In the Time of PrEP: An Interview with Jacques J. Rancourt

Soham Patel: What have you been reading lately? How is it influencing your new writing?

Jacques Rancourt: With poetry, I’d been so focused the last few years on poets who write carefully chiseled poems that lately I’ve been drawn to poets who embrace sprawl and wild syntactic leaps. I know that what I read fuels my written work, and if I’m not excited about the books I’m reading, I often am not excited about the poems I’m writing. So I’ve been seeking out poets who have that exciting quality to them. I just finished reading Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl and loved it.  

SP: I am struck by your work’s sonic strengths, leaps, and clarity. Your lines are confident in their turns, and sometimes they are slippery and wild. “Love in the Time of PrEP” begins with an infinitive suggesting we can see more clearly if we climb, if we shift our perspectives. So, in a way the poem has a certain (and lovely!) instructional quality to it. It moves quickly in nine stanzas from a journey to a volcano to recounting intimacies shared in bed to a meditation on time and erosion, back to bed (!), then to an action occurring simultaneously elsewhere by other queer strangers, and it ends in an epiphany that asks two questions regarding history. Your poems often ask striking questions. How do you see the role of the interrogative in your work?

JR: Thank you for your kind words! This poem opens up a sequence (called In the Time of PrEP) that’s coming out this March as a chapbook from Beloit Poetry Journal, so your read of the “instructional” quality is spot-on. I wanted this first poem in that sequence to consider our place exactly. Now that we “live on the other side of catastrophe” (to borrow a line from another poem in the sequence), I wanted to consider how the AIDS crisis has shaped and continues to shape queer identities. In terms of the interrogative, this was a conscious choice. After finishing my first full-length collection Novena I looked for ways I could push myself, aesthetically and intellectually, as an artist, both holistically and on the sentence level. For example, I intentionally began reading poets who wrote more sparingly, precisely, trading in Whitman for Dickinson. One realization I had upon re-reading Novena after its publication is my sentences were nearly all declarative, my speaker self-confident with assertion, and that one approach on the sentence level I could take was to ask more questions in my poems. It seemed important, too, in this shift to use the interrogative. This collection questions how to honor those we lost and locate our histories as a way of finding our place.

SP: It is wonderful to read about this movement of your reading as it informs your writing: from the chiseled to the leaping—Dickinson’s riotous precision and that good old Whitmanic loud yawp. Novena finely balances the long and the short poem—it stretches with exactitude. And now your project is approaching catastrophe (this turning point) of a moment in time as it helps us find and (re)define a place in the world to (re)articulate queer identity. I am really hopeful that poetry (and art writ large) in our current moment, as it rigorously realizes the tradition it is a part of, can contribute to the bettering of the queer community’s quality of life by making us more read/seen—am I maybe being too gushy-eyed with all this hopefulness?

JR: Not at all! That’s the role of art, right? Reading, after all, is a practice in empathy. After the AIDS crisis had begun to settle, there seemed to be an “Eisenhower Years” movement where the queer narrative was flattened in order to become more digestible and heteronormative for a straight audience. We were rebranded and made approachable, and as a result, part of the wide and beautifully diverse representation of our queer community was suppressed. My hope for the queer community is that our art, which has never shied away from representing our true selves, can continue to come out and be embraced fully by a more open-minded, non-queer audience. Bruce Snider has a terrific essay, for instance, in which he discusses the dearth of the rural queer experience, and I’m glad that the conversation and poems around queer identities is growing outward and becoming larger and more nuanced.

SP: OK, I’ll hold on hope—thanks, Jacques! “Love in the Time of PrEP” nods to the title of a novel by Gabriel García Márquez. Where García Márquez places a disease usually spread by water, you place a new medication for HIV, a disease usually spread by sexual encounters and of course historically associated more so with gay sexual encounters. What’s the impulse that pushes this choice for your title for the poem?

