Tag Archives: LSU Press

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.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry Interviews

Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Matthew Thorburn

authorpic

Matthew Thorburn’s fourth full-length collection, Dear Almost, has recently been released by Louisiana State University Press. A book-length poem broken into sections that correspond to the four seasons, it is also a love letter addressed to a daughter lost to miscarriage. The poem is vividly, beautifully awake to the world, which has been reconfigured by absence, but also by a sense of being stranded, being caught in the act of becoming. Just as the poem questions how to grieve for a child who both was and was not here, so it also struggles with the aftermath of that loss. How can someone be a parent who has never had a child? With whom can he share the strangeness and wonder of New York, if not the expected child, whose hand he will never hold? A sparrow, music from a foreign instrument, a wild creature navigating the streets of New York, a Chinese day of mourning—everything becomes a form of attention, and a kind of prayer, and everything becomes something the poem wants, desperately, to both love and share.

In addition to Dear Almost, contributor Matthew Thorburn is the author of the full-length collections This Time Tomorrow (Waywiser), Every Possible Blue (CW Books), and Subject to Change (New Issues), as well as two chapbooks, A Green River in Spring (Autumn House) and Disappears in the Rain (Parlor City). Thorburn is a former Witter Bynner fellow at the Library of Congress. His poems are widely published in journals, including Memorious 16 and 26, and his work has been recognized with fellowships from the Bronx Council on the Arts and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He writes a monthly feature for the Ploughshares blog and lives in New York City with his wife and son.

My first question has to do with form and structure in your poems. Subject to Change, your first book, was as formally inventive as any recent book—stanza forms, prose poems, experimental forms, poems in sections, a section of a poem written as a numbered list. Dear Almost is a long poem in sections, and it is formally consistent, so I was wondering about how your relationship to form has evolved since you wrote the poems in Subject to Change. 

Looking back on it, 12 years after it was published, Subject to Change seems like a lot of first books in that it’s a bit of a miscellany, put together from the poems I’d written during grad school and in the years just before and after. I was definitely interested in trying new things then (and still am, though what makes them “new” might be less obvious now). I also think in many of those poems I was maybe driven more by my interest in experimenting with language than by a desire to say some particular thing, to tell a specific story or convey a certain feeling or mood.

Dear Almost has its roots in the opposite situation: a very particular and difficult experience—the loss of an unborn child in a miscarriage—that I wanted to shape a meditative narrative around. It’s also a book that sets out to answer a question: How do you mourn for someone you never really knew, never met or saw? In a subtler way, there is a little of that experimenter’s spirit in Dear Almost too, though. The second section of the book, “The Light that Lasts All Summer,” is one continuous narrative book-ended by two haiku. Also, though the reader probably can’t tell, I wrote the whole book-length poem in bits and fragments in a completely non-linear way, then pieced it all together like a mosaic, framed by the changing seasons, from one spring to the next. So the actual writing and construction of the poem—Will it all fit together? Will this odd assembly work?— felt like a major, multi-year experiment to me.

Dear Almost is a season suite, with each section corresponding to a season. This seems to me to be a more far-eastern approach to organizing a poem, and in fact, early sections mention Shanxi Province and Qingming. I know you have traveled in China and that your wife Lillian is Chinese American, and the acknowledgements of the book reference lessons in Mandarin. Could you talk a little about Chinese language, culture, and poetry, and how (or if) they influenced the writing and the final shape of Dear Almost? 

cover“Season suite”—I love how that perfectly captures what I’d never really thought of as a form before. Something I learned from classical Chinese poetry is how poets like Meng Hao Jan and Wang Wei would write about the seasons as a way of describing their own inner weather. From what I understand, there’s almost never a first-person pronoun in Chinese poems written in that time. I talk about this a little in Dear Almost. While I didn’t try to avoid the “I” in my book, I did focus on the changing seasons as a way of amplifying or echoing emotions, and to convey the passing of time during the period of mourning the poem describes.

