Love, Loss & Rage
Lyrical and erotic, Raymond Luczak’s Flannelwood explores the art of losing
by Hank Trout
Photographed exclusively for A&U by Brent Dundore
Raymond Luczak can reasonably lay claim to being one of the LGBTQ community’s most celebrated renaissance men of letters. A novelist, playwright, editor, documentary filmmaker, biographer, essayist, and poet of great acclaim, Raymond has written several collections of poetry, including St. Michael’s Fall (1995), Mute (2010), and How to Kill Poetry (2013); has edited other poetry collections, including Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience and the brand-new Lovejets: Queer Male Poets on 200 Years of Walt Whitman; has seen seventeen of his plays produced in three countries and has completed two full-length documentaries (Guy Wonder: Stories & Artwork and Nathie: No Hand-Me-Downs); and has penned books of essays, including Silence is a Four-Letter Word (2002) and Assembly Required: Notes from a Deaf Gay Life (2009), and novels, including the award-winning Men With Their Hands (2006) and his newest Flannelwood, to be published in June 2019.
Raymond was born and reared in Ironwood, a small mining town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The seventh of nine children, he lost most of his hearing at the age of seven months in a bout of double pneumonia. After high school, he went to Gallaudet University, in Washington, DC, where he earned a B.A. in English. He learned American Sign Language (ASL), became involved with the deaf community at Gallaudet, discovered gay literature, and won several scholarships for his writing. Regarding his time at Gallaudet, which, according to its website, is “designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students,” Raymond writes in Assembly Required, “My first five months in Washington, D.C., transformed me completely…. I found myself among a group of Deaf gay friends and came out to everyone on campus. I didn’t care who knew. Learning ASL had freed me from the fear of being lonely ever again.”
In 1988, Raymond moved to New York City and got involved with the deaf theatre community there. His 1990 comedy Snooty won first place in the New York Deaf Theater’s Samuel Edwards Deaf Playwrights Competition, and his essay “Notes of a Deaf Gay Writer” was published as a cover story for Christopher Street. Soon, Alyson Books asked him to edit Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader, which garnered two Lambda Literary Award nominations. In 2005 he relocated to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where his poetry soon won him an Artist Recognition Grant from the Jerome Foundation and VSA arts of Minnesota. He continues to live in Minneapolis and continues to produce groundbreaking writing.
It’s rare that a writer is as accomplished as Raymond in both poetry and prose. I asked him which he preferred. “I alternate between fiction and poetry. It all depends on which genre is the best fit for what I want to say. Over the past year I’ve written pretty much only poetry, but I find myself drifting back to fiction these days. I think I’m itching to start telling narrative stories again.”
My first introduction to Raymond’s work was Mute, his 2010 book of poetry. I was particularly struck by a sonnet called “Vow”: “Take it from me—from those men in my life, / I’ve had to master the art of losing…. / I should pine / for the meaning of stillborn romances, / but I won’t. With me they’ve lost their chances.”
As I reread “Vow” recently, I realized that “the art of losing” would make an excellent subtitle for Raymond’s newest novel, Flannelwood.
In this lyrical, erotic, heart-wrenching novel, Bill, a forty-something barista and a self-proclaimed “failed poet,” meets James, a disabled factory worker (his leg was amputated at mid-shin) who wears a prosthetic foot, at an “OctoBear” Dance. For six months Bill and James share weekends of unbridled passion at James’s house out in the country, making for a winter of incredible heat. But on the first day of spring, James abruptly, inexplicably informs Bill over the telephone that “It’s not going to work out” and hangs up on him—no explanation, no reason, nothing that Bill can understand. Bill searches his recollection of James and others who departed too early from his life in search of clues to James’s sudden change of heart. He discovers through a mutual friend why James left but that does little to ease the pain of their “stillborn romance.”
Like any curious reader, I wondered how much of Flannelwood might be autobiographical. And so I asked.
“I don’t think this book is all that autobiographical. Yes, I did date someone for six months, and yes, he did break up with me but refused to give me an explanation. Not having that sense of closure was emotionally difficult for me, so I was filled with a lot of major doubts about whether I was worthy of being loved again….I was filled with rage at his unwillingness to provide closure. That lack of closure prompted me to write Flannelwood. I’ve changed a lot of details, but I think it’s very much emotionally true about what happened. I also don’t think I’m anything like Bill. I’m not short, I don’t like coffee, I don’t have an MFA in Creative Writing, and I don’t think of myself as a failed poet!”
Much of the novel consists of Bill’s reconstructing his passion-filled weekends with James. These passages are reverie-like—Bill’s adulation of James is almost religiously toned—they form the most lyrical, rapturous passages in the book, and in some cases, the most erotic. In fact, as I read the book and marveled at just how lyrical and sensual Bill’s prose is, I had trouble reconciling the beauty of his language with his self-assessment as “a failed poet.” And so, again, I asked.
