A Grace of Words, Saving Graces
In a new memoir, poet Spencer Reece pays tribute to the joy in the art that saved him, reflecting on self-affirmation, grief, sustenance and persistence
by Philip F. Clark
Poet, visual artist, Episcopal priest, mentor and friend to many, Spencer Reece is a man of multiple aspects of self-expression. His acclaimed collections of poetry, The Clerk’s Tale (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), and The Road to Emmaus (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), were deserved recognition of a poet of intelligence, spirit, and endurance—but recognition came after long struggles with sexuality, alcoholism, and a search for faith. Yet through every challenge, poetry was a constant, its great poets always there to sustain him: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, Mark Strand, among so many others. They were a foundation for his development and showed a way to illumine the life that he knew he must attain. In The Secret Gospel of Mark: A Poet’s Memoir (Seven Stories Press, 2021) Spencer Reece traces the roads, people, and events that were integral to gaining acceptance, understanding, and self-acclamation. It is not only a mirror of often arduous experiences, but a testament to poetry’s ability to be both salve and teacher. It is a gay man’s coming to life through words, and the many chances of grace through the community of human and spiritual connection. In our conversation, the poet also pays tribute to poets who were important presences in his life, who were lost to AIDS—James Merrill, and Nick Thorndike. I posed some questions to the author, to discuss his journey from the past to the present.
Philip F. Clark: Your memoir is a journey of many challenges; the opening epigraph you chose is Jeannette Winterson’s haunting “The healed wound is not the disappeared wound.” As I finished the memoir, I went back to those words, because they resonated in me deeply, in all the experiences you write about, and through them, the truth that wounds are healed, but always present reminders of lessons learned from them. Can you speak to the lessons of healing that the memoir represented for you?
Spencer Reece: Jeanette Winterson! Oh, I admire that woman! I love her turns of phrase, her sentences! I’ve read her backwards and forwards. We both flew to literature when our sexualities exploded within us and I think we’re roughly the same era: she’s always spoken to me as a writer.
I didn’t want to write a memoir. The word put me off. The idea put me off. Then I thought it sounded self-indulgent. Who was I? Yet year after year the material kept telling me it would be a memoir. The story of honoring poets who saved my life needed to come through my autobiography. I attempted critical academic assessments of each of the poets (some of those materials, altered, remains), but in the end the long academic analysis left me a little bored. It is astonishing how writing actually tells you what it wants to be. If you listen to that you are on to something: if you ignore what the writing is telling you the writing most likely becomes too controlled and flat-footed. I think the process of writing this most transparent of nonfiction, now that it is done, has actually healed me, to address your question. It’s so different from writing poetry. You almost need a different sensibility! The book challenged me and when you’ve finally left the finished work on the desk and can walk away and say you were challenged by the writing, that I think is a very good thing indeed. That’s where the magic comes. That’s the Holy Spirit.
Memoir is perhaps the most curious genre: It’s a nude drawing. It’s a self-portrait. Mine might resemble Lucien Freud’s work: the fleshy less-than-pleasant humanness of those paintings. Memory is also the most unreliable narrator: hard to trust it. And the longer I labored on this the more I realized it was simply one version of things, there could be others. I just had to tell the thing as close to the truth as I could. The book represents healing. It’s definitive. I highly doubt I’ll work in that genre again. The book glows with story of how I survived myself. When I finished, I felt a weird and larger peace than ever before. Furthermore, I think it has informed my poetry. The current book I am writing, for example, has little to no autobiography in it, or if it’s there, it feels—what?—tangential, used for a greater purpose. In memoir, autobiography is the purpose.
Much of the memoir recounts the many ways that chance—grace—brought so many people into your life who made, and continue to make, an impact on your life, your poetry, and your current work in faith. How has chance and grace been a part of the journey?
