Interview with Raymond Luczak

WG: Raymond, you are such a Renaissance person a poet, playwright, translator, film maker, novelist and essayist that it is hard to know exactly just where to begin, but one thing that I find particularly interesting is your work in translating the work of Clayton Valli and making it accessible to the non-ASL public. Can you talk a little bit about what that experience was like?

RL: When I first saw Clayton, I was an 18-year-old student in the New Signers Program (NSP) which I took for three weeks at Gallaudet University prior to becoming a freshman there. By this point I had been writing uninformed (and uniformly) bad poetry for seven years. I had never questioned the unspoken assumption that poetry was the domain of hearing people until our ASL teacher informed us that an ASL poet was coming to our class that afternoon. "ASL poet"? I knew ASL, and I knew poetry (or so I'd thought at the time), but together? How would that work?

He entered the room and said hello to everyone. So far, so good. Then he did one of his ASL poems. I don't recall what the poem was about, but watching his careful use of handshape, rhythm, and space blew me away. It wasn't the fact that he was using ASL; that was old hat as I was already becoming fluent in the language. But I'd immediately grasped the visual elements clearly parallel to the sound elements of written poetry. I couldn't articulate it at the time, but I got what he was doing. I just didn't feel up to the task as I hadn't grown up with ASL like he had.

About nine months later I fell for a man who turned out to consider him his best friend. We were together for almost three years. I began to know his friend Clayton a bit better.

I began taking creative writing classes at Gallaudet and other local universities through the Consortium program in which students didn't have to pay extra for classes at another university in the area. I began to realize how much more I had to learn as a poet, but that wasn't the worst of it. I won a scholarship in which I could spend on anything; because I got the check at the end of my sophomore year, I decided to blow it all on books. That was how I'd come across Marilyn Hacker's sonnet novel Love, Death, and The Changing of the Seasons and Vikram Seth's sonnet novel The Golden Gate attracted my interest in the sonnet form a great deal, and a few years later I ended up taking a class under Marilyn, who in turn told us we had to get a copy of Philip Dacey and David Jauss's anthology Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Form. The quality of that anthology blew me away. It was a collection of works created by contemporary poets working within forms. All along I had worked in free verse, but here, it made me rethink poetry. These formal contemporary poems weren't stuffy at all! I had to think more carefully about the weight of each word, the intended and unintended rhythms of each line, and the overall finish of the poem as a whole. It was this kind of attention that vastly improved my craft as a poet. I was on a formalist kick for years, and I'm glad that I was on it for as long as I was because all those elements do inform--and often improve--most poems even when written in free verse.

Then I was offered to edit the anthology Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay and Lesbian Anthology. I immediately asked Clayton if he ever had his ASL poems translated into English. He said that yes, they had been, and he hated all of them. He said it was a matter of principle that his ASL poems should never be translated into another language. I begged and pleaded. He relented. I borrowed a videotape of a few poems. I watched him and then wrote down what he'd said. Then I watched again. I rewrote, this time incorporating the formalistic elements of his poetry. And so on. I sent my English translations to him. He said he was stunned by my translations, but it was still a matter of principle. He said that if he was for translating his ASL poetry, I had done the best job by far. I asked him if the previous translators were poets. He was startled by my other implied question: Perhaps he'd used the wrong translators, who were linguists and interpreters who didn't truly know the various elements that can enliven a spoken and/or written poem? My translations did not appear in Eyes of Desire , but 14 years later, when he'd been dead for four years, I chose my translation of "A Dandelion," which closed its sequel Eyes of Desire 2: A Deaf GLBT Reader. It's almost everyone's favorite ASL poem of his, so it was fitting to remember him that way short of seeing an actual video of him performing the poem.

I've also distilled his impact on my life in my elegy "International Deaf Leather 2002," which appeared in my anthology Eyes of Desire 2: A Deaf GLBT Reader. It will be included in my third collection of poems Mute, which A Midsummer Night's Press will publish in April 2010.

WG: It must have been an amazing experience to be able to work with Marilyn Hacker, and you are not the first to recommend Strong Measures as important work both for new writers and free verse poets whose, so I want to ask a couple of follow up questions. First, can you give a sense of the way in which you incorporated formalist elements into the translation of Clayton's poetry, and secondly, how do you think working with Hacker has influenced your own poetry?

RL: The first time I saw Clayton's work as an ASL poet in the summer of 1984, I was blown away. I hadn't then mastered the elements of formal poetry in English, let alone in ASL. Still, I got his work in a purely intuitive way. I understood that his poetry had a rhythm all its own, and it had nothing to do with a hearing person's definition of music.

