Thursday, April 21, 2011

Interview Series: Raymond Luczak

I began 2011 with a goal of interviewing other GLBT poets. I had no idea where this goal would take me. I’m just four months into the project and I feel very blessed by the four interviews I’ve been able to do. Each one has excited and energized my love of poetry. I’ve gotten some wonderful feedback and hopefully a few new readers because of the series.

April’s interview is with a great poet that I’ve been a fan of for a few years. He recently published his fourth collection and I’m honored that he wanted me to interview him. Here is my interview with Raymond Luczak:

Stephen: When I began my interview series, I wanted to focus mostly on emerging GLBT poets around my age, but when I had the opportunity to interview you, I didn’t want to pass it up. I don’t consider you emerging. I feel as if you have emerged and are an important voice in the poetry world. How would you classify your career at this moment?

Raymond: Hmm. Even though some people might categorize my current slate of accomplishments as “mid-career,” I still feel “emerging” in the sense that I’m continually discovering new things about the things I thought I once knew as I write new poems. The exhilaration I get from rewriting a new poem as close to perfection in my mind’s eye is more than sufficient. Publication is just icing on the cake for me. For a long time I used to believe in the maxim, which many advice books for writers extol as well, “Write what you know.” Now? I think there’s a lot more value to be found in my new maxim: “Write what you don’t know about what you already know.” This approach has forced me to be a lot more creative, especially with considering new perspectives about a particular memory, for instance.

S: I like that way of looking at “emerging.” It’s great that you are looking at new approaches to your work.

You are originally from a small town called Ironwood in Michigan. I’m always interested in people who were born in similar areas as me. I was born and raised in Indiana. What was your childhood like? How was it as a gay person?

R: Because I was found to be deaf very young, I was shuttled between my biological family of nine children in Ironwood, Michigan, where there weren’t educational facilities for deaf children like me, and Houghton, Michigan, a university town two hours away. Over the years, I lived with three different foster families in Houghton; I stayed with a foster family during the week, and with my biological family in Ironwood on weekends. This went on for nine years. (I also spent five years in a Catholic school system, which I absolutely hated and yet inspired my first book of poems St. Michael’s Fall.) It wasn’t until recently that I had to consider myself as an orphan in the emotional sense even though I still have relations with my hearing family. I’ve written a piece about how my poem “Orphans” came about at this link along with a subtitled YouTube clip of the poem done in American Sign Language (ASL).

As a gay person, I’d intuited from a very young age that my attraction to boys my age and men older than myself was something not to be discussed. I didn’t have a problem with my own attractions; I just had to hide it. It wasn’t until I hit puberty that my interest in men took a whole new dimension. It wasn’t just an emotional longing; it was sharply sexual. But I didn’t truly come out until I arrived at Gallaudet University in the summer of 1984.

S: That sounds like quite an experience. As you just said, you lost most of your hearing at a very early age (seven months) and being deaf has played a role in much of what you have written. Poetry is often considered a very oral tradition that is based on sound, so how did you come to poetry? And what effect has being deaf had on how you view/read poetry?

R: I’m not sure why Mrs. Fraites, my speech therapist at Ironwood Catholic, had decided that I should try my hand at writing a limerick. She wasn’t one of those conventional speech therapists; she was quite challenging when it came to me. For instance, she didn’t just teach me how to perfect my vowels, diphthongs, and consonants; she also taught me how to lipread, even going to the point of making me read her from the side while she was chewing bubblegum! (If anyone tries to do that today, I’ll always ask the person to remove the bubblegum. Too distracting.) She also taught me idioms that hearing people used, which was critical, because otherwise, if I was trying to lipread a person saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” I’d be very confused. The more idioms I understood, the easier it was for me to lipread.

In any case, I had to write three limericks for my next session with Mrs. Fraites. That was my homework. The next day, which was a Tuesday in late October, my maternal grandmother died suddenly of a stroke. Even though she and I never talked with each other, we had a bond that transcended language. Every Sunday morning after Mass, I went with my family to her house on the other side of town. At some point she always drew me to her pantry and press a shiny penny onto my palm while locking her eyes on my mine. It was her way of saying, “I see you.” So when she died, I felt lost and confused. Dead? Of course, my family didn’t talk about it. We were supposed to go to her funeral mass and that would be the end of it.

