look the way I had envisioned. This was and is important to me.

Wow, 42 rejections! How many rejections were prepared to go through? What did you do to prop yourself up between rejections, before the big acceptance?

I was prepared to go through as many rejections as it would take. Rejections are fuel: fuel for revision, fuel to re-submit, fuel to continue. At least, that is how writers should learn to see rejection if we don’t already. Anger and jealousy can show up occasionally, but then I see the work of a new poet that astounds me and I think, I definitely want to be part of that conversation. Everyone knows how addictive a good challenge can be. Also, it helps that my wife and daughters think my poems are pretty good.

How did you decide on your book’s title?

The Rough Fire was a massive forest fire that ripped through Kings Canyon and Sequoia national forests in the summer of 2015. When my wife and I were listening to the news of its growth on NPR, we heard the name and both agreed that it had a certain quality; in fact, the more I thought about it, the more astonishingly beautiful it became. I had been struggling with themes of transition, destruction, and renewal. The Rough Fire became an immediately relevant metaphor for the content of the book.

Outside of writing poetry, what work are you doing to make a living?

I consult post-baccalaureate academic writers through the Graduate Writing Studio at Fresno State, which I help supervise. I teach an English class occasionally.

What’s a typical day like for you as a writing consultant?

My job is to help grad students feel more comfortable with their own academic voice. I’m either helping other consultants with their own consultative practices, facilitating workshops or writing groups, or investigating new ways to best help writers — from many different fields of study — become more confident. I’m particularly excited about my new writing groups for MFA students of all genres. We talk primarily about book and thesis construction so they can graduate with a manuscript ready to submit to publishers.

What about your MFA experience at Fresno State has stuck with you, and what do you wish you might have done differently?

The thing that I learned immediately after entering the program, and that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life, is this: Rigor is everything. I would have started the program earlier if I hadn’t been such a dumb-ass in my 20s and 30s. Here is my advice to all reading this: Serious problems arise if a break from your life goals takes longer than a week. If you are a writer, do everything you can to keep a momentum going: Read hungrily, maintain productivity, write a certain amount daily, and make yourself participate in the larger conversation by sharing your work worldwide.

What’s your next writing project?

I have since completed two manuscripts that I’ve begun sending to publishers. Lately, through domestic and pastoral imagery, I’ve been working to address the challenges of intimacy, of being mixed-race, and of being a parent to two daughters in our current climate.

What do you hope to teach your daughters, perhaps through your poetry?

I think, constantly, about the recent conversations we’ve been having with our daughters regarding the dangers of power, judgment, misunderstandings, gender/sexual mistreatment, and how so many of us have not learned from past mistakes. I want them to see, more immediately, what took me such a long time to understand. That a person has the tools to address problems, fears, confusion, and hopelessness with honesty, clarity, and action. I hope that they will know, someday, the power of candid language and metaphor; that the written word can be a tool for change — even if you spend a morning writing about egrets.

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