“Human beings cleave to the existing state of things. All their lives they are striving to hold the moment fast, and are up against a force majeure. Their art itself is nothing but the attempt to catch by all means the one particular moment, one mood, one light, the momentary beauty of one woman or one flower, and make it everlasting.” —Isak Dinesen, “The Monkey”
Poet-priest Spencer Reece’s long-awaited second collection, The Road to Emmaus, fittingly opens with this epigraph from Isak Dinesen. Reece’s disarmingly straightforward, vulnerable narrative poems are haunted by loss and charged with the effort to preserve the ephemeral, the fleeting. But, still, he acknowledges, “The Gospel of John was right:/ the world holds so much life./ There are not enough books to record it all.”
Reece’s personal story could be characterized as one of romance and hope. For years he submitted poems to first book competitions, receiving rejection after rejection, while he worked at Brooks Brothers as a sales clerk. He was on the verge of giving up when Louise Glück selected his collection The Clerk’s Tale for the Bakeless Poetry Prize. Of course, nothing is as simple as its narrative would suggest, but the story of an artist working in isolation, Hopkins-like, without recognition, who is then plucked from obscurity, is one that resonated with many of us. In the years since his first book was published, Reece became a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as a chaplain in Spain and as a teacher at an orphanage in Honduras.
Christopher Richards: Do you feel like you were called to be both a poet and a priest? And is there anything contradictory in these vocations? Gerard Manley Hopkins’ destruction of his poems after becoming a Jesuit comes to mind.
Spencer Reece: Nadine Gordimer said once, a long time ago, at a reading of hers I attended (I think I was in high school in Minneapolis), “The genre picks the writer, not the other way around.” Becoming a poet is mysterious. Perhaps all artists feel this way—one is often compelled by something unconscious, I think. The priesthood, that calling, was a much more conscious effort, and public. To become an Episcopal priest requires nearly five years of interviews and meetings and tests and screenings. Poetry is often an utterly private affair. At least it was in my case.
Hopkins is a hero of mine. I will always be turning to his ecstatic, giddy language that feels like it is about to swerve off the page. His journals I return to, as well, the sermons not so much. He had a reputation, as you probably know, for being a dismal preacher. Elizabeth Bishop felt to understand a poet you had to understand their lives and beliefs, too. I’ve found that to be true. With Hopkins, much of his early biography is caught up with self-deprivation and revulsion over the fact that he was homosexual. I think much of what he needed to destroy was related to the sexuality, perhaps more than the fact that poetry conflicted with priesthood. He stopped drawing, too, you know, because sketching a Christ in a loincloth had apparently aroused him in the wrong way. I think poetry was equally threatening with connecting what was in his heart and body with his mind. I honor him as a gay man who became a priest and suffered mightily for it. There was suffering he underwent that I never will and there’s something about that that I hope I never lose sight of. He paved the way for me, unsuspectingly, in a sense.
Do you think there’s an element of service in being a poet? You’ve spent so much time in the service of others—working at a hospital, teaching at an orphanage—do you think your work as a poet is connected to that?
Nearly everyone’s life is involved with service, I think, don’t you? I began work life as a clothing salesperson and now I am a priest, both lives of service, both jobs not so much pursued these days. They have placed me in the world and grounded me and I am grateful for that.
A poet’s life, at least for me, is not seen by the world. Tell someone you’re a poet and their eyes glaze over. Now, certainly, I think of poetry as quintessential to the culture, to understanding it, but I doubt most people think that way. In poetry I seek to recall people and places, fix them and honor them in a world marked by transience.
I’ve heard people describe the success of your first poetry collection as a Cinderella story. What was your experience of it? Everyone seems to forget that Cinderella must have been cleaning her stepmother’s place for years before the ball; had you been writing and submitting poems to editors before A Clerk’s Tale?
The first book was begun when I was around twenty-five and in seminary for the first time. I did not become a priest then and probably because of that I turned to poetry. I sent the book out roughly fifteen times every year to all the first-book contests. I did that for fifteen years. Roughly two hundred and fifty five times the book was rejected. I began to believe all the contests were rigged, that you had to know someone. And I didn’t know anyone. When I was forty years old I was just about to give up on the contests; I was an assistant manager at Brooks Brothers. It was January 2003, I was just folding down the cashmere sweater table after Christmas and saying to myself it was time to stop sending out the book. I said to myself as I got in my used Dodge Neon with the broken air conditioning unit and the hand crank windows that I needed to apply for a manager’s job in Miami and give up on the contests. I would just write poems, if I did, solely for myself, as George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson had done. About ten days later, Louise Glück called. I had waited fifteen years for her, and it was worth the wait. Working on the edits and in the conversations—oh, the conversations we had!—I had so many questions to ask. In that regard it was a bit more Rip Van Winkle than Cinderella.
