At night the humid chorus swells: 
A Conversation with Jacques Rancourt about his Newest Collection, Brocken Spectre

Interview by Tiffany Troy

Could you introduce yourself to your readers of the world?

I’m a queer poet from Maine. I spent much of my growing up near the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. My first book, Novena, is very much about that and about living in the crosshairs of masculinity and religion and rural America. In my newest collection, Brocken Spectre, I explore the silences and absences as a result of catastrophes and how we reckon with history and bring it into the present. Both books have really centered on queerness in the 21st century, and the unique challenges we have, even if from a bird’s eye view so much progress has been made.

There is this beautiful line in your collection which speaks of the progress in which you talk about how if it had been 20 years earlier, a queer relationship would never have been allowed, while also looking at the challenges that you, as well as like the speaker of the poem and his community faces as a result of their identity. 

Why the title? Why the epigraph? How does the idea of loss and haunting inform your collection?

The event of a brocken spectre doesn’t make its appearance until the very last poem, “Love in the Time of PrEP.” Until then it’s never directly referred to, though I’d like to think that it imbues many poems in the book. I saw a brocken spectre once while hiking a volcano in Hawaii with my husband, and the next day while writing, that image made its way into a poem. The more I thought about the image, the more I thought about how the AIDS crisis looms above and over us like a ghost or a shadow, both those who lived through it and those who came after it. 

The epigraph comes from “The Met Office,” and the way it describes the brocken spectre as being both gigantic but also at a distance reverberated with me because even though the worst years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic are decades away, the echoes and legs of those years will last for many generations and will continue to shape the course of the queer future. It feels distant partly because the gay movement has sought to distance itself from images of queer folks dying to images of queer folks getting married and who act in a way easily identifiable with a heterosexual audience. Even so, the crisis years still press up against us today in surprising ways so that’s why I wanted to pluck that image out and hold it over the whole space of the book as its title and epigraph.

Brocken spectre as a title and epigraph imagery definitely serves as a thread throughout the collection. The idea of the brocken spectre as being immense but omnipresent is interesting because I also saw it as specific individuals the speaker encounters and memorializes, and who influence the way in which the speaker thinks and perceives the world. How does your opening poem, “Near the Sheep Gate,” introduce the reader to the world of your collection?

The poem features the voice of a speaker who is experiencing some level of anxiety at his own wedding. The speaker is aware of the dumb luck of it all, and how their wedding is only made possible because of all the suffering, stigmatization, and activism of queer folks in the 20th century. He reacts to how had he been born 20 years prior, not only would this not be an option for him, but he very well would be dead. The speaker tries to pay respects to the past and think about the future, and I wanted this poem with these ideas to open the collection.

Brocken Spectre is, at its heart, a love poem. One of the threads that runs through the entire book is the relationship between the speaker and the beloved. I dedicate the book to my partner, Walter, and he is one of two prominent characters running throughout the book. The book is very much about that relationship. There’s a ten year age gap between us, and one’s proximity to the HIV/AIDS pandemic can really change one’s outlook on optimism for the queer future entirely, which is a focus of this particular poem.

There’s also the element of faith: towards the end, there’s the allusion to the Biblical story of the pool of Bethesda from the Book of John where the angel of the Lord stirs the pool, and the first one who gets lucky enough to be dunked into the pool becomes healed of whatever ailment they had. The speaker imagines that pool. There’s faith, or the ability to see something clearly, and then there’s the loss of that vision as the young speaker tries to make sense of tragedy.  

A lot of animals show up in your collection. There’s the snail, the bullfrogs, the eels, and the squids, for instance. How does the animal help illuminate queer love, as well as hate crimes against queer people?

Animals in literature have always served as symbolism. Literature casts animals into buckets of good and bad, and amphibians and reptiles are often misunderstood and cast as evil and belonging to the devil. In one poem, I make the comparison between the eel and the snake-as-Satan from Milton’s Paradise Lost, who also gets transformed into a toad, at one point, which comes back in the form of a bullfrog later in my book. These animals in the natural world are quite innocent of anything other than their whims and instincts, but animals in poetry have one foot in the spirit world and one foot in the material world and ride that divide.

Like queer people, the animals I build into my poems are outcasts of the animal kingdom and in some of the more bildungsroman poems in the book, the speaker feels empathy and connection with these creatures. We open “Near the Sheep Gate” with the image of two slugs slung around each other, mating, hanging in the air. The poem opens with an assertion that the speaker has changed his mind about slugs, which is a stand-in for queerness in a way.

Another poem talks about how there used to be bullfrogs everywhere in the speaker’s childhood and now they’ve all but disappeared, except for at night when he’s trying to sleep he hears them. This poem points to a whole generation of gay men who have all but been wiped out. It touches upon the loss of generational guidance or mentorship. The creatures stand in for death or ghosts.

Your poems draw from a lot of different sources: science, history, news, philosophy, and life experiences. How are you able to present for the reader the stories that you wish to tell and lyric form?

In my heart, I am always going to be a narrative poet. There’s always been a personal story or thread running throughout all my poems. I wanted this book to draw from as many sources as possible in this book because HIV/ AIDS is as much a social virus as a medical one, and economics, media, and religion all play an active part in how this virus is treated and understood. It seemed only right that this book would draw from as many different wells of influences and sources in order to tell the story it needed to tell.