I want to be clear, though, that I’m not an expert, not even a student of classical Chinese poetry. I’m an amateur reader who has been moved by, and tried to learn from, certain translations of Chinese poems. What I’ve learned about Chinese poetry has come from reading books like David Hinton’s wonderful anthology, Classical Chinese Poetry (which I had a chance to write about here) and their introductory essays. I’ve also had the chance to talk with my mother-in-law, who is a great reader of Chinese poetry in Chinese, about different English versions of certain poems, and to hear which translations she likes better, and why—and to try to put into words which translations I prefer, as poems in English.

Beyond that, as you mentioned, I’ve been grateful to learn about and experience Chinese culture through my wife’s family, and to share that with Lillian and our son. Some of those experiences naturally found a place in Dear Almost. Qingming (or “Tomb-Sweeping Day”), for instance, is a time to honor ancestors and visit their graves, which found its way into the book pretty naturally. As for the language, I think I studied Chinese just enough to get a sense of how extremely difficult it can be to learn, especially for adults. I’ve picked up some words and phrases of spoken Chinese as my son advances in both languages (he’s three)—so that I can sometimes get a sense of what he and Lillian are talking about—but not enough to hold up my end of a conversation.

I know that Elizabeth Bishop is one of your touchstone poets—someone whose work you return to again and again. And it seems to me that you share her interest in writing about travel, her interest in place as an idea that can shape poems. Dear Almost looks, physically, on the page, very like some of Bishop’s poems—I’m thinking here of “At the Fishhouses” and “In the Waiting Room.” Both depend on fairly short, loosely syllabic lines and a strong rhythm. I have a two-part question about you and Bishop. The first part is what you learned from reading her work, especially what you learned about long poems and the shorter poetic line. 

You’re absolutely right: Bishop is one of my touchstones. I admire and keep coming back to many of her poems. I love her attentiveness, her way of staying with something and looking at it from different angles, and how she conveys a sense of the mind in motion, working through things on the page. Her “Poem,” which is my favorite of her poems, is a great example of this. How she studies and thinks about this little painting, carefully, meditatively, and then suddenly: “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!” I love that moment of amazed recognition, and the way the poem takes a turn into more personal territory there. I had the thrill of seeing the actual painting that “Poem” describes in a show of Bishop’s own paintings and a few items she had owned at the Tibor de Nagy gallery here in New York some years ago.

I try to emulate that kind of attentiveness in my own poems, and something like that way of showing the mind at work. Her poems about Brazil, and the way her work embodies the possibilities that travel and cross-cultural experiences can offer for a writer, have been important to me too. There’s an affinity between the traveler and the poet: for both, everything should be new and strange, and require and reward careful study and consideration. I wasn’t conscious of emulating her use of short, syllabic lines, but it’s not surprising to suppose I might have done it without realizing it. I definitely do admire how that kind of tight, crisp line can propel the narrative in a poem like “In the Waiting Room.”

The second part is about content. She was, famously, resistant to the confessional mode of her peers. And yet her most well-known poems are her most deeply felt and personal ones—“One Art,” which tackles losing a love, “Sestina,” which seems to reference her childhood in Nova Scotia, and “In the Waiting Room,” which references places and events we know are part of her childhood. I think of her stance on autobiographical content as a kind of poise, or reticence maybe, or some sort of distillation of feeling through both craft and time. Obviously, Dear Almost is a deeply felt book, but it is also a deeply crafted book. It engages with the deeply personal in ways your previous books do not seem to. Can you discuss how you negotiated, in the writing and editing of Dear Almost, your own stance on autobiographical content, time, and craft?

I agree—I think Bishop sometimes conveys a feeling of intense, deeply felt emotion by seeming to hold most of it back, so that that restraint suggests the overwhelming emotion welling up behind her carefully chosen words. That’s not something I’ve tried to emulate very much, if at all, but I admire it in her poems.