I forgot all about my speech homework until that Sunday afternoon. I was supposed to write three limericks? Somehow, in that moment, something clicked when I began writing about a witch in a ditch. It was easy. I couldn’t stop writing them. I think the compulsion came from the fact that no one communicated anything about my grandmother’s death and that I so wanted to find some way to articulate feelings that couldn’t be explained while I was still eleven years old. In those long years of loneliness in Ironwood, writing saved me. If no one was willing to listen to me, I’d at least vent it out on the page and put it away.

S: I’m sure your experience speaks to many people. I know at a young age, I also thought of writing as a way of being heard and continue to think of it in that way as an adult.

I first became aware of your work when I read your book Mute published by A Midsummer Night’s Press. I absolutely loved the book. The opening poem in that collection is “How to Fall for a Deaf Man.” This poem is so beautifully honest. The poem is basically a collection of do’s and don’t’s for a hearing man who is falling in love with a deaf man. Could you say a little bit about how this poem came to be?

R: In the summer of 1990, I lived in the same apartment building in Greenwich Village where Edward Albee wrote the first draft of his breakthrough play The Zoo Story. (At the time I didn’t know that Albee, one of my playwright idols, had lived there; I didn’t find out until some seven years ago in an interview he’d done with Mel Gussow for The New York Times.) The fear and hysteria over the AIDS epidemic was starting to crest even more. Naturally I read many gay writers on this topic, and somehow or the other I came across Michael Lassell’s poem “How to Watch Your Brother Die.” I began looking for his other “how to” poems, and I was so struck by them that I’d managed to find his home address--this was way before Google, so I don’t know how I accomplished that--write a letter to him, asking him for permission to use the idea of “how to” for a new poem of mine. I don’t know where the letter is anymore, but I was thrilled with his consent. I had been frustrated with how hearing men had treated me in those days, so I thought that someone needed to tell them how to treat a deaf man (e.g., moi) right! It didn’t take me long to write it, but I didn’t submit it anywhere. I just put it in my first anthology Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader (Alyson, 1993). When the time came to publish Mute, I knew I needed to update it for the 21st century by incorporating technological advancements as in texting and video relay calling. What’s easier today is the fact that hearing people are more open to texting and emailing rather than just relying on voice phone calls or speaking. Things are a lot more accessible now, but there’s still a ways to go. Most hearing men are intimidated by the notion of dating a Deaf guy. Oh well. (The capital “D” in the word “Deaf” indicates a linguistic and cultural--not medical, not as something to be “fixed"--perspective on deafness.)

S: Since you brought it up, I’m interested in your reaction to labels. I’ve often discussed on my blog the issues involved in being labeled a “gay poet.” You are called a “gay poet” and also a “deaf gay poet.” How do you view these terms? Do you find them confining or useful?

R: We live in a country where more than 50,000 titles are published every year, and a very small fraction of them ever make it to the top of the New York Times bestseller lists. For writers, marketing becomes 1,000% crucial. It shouldn’t have to be, but that’s the way it is in America. I wasn’t thinking of marketing at all, certainly not at first, when I submitted my long essay “Notes of a Deaf Gay Writer” to the magazine Christopher Street. I was thinking how my piece needed a hook in its title, and I knew that there was a very real paucity of writing about the Deaf gay community at the time. (Expanded with commentary and hindsight, the piece is now available as an ebook title Notes of a Deaf Gay Writer: 20 Years Later on the iPad and the Kindle.)

I don’t have a problem with being called a “gay poet” or a “Deaf gay poet” as long as it compels prospective readers to check out my work; if these labels turn them off, they’re not for me. I can’t win over everyone no matter how much I’d love to, so I won’t even try. All I can do is to be the best writer I can be, and pray that readers will adopt me. Most of us writers are orphans, and we’d love to be included in your family of books on the shelves in your homes! The other reason why those labels don’t bother me is because they’ve begun to matter less. Straight people aren’t as bothered by the “gay” thing as they used to be. It’s not a big deal when you have openly gay authors getting on the bestseller lists (David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, and so on).

