Tag Archives: Jacques Rancourt

Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Jacques J. Rancourt

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.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Katy Didden’s Anticipated Books of 2017

When you say “2016,” it sounds benign, a choriamb of grinning “t” and “e” sounds. Looking back now, it seems clear that the rhythm signaled the start of a march. As it turns out, 2016’s most defining characteristic was being too easily divisible. We lost David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and George Michael, and we lost major stars in the poetry constellation (or maybe they’ve become the stars) as we mourn poets C.D. Wright, Michael Harper, Lucia Perillo, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Max Ritvo, and most recently, Monica Hand. Meanwhile, the United States continues to go through turmoil; we face an identity crisis in high-definition, with a surveillance view of the people we are and have been all along. How do we move forward? Can we speak our truth and trust justice? Memorious will be joining other literary lighthouses to shine forward through the dim prospect—we’re co-sponsoring a Writers Resist reading at the Boston Public Library and we hope you can join us there: January 15, 2017, 1:30-4:30.

Many people have written about why we turn to poetry in times of hardship. This year, I’ve watched people answer crisis after crisis by flooding newsfeeds with poems, and poems are an answer. I believe poetry is a real antidote to warfare, and a means to stay alive—every poem, even or especially a poem of outrage, is a sign of alert attention, and of our desire to connect, to organize, to build relationships. I have spent the last month thinking about the books I’m looking forward to in 2017. These are the shields I will be holding up as I join other writers to march against oppression—each is a testament to hope, trust, beauty, community.

Layli Long Soldier, Whereas (Graywolf, March)

whereasLong Soldier, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, wrote a series of poems in response to The Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans. President Obama authorized the resolution in 2009, but because he never read the document out loud, and because no tribal leaders were present at the initial signing of the document, many refer to it as the “silent apology.” In Whereas, Long Soldier writes poems that adapt, re-purpose, and defy the official language of the treaty. You can preview some of the poems on the Pen America website. Here’s an excerpt from “Whereas”:

WHEREAS I tire. Of my effort to match the effort of the statement: “Whereas Native Peoples and non-Native settlers engaged in numerous armed conflicts in which unfortunately, both took innocent lives, including those of women and children.” I tire

of engaging in numerous conflicts, tire of the word both. Both as a woman and a child of that Whereas.

In these poems, Long Soldier highlights the instability and changefulness of language, and she also shows the way that governmental texts, laws, resolutions, and treaties can be literally imposed on places, and how those texts in fact alter the natural world. I’m curious about how Long Soldier’s collection will take shape, because I’ve encountered the poems in so many different formats, from the recordings on Fishhouse.org to the photos of the “Whereas: We Respond” project she installed at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I believe that the spirit of resistance Long Soldier has nourished in this project is kindred to the protests in Standing Rock—along the same river. Long Soldier’s work is a poetry to break all boundaries, and I can’t imagine it contained, unless it will exist both on the page and as the means to galvanize audiences, to arrange happenings.

Contributor Tarfia Faizullah, Register of Eliminated Villages (Graywolf)
Update: this book will arrive in 2018, not 2017!
As the title suggests, Faizullah’s vision is one that takes in entire communities, and one that works to re-inscribe and preserve the personal stories of threatened histories. Her first book, Seam, featured a sequence of poems centered on her experience interviewing the birangona, Bangladeshi women who were raped by Pakistani soldiers during the Liberation War of 1971. The poems I’ve seen from her second book are more highly lyric and fragmented, but true to the poems in her first book, they confront the world’s atrocities with a disarming (and prevailing) music.

Here’s an excerpt from “Register of Hunger,” which you can find over at Hobart:

O arrogant, tongue-slung, leaf-

broad, oceanrun closets of our
lives, in which we assume we can leave

(timelessness)

a bare lightbulb burning.

You can also read one of Tarfia’s poems in Memorious Issue #10.

Contributor Marc McKee, Consolationeer (Black Lawrence)
There is no poet I turn to for consolation more than Marc McKee. Next year, Black Lawrence Press will be publishing his third full collection, Consolationeer. No one else would know how to re-structure market forces in such a way that consolations—the things you bid for—boost the soul. Reading Marc’s poems never fails to restore my fierce affection for people and the planet. Here’s an excerpt from the poem “Recharger”:

On our trek through this tunnel
overgrown with spoons
licked into blunt spears, the intercessions
of various music are stars
luminously breathing
across strings of river.

You can also read one of Marc’s poems in Memorious Issue #24.

Contributor Gabriel Fried, The Children Are Reading (Four Way Books)
Many of you might know Gabe not only as a poet but also as the editor of so many beloved poets, including many Memorious authors like Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Sydney Wade, and Kimberly Johnson. He is a person who champions other writers faithfully, and I couldn’t be happier to see that his new book will be published by Four Way Books, a press renowned for the kind of care and dedication to its authors that matches his own. Gabe’s poems have the sonorous quality of someone re-telling ancient myths, of calling us back to the movements of the heart. We published Gabe’s poem “Pan” in Memorious Issue #20.

