Hands-on poet: an interview with Raymond Luczak
Wed. March 30, 2016 by Gregg Shapiro
What’s so fascinating about Whitman is how much of a harbinger he was of not only the American identity but also of other identities.
Deaf gay writer Raymond Luczak talks about his new book of poetry.
The Kiss of Walt Whitman Still On My Lips (Squares & Rebels, 2016), the sixth book of poetry by deaf gay poet Raymond Luczak, takes the inspiration for its title from a remark made by Oscar Wilde after the two met more than 130 years ago. In the book, separated into five sections, Luczak moves back and forth in time from the present day to Whitman’s lifetime, comparing and contrasting the life of a gay poet, then and now. Luczak, the author and editor of almost 20 books, most recently QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology, is a Pushcart Prize nominee whose work has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. Based in Minneapolis, Luczak is also editor of the respected queer fiction publication Jonathan, published by Sibling Rivalry Press. The Kiss of Walt Whitman Still On My Lips arrives on April 8, just in time for National Poetry Month.
Gregg Shapiro: Raymond, can you trace your awareness of Walt Whitman to being a gay man first or a poet first, or did it occur simultaneously?
Raymond Luczak: Even though I’d come out in August 1984, I wasn’t truly aware of Walt Whitman until the mid-1980s when I was attending Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. When my friend Melainie and I were walking around the city one day, she said that the poet Walt Whitman had lived there during the Civil War, and how she really liked his poem “We Two Boys Together Clinging.” [http://www.whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1867/poems/43] She talked about having seen somewhere a picture of the older Whitman and his boyfriend Peter Doyle, a streetcar conductor he’d met one night, and being impressed by how they looked directly at each other. [https://www.loc.gov/item/2001695200/ ]
GS: What was the first Whitman poem that you read and was it for school or for pleasure?
RL: Because Whitman had never been taught in my high school or college, I had no particular preconceived notions about Whitman; only that he was a poet whose boyfriend was a streetcar conductor. I don’t remember which edition of Leaves of Grass I’d read for the first time, but after plodding through his lugubrious introduction, I was like, “Okay. I get it.” Then I read his opening shot “Song of Myself.” I went, “Whoa!” The poet had conjured a palpable vision of what America could be, and after having read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl prior to Whitman, I saw plainly how a poet could be directly influenced and yet remain distinct from his predecessors. I’d never spotted that kind of transparent influence in a writer’s work before, so that was a revelation.
By the time I graduated from Gallaudet, though, I had become enamored with the New Formalist movement, starting with sonnet novels by Marilyn Hacker, Alexander Pushkin, and Vikram Seth. I was besotted with the challenges of writing poems via traditional forms in the colloquial tongue. By the time my first book St. Michael’s Fall came out in 1995, I was already leaving New Formalism behind. Being a New Formalist taught me how to break down every element of a word and weigh it against the other elements in any given line and subsequently the entire canvas of the poem itself.
More than a decade later, when I began to research various developments in Western poetry for (my book) How to Kill Poetry, Walt Whitman returned to my consciousness. In hindsight, he’d always been there; just waiting for the right moment to reveal himself in ways I hadn’t anticipated when I first read Leaves of Grass. But once he arrived, there was no turning him away. His shadow had finally crossed mine.
GS: What are the challenges and rewards of writing a book-length poem such as The Kiss of Walt Whitman Still On My Lips?
RL: When I began writing How to Kill Poetry, I was still in the throes of feeling an intense ache for a certain gardener. I didn’t know whether I should write about him, and if I did, how I should write. But when I reconnected with Whitman and researched his life prior to writing the poem “America’s First Coming Out”, I immediately saw that he, too, was a man of earth. What changed everything was coming across a spectacular quote in a letter Oscar Wilde had written to a gay friend after having met the poet: “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips.” The prospect of such a startling title was almost like being given permission to write about my unrequited affections for the gardener, and for Whitman himself.
I’d never intended to write a book-length poem at all. I thought maybe it could be a chapbook—each page a single nine-line stanza—about learning from Whitman how to love again, but the more I learned about how Whitman lived as a gay man, the more he seeped into the heartbeat of my poem. What did it mean to love back then? And what about now? I had wanted to learn how he could seem to love so extravagantly in a more repressed time. I wasn’t sure if I could believe in love again even in a far more accepting time.
GS: Parts of the book were published as individual poems in literary journals and anthologies. How did you know that they were meant to coalesce into a longer piece?
RL: I typically create entire books before carving them up for submissions. I usually rewrite entire collections a few times before they see publication as a whole, usually years later. For this book, though, I cherry-picked the stanzas, strung them together as stand-alone poems, and gave them titles for submitting.
GS: Whitman is almost as famous for his beard as he is for his poetry. On the fifth page of section one, you make the first mention of beards in the book. Please say something about beards and bards.
