A Maine transplant to the Bay Area, Jacques Rancourt writes at the intersections of queerness and the pastoral. The winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd prize, Rancourt’s first collection Novena (Pleiades Press, 2017) reexamines bucolic and religious iconography for an alternatively imagined gay youth. More recently, his chapbook In the Time of PrEP (Beloit Poetry Journal, 2018) grapples with the memory of the AIDS crisis for queer men since the dawn of PrEP.
Of Rancourt’s latest, the poet Mark Wunderlich writes, “The poems in Brocken Spectre document a queer new age—one in which the AIDS crisis has abated, though the lost quietly ghost the periphery of this writer’s imagination.” Brocken Spectre is at once haunted by the memory of those lost to disaster and troubled by how we memorialize them. Through cliffside landscapes, French frescoes, and sultry gay bars, the poems in this collection dramatize the speaker’s uncertainty: How do we as queer people today relate to, or belong in relation to, the traumas of our collective past?
Rancourt’s work appears in Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Ploughshares, among many others. A former fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, and Stanford University, Rancourt currently lives in San Francisco, where he just concluded his final year as a middle school principal.
We met over Zoom on a Wednesday afternoon in June. On the precipice of summer vacation, we talked about Brocken Spectre, the AIDS crisis, the gay pastoral, and what’s next for queer art.
The Rumpus: I’m so intrigued by your work with memory, and the sense of the collective past that bears down upon your work. The poems in Brocken Spectre exist in the wake of the AIDS epidemic, haunted by a voyeur’s anxiety. The speaker wants to feel connected to this not-too-remote past. Yet, this anxiety is complicated by a sense of heredity, of time and place. In one poem, the speaker asserts that “all art once / was about conquest.” What now? How do we elegize and memorialize in art?
Jacques Rancourt: That’s a great question. One of the ethical questions I was asking myself when I approached this work was, “What right do I have to this topic?” I even say in one poem “that six hundred thirty-six. / thousand of us died & I did not. / know a single one.”
My generation has a particular relationship to the crisis years; we are a part of it in that the ripple effect of it has weighed heavily on the gay community, and yet we have enough remove from it that it’s not something we have immediately witnessed firsthand. Something I felt like I could speak to was that generational divide—being a part of something and at the same time apart from it. That tension really drove the inquiry of these poems: thinking about collective memory, about inherited trauma, and how so much of the way the community is thought of by the outside world is through the lens of the crisis. In a lot of ways, so much of the progress of humanizing queer people was a direct result of the crisis. Part of it is also thinking about the ethics of memory: what right do we have to memorialize and remember, and what obligations do we have to memorialize and remember?
I’ve also been interested in personal history. My first book focuses on family history. I come from Appalachian Maine. My father being a Quebecois immigrant—thinking about his roots, which are very much tied to logging and farming, and this different lifestyle than the one I have, and trying to be a part of that life, too. My poems have always been trying to find a place where I belong where I feel like I don’t belong in some ways.
Rumpus: I’m interested, too, in this tension between voyeurism and bearing witness, recording history and not allowing us to forget. How do we record history and remember past trauma and our ancestors, especially when there’s this loss of a generation and mentorship? What helped you make decisions around these questions as you worked on this collection?
Rancourt: Number one for me was that I wasn’t interested in rewriting the elegy. There are so many books from that time period that are important to me. I think about Thom Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats and Mark Doty’s My Alexandria. These are the books that come out of that lived experience, and I wanted my poems not to try to replicate or duplicate what they had done or even dare to imagine what it’s like from that perspective. I wanted them very much rooted in the twenty-first century, considering what it means to look back and recognize the ripple effects and the ways that history presses up against our current moment.
In the poem “Kirby,” at the end there is this idea that the only ability we have to romanticize the past is because of our distance from it. When we think about the heroes of the AIDS crisis or ACT UP, these things that were incredibly traumatic and tragic to go through, the only way we can see romance in that is because we are so removed from it.
Rumpus: The speaker’s belief in a soul seems to give him some peace, as well. How do you map religion, spirituality, and ghosts in your work? I’m curious, particularly, in how it intersects with queerness.
