Adding to the Tapestry: A Conversation with Jacques Rancourt about exploring religion through poetic sequence, writing about family, and creating the queer pastoral.
Jacques J. Rancourt is the author of Novena, winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd prize (Pleiades Press, February 2017), and the chapbook, In the Time of PrEP (Beloit Poetry Journal, 2018). He has held poetry fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow. His poems have appeared in the Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Best New Poets 2014, among others. He lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.
On October 25, 2017, the poet Jacques Rancourt joined Interlochen Arts Academy Creative Writing students for a master class and reading. Interlochen Review editors Genevieve Harding and Darius Atefat-Peckham sat down with him for a conversation about his first poetry collection Novena and how, through its pages, he has reclaimed the concept of masculinity, explored sexuality through nature, and meditated on his Catholic upbringing by creating a landscape referred to as the “queer pastoral.”
Darius Atefat-Peckham: Pretty early on in your collection, Novena, the reader watches the poet make connections between religion, nature, sexuality, family, and the poet, himself. Sexuality in relation to nature, specifically, is a parallel we encounter often as readers, though your take is a bit different. Can you talk about the relationship you personally see between sexuality and nature in your work?
Jacques Rancourt: Yeah, sure. You know, it was really important to me when I started writing this book to envision this world, in Novena. I grew up in Appalachia, Maine, in my father’s cabin which is off the grid—no electricity, no phone, running water—and I sort of envision his world of masculinity and of this inheritance of masculinity that gets passed down from generation to generation of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a survivor. That’s something I wanted to imagine in the poems themselves, envisioning my own sexuality in those poems and how to make a space for that. I wanted to create, or I wanted to imagine, a ‘queer pastoral.’ This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, why there isn’t a queer pastoral. You know, there’s an urban queer world, where we all pilgrimage to and we live amongst the cities and we have all these paradises. But there isn’t one amongst the woods, and so I wanted to create one of those in these poems with all of its dangers and all of its threats. And so, when I was crafting these poems I obviously wanted to use imagery that I was familiar with, of the forest and in the world I grew up with, but wanted to sort of create a space for that as well. So, of course, the pastoral is where I find my imagery and where I find my source of metaphor and I think that’s where these two worlds merge for me.
Genevieve Harding: I know that throughout your life you have had a strong interest in religion, particularly Catholicism, to the extent that at one point you thought you might become a priest. How do you think that writing about religion in your poetry has affected your personal relationship with religion over the years?
JR: Yeah, great question. Yeah, I did want to become a priest for a long time until I was about twenty, so most of my life. It was about that time that I began writing poetry. So when one stopped the other began, basically. And for me that wasn’t a huge shift, oddly enough. When I stopped wanting to pursue the priesthood, when I started pursuing poetry instead, a lot of things shifted at that time. When I started writing poetry was about the time I came out; when I started pursuing poetry was about the time I left home, when all these things changed in my life, and so, oddly enough for me though, leaving behind the priesthood, leaving behind my Catholicism, leaving behind my faith, was not as dramatic of a shift because I think that poetry took the place of religion for me. And a lot of the practices that I held so dear, like daily prayer and contemplation, and the love of metaphor, the love of imagery that religion holds, were replaced by poetry, and it just made sense to shift that devotion from God and spirituality to poetry. It was an easy shift for me.
DAP: In relation to that, much of Novena feels interested in talking about coming of age and deals largely with your relationship with your dad as well as religion. Can you talk about your relationship with your father and how it formed the take, your take, on masculinity in the poems? And, in Novena, what does it mean to be masculine?
JR: Yeah, that’s an interesting question, too. You know it’s interesting because I think in 2017 the world is at a certain place where we can expect certain things of ourselves and society, especially in urban areas. You know, like, we’ve come so far, and you hear people talk about this all the time like we have conquered so much and we’re at this place where gay marriage is passed, and gender fluidity is accepted in a lot of places. You go back to where I come from, and [it’s] like living in 1980, still, and these things we’ve taken for granted a lot of the time are just not the case still, and you see confederate flags, you see people who, you know, they’ve never heard of these things, and it still isn’t the case. And so, I think this idea of masculinity is still just as toxic as it was once upon a time and that’s something I wanted to write about in these poems.