If you’ve seen the entire range of my work as a filmmaker and playwright, it’s obvious that I’m a lot more than just the “deaf” and “gay” thing, but we live in a time and place when soundbites are often substituted for real conversations.

As for how I view myself as a Deaf gay writer, I’d like to echo Joyce Carol Oates on the subject of being a writer who happens to be a woman: “A woman who writes is a writer by her own definition; but she is a woman writer by others’ definition.” I write what my muse compels me to, but it doesn’t follow premeditated design.

S: You have been making various YouTube videos in the last year or so. Some are trailers for your books and others are you signing your poems. What got you interested in doing these and what has the reaction been?

R: Some years ago I’d directed and edited a few full-length documentaries that were eventually released on DVD. (They’re unfortunately out of print.) It was a great learning process, and as a result of that, I became quite familiar with the ins and outs of Final Cut Pro, a nonlinear video editing program. So it was a natural progression to make the leap to editing book trailers and ASL performances of my work. Video is a very powerful medium, and easily the most potent form of marketing there is, especially if you do it right. If you can shoot video and edit it down to size, you’ve given yourself incredible marketing power online. Viewers will appreciate a clip that’s tight and to the point, and still show them something they’ve never seen before. This is where the “Deaf” thing becomes a true asset online. Even though many in the Deaf signing community are tired of being seen as novelties, many hearing people want to learn sign language, so they check out my clips. In order to remain relevant and more universal, I must continue to ensure that my work says something more than just about being Deaf and/or gay. Hearing gay writers have the same challenge with their work, so I know I’m not alone in this regard.

I’ve gotten very, very good reactions to my clips, which pleases me to no end, because it means that they’ll tell their friends about them; hopefully a few of them will want to check out my website and order copies of my books. Even though there aren’t as many bookstores out there, it doesn’t mean that the book is dead!

S: I agree. The book is not dead and I’m getting a little tired of that statement being tossed around. On the other hand, technology is changing us. Personally, I’m interested in how technology is altering both the poetry world and our everyday lives. You mentioned this a little bit earlier, but I imagine, as a deaf man, texting and social networking sites have become very useful. What is your take on all of this?

R: It’s been exhilarating, to say the least, to reconnect with faces I hadn’t seen in three decades via Facebook. Even though I do tweet occasionally, I find Twitter to be overwhelming at times. But I’m finding that too much social networking isn’t good for most people. It seems to have created a false sense of community that disappears the second everyone gets together in the same room. I see that Deaf friends are posting status updates about their own lives, but do they ever get together in person, even when they’re local? Not very often.

In 1982, I read Megatrends by John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene in which they predicted how the Information Age would transform society. I don’t remember much about the book, but I did come away with one of their predictions: The more high-tech we become, the more high-touch we will crave. These writers were remarkably astute in this regard because the more connected we are online, I find myself longing for a sense of community, and in person. I’d like to be part of something bigger and meaningful like I used to be. Before everyone got wired, I was always so excited about hanging out with Deaf friends here and there. We got to see each other. We got to share our experiences in person. Now? We’ve reduced ourselves to stills taken with our cell phones and status updates. When we’ve allowed ourselves to give up on the efforts to reconnect with each other in person, we’ve lost something truly enormous. We need to become human again, and not online.

That’s why I gave up on using gay dating sites. They weren’t working out for me, mainly because we’ve turned ourselves into commodities that one can browse as if in a store. No, he’s too fat. No, he’s too old. No, he’s too (you fill in the blank). This makes it far too easy for us to reject people without ever meeting them. So, yes, I’ve been rejected many times because I’m upfront about my deafness. And why don’t I drop mentions of my deafness in my profiles? Because I’ve learned that many guys are wondering if I have something else to hide once they find out that I’m deaf. Damned if I do mention my deafness; damned if I don’t.