Rancourt: These are some of the driving forces in my work. I grew up incredibly Catholic and I was preparing to become a priest for most of my adolescent life, up until I turned twenty years old, before I grappled with my own sexuality. Religion has always been a seed of my work, and always exists in my poems. The specter of religion and belief in being part of something greater than your own lived experience, being harkened or driven by the calling is something that—even if I intellectually disagree or find fault with it now—is still an instinct that I’ve leaned into throughout my life. I’ve often figured that I’ve replaced my fervor for a god or religion or spirituality with my fervor for poetry. It’s become my new religion, of sorts.
So, thinking about the soul and ghosts, as someone who, again, intellectually recognizes these things may not exist, the idea of the hope for it still compels me. Going back to the romanticized past and heroism, this idea that these lives weren’t just squandered, that these souls could move on, that we could still be haunted by them, that there’s still something that resides or some residue left over from that time helps give it some sort of hope or meaning. The tension is the opposite of that: what if what’s gone is gone forever? A central character of the book is the lover, my husband Walter, who’s decidedly very atheist and grew up atheist and had a very different perspective from what I had growing up, so his skepticism on spiritual matters drives some of these poems as well.
Rumpus: In many cases, this soul is transmuted into fog or rainbows and animals. Animating natural forces exist even in these urban landscapes. Does nature connect to your speaker’s or your notion of the spirit?
Rancourt: As you were asking that, I was thinking of the poem “And Soul” by Eavan Boland. It’s a beautiful poem about the speaker taking the bus to the house where her mother was dying and remembering that the body is made mostly of water, and as Ireland is a very wet place, so by some logic the rain will have remnants of her mother in it, which gives some comfort to the speaker.
I have always found comfort in nature. I grew up at the mouth of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, which is one of the wildest parts of the Appalachian Trail. Nature is something that’s very important to my work. In part, I’m interested in its ability to comfort and to give solace, and also its inability to do that. As you mentioned, the dead are often associated with nature. But also, there is no queer pastoral, there is no place for us in the wilderness, despite the fact that that’s where we find the ghosts, the remains of the past, in the poem.
Rumpus: I recently read Bruce Snider’s essay asking where the rural gay poets are. Growing up in the countryside, Snider developed two impressions as he dove deeper into gay poetry: “The first was that if you were gay, you needed to live in the city. The second was that if you were gay and wanted to be a writer, you needed to write about the city.” I’m interested in this movement of gay poets from the country of the past to the city of today. How do you understand this queer migration in your work, from Maine to San Francisco, in Brocken Spectre?
Rancourt: There’s a poem in the collection, “Golden Gate Park,” that addresses this. Obviously Golden Gate Park is this very famous park in San Francisco, this natural space in this urban center where the speaker comes across a cruiser who solicits him. The speaker recalls his home where someone was murdered for hitting on someone else. It’s this parallel between past and present connected by this natural space. We often think of cities as these places of progress whereas rural areas seem locked into the past. That’s something the poems in this book attempt to do, to seek out the past and find connective points. For me, I find these rural landscapes part of that intersection, where past and present butt up against each other.
It’s an interesting question, too, what Snider brings up—what are gay people allowed to write about? I wanted also to address in this book the queer pastoral, which is sort of an unwritten poem for a reason. The idea of the queer pastoral factors into my first book, which I think has a perhaps more idealized view of it, whereas this one is a little bit more hopeless. There’s a hopelessness about finding queerness in a rural place. The speaker acknowledges, exactly as Snider points out, that we’re driven out of the woods into the cities for survival and there’s no going back.
Rumpus: Considering this lack of a certain body of poetry, I wonder how you relate to formal traditions. I think of your poems as being inventive with form and white spaces. Do these choices emerge from some sort of creative imperative? How do you approach the page?
Rancourt: I don’t consider myself to be a formal or experimental poet. I always approach poems without any invention of any sort. They’re always written directly in a paragraph at first. From there, I chisel my way through to find the line, and once I find the line, to find the form that breathes life into it. “In Fátima,” a poem which is in twenty-four sections, was not originally written in twenty-four sections. If one would ever find that issue of Prairie Schooner where it was originally published, they’d see it presented in more traditional tercets. A poem like “June 12, 2016” was not written in syllabics originally. As I revise and draft, part of that process is finding the form that creates the right tension and life for the poem. I think a really good example is “The Wake,” which didn’t start off punctuated by periods in places where they don’t belong. It began as a poem with enjambment. Not satisfied by the lack of punch I was getting out of that enjambment, I played around with end stops and eventually found my way to the final form, which uses those end stops in a way to create double meaning, to create stops in places to give pause, to create fractures, double reads.