“I think Bill was suffering from the impostor syndrome, as in feeling very much a fraud as a poet. He may well have been a good poet but he hadn’t yet found his true voice that would have elevated him above a sea full of poet wannabes. The reason he hadn’t found his voice sooner is that he had no compelling reason to find it in the first place. Also, his own standards were probably so high that I don’t think any poem he wrote would’ve passed muster in his own eyes.”
The image of ashes, in one form or another, recurs throughout the book: the ashes of Bill’s ex Craig who died of AIDS, hidden in a jar in the back of a closet; the ash from James’s cigars; images of snow falling like ashes; and Bill’s many references to “ashes to ashes.” The images lend a solemnity to the scenes in which they appear. “The book is all about loss,” Raymond told me. “Ashes remain a powerful symbol of fire and heat once alive. We rarely appreciate what we have that is amazing until it’s gone. This explains to a large degree why so many poets and writers focus on loss and grief. And while I did say that this story is about loss, [it] is also about discovery and redemption. You cannot appreciate what you’ve discovered if you haven’t experienced loss and grief first. You lose, and you gain, hopefully with some wisdom about what you’d lost.”
Structurally and thematically Flannelwood echoes the influential 1936 novel Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, one the very earliest novels to present a story of an explicitly homosexual relationship. Nightwood is a complicated, complex, difficult-to-read novel, written in the Gothic style using modernist literary techniques. But not to worry if you haven’t read Barnes’s novel. “If you’ve happened to have read Nightwood,” Raymond told me, “great! If you haven’t done so, my book may make you want to discover Nightwood. It’s my hope that will be the case. It’s extraordinary, but you have to be ready for it.” When Raymond writes about his love for Barnes, his language becomes as lyrical as Bill’s when he writes about James. “You’ll be astonished by her achievement. Let her prose, enriched with the core nutrients of written language itself, wash over you like a wave on the shore. Imagine meeting fascinating characters from a long-ago time in Paris when the city was indeed affordable for bohemians like Djuna and her great love Thelma. Allow all their voices to permeate your body. Breathe in her words, and you’ll breathe out memories so lucid that you’ll swear they are yours. Such is the majestic power of Nightwood.”
In addition to writing the forthcoming Flannelwood, Raymond recently edited Lovejets: Queer Male Poets on 200 Years of Walt Whitman,” commemorating the bicentennial of Whitman’s birth and the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots. In Lovejets, more than eighty poets pay homage not only to Walt Whitman, but also to other queer poets and queer poetry. Poets in the collection include John Whittier Treat, Jack Fritscher, Chip Livingston, Edmund White, Luczak himself, and A&U’s Managing Editor Chael Needle. In selecting the poems for inclusion in this anthology, “I knew I wanted a variety of tribute poems not only in honor of Whitman but also of other queer male poets who’ve lived and died over the past two centuries. It wasn’t enough for me to like a poem; it also had to say something about the dead poet so honored. Many LGBT people feel like they don’t belong in their own biological families, which is why dead queer poets and writers can truly matter in ways more powerful than those of our own blood. I wanted to experience those connections whenever I read submissions for Lovejets, and I chose according to that criterion. Really, one could call Lovejets a family scrapbook for queer male poets.”
Recognizing Raymond’s keen eye for good writing, A&U is honored to welcome him as the magazine’s new Fiction Editor. Raymond has been a long-standing contributor to the magazine, having published in A&U’s very first issue in 1991. That poem, “Two Decades and then Some,” which begins with the haunting line, “No one writes about the dead anymore,” can be found at https://aumag.org/2015/08/30/two-decades-and-then-some/. Since that first issue, he has continued to publish both poetry, nonfiction and fiction in A&U, including the poems “Outside Marshall, Texas” (November 2011); “Ghosts” (December 2013); and “Inoculations” (May 2015), each of them a valuable addition to the canon of AIDS-related poetry. Last year, in a blind reading, Raymond won the fiction category’s top honors in the Christopher Hewitt Literary Awards for his short story, “The Love Whisperer.” More recently, Raymond interviewed writer and advocate Nicola Griffith for the March 2019 issue. Prior to joining A&U, he edited the queer fiction journal Jonathan, which was renamed Callisto. He is also a ten-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and the newest addition to A&U’s masthead.
“I’m thrilled and delighted to be working for A&U. As Fiction Editor, what I’m looking for is what I think most editors would want from submissions regardless of genre: no stereotypes, no cardboard characters, no clichéd writing. But more importantly, because we are dealing with the topic of HIV/AIDS, I don’t want to see misinformation in the stories I read. Sometimes I’ve gotten a story that made me go, Wait a minute. Is this medically possible? It’s my job to work with writers so they can look truly good on the page.”
Flannelwood: A Novel is available on Amazon. Lovejets is available from Squares and Rebels at www.squaresandrebels.com/books/lovejets.html. You can find more information about Raymond on his website, www.raymondluczak.com, and follow him on Twitter @deafwoof. Some of the poems that Raymond has published in A&U can be found on our website.
Hank Trout is an Editor at Large for A&U.