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Poems Are Spiritual Suitcases: An Interview with Spencer Reece

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Photo: Pete Duval.

Spencer Reece’s memoir, The Secret Gospel of Mark, feels like what it is—a product of remarkable time and care. It took Reece seventeen years to write the book, and however much he wanted it to be done earlier, he kept waiting for and working toward a rightness that eluded him. I can’t remember anymore how I stumbled into that process. I’d occasionally written to him over the years to tell him how much I admire his poems and to share what I’d written about them, and somehow, at some point, that resulted in him sending me a draft of the book.

By then, Reece had already discovered the structure he credits with unlocking the book—one in which he defines and shapes each part of his life through the life and work of a poet who was important to him at that time. But he still wanted help, which, as Reece presents it, is one of the defining features of his life. For all of the ways in which he once struggled to make a life for himself outside of—and then, eventually, inside—the social structures that refused him and his queerness, he has also inspired a remarkable number of people to help and shelter him. Just as salient, though, is the abundance Reece offers those who enter his life. Little communities pop up around him like mushrooms. Working through edits and revisions with him felt like being admitted into a sacred space.

Sacredness is fundamental to the story Reece tells. After years of suffering from alcoholism and rebuilding himself in recovery, unable to find the literary recognition he longed for, and confined by self-loathing, Reece in short order found himself singled out for publication by Louise Glück and the subject of attention from publications like the New York Times—whose profile spurred him to begin working on the memoir, hoping to correct for the sense that he had worked and lived in isolation, without help or love. He then began his journey toward the priesthood. In his telling, poetry and Christianity seem inextricable, which is also the case in his writing, where his audible love of accuracy abides in an equally audible humility—a willingness to move in mystery and honor the sometimes-slow-to-manifest potential for beauty and love.

For all Reece’s patience, though, he isn’t still. Since 2004, he has published two books of poems—The Clerk’s Tale and The Road to Emmaus—and a third, Acts, is due out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2024. He edited an anthology of poems from Our Little Roses Home for Girls in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where he taught for two years, and he founded and ran the Unamuno Author Series during his years as a priest in Madrid. He now leads a church in Jackson Heights, Queens. The Secret Gospel of Mark has just been published, and All the Beauty Still Left—a collection of his watercolors combined with quotations into a small, tender book of hours—comes out next month.

We discussed his memoir through a flurry of emails over two days in January, as hatred and disease continued to flare up all around us.


The Secret Gospel of Mark is doing a lot of things—it’s a writer’s memoir, a book of religious devotion, a record of the lives of poets you’ve cherished, a portrait of your parents’ complicated love, a story of healing into queerness and of the wounds that preceded it, a narrative of addiction and recovery, and quite a bit more—and yet it all feels unified. In the book, you describe the moment of its inception seventeen years earlier, a need to fill in a story that “talked about how I had jettisoned out of oblivion,” and a desire to recognize all the people who had shepherded you. How did you get from that original impulse to an understanding of how all these elements could work together?


I’m a slow creator—I’ve begun to think I’m on the Bishop plan, or equally the Larkin plan, of about a thing every decade, or a thing every two decades. This prose took a long arc of seventeen to eighteen years from that first impulse to what went to print. I don’t plan for this to happen—I just can’t seem to pull it all together quickly. Some inspirations come quick, surely, but the final product, no. Regarding the emotions, I’m notorious among those who know me best for not understanding something in real time, and only in hindsight can I seem to sort something out. Maybe that’s why I’ve turned to poetry, as a way to make sense of real time.

I am a poet. I walk, talk, and think like one. I think I finally accept that. I ended up writing a prose book dedicated to poetry. What “unified” it, to use your word, took a long time to see and was actually something very simple. Structure unified the book. My goal was to take all this complexity and make it a fluid read. While what I was attempting was complicated, I wanted it not to read as “complicated,” maybe like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. When you explain that book, it gets complicated, but it doesn’t feel that way when you read it. You flow right along with all those references. The structure of my book came when I assigned poets to periods of my life—Plath and my early life, Herbert and my first turn to faith, et cetera. The poets needed to enter the narrative organically, which meant I needed to think back to when the poets entered my life and recall what was happening then. The whole thing kind of fell into place after that, which happened about seven years ago. Then there were seven more years of editing and honing. The final chapter is a swirl of contemporary poetry, poets in real time, friends, along with the decline of my mother’s health. But only in the last year of editing did I see the figure under which these things swirled—Jesus. Thus the final chapter is called “Follow me” and concerns my past ten years as an ordained man. So it goes!


