Contributed by Andrew Haley
Sundin Richards took his own life on June 19 in Salt Lake City. He was 42 years old. He was a true blue poet, nascitur non fit; a self-styled poète maudit whose great humor, wrath, intellect, and charm will be long remembered.
Winner of the 1999 Utah Writers Contest for poetry, and twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Richards served as associate editor of Girls with Insurance and poetry editor of Jumping Blue Gods, authored The Hurricane Lamp (Otis Nebula 2010), and published dozens of poems in, among other journals, The Colorado Review, Western Humanities Review, Interim, Cur.ren.cy, Thrush, Zone, Volt, Cricket Online Review, Etudes, and Sugar House Review. Thankfully, many of those poems are still available online, and although Richards had a love-hate relationship with his name, it makes for easy Googling. He leaves behind numerous unpublished works and works-in-progress.
Fearless, witty, wise cracking, bar fighting, loyal, loving, drug-bent, drunk, charming, and often crazed, his public persona was that of a kind of gentleman rogue from the 1940s given a punk rock acid bath. He had excellent posture, tucked in his shirt, which if it wasn't collared was a fresh white tee; he spoke smartly with a singing, enunciated tenor that sounded almost accented but wasn’t, and comported himself from his teens onward like a sexagenarian combat vet, which he wasn't, wearing long wool coats and polished boots, using Zippos and keeping his face closely shaved. He was emulating his grandfathers, both WW2 heroes whom he revered, and rejecting the entire zeitgeist of the hippy generation, which he hated for many reasons, principal of which was the nightmarish child abuse he suffered at the hands of his father.
|Sundin reads at Ken Sanders Rare Books, 2011.|
Born in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, Richards grew up between there and Helper, Utah. He studied poetry at the Naropa Institute in 1991 before moving to Salt Lake the following year. Apart from a short spell in Southern Oregon, he lived the remaining 23 years of his life within walking distance of downtown.
He attended the University of Utah, where he took Margot Schilpp's creative writing class, and apprenticed himself to a newly arrived Donald Revell. Though he read everything he could get his hands on, the colossal books, the challenges—The Prelude, The Cantos, The Maximus Poems—as well as the obscure little treasures, he never graduated. Ill-suited to the sycophancy and discipline of life as an undergraduate, he preferred the downtown bars or the small bookstores, The Den and Marginalian, long gone now, where he befriended a generation of Utah poets: Glenn Parker, Stefene Russell, Richard Cronshey, Andrea Perkins, Andrea Robison, Dawn Corrigan, Mary Fisher, Calvin Jolley, and others.
Parker’s suicide in 1994 galvanized the friendship of Richards, Russell, Cronshey, and Perkins. The four of them started Salt For Zombies, a reading series that sought to revive audiences from what the quartet saw as a kind of living death. They also frequented Sandy Anderson’s City Art readings in the basement of the Mount Tabor Lutheran Church, where they often read.
Around 1997, things took a turn for the worse. Richards all but abandoned school, his brawling, drinking, and drug use escalated, and after Perkins left him, he was arrested and imprisoned for threatening a date of hers with a handgun. On his release, he, Cronshey, Russell, and Richard Moore edited and published Bird Full of Rain, a collection of Parker’s work, and Richards wrote the poems that would win the Utah Writers Contest and subsequently appear in Western Humanities Review.
It was a momentous period. His imprisonment earned Richards the lifelong bonafides of his bar-fighter persona, while his inclusion in the respected, if conservative, WHR, where Richard Howard was poetry editor, gave him a new kind of pedigree in academic circles and vindicated his conduct as an enfant terrible. More publications followed.
In his forward to Bird Full of Rain, Richards wrote of Parker, “Glenn understood that the struggle for becoming was all important and the process of becoming was paramount. He knew the singing was no mend for the wounding and that this was a good thing.” This becoming possessed Richards for the remainder of life. He wrote and read enormous amounts, drank himself puffy, worked menial jobs, and continued to publish while living in those beautiful old apartments in Salt Lake City with radiators and windowed porches that were built in a time when there was still dignity in being poor.
|Sundin in downtown Salt Lake City, 2015. Photo credit: Clint Wardlow.|
He wrote by typewriter in the early morning, often after a hard night out. But he had the discipline of both will and intellect to cull cheap narcissism from his poems. He hated confessional poetry and lazy poetry and stuck to the old maxims of the early and midcentury avant-garde, abjuring politics and the identity poetics that have come into the mainstream.
Though he wrote and published with abundance over the last fifteen years, honing his style, coming to favor a masterful punctuation built of line breaks, and pursuing at times a wistfulness borne of many love affairs and attentive study of old masters, he may have considered the poems that won the Utah Writers Contest among his finest. “Late Spring,” the closing poem of Hurricane, is drawn from those. He wrote, in a period of great brutality and consequence, of loss and new love, what could be his epitaph,
“I throw my flesh into steel’s
storied brand and spread out in a wind
where animals shudder and love the light.”
Andrew Haley knew Sundin Richards for more than twenty years. Andrew is the author of Good Eurydice (Otis Nebula, 2011), as well as two other unpublished poetry collections, and four unpublished novels: Octopus (2003), Liar (2004), Transference (2005), and Ultramar (2008). He is currently writing a collection of short stories titled Signals and a fifth novel titled Roland. Haley and Ivana Gamarnik co-translated Lola Arias’ play Mi Vida Despues, published in a bilingual edition in Buenos Aires in 2009. He and Sybil Perez co-translated Roberto Bolaño’s final interview, which appeared in Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview & Other Conversations (Melville House, 2009). You can see his poetry in places like Kill Author, BlazeVOX, Sugar House Review, Girls With Insurance, Otis Nebula, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Quarterly West, Zone, and GoodFoot.