American Rimbaud: An interview with Steve Richmond
“I wouldn’t want to be like anybody else, you know. If you can’t be original, do something else.”
Steve Richmond, Meat Poet, with more than twenty books to his credit, was Charles Bukowski’s best friend at the time of their greatest production. Letters back and forth between the two number almost two hundred. After forty years of heavy drug use, Steve has reemerged to claim his place as the writer of thousands of Gagaku poems, a form he invented, and America’s most important lyric poet since Emily Dickinson. I sat down with Steve recently along with an L.A. English teacher who was gracious enough to let us share his table and umbrella in the hot sun of Marina Del Rey. This is the first of three long interviews about Steve Richmond’s life and poetics.
Ben Pleasants: You used to have a place up in June Lake or something? Didn’t your father have a place up in June Lake?
Steve Richmond: No, they used to take me up to…Convict Lake… it’s in the Eastern Sierras, … close to Mammoth, you know.
BP: The Sierras are so beautiful. How would you compare mountain climbing to the adventures you had in the drug trade?
SR: Very similar…
BP: … you could fall to your death…
SR: …[laughing] Aw well you know, we were all, in the ‘60s, you know we all, everybody, most people…
BP: Yeah but there’s a difference, you were honest about it. You were one of the only people…
SR: Why do something…if you can’t be honest about something, it’s worthless. It don’t mean if you have millions… what’s the use?
BP: You did have millions for a while…
SR: The whole criteria I found out, a couple of years ago, not to get a headache. If you are getting headaches, you know, and maybe, maybe is a one equation is the more money you have, the more headaches you get.
BP: You started your adult life very young, you told me about this woman who was like a dementive [sic] who gave blowjobs to all the guys in the neighborhood, or something?
SR: Well, there were a lot of those [laughing].
BP: Do you remember that?
SR: Most women are like that. But, you know, they keep it a secret.
BP: When did you start with drugs?
SR: I started drinking in high school. Alcohol. Alcohol was a … the first night, the first night I had… remember those little cans of Country Club?
SR: Malt liquor? First night I… a guy took me to a … there were two girls living up in the hills in their rich parents’ house, … it was my first time. And the first thing that I did was I walked down to the door, she was standing in the doorway, talking on the telephone… and I put my hand right on her crotch, and I never did anything like that in my life. That was the inhibitions removed by the three cans of Country Club.
BP: They kind of go together actually. The ecstasy of drugs and alcohol and…
SR: …maybe that’s why the alcohol monopoly keeps the… without alcohol, I guess there is no economy.
BP: [laughing] When you first got into drugs, were you in college? Or…
SR: Yeah. Everybody got in before me, that I knew, you know.
BP: Was it your fraternity?
SR: No, no that was just strictly…I didn’t get in ‘til I was about 23. Smoked my first joint.
BP: What was your fraternity? What frat were you in?
SR: Phi Lambda Phi. Rafer Johnson [Olympic decathlon champion] was in it.
BP: No kidding. Do you remember any of those guys?
SR: Yeah, I remember, you know, I never see any of them for 40 years now. I got in, and I quit, and then I got tossed back in. They had great parties. And it was a, Jesus…
BP: Steve and I met at UCLA, and it was, you did your whole undergraduate at UCLA, right?
SR: And I went to law school at UCLA. Got a degree and I took my first hit of grass in my first year in law school so. That probably [laughing] changed my direction.
BP: You read the law sort of sideways, directionally.
SR: Well, law school it can be kind of, you know, it’s like teaching English, it can be kind of dry [laughing]. Plus I didn’t have a good legal…I mean I could tell, these guys had, you know, some aptitude.
BP: Did you get into it because your parents wanted you to do it?
SR: Yeah, my dad is a lawyer; I had a position of, you know…
BP: And here’s a guy who didn’t hate his father, he actually loved his father.
SR: Yeah, my father’s great. Taught me how to trout-fish, he wrote poetry, too, all about God. My dad, he’s a good man.
My mother was great. They were married for… you know…I had great parents. I mean, they were great Conservative-Republicans…But they were landlords, I could tell when I was about 2 or 3 years old, money didn’t bring happiness, not that poverty did, but I’d hear him haggling with my grandmother about what she is going to do with the property…
[talking with the “other” diner (OD), complimenting one another]
SR: [talking about Ben] Met him at UCLA…I just started writing poetry and they were having a, he was running a poetry meeting in the student union, and uh, I showed up, you know, I had just started writing and it was an opportunity to read in the lounge, and uh, Jim Morrison was there, he just got up with his poetry, before he was even making music.
BP: True, he was there. Uh, the thing about Steve though, he had done a book, and I got a lot of books and they were just shit, I mean really, really bad, but I looked at this book and I thought, ‘My god, I’ve never seen anything like this.’ I mean his poetry was so original, this was the first of the poetry he ever did. It was like, putting it out there, you know, to test to see what people thought. He sent a copy to Bukowski, who already was one of the most important poets in the country, and he wrote back right away, that this is really amazing stuff. This is 1964…
SR: That was ’64. Yeah, I got some poems accepted the first time I sent out—I sent them three places: Kenyon Review, you’ve heard of them… Wormwood, you haven’t heard of Wormwood probably…and Partisan. Two of them sent ‘em back and one of them accepted eight poems… just…yeah, you know, here I am, in my first year in law school and for the first time in my life, you know [laughing], somebody, you know, somebody had related to my soul… I said, ‘I got to do this for the rest of my life.’ This made me feel so good, I wanted to do it for the rest of my life, and I did.
OD: Strictly poetry, huh?
SR: Yeah, I threw out prose here and there. I tried prose but, you know.
BP: Steve is a lyric poet, that’s what he is. Just like the great Chinese poets who wrote short lyrical poems. And one of the things that influenced him, I’ll let him talk about it, was this incredible Japanese court music, called Gagaku, and in my opinion anyway, his greatest poems are the Gagaku he writes, I would say that in a sense, when he listens to this music, he’s… sort of intoxicated by what he sees in his mind. But I’ve never read anything like it. There is nothing in the English language like his poetry. It’s a lot like Bukowski and nothing like it.
SR: I wouldn’t want to be like anybody else, you know. If you can’t be original, do something else. This girl I was seeing, excellent artist, took me to the UCLA music building, down below the studios, and there were these Japanese students/musicians, they were rehearsing this Gagaku, G-a-g-a-k-u, Shinto music, it’s imperial court music, so when Japan changes its emperor, over TV… that’s what they play, the Gagaku music. And it’s available at Japanese record stores…
BP: And they were playing it at UCLA, for Christ’s sake.
SR: Well, they play it all over now, if you go online, you see…
BP: No, I mean you actually saw them do it.
SR: I saw them play, I heard ‘em play, you know, I mean, and just her [Anna Purcell] and I, and these two chairs. She took me down there and they’re rehearsing, you know, they’re playing.
BP: Ethnomusicology, the department of…
SR: The Department of Ethnomusicology, in the music building. And I started, you know, when you are really moved, you know, tears will come to your eyes. That’s happened to me twice in my life. For art, Goya’s glorious black paintings that I saw in Spain. Something so full of, you know, something there, that I found a connection with….if there is an essence, beyond words. So I got the music and I started writing to it. … I titled everything “Gagaku.” And I exorcised, I exorcised my demons, you know, I’d just pretty much come down and…
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 6th, 2009.