And yet, the Internet has leveled the playing field between hearing and Deaf people. Their means of communicating doesn’t have to rely solely on sound, so that’s good.

S: That’s a very interesting perspective. I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about the use of these sites to build community, but I think you point to some of the downfalls of that. We need balance for sure and I don’t think the Internet should be a complete replacement for face-to-face interaction.

Your most recent book Road Work Ahead, which is your fourth poetry collection, was just published by Sibling Rivalry Press. It is actually the first full-length poetry book to be published by the press. What made you decide to work with a new press and what has your experience been like?

R: Considering how difficult it is to get a full-length collection of poetry published anywhere, I’ve always been open to working with small presses. About ten years ago I worked with The Tactile Mind Press. My books This Way to the Acorns: Poems and Silence is a Four-Letter Word: On Art & Deafness were their first titles, so I think I was something of a mentor to the publisher John Lee Clark and his wife Adrean. I explained a lot about the process of publishing and marketing, so when Bryan Borland of Sibling Rivalry Press (SRP) asked me if I had a poetry manuscript, I gave him Road Work Ahead. Even though he was a huge fan of my book Mute, I was very surprised to hear back from him in a few days. He wanted the book, and he was the first publisher to see it! Getting accepted on my first try is not supposed to happen.

So in a sense working with Bryan was a resumption of that mentoring relationship I had with John Lee Clark. (John and I continue to keep in touch on various projects now that he’s running Laurent, an e-monthly literary journal for the Deaf and signing community, for Clerc Scar.) Working with Bryan has been a real delight; it’s been a wonderful give-and-take relationship. I gave him a lot to think about in terms of where he should go with SRP, and he understood that I didn’t expect him to accept everything I’d said and suggested at face value. It’s his company, after all. It’s in my selfish interest to see SRP succeed, and I’m not saying this because SRP has brought out one of my books.

If small presses like SRP and A Midsummer Night’s Press don’t break even, a lot fewer people would be willing to set up small presses focusing on writers of diversity. The more successful like-minded small presses there are, the better my chances of getting my other books published elsewhere. Duh. (Don’t get me wrong--I’d be equally delighted to work with SRP and A Midsummer Night’s Press again on another one of my books!) If you’re a writer interested in getting your work published by such a small press, please support them! Submitting your work to them and not buying their titles is bad party behavior. Buying directly from them--as opposed to Amazon--is vastly preferable because they’ll make more money per copy.

I’m flattered that Bryan considers me a mentor, but that makes me feel good. It means that through his efforts as publisher and marketer, I hope to have helped make America a more welcoming place for poets who happen not to be mainstream or academic in the traditional sense. So many of us writers are orphans, so that’s why what Bryan’s doing is so important. We need a home and a family who understands and accepts us as we are.

S: That’s an excellent case for supporting small presses and, as you know, I’m a friend and fan of Bryan’s. He’s doing some important work at SRP.

In your new book Road Work Ahead, the poems contain similar themes about love, relationships, and moving forward. Many of the poems are also labeled with street names, which connects back to the title of the book. How did this all come about? Did you have the idea for the whole book first or did you find the pattern after writing some of the poems?

R: I’d initially began writing Mute with the intention of using the poems inspired by my unrequited love for a hearing man initialed “A.R.,” but as two decades rolled on by, the book became less about A.R. and more about my experiences as a Deaf gay man. It wasn’t too long after the first draft of Mute that I’d met the man who became my partner for 15 years, so I wrote a lot of love poems for him. I wasn’t thinking of putting them together in a book, but thanks to Elizabeth Bishop’s interest in travel and my reading various travel books, I began writing poems for a new collection to be called The Nomads. Prior to and after the breakup with my partner of 15 years, I began exploring feelings as a nomad of the heart. By then I’d retitled The Nomads as Road Work Ahead and decided to incorporate some of my love poems from over our 15 years together. Once I hit on its new title, it was relatively easy to restructure the book. I wanted the book to feel like an atlas of sorts, as if I’m showing my readers the colorful stickers from the cities and countries I’ve visited slapped all over the suitcase of my heart: Here, and there, this is where I’ve been.

