A Conversation with Spencer Reece

Poet Spencer Reece earned a BA at Wesleyan University, an MA at the University of York, an MTS at Harvard Divinity School, and a Master’s degree at Yale Divinity School. He was ordained in the Episcopal Church in 2011. Reece’s debut collection of poetry, The Clerk’s Tale (2004), was chosen for the Poetry Prize by Louise Glück and adapted into a short film by director James Franco. His second collection, The Road to Emmaus (2013), was longlisted for the National Book Award and a finalist for the Griffin Prize, the most world’s most prestigious poetry award.

His honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, a Witter Bynner fellowship from the Library of Congress, the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, and a Whiting Writers’ Award. Reece won a Fulbright grant to work on a collaborative poetry project with children at a girl’s orphanage in Honduras in 2012-2013. His experience is the subject of the documentary Voices Beyond the Wall: Orphan Poets of Honduras. His memoir, The Secret Gospel of Mark, was published on March 16th, 2021. He worked on it for seventeen years.

Tom Grimes: Given that your poetry collections have appeared a decade apart, that your new collection will be published by Farrar, Strass & Giroux in 2024, and that you worked on your memoir for seventeen years, could you first talk about your eagerness, as a young man, to be published, your anxiety about perhaps never being published, and why you persisted despite your early work being rejected three-hundred times? Also, how has patience effected your writing life?

Spencer Reece: Patience was foisted upon me. When young I definitely wanted the poems published early. But—what else to attribute it to? — God was good, the poetry gods were good, if that is more palatable to the agonistic reader, because had the book been published when I wanted it, say at age 25, it would have been premature, the work not fully-formed. Mercy and grace have surrounded my creative efforts, that is what I can see now with hindsight: hindsight being one of the truest gifts of age. Publishing somewhat later taught me something, or the delay somehow molded me, and little did I realize such a long pause would shape what I would do going forward. It’s not so premeditated, now, at close to sixty as a writer: I just see I don’t get to my truths quickly. That seems to be the point: telling the truth in the art. That’s what I am after, in poems or prose. And time must somehow be dilated or pass before I can understand much of anything. Writing for me is a combination of lightning-like inspirations followed by a hell of a lot of drafts, rooms full of drafts.

Grimes: Your first poetry wasn’t published until you were forty-one, while you were working in Brooks Brothers in West Palm Beach, Florida. How did publication change your life?

Reece: I went from unknown and anonymous to known. Granted it was poetry, but still. I was a clerk one week and at the Library of Congress and in The New York Times the following. This is part of the grace and mercy aspect of my tale, because I was forty-one, I was more humbled by time, so the events were certainly startling, exciting, thrilling, charged with joy, but I stayed my course. I stayed at Brooks five more years! And then, slowly, in that time, I meditated, met with spiritual advisors, and felt called to the Episcopal priesthood, a business I had started long ago in my twenties. I circled back. Poetry made that possible. Amazing really.

Grimes: Poets are major figures in your life, of course, and you’ve structured your memoir around your reading of and the importance of seven poets in it? Why did you choose these specific poets?

Reece: I just sat down one day and thought about my life and the poets that entered it at the time they did. The book needed to work organically so that the material contrapuntally married up to what was happening in my life. Plath was just incredible: the leaps. She was a genius. And the biography riveted me at a time when I had my own deep depression and rage. And you had to say her Ariel poems, which she said herself before she died, her poetry had a charm that brought poetry alive to me.

Bishop was different. Her Yankee reserve, her hidden alcoholism and lesbianism fascinated me, her emphasis on travel and moving all around which proved prophetic because I too have moved all around! We both loved Florida and we both lived abroad a lot.  Herbert sounded so clear to me, so modern for the 17th Century, I still can’t get over how relevant he sounds, reading him is like drinking clear mountain water. Merrill was the first famous poet I met and that was thrilling. I liked too his wide embrace of forms. And of course, he was gay, I knew that, even though I think we still weren’t saying it so offhandedly like now, and I needed to hear and see that sound to figure out how to survive. Dickinson is a genius, and her leaps of mind are incredible. And the fact she did it all alone is astonishing. Her compression and timing are intoxicating. Hopkins? Well, he just made up his own language and sound and he was also a priest. He was so isolated. Also, when I read him, I realized the gratitude I had for being a gay man and a priest now. He suffered so.

The last chapter of my book falls under the heading of the title “Follow Me” from Jesus, and shows our speaker, a poet who is now a priest, moving through the world as an ordained clergy and still mad about poetry. I wanted to hold up my colleagues in this art: Richard Blanco, Greg Pardlo, Luis Munoz – all living poets, all from diverse backgrounds, and all I’ve learned from them. Interwoven between those encounters is meeting Mark Strand for the last time before he died, founding a literary festival in Madrid, and producing a bilingual anthology by the abandoned girls in Honduras, which then became a filmed documentary. So, the final chapter is like the flower of me finally blooming.

Grimes: You came to know poets James Merrill and Mark Strand. With Merrill, you were much younger and unpublished, with Strand you were older and published. How did it feel to have a relationship with living poets?

