Amy Weldon: I know you’ve written previously about your experience working in retail for Brooks Brothers, but I was wondering if you might reflect on how it affected your writing life. Did you feel a sense of separation between “work” and “writing” as discrete aspects of your life? How do you experience their relationship now, in your life as a priest?
Spencer Reece: The writing life, in my case, did become separated from my work life quite early on. I did do editorial and journalism work for the newspapers, for a medical journal, for the radio in my late twenties and early thirties, but of course that was not poetry. I did a lot of book reviews to make extra money back when people did more book reviews for things called newspapers. But once retailing began, the divide between who I was in public and private deepened. It was not intentional, it just happened. So I was known as a clothing salesperson by almost everyone and hardly ever a poet. Once I stepped behind the podium at the Library of Congress to read from my first book and became less identified with customers throwing pants in my face, naturally things changed. Yet, in choosing priesthood, I’ve once again opted for being identified mainly for something other than poetry. The priesthood and poetry have melded into one in my efforts to publish the anthology by the abandoned and abused girls at the orphanage where I served & taught down in San Pedro, Honduras. We are making a book and a documentary film about the girls writing their poems. It is a small anthology to which my prose accompanies their poems. The title of both projects is Las Chavas, which translates as “Homegirls.” The subtitle for the book is “Twelve Love Poems from the Murder Capital of the World.” That wouldn’t be happening if I didn’t get ordained.
AW: Form is obviously very important to your work. I’m thinking in particular of your sonnets —how they are a little “loose” and playful. What draws you to form in your work? What do you experience as its best possibilities or its limitations?
SR: Form. It seems to have followed me from my first meeting with James Merrill when I was in my late twenties. He was a master of so many forms. He had me recite Elizabeth Bishop‘s “One Art” over toast and jam in Key West to make sure I got the meter. My first book was a result of studying all the forms, having taught myself from books I picked up at the Grolier in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a million years ago: one was by John Hollander called Rhyme’s Reason, another was more academic with a black cover, one was by Paul Fussell about meter. Once I’d sort of practiced them all like Czerny scales I ended up breaking them all into shards by the time that book went to press. I think one Sapphic, syllabic, remains pretty much intact, but that’s it. In this second book, I did seek to try to write a sonnet, called “My Great Grandmother’s Bible,” which does follow the rules: meter, rhyme, et cetera. I had some friends that kind of led me through it, like learning how to ride a horse… until I galloped away by myself… it took a few years. I wrote two actually but scrapped the other for a prose poem.
The other rhymed, metrical piece in the book, “The Fifth Commandment,” is a little looser. Those two poems are like gates that lead readers in and out of the book as they appear at either end. The second book more quietly approaches and argues with form; there are several prose poems in it. In this second book I was constantly questioning how far you could push a poem into prose… I don’t know what the answer is, but it made for a different kind of tune. And I wanted that tune to be in conversation with the metrical short poems at either end of the book.
AW: In your latest collection, you have some long poems about friendships and relationships that are quite personal and revealing. How do you think about and negotiate the issue of self-revelation and vulnerability in your work? Do you think poetry might inflect self-revelation a bit differently than some other genres?
SR: Yes. Yes. Take “Brokeback Mountain,” for example, by Annie Proulx; that masterful short story breaks my heart, but I don’t need to know a thing about Annie to read it. Now you can do the same thing in a poem, make a fiction – however, in poetry the stakes of revelation, the translation of the truth, takes on a different dimension. I don’t completely understand it, but what makes a poem compelling is different from what makes a story compelling. Or does it? This fascinates me: not knowing the answer, it completely drives the second book. In the poem “Gilgamesh,” about a homosexual relationship between two men, I try to reflect on the differences of poetry and prose in the telling of that tale: I put the characters in the third person, then I take them out of it and put them in the first (something that happens in Paul’s letter to The Romans, too).
I do think, at this stage of my life, I don’t want to write with the intent to harm. So if the material is personal, as it is in that poem, and I put all this in the poem, I change the names of the living: they can elect to claim their part or not, I leave that open to the Holy Spirit and don’t close down their participation. This is different from anything I did in the first book: the first book involved itself more with damage and this new book is more about reconciliation.
AW: What are some of the effects of your religious vocation on your writing? How are you experiencing their relationship now?
SR: The church life is informing the writing as the retail life did, I suppose; as I once knew about half-Windsor knots, I am now learning about chanting the Gospel and how to deliver homilies, and my sensibilities are being informed by meditating on Gospel passages more.
AW: I have been thinking lately about the place of difficulty, of suffering, in life and writing and in developing as an artist; while sometimes (especially in retrospect) there may seem to be meaning in it, it can be hard to see in the moment. Do you find that your vocations as poet and priest help with perspective on suffering?
SR: I’ve understood practically everything in hindsight. Living with seventy-two orphaned girls, abandoned and abused, for one year, certainly altered how I thought about myself. I’ve had a blessed life: I had two parents, I was exposed to higher education, food three times a day. As a poet, you can make some sense of experience, which is a wondrous thing. As a priest, I see, again and again, that God is love: people create the suffering and God looks on. There is plenty of suffering in this world, and I try to do my part to alleviate some of it where I am being led.
AW:: What is the status of the film project about the Our Little Roses orphanage and of your work with it today?
SR:: The film is getting made. We’ve raised $150,000, and I write to you from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where I just preached on the girls and where there has been an enormous amount of interest. The film crew’s last trip will cost $30,000, and last night we raised $7,000 in a cowboy hat from talking about the movie (and $2,000 more from additional donations), so we’ve got $21,000 left. The film and book should be released by late 2015 or early 2016. I want the film to go to Sundance, which is like wanting to win the Yale Younger Poets Series; still, I dream big. The girls and Honduras, long forgotten by the world, deserve wider recognition.
AW:: Where do you consider “home” now; where do you live? Does your physical and cultural environment influence your poetry?
SR:: I will be returning to work for the Bishop of the Reformed Episcopal church in Madrid. I am hoping that will be my new home where I might settle for a while. I love the city and I love the challenge of Spanish. I love the Spaniards. My arrival there and my return are pretty much flukes if I described it all to you. I am trying to follow God’s will. The Spanish church asked me to return, and because it is not my idea, I trust it all the more. Perhaps I might write of my church life there one day; it’s eccentric, poor, and comical. We are like the tiniest fly on the back of the Catholic world there. Yes, place is deeply important to me. I hope living in Spain leads to more translations. I’d like to do one by Machado, make him better known in the States.
AW: What other writers or artists currently inspire you?
SR: I’ve been reading a lot recently. And my Spanish is just about to be able to lead me into reading in Spanish, a big leap. With painters, I am taken with the work of Lucien Freud and David Hockney. I saw a recent documentary called Chris & Don about Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy I thought was fascinating. I just finished a biography of Francisco Franco, and now I am reading A.J. Verdelle‘s novel The Good Negress. I finally read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, and I thought it was masterful. Poets I am always reading and jumping around so it is a bit harder to say…
Click here to read Amy Weldon’s feature piece on Spencer Reece.