There’s quite a bit of argument about the sorts of day jobs that are best for artists. I heard Edward Albee say once that you shouldn’t work any job at all if you want to be an artist. Many of our other poets teach at universities—although James Schuyler probably had the best day job in the history of poetry: houseguest. When you were at Brooks Brothers, do you think your time at the store helped your poetry? And have things changed with your creative process now that you’re a priest?
For me, I’ve needed all the jobs. Poetry is written in a different manner probably than a play. I don’t know. Poetry you can pick up and leave off for days, weeks, years, like a jigsaw puzzle on the kitchen table. It’s very transportable and you don’t need any money.
I wouldn’t want to be a houseguest as my job and I had forgotten that about Schuyler. My independence, making my way in my retail job or as a priest, is something I am proud of. When I worked retail, I worked up to seventy hours a week, so poetry just got written when I could do it. I had a two-bedroom apartment in Florida, and in the guest room I had a door placed horizontally atop two saw-horses, and I would go in there and work on the book when I could. For years. The same jigsaw puzzle. It was lovely, sort of like prayer, I suppose. My new priestly life in Spain and Honduras is fairly full with obligations. I find the environment stimulating as an observer and, when I can, I jot a thought down. I am returning to Spain for work as the canon to the ordinary for the bishop. I think my digs are on the top floor of this very old 18th-century building. I’ll have to find some space in there when the day is done and jot down a few things. I suppose, in a way, I’m hidden again, only this time it is in a church, operating in a second language and moving in a culture that is quite different from American culture.
How do you begin work on your poems? Is there anything that comes first—say, a story or a line?
I write very slowly: there are seventeen poems in this second book, and this book was written over eleven years. In one case, the poem is much older, seventeen years: the “Monaco” poem which was left over when the first book went to press. So more or less, that’s one or two ideas a year. . . usually there’s something unnoticed or unrecognized I want to be memorialized—a co-worker at Brooks Brothers, a sponsor at an AA meeting, an orphanage in Honduras—or a feeling that isn’t usually written about in literature, like a failed flirtation, something Jamesian but even more awkward, more misfired. I’ve always loved that tiny Thom Gunn poem, do you know it? I think it is called “Jamesian.” It goes: “Their relationship consisted/ In discussing if it existed.” The italics might be just in my head . . . Sometimes it is a line or a rhyme: “tchotchkes” and “church keys” for example.
You’ve said before that it’s unpopular to be a religious poet. Why do you think that is?
Religion is unpopular, isn’t it? People bristle and I understand why. “Spiritual” is a palatable word for the most part. Fundamentalists have given much of religion a bad name. This is just my opinion. I do not like it when religion is used to judge others. That is not what God is all about in my book, thee book, the Bible. Probably most poets reading this abhor the idea of poets and priests being lumped together. I am not trying to win anyone over or evangelize for one second. This is simply my story, what I was drawn to. I have needed and loved the structure of my church, the Episcopal Church. It’s not perfect, it’s flawed, like anything with a collection of humans. Universities can be challenging places to work too. Church, in the end, I think, is for those who want it.
Do you think that confession plays a role in your poems? Your poems might be characterized as a part of the narrative, confessional poetry tradition, and I wonder as a priest-poet if you feel a sense of testimony or even, perhaps, absolution when you write?
I’ve heard that word “narrative” thrown around some now. Confessional less. Confessional recalls Plath and Sexton and Lowell and Berryman and Snodgrass right away, doesn’t it? I am not sure half the time what I am doing as an artist and, by and large, I’d say that has stood me in good stead. Naturally, my religious life is spilling into the verse, and I suppose it is a testimony, to use a fundamentalist word and turn it on its head, a testimony of a middle-aged gay man who became a priest.
Spencer Reece is a poet and priest; his first collection, The Clerk’s Tale, won the Bakeless Prize in 2003. He has received an NEA grant, a Guggenheim grant, the Witter Bynner Prize from the Library Congress, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship. His poems have been published in The New Yorker, Poetry, The American Scholar, and The New Republic. He served at the Honduran orphanage Our Little Roses and as the chaplain to the Bishop of Spain for the Reformed Episcopal Church, Iglesia Español Reformada Episcopal.
Christopher Richards works in editorial at FSG. He can be found online at @TopherRichards.
Photograph by Thomas Sayers Ellis.