I’m a big believer in what Sylvia Plath once said about creating a collection. I don’t have the exact quote, but I’ll paraphrase her loosely: “If you have a collection of 25 poems, you should arrange them in such a way that the book becomes the 26th poem.” It’s a good guideline for weeding out poems that have no business being there. For instance, Mute originally had some poems about A.R., but they didn’t explore my feelings as a Deaf and gay man, so Lawrence Schimel, the publisher of A Midsummer Night’s Press, said that they had to go. He wanted Mute to be more about the Deaf gay experience than anything else. I was a bit bummed, because I knew these poems were good, but I understood why he wanted to cut them. The ironic thing is that his cuts have made Mute a stronger book and yet some of these cut poems worked much better in the context of Road Work Ahead: “Some Days,” “Shroud,” “After Suddenly Seeing A.R. Again,” and a few others. I’m very happy with how Mute and Road Work Ahead have both turned out. A good poem will find its rightful place in a collection sooner or later.

S: You just named various poets who influenced your ideas about your current book. Who are some other poets who influence and inspire you?

R: In no particular order: Walt Whitman. Marilyn Hacker. Timothy Steele. Elizabeth Bishop. James Wright. Emily Dickinson. Robert Lowell. Vikram Seth. Jane Kenyon. Ted Kooser. Adrienne Rich. Virgil (as translated by Robert Fitzgerald). Sylvia Plath. Richard Wilbur. Marianne Moore. Vikram Seth. Julie R. Enszer. Alexander Pushkin. James L. White. Frank O’Hara. W. H. Auden. John Lee Clark. Tony Harrison. Kenny Fries. Craig Raine. Bryan Borland. Allen Ginsberg. That’s a fraction of my personal library!

S: How would you characterize the current state of gay poetry in America?

R: I don’t get a sense of community among gay poets that I’d seen back in the early 1990s. I think this is mainly because once so many LGBT bookstores began closing, we didn’t feel as if we had a place to call our own. As powerfully convenient as it may be, online isn’t everything that it’s been cracked up to be. That said, Assaracus would be a good place to start.

S: While I have felt a strong connection to many gay poets through the Internet, I do long for a more face-to-face community and that has been something I have struggled with in the last three years. Maybe eventually this will bring on a revival of bookstores.

What is your advice for young gay poets just starting out?

R: Read. Read. Read. And don’t be afraid to explore things in your work that might shock your friends and family. The last thing you want to be as a poet is boring. Poetry is of the senses, so don’t be afraid to feel. Without poetry, we might as well be dead.

S: I can’t argue with that advice! Now for some fun. What poet dead or alive would you most like to have sex with? And what kind of sex would it be?

R: Oh, that’s easy. Walt Whitman, hands down. I saw a picture of him in which he had his thick beard trimmed at this link. His eyes are the most incredible thing in that picture. If he looked at me like that, I’d be putty in his hands! And what kind of sex would we have? I wouldn’t share such intimate details on here, but it’d have to happen somewhere in the woods on a bright summer day, and near a lake where we could skinny-dip and cool off afterwards. Most people don’t think of Walt Whitman looking so debonair like that; they remember only an old man with his long scraggly white beard, which is a real shame.

S: What is one poem you think is so great that you totally wish you had written it?

R: There are so many poems I wish I’d written, but Marianne Moore’s poem “The Fish” comes to mind. That inspired, in a rather roundabout way, my poem “Gazes” in Mute.

S: What celebrity should play you in your bio-pic?

R: Given how Hollywood has a penchant for casting inappropriately hunky men even though their real-life characters were a good deal homelier, I might as well suggest the Deaf actor Russell Harvard. (He’d appeared in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood.)

S: Lastly, what’s next for you?

R: I don’t like to rest on my laurels. These days I’m finishing up a new collection of poems, and about to start restructuring and rewriting my next novel while I await word from publishers and editors on a few manuscripts that I’ve submitted. And more importantly, I have to cook my dinner.

Thank you for your interest in my work!

S: Thank you, Raymond.

-Stephen (Q&A)

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