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American Rimbaud: An interview with Steve Richmond

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“Almost everyone I know is dead—overdosed, by the dozen.”

BP: You know the Zorba, the Greek scene where they all come in and clean out the house? But there was a great article in the L.A. Times in the magazine, I think it was West Magazine, that did a whole thing on ‘Steve’s Candle Shop’—the beauty and the color of the candles—so that’s there forever.

SR: I never saw it.

BP: Every opportunity that has been offered, and you didn’t show up.

SR: I wanted to be, you know, if I was going to make any fame, I wanted it to be as a poet. Not as a candle-maker…I was hiding out, I locked the front door, and I didn’t show up [laughing].

BP: But with Steve there is this collision—of color, especially in his art, and in his paintings, and his poetry, and drugs. I’m coming back to the drug part because… it’s a very dangerous thing to play around with, it’s like teaching a 5-year-old to shoot a .45.

SR: Yeah, almost everyone I know is dead—overdosed, by the dozen.

BP: And yet, it really shattered barriers, like you’ve never seen before, I mean, you think of Rimbaud, the great French poet, with alcohol, with…they broke through barriers with the French language, Steve really did the same thing… So let’s go back to your second book, no let’s just go back to the Gagaku: How many would you say you have written over the past 40 years?

SR: Eight- or nine-thousand. You know, just put the music on…about two weeks ago, I wrote no poems for three months, and then six in the last 14 minutes. They’re very short now.

BP: I’ve always thought that the Gagaku form is sort of sketching, in other words they are very short things, like a person who does a beautiful line sketch, like Matisse or somebody like that, you look at it and think ‘Wow, I couldn’t do that.’ And that’s my impression, of what your Gagaku’s mean, ‘cause they are short. They seem to come in a massive wave, sort of almost like having a stroke, they just come flying out with all this stuff, and you get it all down, almost the way…

SR: That’s the way it used to be. Now it’s survival. I use it as a sort of last resort. When things really get… months will go by…I got the music right next to me, it’s like math, it works. It’s just, you know, time to write…usually lasts about 25 minutes. I don’t even submit ‘em anymore, unless somebody asks.

BP: People do ask.

SR: Yeah…this guy from Orange Tangerine, in England, read the piece in Beat Scene…anyhoo, he sent me a great letter, said he’s doing this anthology …sent me certificates for postage, I sent him seven or eight.

BP: Where is he from?

SR: London.

BP: Ok, that’s great. You know what, fuck the U.S. they never get it.

SR: They’ll come along, you know, after England.

BP: They’re always the last, you know.

SR: U.S. is just, you know, into the election.

BP: Well, take a look at the publishing industry of New York City, it’s basically run by about five guys.

SR: …Bukowski picked up on Ask the Dust. You know, he picked up the soul and rhythm of the man’s voice and added…and from there on it’s a…you know, I was with you and Bukowski at his place once, I took you over to visit him. I remember Bukowski saying, “Ah, don’t mention the title, don’t mention that book.” I was half asleep, and you said…I know he didn’t want me to read Ask the Dust at that moment, because he knew I’d pick up on the fact that Bukowski was born in the Year of the Monkey, and “Monkey hear, Monkey say,” he picked up on [John] Fante and he took that, you know, it’s like me listening to Gagaku music for the first time, Bukowski reading Ask the Dust for the first time…it gave him a voice. I mean a new voice. Since Fante became a screenwriter, Bukowski had this great basic voice…to work with.

BP: He reinvented poetry because he used the forms of prose that Fante gave him and he wrote them as poetry and that really changed the whole world.

SR: That’s what I mean. Which is great, which is great, you know.

BP: Guys that do cement work have a Bukowski book in their backpack.

SR: That guy’s got like 20 million books in print now.

BP: Everywhere, that’s right, and that’s because he stripped it down to clean language (not clean in the moral sense, but just as he always said “the line,” he got that line down there, this “the hard line” and he got it partly from D.H. Lawrence, who he really admired a great deal, but was a little more fancy…)

SR: ‘The Prussian Officer,’ yeah. He loved the brutality of that story. He wrote that poem about never being glad he never had to meet D.H. Lawrence. He was a son-of-a-bitch, Bukowski.

BP: There was a great thing that Magid, my friend, did. He runs The Persian Book Review, and he translated this poem, it’s called, ‘The Whore who Stole all my Poetry.” It’s the story about a woman who, you know, sleeps with Bukowski and then steals a stack of his poems [laughing].

SR: Who Magid or Bukowski?

BP: No, Magid [Roshangar] translated it.

SR: It’s a Bukowski poem?

BP: Yeah. On the left side of the centerfold of this review is the English, and on the right side is the Farsi, in that beautiful script. So he’s the one who’s kind of interested in doing a Richmond issue.

SR: That’d be great.

BP: Well, let’s talk about one more thing, that I think is more interesting to me, um, which I hinted about and it’s really painful I think to talk about it but to go through the whole process—when you inherited all that money, at the time you had your little house, and then eventually they tore it down or whatever, and then your parents died, and you inherited this money and had this big house. We both have the same publisher Al Berlinski, so he showed me the photographs—you had a pool in the back, you had a limo…Did you have a limo?

SR: I had a limo, I woke up one morning, I had a million and a half in the bank, I woke up one morning (I was with Merisha), I said, ‘Yeah, I want a limo,’ I went out and four hours later I had bought this beautiful, eight-year-old Cadillac. Got it in Beverly Hills, they had a bunch of old limos, just gorgeous thing… got it for $30- some odd, $32,000. After a year or two the frame dragged and I sold it for $3000 [laughing]. It was fun. Beautiful.

BP: The house was where?

SR: I showed you the house.

BP: Well, tell me.

SR: Euclid and… Hill…it was an 18-room house, cost me $700 a month to keep the pool at 90 [degrees], my legs, each one of my legs weighed as much as I do now, ‘cause I was full of poison, from all the toxic, you know, stuff—crack and heroin I was doing, ‘cause that’s all I did. I played a keyboard though, trying to make music.

BP: You did some Eric Satie.

SR: There was a record of Satie’s solo piano, that is one of the nicest pieces of music I have ever heard in my life, I used to write to that. Beautiful, you know, I mean a, great minor key, very, I don’t know if you ever heard that, I had to go to this little record store…

BP: I haven’t heard that, but I was much more interested in the music you were playing yourself.

SR: Like any idiot, I made a disc and had a thousand copies made, and I haven’t had a… lost them all, I don’t know where they are. Berlinski has a copy.

BP: I’m sure he has more than one. Al always files things away.

SR: But that house was, you know, if I had to do it all over again, that’s the one thing I wouldn’t have done. But I wanted to see what it was like too, you know.

BP: And what part did Merisha play in all of this?

SR: She had the uh, upstairs was the master bedroom…

BP: Did you love her?

SR: Yeah, but one day after 20 years together she told me, she says, “I’m just with you for the money.”

BP: Geez, after all that.

SR: She’s an Aries, and Aries women…will finally put their foot in their mouth. And as soon as she said that…I asked myself, ‘What am I doing with this fucking woman?’ [laughing] ‘Cause she was a hooker when I met her, you know, but a beautiful…and she was a great painter…

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 6th, 2009.