JR: One of the themes in García Márquez’s novel is love manifested as an illness. I recently reread the novel, which was published in the late eighties, and kept thinking how while the book beautifully draws metaphors between love and disease, there was literally a simultaneous crisis happening in which men were finding ways to keep loving each other in spite of a pandemic that ravaged them. Love in the Time of Cholera was published (and ostensibly written) during the height of the AIDS epidemic. I’ve often thought what that reception must have been like in the States: was it seen as apropos, or tone-deaf, or was the comparison not drawn, as often is the case when a calamity affects minority communities. And now, thirty years later exactly, a new generation of gay men are making claims to their own identities and—because of this new drug—act as if it all never happened. It’s a complicated layering that this poem and the chapbook addresses. In this poem, I am less interested in a queer rewrite of García Márquez, or even a direct conversation, but there are some correlations that shook me. Cholera spreads when a social infrastructure fails; AIDS raged since no infrastructure was built because the communities most affected were seen as morally and ethically bankrupt. These parallels were certainly on my mind as I wrote the poem, and I wanted to draw attention throughout the larger sequence to the way the maligned are disregarded in times of need (and will be again).

SP: Last week I reread (and listened to) Sadia Shepard’s story “Foreign-Returned” in the New Yorker. Shepard notes inspiration from Mavis Gallant in writing her story. I also read Francine Prose’s post in which she accuses Shepard of plagiarizing. I agree with Jess Row and Gina Apostol’s defense of Shepard’s approach to writing the story. Even we (the marginalized) have a right to the material—and transposing it makes for a double-pleasure. You talk about influence in previous interviews but I wonder now—in the shadow of this new (non)controversy and with the light that is your title—how you situate your ideas around identity, imitation, and influence?

JR: I had somehow missed this non-controversy, but having read the stories just now, I agree with Shepard’s defense of the way the “central role cultural identity plays” in the story makes it new. More than García Márquez, there are other influences throughout my sequence that have a direct hand in shaping the poems, such as Sarah Schulman’s book Gentrification of the Mind (from which the line “Do they even know their own history?” is adapted), Martin Wong’s nearly brick cityscape paintings, testimonies from David Weissman’s documentary We Were Here (2011), and stories from the Old Testament. I wanted each poem in the sequence to have a different voice and form and shape unique from the others, and as a result, I pulled from different influences as I worked through this project.

SP: “Love in the Time of PrEP” approaches history and is animated with the promise of discovery, or the prospect of it. The poem sees the paranormal in the panorama—a rainbow is light and water reflecting, and a rainbow is a symbol of our queer magic and pride. The poem in fact does help you see more clearly. And now we know this poem opens up a chapbook readers will get to read in March. What were your hopes for this sequence when you started working on the project and how have they evolved through the writing of it?

JR: I first came to this topic when I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2012, and I was deeply affected by how little there was left to memorialize the crisis years in this historic holdout. Furthermore, I felt a heightened awareness of a generation gap: those who came of age well before the epidemic, and those (like me) who were raised in its wake. There was no “queer mentorship,” so to speak, because there was an entire generation who had been mostly wiped out. Furthermore, in the age of PrEP, there was this prevalent sense that my generation wanted to believe that this tragedy had been eradicated, finished, case closed, in what I perceive to be an effort to whitewash and commercialize the queer movement. Four years ago, I began writing poems against this repression and distancing my generation (and the queer movement in general) has sought from this chapter in our narrative. The project has evolved over time, as first I imitated the queer poets I first read and loved (Mark Doty, Thom Gunn, Paul Monette). The collection was too focused on looking back at the epidemic, despite the fact I knew I didn’t want to rewrite the elegies that had already been written by those who lived through the crisis. It wasn’t until I began to turn the mirror on myself and my own generation did the project begin to really take shape. This sequence, which clocks in at twenty-four pages, has taken longer to write than my Novena ever did because there were so many books and documentaries and testimonies I wanted to engage with in order to get it right.

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Jacques J. Rancourt is the author of Novena, winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd prize (Pleiades Press, 2017), and 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 Kenyon Review, jubilat, New England Review, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Best New Poets 2014, among others. He lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Soham Patel joined The Georgia Review in 2018 where she works as an assistant editor and manages the book review section. She is the author of four chapbooks of poetry including and nevermind the storm and New Weather Drafts (both from Portable Press @Yo-Yo Labs) and the forthcoming full-length collections to afar from afar (Writ Large Press, 2018) and ever really hear it (Subito Press, 2018), winner of the 2017 Subito Prize. Patel is a Kundiman fellow and a poetry editor at Fence. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Pittsburgh, an MA in English from Western Washington University, and is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee where she served for four years as a poetry editor at cream city review.