Walter Beck talks to Raymond Luczak about the influences on his writing, and the great, wide-ranging ideas that animate the book How To Kill Poetry.
Recently I had a chance to talk with author Raymond Luczak about his new book How to Kill Poetry. In between editing a fiction journal, Jonathan, and working on his own projects, his next poetry book, his new videos and who knows what else, he managed to squeeze in enough time to answer a few questions.
There wasn’t much in the way of small talk. The man is a driven artist, so it was all business.
Please introduce yourself to the readers of Polari.
I’ll start off with my standard bio: I am the editor and author of 15 books, five of which are poetry collections. I am also a filmmaker and playwright. I have been living in Minneapolis, Minnesota for the last eight years. While I rarely mention this in my bio, I have been deaf since eight months old. Some of my books include Assembly Required: Notes from a Deaf Gay Life, Men with Their Hands: A Novel, and Silence Is a Four-Letter Word: On Art & Deafness.
What inspired How to Kill Poetry? Any particular artists, musicians, poets influence this book?
One of the book’s cues came from U2, one of my favorite bands. While I can’t hear as well as most people, I do have enough residual hearing to enable me to enjoy music – up to a point, of course. In the late 1980s, my number one favorite record was U2’s The Joshua Tree. I sort of liked some of the songs on their next record Rattle & Hum, but I knew it wasn’t a full-fledged album. When I first heard about their next record, I was intrigued. Then I saw the world premiere of ‘The Fly’, the first single off Achtung Baby, on MTV. I didn’t know what to make of the song. It was grinding, it was full of tension, it was full of whispers. The video reflected the song’s qualities, but I still wasn’t sure what to make of it. What I hadn’t realized at the time was that prior to Achtung Baby, U2 had pretty much posited themselves as a very earnest band. They wore their hearts on their sleeves in their music.
I didn’t know what to make of the album. Then I heard ‘One’ for the first time. I was stunned. I still didn’t like the album as a whole. Then I listened to it a few more times straight through, and then I went, Ohhhhh! I couldn’t say it any better than Bono when he said that Achtung Baby was “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree”.
As it turned out, many people consider Achtung Baby to be the Sgt. Pepper of the 1990s. It is indeed a great album. It’s full of texture, layers, humor, and so much darkness. Listening to the record was a real lesson for me.
By the fall of 2008, I was coming out of the worst depression of my life. To make a long six-month soap opera short, I had gallbladder removal surgery, my dog Elsa back in New York died, one of my dearest friends died suddenly, my new dog Rocky came into my life, my boyfriend broke up with me, I moved into a new apartment, and I traveled around the country to promote Eyes of Desire 2: A Deaf GLBT Reader. The summer of 2008 was hard. I was emotionally worn out to the point when it took me two full days to compose a single eight-line poem.
In September 2008 I’d decided to force myself to start writing again. I find that in order to produce material, I sometimes need to come up with some of the most preposterous titles and write something in order to justify the use of such a title. I had no idea what I should write about. I thought, “Oh, why don’t you just die, poetry!”
That’s it. I’d call the new collection Die, Poetry, Die.
But what did it mean to have a poem die? How does a poem die?
I thought of what I should do with a book called Die, Poetry, Die. (I had pretty much finished Mute and Road Work Ahead, but I didn’t have contracts for either title yet.) I happened to be listening to U2’s Achtung Baby opener ‘Zoo Station’, when it hit me: “Ready to let go of the steering wheel … ready for the crush.”
I needed to kick my old poems aside. I had to think big. I had to mock my old poet self. I had to get down and dirty with my verse. The first draft took me three weeks to write. I had no idea where the hell I was going, but I’d forced myself not to fight it. Poems came pouring out of me. I was writing a few poems a day. It was so liberating not to be me, the old depressed me.
Then I took a critical look at what I’d written. Hmm. Even though I’d tackled the history of poetic development in Western civilization, it didn’t feel big enough. I wanted a sprawling White Album. I wanted messiness. I wanted it to be different. I didn’t want a typical Raymond Luczak book, much in the same vein that U2 had finally decided that they didn’t want a typical U2 album even though The Joshua Tree had made millions. They had taken a very serious risk in mocking themselves and embracing the rock star lifestyle with a very big tongue in cheek.
I happened to read a quote online about some scientists calculating that if we did not change our present course in regards to global warming, winter would disappear from Europe altogether by 2052. I was very struck by that. Wow. Winter could be gone in my own lifetime? I grew up north in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I remember climbing up snow banks so high that we couldn’t see the front windows of my mother’s house. Then I recalled having written some poems about winter over the years, but I never knew what to do with them. That’s how I came up with the idea of being a fictitious poet 200 years from now in a time when everyone would long for winter. Excited by the very notion of assuming a different persona, I wrote some new winter poems for a chapbook set two centuries from now.
But what could be the context of those poems in relation to the first section? I realized I wasn’t thinking big enough, an insane notion by itself. I had to reimagine what our ancient forebears had felt about the power of mythology because I think that’s how our first poems came about. Using Walt Whitman as a ghost in the third section, I decided to mix him up with the new myths being created. I thought, Okay. That should do it.
After Sibling Rivalry Press published my book Road Work Ahead, I asked my publisher if he’d be game to look at my next collection, which I’d retitled How to Kill Poetry. I warned him that it was a very different book. I couldn’t believe it when he said he wanted it. He was ecstatic!