You know, I had a reader, another gay poet, read Novena when it was a manuscript, and one of his critiques was that the book felt like it was antiquated, it felt like it could have been written in the 1990s. And I think, that was a critique of his, he felt like it was outdated—and that was something I wanted to leave in the book, you know, it is antiquated, but it also is a reality, I think, for rural America. It is a fact that you still can get ostracized by your family, you still can get killed. And that’s something that hasn’t gone away, and I still want to leave that footprint in the poems themselves. But going back to your question, beyond the drama of that is the idea of ‘where does the queer person fit in in the idea of masculinity?’ As I said earlier, that gets passed down from father to son, especially in a place such as rural America, where ideas of what masculinity means are so important. I mean, you know, you build your house, you chop your wood, you go fishing, you go hunting; these are the sort of traditions and emblems of what it means to be a man in a family. Right? And sometimes when you come out, and you don’t fit that, you know, what do you do with that? So, in the poems that I’ve written, there’s some tension between that. There’s one poem, in the beginning, that deals with that directly, and that sort of feeling, that distance between the father and the son, and what do you do with that distance.
DAP: So, in relation to the queer pastoral, as you were talking about it, how do you feel creating that place has affected other poets?
JR: You know, I’m not sure it has affected other poets; I mean the book has only been out a few months, but I think it’s an important voice to be heard because we often only hear from urban gay poets, people who’ve pilgrimaged to the city, and I think what’s beautiful about poetry is that we want to hear from as many voices as possible, to add to the tapestry, right? That said though, one of my favorite poets is a guy named Bruce Snider, and he has this really beautiful book called Paradise, Indiana which is about the Midwest, and him growing up in Indiana, and has a very similar angle, I think, as Novena, in that regard of growing up in this super rural and sort of backwards place and growing up gay. He wrote this really beautiful article about what place do the rural gay poets have and how growing up, he read O’Hara and all these kind of chatty chique gay poets and not finding any familiarity there. And it’s my hope that Novena creates a voice that people can identify with, maybe, who don’t come from an urban area, the way that I read Paradise, Indiana and felt real familiarity there.
GH: Many images throughout the collection continually transform, such as the speaker’s father taking on the role of God the Father in some senses, and these transformations make up a lot of the connective tissue between the poems in your collection. Can you talk a little about that?
JR: Yeah, you know, I really liked how you talked about the role of the father figure changing from God to the physical father. And the one option for me that I was actually conscious of during the project was the mother figure, of the drag queen mother. And I think one thing that I really wanted to do with this project was I wanted to write a sort of a love poem to myself at fifteen, you know, who was deeply Catholic, aware of being gay, alone in the woods, and my own version of it gets better. A little message of, “It’s going to be okay.” The character I crafted around that was this drag queen Virgin Mary who sort of has these visitations to this adolescent speaker and that carries through the “Novena” sequence. And so her transformation throughout this sequence and of the mother figures throughout the poems both offer support and also offer a sense of danger and fear for him. At times she’s comforting, and she’s literally stroking the head of the speaker, and other times she’s watching as dogs are eating his body, or chewing on his flesh and doing nothing. And so [she’s] both sides of the coin, you know, both being the one who’s assisting and comforting him and also allowing these hardships and allowing these hard times to happen. It speaks a little towards that transformation as I experienced it, at least as an adolescent.
GH: Going off of that, with the image of the mother, there are recurring characters in Novena outside of the speaker, and those of the speaker’s family, and these characters are a little larger than life and almost more ideas than characters. For example, the Virgin Mary appears as a drag queen throughout this collection. Could you shed some light as to what these characters mean to you and how you constructed them?