Your prose actually reminds me of your poems. There’s an audible quality of patience, as if given enough time—say, seventeen years!—the shape of things will become apparent, and in the meantime, it’s possible to abide in mystery without loneliness. I tend to hear an element of religious faith in that way of writing, even though it goes at least as far back as your first book of poems, which you wrote when your faith was apparently less consistent and clear. Is that part of your experience, or am I just imposing that from without, as a nonbeliever?


It’s odd. Often in life, earlier life, I have had little patience with many things—falling in love, searching for an apartment, finding a job. But very little has come to me quickly. Patience came to me through waiting, through life. The first book, if I can dig back to my state of mind at the time, I really wanted published much sooner. But it kept getting turned down and passed over. That went on for fifteen years! Roughly three hundred rejections, as a poetry enthusiast once counted for me. I was humbled by that. Was it faith? Was it tenacity? Was it stubbornness? It taught me something, all those rejections. Apparently, once that book was in the world, I didn’t forget that experience. The second book of poems did not come to me for eleven years more. I will be sixty by the time my third book of poems, Acts, is bound—another ten years. Between The Road to Emmaus and Acts I have produced one anthology, been heavily involved with another, founded a literary series, helped produce a festival, been involved in a documentary about poetry, helped establish a chapbook prize for Latinx poetry, and now published this poet’s memoir in addition to my book of watercolors. It’s been a rich decade that way. There’s been joy in that, which might be close to faith, and the joy of the past decade has been sharing gifts God gave me. You are asking about faith specifically, though, and I am not answering that. I am not answering it because mainly, like writing or painting, I find it all mysterious. I find it, ironically, beyond words. No doubt this poet’s memoir must get as close to my thoughts about faith as anything I’ve ever tried to express. It was a challenge! Waiting is probably tied up in faith. I mean, the Bible is simply full of waiting, isn’t it? Everyone in there is waiting around—everyone.


You say that you were ready to quit writing before Louise Glück picked your first book for the Bakeless Prize. Do you think you could have actually quit writing? Might you have quit sooner had it not been for the validation of people like James Merrill?


After three hundred rejections, I remember saying to myself in Florida, I would stop entering contests. If I continued to write, it would be just for me, for my own entertainment, which I suppose is a good foundation for all writing regardless of publication. I did feel beaten down, I have to say, and maybe in that thinking, I wondered what it would be like if I just stopped. I thought the contests were rigged. Or I thought you had to know somebody, and I didn’t. I thought you had to have an M.F.A. to know the people to get books published, and I didn’t have that either. The politics of getting a book into the world seemed beyond my scope completely, and so I vowed to devote myself to retail management. That’s when everything changed. Merrill had been dead ten years at that moment. I hung on to his letters and encouragement, but I wasn’t sure he cared for what I wrote. I supposed I would go down the Emily Dickinson chute. How many others have gone down that chute? Discouraged, turned away from the prize of publication and embrace? I think that’s why those thoughts felt so charged falling under the chapter about her. It is a deeply joyful art, and making the art is the goal. But my experience perhaps led to the past ten years of bringing others into the light and celebrating them, because in the end poetry is so democratic. Abandoned girls in Honduras and young Spanish students in Madrid all have access to it. You never know whose life might be changed, as mine has been.


This book honors the people who shepherded you, but your descriptions of them are strikingly candid and often unflattering—even as they are unmistakably loving. You write that accuracy is the most important thing for you. Do you feel any tension between accuracy and love, or are those qualities essentially aligned for you?


I suppose they are aligned. If writing isn’t telling the truth, what good is it? Love according to Jesus is a commandment, not a suggestion. And love has got to grow out of some truth. Otherwise, what is it? There are many kinds of love and many kinds of truth. It’s the Keats idea that truth is beauty and that is all we need to know.


