A Conversation with Jacques J. Rancourt by Divya Mehrish
BY DIVYA MEHRISH
Raised in Maine, Jacques J. Rancourt is the author of the full-length collections Brocken Spectre (Alice James Books) and Novena (Pleiades Press), as well as the chapbook In the Time of PrEP (Beloit Poetry Journal). His poems have appeared in AGNI, Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, among others. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, he now lives in San Francisco.
Divya Mehrish: Jacques, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss with you your second poetry collection, Brocken Spectre, which is a 2019 editor’s choice selection for the Alice James Award. Your poetry, as Ocean Vuong puts it, crystalizes “the modern sublime” and engages “elegiac modes of inquiry” to “preserve the past and its ghosts.” Could you elaborate on the experience of writing this collection and delving into modern history as you explore the inheritance of memory?
Jacques J. Rancourt: Thank you, Divya, it’s great to talk to you as well. When I set out to write this book, I had one thing in mind: I didn’t want to rewrite the poems already written about the HIV/AIDS crisis years. We have so many devastating and beautiful collections from the 80s, 90s, and 2000s that deal with the firsthand documentation of what it was like to experience the HIV/AIDS crisis. I was interested in setting my collection firmly in the twenty-first century and to think about what it meant to grow up in the shadow of the plague, to come of age as a queer person in the wake of the scourge. As I wrote my poems, I wanted to keep that perspective in mind and think about the role memory plays, and specifically the obligation we have to remember the lives lost as we reflect on our right to forge a new future that is divorced of that trauma. These are some of the ethical questions I considered as I navigated Brocken Spectre.
DM: What is it like to publish a collection that documents disaster, plague, and survival as our global community currently attempts to emerge from today’s COVID-19 pandemic?
JJR: It’s been fascinating. The poems in this collection were finished before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and so my reflections have been sort of retroactive. I’ve had straight friends liken this pandemic to the HIV/AIDS crisis, which has felt like an uncomfortable comparison for me. When the HIV/AIDS crisis hit, it was dragged so much as an ethical and moral battle, and we experienced the political playout of this with the slow response of the U.S. government to intercede and act with the ideas that the community “asked for this” or somehow traversed into immoral behavior. The COVID-19 pandemic is different in that there is a kind of unity—it was established early on that there was no morality attached to this virus, whereas the queer community wasn’t so lucky to experience that perception.
DM: As a follow up, it feels as though for the most part, society wants to ultimately shrug away this pandemic like a bad dream. In your opinion, what is the legacy of plague? I am thinking specifically about your line “I wish I could promise / to remain unchanged had the plague passed / through me” from your poem “The End Has Not Yet Passed Over Us.”
JJR: It’s been very interesting to experience the HIV/AIDS crisis as a member of my generation. My partner, who is a decade older, saw the crisis from a different perspective than I have. His first job volunteering at a hospital was on the AIDS ward, and he witnessed the direct effects of that suffering. I believe the generation after mine seems to, as you said, want to shrug it off like a bad dream. They have no direct memory of AIDS, and so it doesn’t press upon their lives or haunt them in quite the same way. And then the folks in my generation kind of straddle that divide. I’ve been thinking about the idea of queer amnesia, especially in relation to the crisis years and the plague, with this desire to move past it or act as if it never touched the community. I’ve noticed this particularly with the advent of PrEP and these medications that help prevent one from acquiring HIV. There’s a freedom that comes with that—and it’s a beautiful and lifesaving thing—but with it also comes this darker edge of ignoring what came before.
DM: What do you believe is the relationship between the past and present?
JJR: In my experience as a queer man, I feel almost like a second-generation survivor of this plague. As I mention in one of my poems, over 600,000 people have died in this country from AIDS and I didn’t know a single one of them. While I haven’t had the experience of witnessing it firsthand myself, I felt the weight of it growing up. You know, my first understanding of what it meant to be queer was what it meant to die. That was the experience that many people in my generation had growing up. And that leaves a scar. Certainly, for those older than us, that scar deepens and deepens.
DM: What a powerful response. Thank you for that, Jacques.
I am curious about the inspiration behind your title. Before reading your collection, I was unfamiliar with the natural phenomenon of a Brocken spectre, which I now understand occurs when the sun shines from behind an observer who is peering down a peak into mist. Your final poem, “Love in the Time of PrEP,” explores this phenomenon, making me wonder if one of the reader’s rewards for finishing your collection is to understand the intention behind your title. What do you believe is the power of choosing a concept with which your reader is likely unfamiliar as a title, and asking them to trust you and your choice of language before they begin reading your poetry itself?