Reece: With Merrill I think, honestly, I was fairly quiet, timid, eager to please.  He was generous, kind. I’ve just realized what you’ve pointed out, (you think I would have noticed), that Strand serves as a kind of foil, shows me aging. With Strand I felt more like we were members of this big family. Merrill introduced me to that idea. With Strand it was so poignant. With both men they knew they were dying but with Merrill I didn’t know because he kept it a secret and there was shame with AIDS. With Strand we knew he was dying, that the cancer cure wasn’t working, so I just tried to be there with him, and he wanted to be with me, and both men were just kind, kind, kind to me. Probably like fathers, which is something I’ve often sought out. Or did for a very long time. Now I’m the father and I am finding myself encouraging a raft of young poets. It feels right, balanced.

Grimes: Your next collection has a different ‘sound’ from your previous collection, just as that collection had a different ‘sound’ from your first collection. Why is finding a new ’sound’ the key to your writing each new collection?

Reece: Well, I think Louise Glück really emphasized that with me.  I’m not sure I would have gone that way without her counsel. Probably not. She just said after The Clerk’s Tale, “You can do the same thing again, it’s fine, or wait for a new sound.” That did it. And it wasn’t easy, but that’s part of art, a lot of hard work. I loved that she broke herself apart and made new books. I loved Averno, which lots of people don’t care for, it’s so prosy, but you can see there she has radically altered her aesthetic, and this opened the door to new directions, new surprises, like The Village Life, one of my favorites of hers, the sort of response to confessionalism we’d been waiting for. Like Picasso, Glück has been, I suppose. I wanted that.

Acts, which will be published in 2024, is wildly different from The Road to Emmaus and from The Clerk’s Tale. I think if the first book catalogued damage, and the second forgiveness, Acts is about love. Love and all its messiness. Of course, with me, some things repeat. I unconsciously write about older father figures from my work life! I remember hearing Donna Tart give a talk after The Goldfinch and someone asked why she always wrote about orphans. “I don’t know,” she said, like a sphinx with her page-boy boy and French-knotted tie and suit. Acts is also about Spanish and English and it’s about Spain and being a priest.

Grimes: You’re now a priest, but you first identified as a poet. How do these seemingly different identities now form an integrated whole? Can you imagine yourself being one and not the other?

Reece: Yes. I’ve been a priest ten years. I learn more every day. There’s a lot to learn. In my life, I’ve had a vocation that identified me to the world one way, and the art was always something, has always been something, so far, going on in the background. The two push against each other.  The world sees me one way – priest – or salesman – or store assistant manager – while at home the poems get written or thought about while doing the dishes. I’ve tried teaching some, a little goes a long way. The priest part is very out there in the world – baptisms, weddings, funerals.  Poetry for the most part, writing, as you know, is a loner’s game, hours and hours. Occasionally there’s “the reading” which is so different from the making of the art it sometimes shocks poets.  But that’s part of it, sharing what you’ve done. But on the whole it’s isolated. I need both things and treasure both things and am grateful to have both things so very much.

Grimes: For several years, you worked in Madrid as a bishop’s assistant. That’s where you began to write your memoir. You wondered whether your book would be a ‘memoir-breviary,’ or a ‘poetry devotional’? Do you believe that your memoir is either of these self-invented forms, and that writing it allowed you to fully accept your sexuality?

Reece: I began writing the memoir actually further back than that, in 2003, when The Clerk’s Tale won the Bakeless Prize. As I say in the book, the press portrayed me as coming out of a vacuum and that was partly true, but the part I wanted documented was that many, living and dead, had made the whole of me. I do wonder what this fat book is, The Secret Gospel of Mark. It’s the size of a brick. I love the paper-overboard. I love the smell of the paper. It is not a straight memoir, no pun intended, because it also metabolizes so much poetry, but the poetry analysis isn’t to the pitch of Helen Vendler (whom I adore), it’s more, well, religious, I suppose.  I love the word “devotional,” so when I frequently read from the 139 chapters I say, “Devotion 7,” et cetera…. It’s some kind of book I could never find anywhere. I thought I might be of some use by adding these thoughts to the shelf.  And yes, I think it has, in the end, helped me, at 57, accept my sexuality more fully. That, for whatever reason, and I’m not sure what the reason is anymore – my generation, my genetic make-up, my disposition, the world – took a very long time – like my poems, I guess.

Grimes: How does it feel to be back in the States, working as a priest in Jackson Heights, Queens (and walking past the building in which I went to high school and ran track)?

Reece: I love Jackson Heights, to tell you the truth.  I love the six-story size of the place; it’s like Madrid that way. I love La Guardia nearby. I love New Yorkers. They scream and love like Madrileños. I’m sort of the opposite of that, but I love my opposites. The other day in the sacristy the clergy and lay people were screaming about whether or not to have an Easter egg hunt. The contrast between the topic and the heated delivery was so – well – so charmingly New York City, specifically Queens, the laughed-at borough. I’m glad to be here. Proud to be here.

Definitely God sent me. I have replaced a beloved priest that died of COVID, which feels sacred. We’re helping everyone express their grief. I don’t know where my life goes. I never have. I didn’t know when I visited you in Texas, which was spectacular. I’ve signed a contract to work in this parish for three years. I’ll be sixty when my third collection Acts comes out. Now I’m off to Zoom bible study. I’ve got my first vaccination shot. What a strange and wild time we’ve gone through. I’m glad to greet the seeming end of this pandemic with The Secret Gospel of Mark: its timing feels right.