Sundin Richards in San Francisco in 1993. Photo by Andrea Perkins.
Sundin Richards, whose poems appear in a special double-length feature celebrating Zone's fourth anniversary this month, sat down with Andrew Haley on June 17, 2010 in Salt Lake City. They discussed Richards' penchant for composing on typewriters, bar fights, railroad towns, Walt Whitman's pathological happiness, big shirts, Moby Dick and the poet's first name.
AH: What kind of a name is Sundin?
SUNDIN RICHARDS: It’s a Swedish surname, but I’m not of Swedish derivation. I was born in the early ‘70’s, and my folks were hippies, so I suppose it was their way of being interesting. When I was little, I wanted to be called James T. Kirk, but then, who didn’t?
AH: Where do you come from? How did you get here?
SUNDIN RICHARDS: Those are some pretty loaded questions! I was raised in two small towns, here in the Mountain West, and would ride the train between them several times a year, by myself.
First there was Helper, Utah, which is an old railroad town. It once was known as “The wickedest town in Utah.” Butch Cassidy robbed the bank there, and the last brothel closed in 1977. More saloons than churches, that sort of place. Then there was Glenwood Springs, Colorado, a lovely little mountain town where Doc Holladay died. There are two rivers that go through that place. I hitch-hiked from there to Salt Lake City in 1992.
AH: You studied under Donald Revell. Did you learn more from the man or his poetry?
SUNDIN RICHARDS: You know, both his poems as well as his own great self have been enormously instructive. I feel that I am a better person for having known Don. His example gives me a great deal of hope regarding the possibilities of the art, being an artist, and just plain old how to live in the world, and to care about doing so.
AH: Spicer or O’Hara?
SUNDIN RICHARDS: Huh. I’m a big fan of both, I must say. I find Spicer to be the more challenging poet, so the pleasure I get from reading him is more cerebral, I suppose, than that which I take from O’Hara. Obviously, I’d like very much to have a Coke with Frank.
AH: Melville or Rimbaud?
SUNDIN RICHARDS: Sure. Well, I try and read Moby Dick once a year, and mostly I manage to. It’s an American epic poem. I mean, what can I say that hasn’t already been said, and better, by others? It’s exhilarating and infuriating, divine and profane, visionary and boring. It’s a goddamn masterpiece. In fact, I probably should give this up right now, take up my copy, crawl inside a hollow log and read it! As for Rimbaud, well, just like a lot of folks, I had a steady diet of him from my teens, through my twenties, and even now I still read him frequently. The guy seems human in only a biological sense. Incredible vision and guts. He was steel hardened by genius. Compassionate without sentimentality. He’s just the bratty father of contemporary poetry. The little bastard.
AH: Do you find it at all contradictory to be a hard drinking bar fighter who writes beautiful poetry?
SUNDIN RICHARDS: Not in the least. It’s a major branch of the tradition. A rich vein of bad behavior runs through the collective biographies of our kind, starting with Archilochos and going all the way up. There are too many to mention. Besides, I may enjoy a frosty adult beverage now and again, but those wild days are largely behind me. I haven’t been poked in the nose in years.
AH: If the academy opened its doors to you, would you go in?
SUNDIN RICHARDS: Sure. I hear a lot of griping from other writers about its evils etc. but sometimes it looks like a pretty sweet gig. I mean, you think about poetry all day anyway, and talk about it sometimes, too, so why not get paid to do exactly that? I don’t have any illusions that it’s some sort of Arcadia, but I think about it quite a little bit during conference calls at my corporate job. And who knows, perhaps I could do some good for the art.
AH: You have been known to dismiss Walt Whitman’s poetry. Do you truly dismiss it?
SUNDIN RICHARDS: Nah. It’s not the poems I object to. I recognize and respect their importance and influence. Particularly from a technical standpoint. It’s that carefully cultivated public persona that makes me uncomfortable. I’m just not able to buy that anybody thinks everything is that great without suffering from some pathology. So I guess it seems to me that there’s more than a little bit of the carnival barker in that personae, yawping his own awesomeness. And that makes me uneasy. I know this seems like some pretty heretical stuff, particularly from an American, and I imagine I’ll get some strongly worded letters. Maybe I’m being unfair. I haven’t read him in years, so perhaps I should sit down with him and have another conversation.
AH: Your book, forthcoming from ONLS Press, is called The Hurricane Lamp. Are you the hurricane or the lamp?
SUNDIN RICHARDS: That’s an easy one. The world is the hurricane and the poem is my lamp.
AH: You still write by typewriter. Are you a romantic?
SUNDIN RICHARDS: Well, I don’t wander around Italy in a big shirt, trying to get laid or anything, so no, I’m not a romantic. I’ve been using manual typewriters for 20 years or so, and I like the direct physical cause and effect of the things. Their only function is writing, and I enjoy that simplicity. Obviously I own and use a computer. I just prefer to go through the process of making poems the other way. Plus they’re darn pretty to look at.
AH: What do you love?
SUNDIN RICHARDS: Umm… train whistles at midnight, snowfall, good Scotch, good food, fine friends, animals, come on, the list is endless.
AH: What do you hate?
SUNDIN RICHARDS: Questions like that.