JJR: A lot of people don’t know what “Brocken spectre” means—often, those writing to me will write “broken” instead of “Brocken,” which is a completely different image. I was lucky enough to actually witness a Brocken spectre myself once while I was hiking, and I was struck by the way my shadow was magnified in the mist by a scale of about twenty. And yet it felt so distant and was surrounded by a sort of rainbow halo. It moved me, and I immediately knew “Brocken spectre” had to be the title of my new collection. It felt like such an applicable metaphor to the poetry I was writing at that time. This book is so much about allowing the ghosts to speak, about connecting with the past, about how to navigate the future and even the present while the past looms over us. At some point, I think you have to trust the reader a bit. My hope with this collection is that even without that final poem, which explicitly names the phenomenon, that sense of looming, of something larger than life following you in a ghostly sense permeates these poems.
DM: I think it certainly does. Your first poem, “Near the Sheep Gate,” explores questions of interrogation, self-interrogation, perception, and self-perception. I’m particularly intrigued by your use of the verb “reconsidered” in your first tercet: “Many things / I’ve reconsidered / the snail’s remarkable…” Immediately, your collection opens with the acknowledgement that you challenge the ways in which you see or have seen the world. In fact, many of the poems in your collection grapple with such questions. In your approach to poetry, how and why do you engage the mode of inquiry?
JJR: I think the beautiful thing about poems is that they offer more questions than they do solutions. The poems I’m interested in, at least, don’t try to offer truths or blanket statements but instead try to name that thing we can’t name. The poems I love the most are those that articulate those things for which we have no other modes to articulate. Especially with my opening poem, and across my collection, I’m thinking about the ways in which I was raised as a devout Catholic and grew up watching queer men die in the news. I’m also thinking about how I was trying to reconcile my own past and present while reconciling the community’s past and present. I use that poem as the opening of the collection because it felt like the essential question of the book, to which I don’t have an answer. You asked me earlier about the relationship between past and present, and I don’t really have an answer to that but instead have questions about it. Brocken Spectre is a book of asking those questions.
DM: Why do you find that, as a writer, you’ve turned to poetry as a form? What does poetry allow you that another form of writing or communication doesn’t grant you?
JJR: That’s a great question, because I actually started out as a fiction writer. That was my intention initially. As I continued writing, I found that my pieces became shorter and shorter and less narratively driven. I began capturing moments in time more and more. In short stories, I still love that kind of “blurry photograph” approach—you know, a moment in time with some movement within it. I didn’t discover poetry until I was an undergrad, when I took a poetry writing class as part of my English major. It wasn’t until I found that genre that I discovered the perfect vehicle to explore what I was so interested in: that momentary glimpse into something divine, something imperceptible. As a result of my fiction writing, however, my work does tend to have a narrative bent, as I’m interested in the ways these forms press against each other.
DM: I notice that you favor the use of the ampersand over the word “and.” Could you speak to that decision? From the space and power that you bestow upon your ampersands, assigning them to start or end stanzas, for example, it is clear that you are treating the ampersand not as a shorthand character but as a linguistic tool of value equal to a word.
JJR: You know, one of my favorite poets is Larry Levis. He’s someone whose work I never seem to be too far from, whether in my own reading or writing. He uses the ampersand in his poems, and one of the things I’ve come to realize in reading his work for over fifteen years now is the way the ampersand creates movement or inertia in a poem in a way “and” doesn’t quite. Levis is a poet who, like me, is really interested in the ways in which the past and present intersect, with nostalgia as a driving force of inquiry. I think one of his most remarkable poems is “Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex,” which braids together all these different moments of time in the present. In that poem, the ampersand acts as a kind of connective glue holding all of these threads together. That was a quality I wanted to emulate in my own collection—the feeling of all these threads of the past being brought into the future in a kind of whoosh, which I thought the ampersand could achieve better than the “and.”
DM: That brings me to my next question. Poetry is, inherently, a highly visual art form. It is evident that in your approach, you are very intentional about your line breaks and use of white space. Your poem “At this Hour” engages lines that overlap, intertwine, and isolate from each other, all within a strict column-like frame. How have you found that taking advantage of the visual elements of poetry helps you convey a poem’s voice or energy?