JR: Yeah. The Virgin Mary, again, she populates throughout the book as a symbol of love and support and distance and coldness all at once, right? There’s the satire of her, the foil, the Deerman, okay, and he’s also in the same sequence, and he’s sort of this fabled creature that represents desire and in this sequence he represents this terrifying desire which eats up the speaker—literally, at one point. But other points in the book there’s deer that run through that have a less demonic presence: there’s the deer that gets shot at the end of the book; there’s the deer that comes and licks the speaker’s hand, at one point; there are the deer that run through the boundary of his backyard very early on in the book. So you were speaking earlier about the transformations that happen in the book, and that’s one of them. The way that desire, and this is also speaking toward the adolescent experience of desire, that what becomes scary sometimes turns ordinary. And this is, I think, true again with [the] queer experience [of] desire, too, in a sort of isolated rural Maine, how what may come across as this terrible experience can become, hopefully, a holy one, too.
DAP: You talked a little about the deer who is shot at the end of the book. And at that moment, the deer almost transforms into your father. And my question is: In Novena, the relationship that you have with your family is written with deft sensitivity. What advice would you give young writers who are struggling to write confessional work about family members?
JR: Yeah. I wrote a lot of the poems in this book that I didn’t publish. But I had to write them first. And that’d be the first advice I’d give is that: when you’re first writing, don’t think about the publication of them, of who’s going to read them, because first, you’ve just got to write them. And eventually, when I was assembling the book, with an eye towards sending it out and having it published, I had to think about how my parents would read them and how they would see themselves in this book. And then that actually mattered more when I was thinking about what poems I hadn’t yet written.
My first draft of this book had an even harsher view of my father than the current one does, and ultimately it was a worse book because of it. I kind of highlighted the harsher elements of him because that was the story that was more dramatic and I was processing more like a younger man, as a young poet. But as I was putting the book together, assembling it, I realized that there were some parts of his story I hadn’t told yet. And sort of imagining him reading it allowed me to realize that there was some part of him I hadn’t captured yet, a part of his story I hadn’t told yet. That led me to write such poems as, “Backyard Rock” and “Splake,” which were some of the last poems I wrote in the book as a way to soften that character, to soften that persona of him and to make that a more rounded character. I hadn’t been fair, and I made a worse book because I hadn’t been fair. I had to think about what is fair, you know, to him and to his memory and to my experience of my father because had I written a scree against him, I don’t think it would have been as strong of a book, or as strong of a poem, even. I didn’t even think I was a confessional poet until someone actually used that word later, after they read the book later on in the process of writing it.
DAP: With your experience with writing the book and drafting the book, when we read Novena, it is structured very interestingly between sequences and stand-alone poems in a section, and I just wanted to see if you could talk a little bit about how you approached writing a sequence of poems and how you see them working in a longer collection.
JR: That a great question. I love sequences. If I could just write one long sequence, I probably would. I do think of Novena as a single sequence. I wasn’t writing a collection; I was really thinking long game. I was thinking of the whole book right from the get-go. I wanted a book that felt like a whole narrative arc, and I was thinking about that right from the beginning of writing those poems. I wanted it to feel like a story. I came to writing poems from writing fiction which maybe has something to do with the way I approach a project like this. I want it to feel like the experience of reading a memoir or novel, and my favorite poets all write in this way––they all write these sequences or long poems. Novena is populated with sequences. The “Novena” poem itself is eighteen sections, “Backyard Rock” is seven pages, in seven sections. Then there are recurring characters, recurring motifs that make it feel perhaps, like a bit of a single sequence in itself. Naturally, I had to work against that a little bit. My first readers helped point to the fact that it felt a little too atonal, one note, of one image set, of one mood, and I had to insert poems from different landscapes of different places to try and splice in different places and themes to try and mix variety in there. One of the last poems I wrote in the sequence was “The Drought,” and it was a poem about California. I struggled [with] whether I wanted to save it for a later sequence or toss it all together––I toss a lot of poems––but I ultimately decided that in the collection I have a couple of urban poems in there, a couple of poems that were not just all of one landscape, of one note, so I put it in.