Grace is unmerited. My sense of grace came most swiftly after the murder of my cousin when we were both twenty-three. Why did he die? Why did I live? There’s no rhyme or reason to it. I’ve had one hell of a lucky ride, and that includes the disappointments and down moments of which there have been many. And yet, here I am. Young, I wanted to be published and be like Flannery O’Connor or James Baldwin or Tennessee Williams or Elizabeth Bishop. I wanted to travel. I wanted to be published by FSG. In little unnoticed Minneapolis, while James Wright was writing those brilliant poems not far from my prep school, I sat in AWP English class and dreamt I’d be a writer. I was lonely and struck dumb in many ways. I wanted to go to Parnassus.
As much as the memoir is a journal of your coming to self-acceptance and renewal, it is also a wonderful map of how poetry itself helped you reach those things in yourself. Poetry came to you at a time when you most needed it. Throughout the book you reveal how specific poets—George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop (to name just a few), helped your journey. Finding these poets and their poems enabled you to more deeply understand poetry on a critical as well as personal level. Who were the most significant to you during this time?
The poets named in the book were monumental in their effect on me: Plath, Bishop, Herbert, Merrill, Dickinson, Hopkins. Each had a huge effect on me. There were others: Roethke, Glück, Hass, Kinnell, Merwin, Wilbur, O’Hara, Whitman, Eliot, Larkin, Stevie Smith. Later that spread to poets in translation! The Russians! Akhmatova! Tsvetaeva! Most recently my knowledge of the Spanish poets has deepened: Lorca, Cernuda, Machado, Hernandez. Well, it’s like a never-ending galaxy, there is always another and another, isn’t there?
My father was just diagnosed with cancer and recently we spent all day in the hospital with the oncologist and radiologist. He said, “I don’t know why you got so obsessed with poetry.” I said, “I’m not sure either.” It’s a bit of a mystery. Why not basketball? I did that too in high school. I liked it. But when I hit upon poetry it was like all the lights went on in the town. It was magic. And I knew it. I knew it then. No explaining it I suppose. And then I became voracious to read everything, starting with Shakespeare.
You write about the long process of becoming a poet—creating poetry, enduring many rejections, and yet constantly adhering to its call. Your first big break came from a call by Michael Collier at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. You quote Dickinson’s great Poem 112, whose first stanza is: Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed. / To comprehend a nectar / Requires sorest need. // And from Bread Loaf your work became known, leading eventually to the publication of your first collection, The Clerk’s Tale, acclaimed by Louise Glück, who became a strong mentor/editor. What was the most important aspect of that acknowledgement in your life?
Louise picking the book at the moment I was about to give up after fifteen years and 300 rejections, changed my life. My life took an entirely different course once she started calling the house. I love Louise. Beyond the incredible artist she is, she loved me, and well, that meant the world. The gift she gave me which I don’t think I would have taken to heart had she not entered my life was to attempt with each book to do something different, to undo what one had done before, to not do the same thing. That was a great slice of wisdom she gave to me. Had she not entered my life at that moment and been so adamant about that, I might have produced a second book similar to the first. Or a third similar to the second. I’ve tried very hard to challenge myself in the art as I have gone on.
The Secret Gospel of Mark compels as a title; that reference has a duality of meanings: of the undiscovered, or hidden, but also that of excavation and revelation—a release of secrecy that leads to renewal. Was this in your mind as you developed the writing?
I futz with titles and I write slow, so very often a book starts out with a different title. The memoir was called The Little Entrance for the longest time, but it wasn’t quite right. It was architectural. Matt Beavis at Oxford said to me once that I often start with architecture and then move to something more mystical when I title my books. The Clerk’s Tale was first called Distant Houses. The Road to Emmaus was originally called The Upper Room. Those original titles were like scaffolding. When I hit upon The Secret Gospel late into the writing I knew that was it. And The Secret Gospel of Mark being noncanonical and possibly gay-themed and most likely a forgery, all that appealed to me immensely. My third book of poetry that will come out with FSG in about two years is called Acts. And for the last ten years or so, the Book of Acts has fascinated me in the Bible.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of your personal journey in the memoir is how many relationships you developed with so many poets who came into your life: Mark Strand, Richard Blanco, Gregory Pardlo, James Merrill—and those who continue to embrace your life and friendship. They each held very particular growth for you. Can you speak to the idea of such communion in poetry—the importance of such friendships?
