Born on November 29,
1929 in Olympia, Washington to Swede-Finn parents, Robert Sund was adopted
as a young child by Evart and Elsa Sund of Elma, Chehalis Valley, Washington.
He grew up at the family farm on Swede Hill, with his parents,
grandparents, and brother.
"Little Red House" Ravenna, SeattleJune, 1965
Robert graduated from Elma High School in 1948. He went on to Pre-Med studies
at the University of Washington. There, he met his future teacher and mentor,
the poet Theodore Roethke, who took him away from Medicine and set him on
his lifes path. He recalled Roethke asking early in their relationship,
You have a musical voice; do you know languages? And, of course,
he did, treasuring fluency in Swedish all of his life. To pay for tuition,
Robert worked summers in the woods at one of the last railroad logging camps
in the Northwest.
Robert finished his B.
A. in Creative Writing in 1954. In the late 1950s, he worked in the
Alaskan fishing industry, mostly as a boats cook. During this time,
he filled notebook after notebook with poems and observations of the vast
natural beauty around him. Of that unpublished work he has said, There
may not be much there
a lot of people have done better. He returned
to graduate study at the University in Comparative Literature (English and
Scandinavian) from 1957-1963.
houseboat, SeattleJuly, 1967
He was briefly married to a fellow student of Roethkes in the early
sixties, a woman named Ireland. She was beautiful, he said,
but it was mistaken.
In 1963, while working in the wheat harvest near Walla Walla, Robert learned
from the radio that his mentor, Roethke, had died. Bunch Grass, his first
published collection of poems, was penned into notebooks that same summer.
Among the University of Washington Presss most widely anthologized
work ever published is the following poem from Bunch Grass:
In a landscape that desperately needs
why do the flowers
so close to the ground?
You meet them with surprise
in the pale grasses.
From 1964-1967, Robert was poetry program director for Lorenzo Milams
KRAB-FM in Seattle. There, he conducted live interviews with such poets
as Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In 1968, he published
Bly, Kinnell, and Pablo Neruda, among others, in the first and only issue
of the Sullivan Slough Review, an ambitious magazine that is now a collectors
The seventies found Robert living the life of an artist. He was often broke,
but always true to his calling. He sold single calligraphed poems and an
occasional work of art in Seattle, shot passionate games of pool in her
taverns, filled notebooks with poems, and discovered the work of Karl Gustav
Jung. Jungs archetypal imagery fascinated him and he began a long
series of gouache mandala images on paper that were shown in several Seattle
galleries, including Richard White, Second Storey, Polly Friedlander, and
the Seattle Art Museum.
During that same time, Robert discovered the Autoharp, which became his
lifelong instrument. Most of his poetry readings included at least a few
songs with Autoharp accompaniment.
On a trip to Shi-Shi beach with artist Charles Krafft in the early seventies,
a vision came to him of a pyramidal shaped cabin behind the huge log drifts
at the mouth of Petroleum Creek. Over the next few years, he and many friends
fashioned two-inch thick drift boards of teak, cedar, and fir into a beautiful
shelter with a beach-stone fireplace. Many survivors of that era fondly
remember the glorious isolated beach, the vegetarian cuisine and the high
times. Later, in gratitude for those days and the place, Robert was active
in the movement to incorporate Shi-Shi into Olympic National Park. After
that was accomplished, of course, the shelter was dismantled.
his passion for wilderness was ignited, and he turned to an earlier discovery
of abandoned gill-netter shacks in Fishtown, on the North Fork of the Skagit
River. Krafft had already moved there, and soon there was a thriving community
of artists, including calligrapher-bookman Steve Herold, poet-artist Paul
Hansen and sculptor-architect Bo Miller. Robert opted for a remote shack
just downstream on Ship Creek (which he called Disappearing Lake due to
the tidal action at the mouth of the river). There, he crafted another aesthetically
pleasing shack filled with the simple beauties of stone, wood, pottery,
and paper art. It became the center for his work for the next eleven years.
As always, notebooks filled up with poetry, and from those efforts came
two beautiful chapbooks in collaboration with printer Rusty North of Sagittarius
Press, Port Townsend (Why I am Singing for the Dancer, 1979, and How
the Dancer is Carried Into the Hall of Light, 1982).
La Connercirca 1971
In 1982, he hosted Kenneth Rexroth at a poetry reading in La Conner, and
published another chapbook with one long poem for Rexroth, entitled This
Flower (The Great Blue Heron Society, La Conner, 1982). Perhaps prophetically,
he attached an addendum to this exquisite work entitled One More for
/ Sullivan Slough ReviewOctober 1968
Maybe exalted gestures will be
in our time.
Maybe our grandchildren will
trunks and boxes
The most profound statement of his years at Disappearing Lake was Shack
Medicine (Tangram Press, 1990, and Poets House Press, 1992).