The next question is related to the way in which your poems pay tribute to the lives that were lost while also looking forward to the future. In “June 12, 2016,” the speaker questions himself for growing accustomed to grief. In what ways are your poems elegies? Anti-elegies?  

I subscribe to the idea that all poems are elegies in some way or another because the act of attempting to put words to something is to try to capture what’s already passed or passing. The actions of the HIV/AIDS activists groups of the 1980’s and 1990’s were centered around making sure that people would not forget what was happening, and to remember, regardless of whether the news continued to cover the epidemic or not.

This is so important because it’s so easy to go numb to it, and what becomes a headliner one week so easily fall to page eight the next.

“June 12, 2016” specifically pays tribute to the victims of gun violence and how it feels like to pass through what should be the safest places in our country–schools, grocery stores, movie theaters—have been transformed into places of danger and fear.

For queer people, nightclubs have often been that safe haven, a gathering space protected from the outside heterosexual world. To have these safe spaces infiltrated with violence by someone who has access to a weapon designed for war, as was the case with the Pulse Massacre, is horrific and shocking.

The poem confronts this idea of growing numb to something tragic. It attempts to work through my own feelings about that massacre and try to reconnect with my empathy and humanity in that moment.

You definitely did such a great job like showing empathy and also showing how we as readers can become more empathetic through identification and remembrance, and not growing accustomed or desensitized from history and reality of tragedies. You are such a master of using different poetic forms. How does the form of your poems inform its content and how do you choose what form each poem takes?

Form is actually one of the last things I think about. I’m more conscious about the lines, where the breaks and disruptions are placed. I always write by hand at first, often first writing in bulky paragraphs. From that, I then begin to cut lines in order to carve out a single unit of thought, to chisel away white spaces between those thoughts, and then shape the poem out from there. Line and stanza breaks are usually determined by thinking about where I want to structure surprise.

Visually, it was really important that the poems trail away from the left-hand margin. I wanted to play with indentation as a way of thinking about the absences in the history of who’s left behind and forgotten. 

The book is a vertical stacking of time: the present overlaid on the past. I wanted the poems to feel like two tectonic plates that shift and rub against each other to create tension.

This is also why I decided for many of these poems to do away with punctuation. I wanted there to be slippages of tenses between past and present, so you don’t know when a line will end or not, you don’t know when you’re going to slide back into the past or snap back to the present. I wanted there to be this constant back and forth dance between the back then and now.

Many poems in Brocken Spectre begin with observation and experience and then turns. How do you construct your poems’ endings?

Endings are tough, because you can never walk into a poem knowing how it’s going to end. That would be the death knell of the poem. Part of the act of writing is to explore your own inquiries as a writer and finding the answer to your questions—or rather, the question to your question.

Poems that have answers from the start generally fall flat by the end for me. I love a poem that unravels and reaches its understandings through inquiries that deepen its anxieties and feelings, like the sense of being overwhelmed by history.

Oftentimes I find that my endings are tucked in somewhere in the middle of a draft, and then I have to revert the order of the poem because sometimes I write beyond the point of opening up. I sometimes try to overexplain in my first few drafts, but that’s not the work of a poet. That should be left in the imagination of the reader. To strike that balance and end on that moment of uncertainty yet closure is the goal.

I think you’ve definitely achieved. How does “Love in the Time of PrEP” bring a kind of closure to your collection while leaving your readers with questions to ponder about?

I made the decision to put this as the last poem in Brocken Spectre, but it’s actually the first poem of my chapbook, In the Time of PrEP.

This is a poem that is very concerned with time: the present, the past, and the future. There are two groups of characters: the beloved, who is a decade older than the speaker, and these two college freshmen, who are a decade younger than the speaker. The proximity of these three age groups to the HIV/AIDS epidemic center determine their relationship to it and their sense of hope for the future. I wanted this poem to end the collection because it sums up what the book attempts to do in terms of generational knowledge and second-generation trauma but also to give a sense of hope, even if that hope comes out of the reset from the total annihilation of the human race. 

What are you working on today?

I’m working on a new book that looks at the life cycle of desire, such as with the mayfly, which is this insect that hatches from its nymph stage and mates and dies all within the course of a single day. These poems are rooted in these brief and yet intense episodes of desire and lust and love, and they think about what still remains or what’s still left resonant afterwards. These poems also seem to be exploring fidelity and fluidity within queer open relationships. The catastrophe of climate change as a backdrop to these poems have started to step into the forefront, as well, and I’ve been thinking about what love looks like at the periphery of disaster. 

Do you have any closing thoughts you want to share with your readers?

I wrote Brocken Spectre to look back and find my own place in queer history in the 21st century. I wasn’t interested in rewriting the elegies that were written by those who lived through the crisis years, so my hope is that people who come to Brocken Spectre will find and read those elegies and books, such as by Tim Dlugos, Tory Dent, Melvin Dixon, Thom Gunn, and Paul Monette, that have been so critical to my own development.

Those voices shouldn’t be forgotten, and I hope that those books are in print for a long time to come, and are read by the next generation of readers for a long time to come.

About the interviewer: Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator, and poet.