Jacques J. Rancourt is an Issue 26 contributor and winner of the Pleiades Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry. His debut collection, Novena, is a coming-of-age and a coming out. Wresting a fractured identity from the past and making of it a gift for the beloved—and for the reader—Novena seeks redemption, wholeness.
Strapped to the “[c]lutched mast” of his ship, Rancourt’s Odysseus in “Song for the Homebound Men” is restrained against the allure of naked male sirens. The tension between the boat’s orientation (the straight, homebound narrative) and the sailor’s orientation (a queer veering, homosexual) runs throughout the collection. It’s dominated by the speaker’s outdoorsman father, by a patriarchal violence the speaker feels exiled by even as he resembles and reveres it. The product of such bound longing is song, of course, “a music box the wind tips open.” But what kind of song? Faith and prayer, myth, nature, role models, and all the other “standards hitherto publish’d” (to quote Whitman)—none of it will do, yet none of it can be done without.
Novena forges a new, unsanctioned song from the materials. “Sing unto the Lord a new song,” the Psalms decree. In the first of two “Novena” cycles, the speaker prays to a drag queen Mary to “[m]ove my lips until I believe / a man can kiss a man like this.”
Can you talk about your need for and use of neologism, at least in the sense of using conventional words unconventionally? Might this be related to the speaker’s acknowledged lack of adequate language with which to say what he means? I noticed neologism especially in the “Novena” cycles, such as “a sprout clouts her cleft” or “pummel and surge coarse my throat.”
My father is Quebecois, and my early introductions to language were garbled with roughly-pronounced Franglais phrases. Even to this day, lines come to me from the occasion of mishearing bits of dialogue or misreading lines in novels. I’m intrigued by what I think I hear or see that the actual meanings of these sentences often disappoint me. This is an experience I’ve tried to replicate in my poems. It’s a way of allowing sound to drive sense, despite having a narrative backbone to most of my poems. It allows a bit of my private world into the poems.
Can you talk about your experience publishing and the journey of the first book?
Like most poets, I sent my book out too early. I felt that because the poems themselves were done that their sum meant the book was publishable. I had no sense of the book’s structure, of the story it wanted to tell, or how to tell it. The first time I sent it out, I had the weird luck of being named a finalist for a dream contest. And then for the next two years, I received nothing but a solid flow of form rejection letters. It wasn’t until after that—after I had written some better poems, took out others that I was holding onto for superficial reasons—I went back to ground zero and restructured the whole book. Only then did I finally understand what each and every poem accomplished in the greater movement of the book. I read somewhere that you know a book is done when it feels that if you were to take out or add in just one more poem, the whole structure would topple; I think that’s as good as any advice I’ve heard on the matter. It would take another three years for the book to be taken, but I knew that it was done and that if I made any more drastic edits, I would only end up dowsing its spark. I had to trust my gut—and not the contest model—that it was done and to give myself permission to keep working on the next project.
The speaker in Novena grew up in what might be called the country. Where, specifically, did you grow up, and to what degree do your neopastoral motifs come from actual experience with “nature”? Part of the reason I ask is because, as you’ve probably noticed, foxes, wolves, and horses seem to show up in everybody’s poetry these days, country or no.
Before I was born, my father built an off-the-grid cabin in western Maine, and so I spent many of my formative years on the foot of a mountain playing by myself in the Appalachian woods. When I give readings, I do sometimes feel a compulsion to clarify that once a baby fawn really did lick my hand while I was jogging through the forest, or that one winter we really did find a barred owl frozen in the rafters of our wood shed. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What does matter, for Novena, is how far removed the speaker is from an urban gay utopia. He is isolated spiritually in a dangerous pastoral that’s rife with animals and hunters. This lens is key to understanding not only Novena but also a part of the larger gay narrative that’s spoken less of these days.
There’s a different type of closeting that occurs in the rural parts of America, which feels mostly like they’re held back in the 80’s or 90’s still. The media and even the gay narrative wants to propose that we (the queers) have been pushed beyond that and assimilated fully into the fabric of the mainstream. And yet, you go into the outreaching places of the country, and more than just the fact that coming out is still a life-risking act, there’s the pervasive toxic masculine culture that prevails there. In poems such as “American Shrapnel” and “Field,” I wanted to write toward that toxicity, to the places that have been left behind, and the sharp shred of fear implanted in all the young people who grow up there. My hope was that Novena would capture both the beauty and tenderness and oppression and fear that coincides in these communities far from the cities.
Who is the Deerman? He seems somewhat demonic, satyrlike.
Part of the project of the title sequence was to recreate a mythology: I recast the Virgin Mary as a drag queen as a way of writing a love poem that would give hope to the queer outcast but highly devout kid I was as a teenager. She represents a sort of an aloof chaste compassion, merging both divisive parts of the speakers’ identity—his faith and his queerness. The Deerman serves as her foil: a brute masculine sexuality that, at one point, literally eats the speaker up.
Where do you think you’d be as a poet without your presumably Catholic upbringing?
My family wasn’t particularly literary—or in some cases, even literate—but they were deeply religious. We studied theology in lieu of studying hard history or science (a concept that scares the hell out of me now). It did, however, instill in me the weight of symbolism, the endless interpretations and literary analysis that drives theology. When I was a teen, I used to drive hours to go to the Cathedral in Portland where in its crypt they’d hold the “Dead Theologians Society.” These conversations would be as close to poetry or literary conversations I’d have until I got to college. Even now, when I scan my lines for meter or rhythm, I trace how much I learned about syntax from these religious texts or rote prayers.
Novena’s speaker seems anxious about predecessors, and in particular about his father. He struggles to claim an identity separate from him. These concerns can’t but make me think of Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence (you even kill off the father at the end). Who are the poetic parents and peers you’re split from?
I can’t help but think of Bloom’s theory as being part of a queer aesthetic. In Gay World, anxiety surrounding a rupture between generations is par for the course. Coming out has historically meant estrangement, and attempting to maintain a connection or severing that connection with family is one of the defining decisions in a gay person’s life—second only to coming out in the first place. I am interested more, though, in your question of poetic lineage, which is something I always ask my students to consider. I had a teacher who found it terribly important that a poet be able to “place themselves” in the larger conversation of who came before them. I feel a strong impulse and even obligation to recognize in the work itself those who came before and paved the way, who made the work possible in the first place. There are poems (I won’t name which) that are direct tributes to other gay poets as a way of acknowledging the path they’ve blazed and the opportunity they’ve created.
Originally from Alabama, interviewer Austin Segrest writes and teaches at Lawrence University in west-central Wisconsin, just south of Green Bay (up the north-flowing Fox). He reviews poetry for Southern Humanities Review. His poems have recently appeared in Image, Ecotone, and Grist.
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