In A Note on the Setting from this book, he said, Out
on the river you know you are in the midst of a great creation. You
see the old work and the new work side by side; the ancient migration
routes of all the birds, and the slow building of silt and soil in the
estuary; a small grassy island, for instance, that wasnt there
last year and that, in a few seasons, will grow new willow for the blackbirds
and the beavers.
Here, too, he discovered the old Chinese and Japanese hermit poets,
and produced new versions of finely honed poetry from other translations.
Robert calligraphed many such poems on wind letters over
the next two decades, a practice he followed until the end of his life.
In 1984, his book, Ish River (North Point Press, San Francisco,
1983), won the Washington State Governors Award for best new book
of poetry. Here are poems written longingly about his family, grieving,
and sometimes bitter, reflections of life in the towns and cities of
Washington State, and tender reminiscences of love celebrated and lost.
After a short hiatus and a private showing of new paintings in California,
at the home of friends in Point Reyes and at Woodacre, he was diagnosed
with diabetes. Soon after, another chapbook was published. As Though
the Word Blue Had Been Dropped Into the Water (Sagittarius Press,
Port Townsend, 1986), consisted of eight healing poems,
including Like a Boat Drifting.
Like a boat drifting,
sleep flows forward
the deep water of dreams.
Drifts and drifts...
the bottom falls out of knowledge.
In the fragrant mist of dawn
the rower wakes,
up the oars, sets them,
begins to row.
he labored in his dream
like a song in the mouth
Back in La Conner, after hospitalization, he found shelter with many
friends: Jim and Janet Smith, Barbara Cram, Alan Olsen and Charlotte
Underwood. There, Robert Sund was active in a group of artists, musicians,
and poets who formed the La Conner Arts Foundation (LAF), which worked
with the town to restore Maple Hall for use as a community center. He
calligraphed flyers for art show openings, and painted posters for the
film societys movies.
In perhaps the most
memorable mayoral election in La Conners history, Robert declared
himself a candidate in 1984, and stirred the political soup.
He did not win, but the effort brought an eloquent voice into the arena,
and the politicians to the edges of their seats.
Some of Roberts most joyful days were spent working with Washingtons
young people as Poet in the Schools at Skagit Valley College
(1969), Seattle Public Schools (1973), and La Conner Elementary School
(1976-77). He also worked with Christine Wardenburg in their Patterns
in Nature summer camp series at Burlington Little School (1987-1989).
This program won an award of excellence from the Washington Alliance
of Art Educators in October of 1988.
The Nelson family of La Conner gifted him a small corner lot adjacent
to their lumberyard, which he latter traded for land on La Conners
hill. After selling that, he moved to Anacortes and lived on the monthly
proceeds and social security income.
He found a tiny cottage in the middle of the Flounder Bay Boatyard,
and kind landlords in Bob and Erica Pickett. Here, over the remaining
years of his life, he created another charming retreat. The gardens
held a surprise in every corneran interesting rock and shell grouping
here, a perfectly placed, carefully selected stone there, with lovely
board fences, a beautiful gate, and pampered flowers and plants everywhere.
Here, he wrote the Garden Poems, which will be republished in the near
future as broadsides by the Poets House Press.
Ish RiverMay, 1979
Robert found a musical
soul mate and mentor in guitarist Brad Killian, and their guitar-autoharp
duets were delightful to hear. Recently, he teamed up with calligrapher
Ora Mae Cunningham to establish the Ink River Studio in old town Anacortes.
They laid plans for workshops and classes there, and were about to embark
on them when he fell ill this past spring.
Although he was private about it, Robert was a very religious man. He
put great faith in the teachings of the Buddha, although he recognized
the universal truth at the core of all religions. He revered his teacher,
Deschung Rinpoche (deceased), cofounder of the Sakya Monastery in Seattle.
In a letter to the Monastery just shortly before his death, he wrote,
In the early 1970s in Seattle Deschung Rinpoche gave me
my Tibetan name. Ever after, I have tried to honor his being, his generous
spirit, and his kindness to me.
Roberts last will and testament created a trust, with an eleven
member board of friends, to care for his work, publish it, and someday
build his dream Poets House, a place for visiting
artists to live and create poetry, calligraphy and pottery.
Robert Sund passed away at 12:40 AM on September 29, 2001, in Anacortes,
Washington, while his beloved Ish Rivers teemed with spawning salmon,
their spent bodies littering the banks of small creeks where theyve
not been seen in years. Family, and a grand circle of friends throughout
the nation survive him. His thoughts for them were put succinctly in
an unpublished poem from the Shi-Shi years:
Friends make us fuller.
When friends leave, their
light stays behind.
It is like the blue sea
that supports the white breakers
that come and go.
No matter how far I go
I long to return and be with
It is never the same fire
but beneath it are the ashes
of all our meetings that
have gone before.
by Arthur Greeno
Photographs of Robert Sund courtesy of Mary Randlett
All poems are copyright © by Robert Sund