JJR: I love that question. There are a few different places my mind went as you asked me that. First, I was intentional about wanting there to be departure from the left-hand margin. A lot of my poems are in tercets and I wanted there to be some movement across the page, some gaps, some moments of caesura, some white spaces, as you mentioned. Part of the intention behind that was to intertwine various threads and another was to visually represent the anxiety of the speaker. I wanted the poems to serve as tectonic plates that were uneven and tilted from each other.
My approach to drafting has always involved writing poems in paragraph form. But like a sculptor finding the ultimate form within a block of marble, as I find the moments I want to highlight, a shape starts to emerge for me. I typically write a draft that is three to four times longer than the final product, and the act of revising—of chiseling down and reshaping and reforming—is the part of writing I enjoy most. And so while I was conscious of how I wanted the book to look as you flip through it, it took time for each individual poem’s shape or form to speak to me, and to find its final visualization.
DM: Was each poem in Brocken Spectre written with the intention of belonging to this final collection?
JJR: I started out by consciously writing a sequence of poems that confronted the HIV/AIDS crisis from the perspective of the twenty-first century. Initially, I wrote one poem, which never made it to either the collection or to my chapbook, In the Time of PrEP. I had tried to get across all my ideas in that single poem, but of course one poem can’t hold all of that weight. That sparked my idea of a sequence. But every time I got to the end of a poem or to the end of the sequence, I realized I had more to say. So then, when I was working to publish the chapbook with the Beloit Poetry Journal, there were gaps that the editors helped me see. And that became a generative process for me, where I was actively writing to fill those gaps. As I moved from the chapbook to the full-length collection, there were quite a few poems I’d written on the side that I thought would be part of a completely different project. But at the end of a five-year-long timeframe, I put all of the poems I’d written into one document, alphabetically ordered. I realized that there were bigger ideas and inquiries across the poems that both directly confronted the HIV/AIDS crisis and had nothing to do with it. There were questions about past versus present, faith, spiritual isolation, devotion, and catastrophe, which I felt complicated and complemented each other when pressed together.
DM: I’m curious about how you intentionally juxtaposed specific poems, as this obviously has a strong impact upon the way in which your reader navigates your work. What was the experience like for you, of melding this mosaic of poetry?
JJR: It was a feeling of affirmation, of trust. I think as writers, we tend to feel a bit dubious about what our minds are telling us to do on the page. Especially with poetry, I believe the magic happens when you really let go, when you stop trying to control what your brain synapses or associations are doing on the page. I think the reason this collection felt like a true collection to me is because I feel like I was able to let go of trying to construct something very intentionally. Something I tell my students all the time is that it’s the associations you don’t yet understand that are most successful. The act of writing is one that should have as little thinking involved as possible. It’s the act of revision in which you can plod intentionally through. I think what this project taught me is to allow my brain to do what the brain does best, which is to rub random things together, and to create something more interesting because of that.
DM: Can you describe your writing process? On a day-to-day basis, what are the little things that keep you writing?
JJR: I have a kind of blue-collar approach to writing. I think part of that is thinking about what “work” means, you know, watching my dad work in a powerplant my whole life. It’s this idea of waking up early every day to go do this thing. And so, I’ve always been someone who keeps a very regular writing schedule. I try to write every day. I’m not someone who waits for inspiration to hit me. Instead, I try to muscle through the silences. I don’t know if that’s always healthy and productive. There are times, of course, when I can’t write so frequently if I’m forced away from my desk for a week, or two, or three at a time. I just ended a three-year-long stint as a middle school principal in which daily writing wasn’t possible, and I was only writing on the weekends. I never found, however, that my output was any better or less when I had more or less time. I think the idea of filling and draining the well is very applicable here. But at the same time, I’ve always had this anxiety that if I were to stop my practice, I would never get back into it. It’s like practicing the piano—you can grow rusty or lose an edge if you stop playing.
DM: Thank you so much for taking this time to discuss Brocken Spectre with me, Jacques. I would love to know, what is up next for you?
JJR: I’m writing a third book, which I’m going to refer to as a pile of poems for now. Hopefully it becomes a book. I’m at that stage where I’m beginning to see connections and patterns in the poems. My new collection is about fidelity, devotion, monogamy and nonmonogamy—and the boundaries between those things—about betrayal, and art. All these abstract nouns. I’ve been writing these poems for about three years now, and I’m beginning to see a shape take form.