Two years later when it was time to lay out the book, I realized that the third section wasn’t good enough. It felt shoehorned. I decided to go back and start all over again with new poems for all three sections as well as cutting all the weaker stuff. Shake up the whole book all over again. Kick it to the curb. I ended up rewriting the third section almost completely now that I had three other titans joining Walt Whitman in their battle against the old mythologies. I guess you could say that I had begun to think like U2’s producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois in how they constantly tinkered with U2’s material, adding and tweaking one layer after another, and sometimes to the point of losing sight of the song’s original impulse that it became anticlimactic. When I told my publisher that I was going to rewrite the book, he was probably very worried that I’d weaken the book. He was right to worry – it was already a very ambitious collection. It could’ve easily collapsed under its own weight.
When I sent him the revised manuscript, I told him that if he found a weak poem he should cut it. No questions asked. He made some suggestions here and there, but much to my surprise, he didn’t cut a single poem. (I ended up cutting a few more myself.) He said that the new version was much, much stronger.
But I wasn’t satisfied. I told him that I wanted to make the print version to be an anti-ebook. That is, I wanted the book to look in ways that couldn’t be replicated on an ebook reader, as in using a facsimile style for the second section and shifting lines all over the page in the third section. I wanted to add another layer to the book’s density. I wanted this book to be my Achtung Baby.
Whether my readers will “get it” remains to be seen. I hope so.
I know you’ve been at this a long time, how does How To Kill Poetry compare to some of your other poetry books? In terms of content, style, construction.
My first four collections are pretty traditional. In my early years as a poet, I was a rather devout New Formalist; that is, I used meter, rhyme, and so on to convey experiences in a colloquial voice as was possible. I’ve loosened the reins and allowed myself to trust the material more. Many poets tend to write poems, not always sure whether they’d belong in a certain collection, and submit them over the years until they find they’ve got a full-length book. I work the other way. I tend to write each full-length collection in a month or so first, and then continue to prune that book by cutting weaker poems and writing new poems. When I need to submit poems, I simply carve up the book in progress.
As you’ve already seen from my previous answer, How To Kill Poetry was much more of an organic process.
While the book isn’t scheduled for release until March, how has the feedback been from the lucky few who have received copies?
You were the first person to review it, so I can only hope that others will feel as strongly as you do. Only time will tell.
That said, it’s interesting that one of my friends didn’t seem to like it. I think it’s because he was expecting more of the same stuff, which he had loved. Remember, I myself had the same reaction when I first heard Achtung Baby myself, so I hope that readers will warm up to it once they see where I’m going. Either way I’m very proud of it because I was willing to take a lot of risks. That alone forced me to expand my own palette as a poet. How To Kill Poetry was a real poetry workout!
You’re pretty well known for releasing videos of you performing your poems. What are some of the poems you’re selecting for filming from How To Kill Poetry? And why these particular poems?
Right now I’ve shot the title poem and ‘Incunabulum’. I have a third clip that’s almost done, but I don’t want to give away the surprise. When I send you the link for that clip over the next few days, you will understand why. I will probably shoot two more clips; I don’t know yet. I need to look through How To Kill Poetry again and see which would work well as a clip. I don’t want to talk too much about the How To Kill Poetry clips at this point because I want to extend the risk-taking vibe to these clips.
I think it’s important for artists to continue taking risks or they risk the worst kind of death: predictability. I don’t want to be predictable anymore. Those days are over.
Polari is currently celebrating GLBTQ History Month. As a gay poet, how do you feel about how far we’ve come and where we still have to go?
I feel great about the progress we’ve made as a community. I’m aware that many LGBT folks complain about the seeming lack of progress on the marriage equality issue. I do share their sense of frustration, but I’d like to remind everyone that compared to many groups, the LGBT community has made enormous strides. It wasn’t even five decades ago that a gay person could come out and get arrested. We’ve battled two thousand years of Bible-inspired homophobia and ignorance to score many political and legal victories, and that by itself is an astonishing achievement especially when our identities are defined by our sexual attractions.
As you know, sex is a very loaded topic. It’s important to keep things in perspective when things get rough. We have made incredible progress, and we will continue to make progress. We just have to hang in there until it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or not. The fact that we still have to consider whether a certain literary journal would be open to publishing gay poems before submitting our material (heterosexual poets never have to consider whether the heterosexuality of their work is acceptable or not unless they’re dealing with a LGBT publication) means that homophobia still exists in the literary community.
I hate it when some straight people say, “So-and-so’s work is so gay.” You know what I say? “Your work is so straight.” When someone says, “So-and-so’s work is so gay,” that’s automatically a homophobic remark because no one ever complains when a writer’s work is “so straight”. We need to call out periodicals on their heterosexism and demand a place at the table. This is yet another reason why marriage equality is so important.
Other Midwestern artists I’ve spoken to usually mention their hometowns as an inspiration to them. Does the Midwest inspire or influence your work?
It has been an influence on me, no doubt about it, but for How To Kill Poetry, I did not want to be Midwestern at all. Yet some of the winter poems couldn’t have been written by someone who didn’t grow up north. Unlike most people, I love winter; it’s a fantastic excuse to slow down and savor the things we would’ve been too impatient with during the summer, as in long novels and epics.
Are you anticipating a pretty big seller on your hands with this book?
Oh, God, yes. My publisher feels the same way! Only time will tell.
The final and most important question: How are you going to top this?
Right after I’d finished the first draft of How To Kill Poetry, I went off and wrote another collection with a different set of parameters. It’s quite ambitious but for a very different reason; it has a very different tempo and structure. That’s all I’d like to say for now.
Any final words for your new legion of British fans?
Be a good outlaw. Kill a poem – or two – today.