For this book, I was interested in movement between lines. In a lot of the poems, every other line is indented. I wanted to think about the friction of past and present, of speaker and subject, of not belonging, whether through memory, through place. Having those offset lines added to that sensation of friction and disjuncture.
Rumpus: All three of your collections operate with very distinctive organizing themes. I’m particularly interested in the storytelling of this collection. What do you want a collection to do?
Rancourt: I appreciate that. That wasn’t necessarily something I set out to do. I never plotted out a storyline with Brocken Spectre. It came about organically. Obviously, I had this obsession that I was working my way through at the end of four years of writing poems. When I was picking through which ones would go together, some of this narrative work emerged. Then I could write through a few of the gaps. The last poem I wrote was the triptych. Part of its goal was to flesh out the relationship between the speaker and the beloved, the context of the generational divide, and the crisis.
We had this really big surge of the project book in the aughts and the 2010s that we’re seeing a lot less of now. There was a while where poetry collections were just collections of the poems and then we moved to this idea of the book: what does the book want to say and what constitutes a book of poems? Now the pendulum swings again and there’s some resistance to the project. For me, I feel both sides a little bit. I want each book to have a life of its own within it, a complete world, a sense of belonging between the poems that meditate on a narrative theme. There were a lot of poems that I cast aside from Brocken Spectre because they didn’t contribute to the goal of that work.
When I was selecting which poems to keep from the chapbook, I was thinking about which I felt would be complicated or expanded by the poems that didn’t speak directly with the AIDS crisis. The chapbook was a project book. It was very much focused on a historical moment and our vantage point of that historical moment, but this collection less so. I wanted to see what kind of interchange there could be. For example, how would a poem about my grandfather’s acquired trauma from World War II react next to a poem about saying my wedding vows twenty years after the height of the AIDS crisis?
Rumpus: We’re coming up on the end of Pride. You’ve previously said that your hope for the queer community is that “our art, which has never shied away from representing our true selves, can continue to come out and be embraced fully by a more open-minded, non-queer audience.” I see a potential tension here. When I think of Pride now, which has been so whitewashed and co-opted by capitalism for a straight public, where do we go from here? What possibilities do you see with queer art? Where do you hope things go?
Rancourt: It’s funny to think how much has changed since I gave that quote for that interview. It already feels different. It’s been one of the interesting things about being in my generation, watching the relationship of the capitalistic eye on queerness. I remember when Target became super edgy for including shirts with rainbows on them ten years ago. Now if you don’t have a rainbow product, you’re going to be lambasted. That shift has been very sudden.
Rumpus: Is there anything that scares you with your poems? Writing from marginal spaces, there’s the potential to be classified as a niche writer or to be censored. Are there ways you censor yourself?
Rancourt: The poems I’m writing now are scary for me, which I think is a sign these are the poems I should be writing. I need to lean into that. In the past, so many queer people had to talk about their queerness in a way that was digestible for the heterosexual community. As you mentioned with the whitewashing of Pride and such, so much of our progress has been a result of people fitting the mold to be deemed acceptable. It’s when the straight community can see, They’re just like us; they, too, want two kids, a dog, and a picket fence; now we can extend the same benefits to them, that’s been the trajectory of progress. Whereas I feel so much of the reality of the queer experience would not be as easily condoned.
Some of the new poems I’m writing, about the fluidity of love, fluidity of desire, fluidity of commitment and betrayal, and non-monogamy, those poems are exciting to me but feel dangerous in a way, too. Even if within the queer community that’s not a dangerous concept, it is [seen as such] by a larger community, which I think is changing as well, and rather quickly.
In terms of queer art, one thing that I’ve been happy to see is that more and more artists are writing unapologetically about queer desire and queer sex. That’s been something that I think is revolutionary, seeing these writers write graphically and beautifully about the truth of that experience. I hope that provides an open door for others. I think there are still a lot of spaces that we can explore that haven’t seen the light of publication for the queer community. We’re moving in the right direction. It’s exciting to watch.
Photograph of Jacques Rancourt courtesy of Jacques Rancourt.