There are so many beautiful sentences in The Secret Gospel of Mark. You write, “Hopkins’ loneliness comforts my mind.” I think that gets at one of the paradoxes of art—its ability to both render something accurately and give it a separate, even contradictory life. One of the surprises and pleasures of this book is how mobile poems become, the ways in which they echo in your experiences. I feel like we’re often taught not to do that, that we’re encouraged to keep art stationary, to see a given creation only within its own perimeters. Can you say a little about what you think poems are for—and why recording the entrance of poems and poets into your life helped you tell your story?


As the writing went on, as I kept in the forefront of my mind this impulse to honor those that had helped me, I realized that poetry had really consoled me—saved me, to risk sounding evangelical. I don’t know what others do. Listen to Janis Joplin maybe. Or long-distance running. Or who knows what. Go to church. I’ve done all those! But poetry was always the core for me. I never really understood why I was so compelled by poetry so early on. There was some kind of sound being made that connected to me. Poems are freedom. They’re invisibleness. I really understood that in Honduras when the girls started memorizing Shakespeare and Auden and everything else—that these words coming out of their mouths were charms, that they could take the memorized poems with them wherever they went. Poems are spiritual suitcases. Poems comfort in the hour of need. They have comforted me. Plath when I had such inexplicable anger. Bishop when I wondered how I would manage this world. Herbert when I began to want to know more about prayer. Merrill when I wanted to see how to be me, whatever that was. Dickinson in all those years of isolation and then beyond them. Hopkins when I decided for the second time to be a priest and still wondered if I was too outside the fold. And in the final chapter, Strand, Blanco, Pardlo, Munoz swirling together as I began to navigate life as an ordained man—what did it mean to be among contemporaries in the art as one who was following Jesus? Where would I go?


You seem to be drawn to likeness. There are so many similes here, and they’re often playful. For instance, at one point you write, “The muddy stream and lake the campus encompassed were overpopulated with ducks and their excrement, their loose anuses going off like firecrackers.” Another sentence goes, “They took to my parents and were as decorous as airline pilots.” But the similes also seem to register other parts of your sensibility—the desire for belonging, the apparent belief that if you lay things alongside each other with enough care, they’ll show you something profound. Is play, is humor, important to you when you write?


Similes and metaphors are always multiplying in my mind. I’m not sure when or how that started. Was it seeing Humpty Dumpty, an egg turned into a bachelor with a bow tie? It probably started somewhere around there. I was a kid who lived in fantasy for years. I didn’t even understand I was doing that, and my parents didn’t discourage it—made-up people, villages, towns, maps, languages. All that spilled into poetry by high school. My father was also a very funny man, and his mother was equally funny. I think I inherited my humor from them. My grandmother was part Cherokee, everyone said, and she was a great bowler and a chain-smoker, and she drank an awful lot, and she died when I was six. She was just sixty, which seems young to me now! But I still remember that she made everyone laugh. She was subtle, sly, downtrodden in a loveless marriage, but the humor carried her. I suppose that formed a part of me.


I wonder how all of that—but especially the first part—works with your hunger for accuracy.


Well, so much of what we see we don’t understand. The universe, for example, all the stars, what lies beyond the universe. We really know little. And with regards to one another, how much do we ever really fully know a person, even those close to us? So accuracy is often a guess. All I can say is that I ask myself a hundred times over, Is this accurate? Is this the truth? If the writing strays from that, it must go. Were the duck anuses really like firecrackers? Roger and Dan like airline pilots? Yes and yes. So maybe metaphor and simile expand the reality and possibility of things. The metaphors and similes are often about surprise—whatever is being connected is not expected—and I think surprise is what I treasure most in art.


I have one last question. Putting aside sales and recognition and all those things, what do you hope this book might do when it heads out into the world?


I’ve never had lower expectations than I have now. Which is not to be confused with the fact that I feel a great sense of accomplishment and peace. I gave the book my all, but I honestly don’t know what to say. I know it’s the truth. It’s a gospel—which as you know breaks down to “God spell” in Anglo-Saxon. Maybe it’s cast a spell of some sort, some sort of release. The thing about making something as a writer, if you’ve done it right, is that you learn—the book has taught you something rather than the other way around. You think you are telling the book what it will be, but if you’ve done it right, it will end up telling you what it is. And now I’ll take what I’ve learned and go away for a while longer.


Jonathan Farmer is the author of That Peculiar Affirmative: On the Social Life of Poems and the editor in chief and poetry editor of At Length. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, and teaches middle and high school English.

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