Elizabeth Arnold, Skeleton Coast (Flood Editions, January)

.Next month, Elizabeth Arnold will release her fifth book of poems, Skeleton Coast, from the impeccable Flood Editions. Elizabeth Arnold was my professor at the University of Maryland, and her seminar taught me to love poets like Frank Bidart, George Oppen, Louise Glück, Lorine Niedecker, and Basil Bunting. She also edited Mina Loy’s lost novel Insel. Maybe you can see, as I do, how this assembly of influences points back to the particular genius of the one who loves them all. By my lights, Arnold has one of the most interesting sonic palettes going—her poems read like shining desert fragments or waves through tide pools or jagged canyon echoes. Here is a description of Skeleton Coast by poet Jennifer Clarvoe:

These poems alternate between spare, psychological explorations and more expansive descriptions of difficult terrain: the Sahara, Egyptian ruins, and the dry riverbeds of the Skeleton Coast in the title sequence. The goal is to read what is truly there, as if we are all wrecks and deserts, to understand our dislocation from the forces that have made us and the sources that might feed us. What is buried is both violence and clarity, “like a fault deep in the ground // with its / inexact though statistically measurable need // to relieve stress over time.”

I can’t wait to read this book!

2017 will also be a banner year for debut poetry collections. Here are a few that I’m excited about:

Contributor Jacques J. Rancourt won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize from Pleiades Press for his book Novena. I’ve been reading and loving Jacques’s poems for a few years now, and we published his work in the latest issue of Memorious. I am looking forward to this collection (go team Pleiades!!).

Carl Phillips selected Airea D. Matthews’s book, simulacra, for the 2016 Yale Younger Poets Prize, and it will be published by Yale University Press. These poems are astonishing, and so layered with sonic patterns they will rearrange your brain! Listen to this incredible crown of vowels (plus every other sound) in this excerpt from “Sexton Texts During the Polar Vortex.” You can find more selections in Four Way Review:

Sat., Jan. 21, 8:01 am

(1/5) Every day, my father fell six
feet into a vat of tar. Burned
his neck, ankles, veins. We
saw his viscous shoeprints
blanched blisters and salve.
Hours after, when
he touched any door-
knob, steam rose
from the brass.

portrait_of_the_alcoholic_kaveh_frontKaveh Akbar is the editor of Divedapper, and one of my favorite poets to follow on Twitter because he shines the spotlight on so many great poets. His chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, will be published by Sibling Rivalry Press, and is due to hit the shelves in January. His first full length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, will be published by Alice James Books in 2017. Here’s an excerpt from “Fugu,” which you can find on Gulf Coast:

that I struggle to love other men is
a lie I’ve uttered with confidence at
certain convenient moments in my life
I can’t imagine anything less true
now with the dizzying sweet fruit still stuck
in my teeth      my gums and tongue tinted green
a quiet question answering itself

I heard Erin Adair-Hodges read her poems this past summer, and she brought the house down. Her first book won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and will be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. These poems are not merely witty, they’re outrageous, feminist, and electrifying. Here’s an excerpt from “Of Yalta,” from The Georgia Review

I’ve been rejected in two centuries, lonely
in millennia, pride of my generation.
This old story. Women who like men
love them until the men are holes

and the women turn back to bone.
Every time a man left me, I burned
something I loved until I was left
with only the gear knob of a Dodge Omni

and wine stains round my mouth.

I’d like to give a shout-out to a few books that hit the shelves at the end of 2016:

Rosalie Moffett: June in Eden, from Ohio State University Press. Here’s an excerpt from “Weird Prayers” which you can find on Blackbird:

I address the terns. Really,

I address my own hand, curled into a horn.
I tip it up. I say

I am caught floor-side of the trapeze net

Contributor Catherine Pierce: The Tornado is the World, from Saturnalia Press. We published one of Catherine’s Tornado poems in Memorious Issue #22. Also, check out this terrific videopoem of “The Mother Warns the Tornado.”

Matthew Olzmann: Contradictions in the Design, from Alice James Books. Here is an excerpt from “Astronomers Locate a New Planet”:

On Earth, when my wife is sleeping,
I like to look out at the sky.
I like to watch TV shows about supernovas,
and contemplate things that are endless
like the heavens, and, maybe, love.
I can drink coffee and eat apples whenever I want.
Things grow everywhere, and so much is possible,
but on the news tonight: a debate about who
can love each other forever and who cannot.

Finally, let this blog post also be a love letter to all of the editors who are working to publish this work (and as we all know, not for fame or money). These are brilliant people who are making this poetry possible, and their commitment to promoting these poets may be the most radical thing of all. Bring on 2017!!

Assistant Poetry Editor Katy Didden is the author of The Glacier’s Wake, which won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize from Pleiades Press, and was published in 2013. She has published poems in many journals such as Image, Poetry, 32 Poems, and The Kenyon Review, and her work has been featured on Verse Daily and Poetry Daily. She was a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, then served as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the MFA Program at the University of Oregon. She is currently an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ball State University.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org.

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