RL: What’s so fascinating about Whitman is how much of a harbinger he was of not only the American identity but also of other identities. I believe he is the first American poet to delineate clearly that what being an American meant, and what that should mean; no more aping the Brits. At the time, when he self-published the first two editions of Leaves of Grass, it wasn’t standard practice to have a picture of the author included in the book itself. But there he was, not in a proper suit but in everyday laborer’s clothes where he showed a little chest fur. At the time, this shocked a lot of readers; the way he had his hand in one of his pockets was almost obscene. Not only that, a sharp-eyed scholar (no less than Ted Genoways himself!) has noticed that over a period of time, Whitman must’ve had the original Samuel Hollyer lithograph gradually modified each time to make his bulge a bit more—how do we say this delicately now?—hung. In that sense, he was really no different from men today who feel the need to advertise their wares online and in hookup apps so they can get laid. Incidentally, both radical faeries and gay bears have embraced him; it’s hard not to compare him nursing the dying Civil War soldiers to those trying to help those affected by AIDS in the epidemic’s early days. No matter how our perceptions of Walt Whitman change due to the times we live in, he remains remarkably resilient.
Whitman was also marketing-savvy. He knew that the more photographs taken of him and sold, the more people would remember him. He knew he needed fame in order to sell more books. It is still shocking—perhaps not so, after having read so much about his life—that there are only 127 surviving photographs of the poet. Compare this number to the 128 photographs surviving of Abraham Lincoln! Whitman’s beard, no matter its length, has certainly lent him an iconic look. My gardener in question also had a beautiful beard that was thick and stiff, so the beard was a convenient link between him and Whitman. Since the early 1990s I’ve always sported a beard. I like having a beard [laughs]!
GS: You make use of wordplay incorporating Whitman references such as your line, "The electricity between us made me sing," which is an allusion to Whitman’s “I sing the body electric.” Can you please say something about wordplay and citation?
RL: Leaves of Grass has had a number of editions, but my favorite is probably the second edition (1856). The first edition had startled many people; yet he must’ve felt buoyed enough to include a few more homoerotic poems the second time around. I think Whitman has created perhaps twenty to twenty-five great poems over the course of his lifetime, which is really a lot more than most poets could ever hope to ask for, and there are many astonishing phrases throughout the rest of his oeuvre. I made note of such phrases with the intent of quoting him in “America’s First Coming Out,” but when that poem got too unwieldy, I trimmed it severely and retained only a few direct quotes. I wove some of my unused favorite quotes throughout the fabric of my book instead. I needed to inhale Whitman’s words deeply in the same way I needed to exhale love’s ache in order to love more freely the next time around.
GS: The Kiss of Walt Whitman Still On My Lips is published by your press, Squares & Rebels. Whitman was also a publisher. Please say something about that correlation.
RL: I certainly didn’t intend to self-publish this book, but because I often lay out books for other publishers (admittedly one of my many part-time jobs), I thought it’d be a fun challenge to try working within the 4x6 paperback size. I thought I’d try The Kiss of Walt Whitman Still on My Lips for practice only. I saw immediately why many publishers don’t use the 4x6 size. It’s very tough to balance the various graphic elements for readability within such a tight page. Placing a nine-line stanza per page might sound easy in theory, but the reality was more difficult. Trying to read a cramped line of poetry is no fun.
Then I read Matt Miller’s Collage of Myself and the Making of Leaves of Grass. I was surprised to learn how Whitman, having been a newspaper editor who’d often typeset his papers, had designed his first book in a similar size because he wanted the book to be easily carried around in a pocket; he’d even typeset the first edition and cranked out the copies himself! What I had been doing as a mere exercise was already parallel to what Whitman had done that I thought, “What the hell—I might as well do what he did [laughs]!”
GS: What do you think Whitman would think of a book such as The Kiss of Walt Whitman Still On My Lips?
RL: He would’ve been astonished to learn that his work is still being read and celebrated 160 years later, and speechless to see my book now. Printing and selling books today is vastly different from his time, so from a publisher’s perspective, he’d have been amazed how a book’s spine could hold together without being stitched. He’d have demanded to see just how a book was created, from its first layout on the computer screen—what, no messing with ink itself?—all the way to its first proof copy, so he could do it himself!
He would’ve been stunned to see how much easier it is to sell a book of poetry—and one that is openly gay—in America and elsewhere. He would’ve also been enthralled by the Internet; he would’ve seized upon it as a democratic platform where writers and readers could connect directly in ways surpassing the so-called Establishment of his time. But more than that, I think he’d have been shocked to learn that most anyone can write honestly about sex without the fear of being policed or losing their jobs. His jaw would’ve crashed at the floor from seeing the ease of downloading porn; seeing a movie shot in color, let alone inserted with explicit close-ups, would’ve blown him away. He’d never have recovered. You see, the older Whitman became, the more he castrated himself figuratively in his work in each subsequent edition of Leaves of Grass.
GS: What is next for you, Raymond?
RL: I have four new books—two novels, a short story collection, and my next poetry collection—currently out under consideration, so I’m awaiting word on those. In the meantime, I’m rewriting my play I Never Slept with Helen Keller, which got a fantastic response at its staged readings in New York in March 2016, for a full production sometime in the future.
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.