Before I return to Valli, it is important to understand that my development as a poet--working in free verse at first, then staying pretty much within the formalist camp for pretty much a decade before returning to free verse--was roughly parallel to my continuing exposure to the nuances of ASL itself. My work as a poet working in English has been influenced by how I've used ASL as a language. I have long made my peace with the fact that English is the language of my trade as a writer even though I express myself emotionally far better in ASL. It is difficult for me to bring that freer emotional sense from ASL back into my English, so I don't even try. They are both equal parts to my being.

When I began reading Strong Measures, I was suddenly--and rather keenly--aware of the tiny little bricks that constructed the house of each poem. This dawning understanding enabled me to break apart similar bricks in almost any ASL poem, but I wasn't then thinking in terms of translation. In formal poetry, rhyme is often used at the end of each line; in ASL poetry, the same handshape can be seen as a rhyme. The motion and integration of the same handshape used for each different sign-line can be a rhyme, but it doesn't necessarily end at the end of a line, certainly not in the traditional sense.

Working on my poems in Marilyn Hacker's class in formal poetry was a revelation. It really enabled me to get a better sense of how I should rewrite my first book of poems St. Michael's Fall (Deaf Life Press, 1996). Everyone in the class was a fantastic poet, and we were all competing--in a camaraderie sort of way--to come up with the best poem within the traditional form she assigned to us for that week. That really enabled me to see that it was possible to be truly contemporary even within the strictest of forms. That discovery enabled me to see the compression within Valli's ASL poems.

Part of the reason why I'd worked for so long within formal poetry was that it forced me to think about each component of a single line--its meter, its denotations and connotations, its individual contribution to the overall flow of what I wanted to say--in the weight of each word. That level of minutiae detail enabled me to become a better poet (I should hope!) so that when I transitioned back to free verse, I was much tighter with each line even though I didn't always think about its possible formal elements.

WG: The description of your encounters with ASL reminds me somewhat of the experiences of early translators of Chinese and Japanese poetry like Rexroth or Snyder, and it is interesting to look at what these forays into what is a foreign culture to most Americans can yield for a writer. Obviously, Snyder's experience had a strong effect upon all of his subsequent poetry. I know that you said you like to keep your ASL and your English poetry separate, but my question to you is two pronged. First, what do you think that ASL Poetry as to contribute to contemporary English poetry, and, second, how do you feel that ASL poetry has affected your own written poetry?

RL: I believe that ASL poetry has a lot to teach contemporary English poetry beyond formal and free verse. ASL poetry has its own set of rules, and its own kinds of "rhymes", both internal and external. I think it would be very useful for poets working in English to rethink how they approach formal elements even within the context of their free verse. ASL poetry to the untrained eye may look unstructured, but when it's done right, like most great poems, it should look organic in spite of its formal structure. Of course, an ASL poem can be totally free verse, but I think that, depending on the subject matter as well as how it's being told, it might veer rather close to the many traditions of ASL storytelling. An ASL poem should be thoughtfully constructed as the best of formal poems, and yet seem so "of-course" (an ASL idiom) the first time one experiences the ASL poem.

As for ASL influencing my own poetry in the English language, I don't really see it. Perhaps others who are fluent in ASL and familiar with the traditions of American poetry might be able to discover such possible influences. When I write, I don't consciously think in terms of "influence" or a particular school of thought. If I did follow any particular school of thought in the past, it'd have to be formalism. There are traces of that in my newest book of poems Mute (A Midsummer Night's Press), which I've worked on and off for twenty years. My later poems have become more or less free verse.

WG: Raymond, I hear that you have just come out with a new book of poetry, the first I believe since St. Michael's Fall. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

RL: Gladly. Actually, Mute is my third collection. St. Michael's Fall came out in 1996, and This is the Way to the Acorns (Tactile Mind Press) came out in 2002. Mute is a collection of poems that explore the Deaf gay experience in a hearing world. In my own mind, Mute is part of these first two collections because once I finished the bulk of St. Michael's Fall and This is the Way to the Acorns in the summer of 1990, I'd already been writing poems sporadically for Mute so I continued writing more. The fact that Mute is finally out some twenty years later brings about a nice closure to my early years in New York City.

WG: I want to thank you for taking the time for the interview. I know that with a new play coming up you are quite busy. Is there anything else that you wanted to add about your work before we close.

RL: I feel I'm in a constant state of evolution. Whatever I write becomes a snapshot of how I'd thought and felt at that time and doesn't necessarily reflect how I feel now. Recently I came across the particular difficulty of trying to rewrite portions of my new play The Darkest Room in the House, which I'd written and workshopped privately back in 1995, for a staged reading to be produced by Bridge Productions. Writing new scenes, and then rewriting them to be more consistent with the "tone" of the rest of the play was very, very tough. It was a great learning experience, however, and working with a group of fantastic actors and an astute director has been just great. I look forward to seeing their performances on the weekend of March 12th!

Thank you for your time.

WG: Good luck with your upcoming production.