DAP: Following up on that, even in your stand-alone poems, they don’t seem like stand-alone poems. As a collection, they have, like you said, a narrative arc. How did you approach writing a poem and did you think about it in a collection immediately, or did you originally think of it as a stand-alone?
JR: I don’t think I thought about any poem going into a collection right away or it wasn’t my vision for any poem to go into a collection. I have to sit on it for awhile and see how it is going to fit. I write a lot, and I throw away a lot. That has always been my process. I write somewhere between 80 to 200 pages of poetry a year, and I’ll keep 10. So I have no idea what I am going to keep at the time that I write something. Usually, there is a feeling that something is going well that feels different than when something is not going well. That gut instinct, you know, it leads me to know what I can hold onto. But there are a lot of poems that I have been fond of that didn’t fit into the narrative arc that we were talking about just a few minutes ago that otherwise might have been good poems that I have let go because they didn’t fit into a book. The book needs to be of a piece. There have been poems that I might have let go of because, as a stand-alone poem, there was just something about them that didn’t jive 100% well with me. But because there was something to them that went with the narrative arc, I continued to work on them and revise them and wrestle with it to make it fit the overall arc and there are a few poems in the collection that I fought tooth and nail to keep in the collection for what it adds to the collection. So it is hard to say.
GH: Could you talk about the process of arranging the poems? You said you struggled with some poems that you really wanted to keep in there and how you added in more poems later. So could you talk a little bit about the process of going back and forth and how this was all going to play out in the narrative arc?
JR: It was a long process for sure. One poem that I really wanted to keep in there that isn’t in there is called “Anthem.” Ultimately it was an overly clever poem that riffed off some lines of Whitman’s in a modern context. It was a call to a new lover, and it fits some of the themes, images that echo throughout other poems in the book and that is one poem I had in the book. I had about thirty or forty iterations of the sequence of the poems or drafts of the manuscript, and that poem was maybe in thirty-five of them. I held on to that poem for so long, but I knew naturally pretty early on that it shouldn’t be there, so ultimately I let it go. Once I let it go, I think the book picked up [and] that was a definitive sign.
One of the last poems I wrote, later on, was “The Gate.” We talked earlier on about the priesthood, and I think that poem is the only poem that directly references my time at the monastery. I grew up maybe ten miles from a Franciscan Monastery, and I would spend most of my childhood there, living amongst the priests, and there was one priest who would ask questions during confession that were of a sexual nature that only now I see as being of an abusive nature, and this poem explores that. I see that now [as] being a sort of piece of this narrative arc and thinking of the religious arc of this narrative. So that was something I added later on that felt necessary to the narrative arc.
GH: The road to publication of poetry books is different than that of fiction or nonfiction manuscripts. Could you walk us through your publication experience with Novena?
JR: Yeah, it was very long. I sent the book out for five years, but looking back I really should have only sent it out for three. It wasn’t ready the first two years. To back up even further, the oldest poem in the book is a poem called “The Song For The Homebound Men,” and it’s a poem about Odysseus. In hindsight, it is probably the odd thumb poem in the book. It is the only mythological poem, and it’s left over from a whole manuscript of myth poems that I was working on when I first started my MFA in Wisconsin. I abandoned the whole project but that poem I wanted to keep, and again going for that variation of style was the reason why I kept that poem, because I wanted to have one poem in there left over from that project. That was one of the first ones because I wrote that in fall 2009 and over the course of the next three years, I had a draft of the book and started sending it out then, but it wasn’t until probably the fall of 2014 that it had a definite shape. What I mean by definitive shape was that it was the first time the manuscript felt like I couldn’t take a poem out without the structure falling apart or dissolving. It finally felt like all the puzzle pieces were there and that narrative arc had been established, and I understood what every poem was doing in that narrative arc. I understood why every poem had been placed there and if I took one poem out it wouldn’t make sense, or if I added a poem, it would feel extraneous. That’s the point when I started getting positive feedback from contests––it started to become a finalist for certain contests––but it did take another two years before it would get taken. I sent it out, I think, seventy times overall.