While Dear Almost is not an especially formal poem, the frame of the four seasons—knowing from early in the writing that it would take place over the course of a year, and be shaped by that progression from one spring to the next—provided some necessary boundaries to work within and against in writing about this very personal and painful experience. As I mentioned, I drafted most of the poem in bits and pieces in my notebook, because that was the only way I could approach this experience at first, in a kind of glancing way, a few lines at a time. Then I did a lot of work to fit those pieces together into a narrative within that frame. Without that frame, or some kind of similar constraint, I could see all these lines and images just spiraling out away from me.

In addition to your full-length collections, you have published two chapbooks. One of them, Disappears in the Rain seems to be your first published very long poem, though even in Subject to Change, you have a couple of longer poems—“Three Part Constructed Form / For M. Duchamp” and “The River.” By contrast, A Green River in Spring is a collection of very short poems. What draws you to the long-form poem? What does a book-length poem afford as far as challenges and rewards in contrast to shorter poems? And specifically, at what point in the drafting process did it come to you/did you decide that Dear Almost was a book-length poem?

I sometimes daydream in the abstract about books I’d like to write—a book of prose poems, for instance, or a book of 26 poems named after objects that runs from A to Z. So I had had the idea for a while of a book-length poem that follows the seasons over the course of a year, though with no idea what it would be “about.” This was a couple years before we experienced the loss Dear Almost centers around. On the other hand, I truly don’t remember exactly when I started writing about this loss, addressing lines and images to our “almost girl.” I just remember being in the midst of it. Once I got going, though, it seemed clear pretty quickly that this could be a long poem—and that the thinking I’d already done about what a book-length poem might look like, the shape it might take, could suddenly be very helpful. I wasn’t sure for quite a while whether this thing I was writing would work as a book, or even as a poem, but I could see that what I was doing would at least be book-length.

Because I had never written a book-length poem before, in some ways Dear Almost is also about writing a book-length poem, and includes some references to its own writing within the narrative. While the loss at the center of the poem was difficult to keep facing up to, the actual work of writing and revising, of shaping the poem into a four-part narrative, was something I really enjoyed. I would carry a print-out of the manuscript in my briefcase when I went to work each day, so I could re-read it and mark up line edits on my commute, and during my lunch hour. I liked the steady work of this long poem, of being able to just stay in it for so long, to live with it and within it, and keep trying to make it better. I also enjoyed figuring out how all the different pieces of the poem could work together—for instance, how variations and repetitions of certain images or phrases could create connections between different parts of the narrative.

One of the things I love about epistolary poems is that they willfully exclude the reader, putting audience on the outside of a kind of a conversation, of a deep intimacy. We are meant to overhear, to learn from overhearing, from being an audience. In this, epistolary poems seem to be closer to theatre than other kinds of poems. Epistolary poems afford access to drama, to a kind of withholding and release of information. And again, a two-part question: When did you know Dear Almost would be addressed to this lost child? Did the choice arise organically, or did you, at some point, decide to make the book an epistle? 

Leslie, that is a wonderful way to think about epistolary poems, as being like theatrical performances. Some of the earliest lines I wrote for Dear Almost addressed our lost child as “you.” I don’t think I thought about it objectively at the time—I just started writing and that was how I wrote. It felt natural to me. What I wanted most of all was to have some kind of contact with this person I had imagined and looked forward to, but would now know only in my imagining. This was my way of trying to deal with my feelings of grief and heartache over this sudden, staggering loss. I wanted to talk to our lost child, to be with her in the only way I could—in words. I knew of course it was just imagining, and possibly not a “healthy” way to deal with grief, but this was my way of holding on. Even in the short time we had been expecting, it seemed like we had imagined so much of what our life together would be like, and I wanted to keep imagining a little longer. The book is, as you suggest, very much a letter, starting with its title, which the reader gets to read over my shoulder.

Leslie Harrison is the author of The Book of Endings (Akron) and Displacement (Mariner). Recent poems have appeared in The Bennington Review, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Baltimore. 

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

1 Comment

Filed under Poetry Interviews