Friendship is a grace unto itself, there’s not the pressure of romance or the expectation. I don’t know what I would do without my friends. They’ve helped me so. Support is a subtle thing. And so necessary. Perhaps all my moving about has made me adept or flexible with being open to new friends. The tapestry is rich and full of so many friends. Now as I inch to fifty-eight, I’ve been instigating these festivals and series that often, very often, involve new friends and old and then involve making more friends. It’s expanding. Expansion is what I want for my life. My life in the decade between fifty and sixty has been the most productive regarding literary endeavors. Between forty and fifty I only put out The Road to Emmaus. Between fifty and now I have started an international author series, fundraised for an international festival, lead the volunteer team to do that while supporting a great independent bookstore, started another poetry meditation series—The Red Door poetry and meditation series, here at St. Mark’s in Jackson Heights, fundraised for a documentary film about poetry, taught Honduran girls poetry in an orphanage, put their poems together in an anthology called Counting Time Like People Count Stars, I’ve published a poet’s memoir and a poet’s painted book of hours based on my watercolors, I’ve judged contests, taught a tiny wee bit, been one of the founders of the Lorca Latinx Prize for Latinx poets, published a wee chapbook, worked on several translations from Spanish to English, and all while being a priest for the last ten years. I’m surprised to write that list. The list will close with the publication of Acts right about when I hit sixty.
Your story is also the story of your family, lovers, co-workers, teachers, mentors among many other relationships. Not all of them were easy to navigate, and there was often pain and loss. But in all of them, you found some sustaining aspect of love to adhere to, no matter how hard at times. The section “Follow Me” which continues your work as a priest in Madrid, begins: “Love, because I had love I gave love to a life I now loved. I clutched hands and flowers and phones and pens and a Bible insistently. I started blurting out ‘I love you’ randomly. I said it to strangers now. I could never say it enough. It would never be a mistake.” Love became a faith to you. How has it continued to define your current life as a poet, gay man, and spiritual mentor?
Love isn’t what I thought it was. Or love has changed. Or I have changed. There are so many kinds of love. We can never hear about love enough. My love of poetry and painting and the people involved in those arts enriches my life. There’s a love of place. There’s a love of art. Here’s a love of people. There’s romantic love. There’s platonic love. There’s love for God. There’s love for pets. And on and on! Love can be messy. Loving people that are your enemies is what Jesus asks of me, and I sometimes fall short, but to try this, to try to expand love to those that are not necessarily easy expands the heart and soul, and that I want very much.
The period of AIDS was a time of losses for you; and yet even in its presence, you held on to hope. How did that affect your writing, your poetry, in ways that you continued to manipulate loss—I am reminded of the last stanza in your collection, The Road to Emmaus, in the poem “My Grandmother’s Bible,” and the haunting last two lines: ‘when I saw the AIDS quilt, spread out in acres, / it was stitched with similar scripts by similar makers.’ /
AIDS was awful as you know, Philip, for you lived through it just as I did. Nick Thorndike was supposed to be the poet you are interviewing here. We went to Bowdoin together. He was so talented. I would have bet money on him being the next great poet. He was so crazy for James Wright! And then AIDS took him early and his mother said it was up to me now and chills went down my spine. Maybe Marie Howe wouldn’t be the great artist she is had her brother not have died? What the Living Do remains one of my favorite books by a living author. Henri Cole, another great artist of our time, in his most recent Blizzard, writes of that pandemic brilliantly. I admire Howe and Cole very much as colleagues of my generation. I am so grateful I got to put Nick into this book. AIDS was a tragedy. And here we are on the other side of it now. Here I am. Grace.
Philip F. Clark, A&U’s Poetry Editor, is the author of The Carnival of Affection (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). He is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at City College, New York, where he received his MFA in Creative Writing in 2016. His work has been published in Tiferet Journal, The Marsh Hawk Press, Lambda Literary, Vox Populi, The HIV HERE AND NOW Project and (RE): An Ideas Journal, among others. He recently read as part of the Phosphorescence Poetry Reading Series, hosted by the Emily Dickinson Museum.