DAP: Did you send out only to contests or did you send out to other presses?
JR: I did both. I think for unpublished poets it's easier with contests. There is a lot of support for unpublished poets, and so there are a lot of first book contests. There is less support for second, third, fourth book poets. It's easier to win a contest then have an editor pick a book out of the slush pile, and young poets are lucky to have the support of the contest model, and I knew that. And I knew also that I would be in a world where there wouldn’t be a second or third book contest and I was going to take advantage of having the contest model for now.
GH: You talked earlier about how there is this long span of time that it took to get this book published and you talked about how there are poems that happened earlier and poems that happened later; your book is so autobiographical in nature, could you talk about looking back on those poems that were written earlier and how they compare to the ones you wrote later? What is that experience like with having time pass and growth happen?
JR: Yeah, that is an interesting question. In those forty drafts of the manuscript, I have shuffled the poems in a number of different ways, and the way that it ended up happening is for the most part chronological, with some exceptions, but a lot of the poems in the first section are old and poems in the last section are newer. And part of the reason is I was fascinated with my early years when I first started writing poems, and I was pushing towards something in the future or something in the present in my later poems and, of course, the book follows more of a chronological order as well and perhaps that is why. But there are some poems like “The Gate” that were inserted intentionally, that I sort of knew I had to write, like I kind of knew I needed those missing piece and wrote towards that missing piece. Another exception is the last poem in the book was written early on, and as soon as I wrote it, I knew it was going to be the last poem. You don’t write a seven hundred word poem and plop it in the middle. It kind of felt like it needed to be the last breath and then close, end scene. So I knew that was going to be the last poem when I wrote it, or an early poem that is in the last section. But the book is relatively chronological. “History” is another earlier poem inserted in the middle. Thinking about that thought, I have thought about that, about why I wrote them in that way. It seemed like it was a bit therapeutic for me––not saying that poetry should or ought to be therapeutic––but for me, it was in some ways, and I think I was working through some things that, as I was working through it, I felt doors being closed that I didn’t need to revisit them. And perhaps as doors were being closed, that I was pulling myself through my childhood, and eventually, as the book gets through my childhood, it ends with the speaker being a young man. And that was where I was sort of left by the end, perhaps.
DAP: You were talking about the mythology collection and now, Novena. What do you think is the next step? Do you think you will revisit anything? And another thing I am interested in is, will you stay in the natural world, like Novena, or do you think you will move away from it?
JR: That is a great question. I actually already know because I have a chapbook coming out this March, so already have this next thing in the works.
JR: Thank you. I made a pretty firm line in the sand after Novena was done and as I was finishing up Novena I was in California doing my Stegner Fellowship. I had made it to San Francisco, the gay paradise of the world, and one thing that struck me painfully was how little memorialization there was of the AIDS crisis years in this famous hold out city. And furthermore, gay men of my generation were actively trying to erase the AIDS crisis from their own lives, from their own queer narratives. They wanted to pretend that it never happened and they wanted to distance themselves from that narrative, and so I wanted to write a sequence of poems about San Francisco and about what it meant to grow up in that shadow and to actively try to remember and try to be haunted by the places that are left. The next thing is a sequence of poems called “Love in a Time of Prep,” and it is very urban, it is very much not in the natural world, and it is a pretty stark shift from Novena, but I think it carries a lot of similar themes. It still carries a lot of religious undertones, it still is very confessional, it is not a complete divorce, but I wanted a different image set. I wanted to shake things up. It is more experimental in terms of syntax. I wanted to challenge myself and structure myself in different ways.