blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Part I

David Wojahn: Maybe we can start with a question about how The Clerk’s Tale emerged, the process by which you wrote the book, got it published. A lot of people here are thinking about issues like that, how you construct a first book and the sort of genesis you go through. So maybe you could talk about the history of The Clerk’s Tale.

Spencer Reece: Sure. This feels very formal. I feel very . . . which doesn’t fit, but anyway. This is a great building, by the way. You have great old buildings here. In south Florida we don’t have anything like this, everything’s new, but we get the ocean.

That book, it’s like my whole life went into that book. I’m 42 years old now, and I first started thinking about writing poetry when I was in high school in Minneapolis at the Breck School, which David knows of. I’d gone there for thirteen years. I had a great English teacher there, who is still my friend today, and she introduced me to Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales and Sylvia Plath and Shakespeare, and I took that AP English class when I was a senior. There were ten people in it, and I just really fell in love with poetry, and her love of poetry, too, was very inspiring. I guess that’s how it kind of started. And then I went away to college, and I wrote for the literary magazine there, and I took all the literature . . . I majored in English, and then I went to graduate school in England at the University of York and studied seventeenth-century poets, George Herbert and John Donne. And then I came back to the states, and I went to the Harvard Divinity School, and I decided that I was going to become a hospital chaplain. I wanted to be like George Herbert and John Donne only three hundred years later. I would be a minister, love poetry, read poetry, maybe write poetry.

About half way through that program, I realized I was too young to become a hospital chaplain, that, not that it was a mistake, although I did feel like that for years afterwards, that I’d made a mistake. But I got my degree, and it was during that time frame that I began writing a book. This book. So I was 25 years old then when I began putting things into a book form and began sending to magazines. I had been sending to magazines since I was in college and being rejected and rejected and rejected. And rejected and rejected. And the book is dedicated to Durrell Hawthorne, who is like a mentor for me, I met when I was at the Divinity School. He wasn’t at the Divinity School, he was retired, had gone to Harvard. He became a mentor, father figure for me, and he believed that I could write a book. He was the only person I talked to about it. He was not a poet, he didn’t like reading poetry, but he believed in me. That was a very crucial encounter. We remained friends for the next fifteen years, although I was only to see him one more time in person. We maintained the friendship through phone calls. Like an intense psychotherapy or something, although he wasn’t a psychotherapist either. I needed the help of therapists and support groups, and I had met him at one of these support groups so we became very close.

And so I started sending this book out starting in 1990. I began sending to all the first-book contests. I didn’t know anybody in the poetry world. I began to think you had to have some kind of connection or know somebody or have gone to a writer’s graduate program and I didn’t, I didn’t have any, any connection to anything. Although I was daunted by that, I started sending it out to the Whitman Prize, to the Yale Younger Poets prize. The AWP had a prize. I had a calendar of when I would send everything out. I’d send it out to ten or twelve places every single year. I did it religiously as well as sending to magazines and began getting rejected from these. Early on, I was finalized for the Walt Whitman Award when Robert Pinsky was the judge, just a little note, and then I heard nothing else. And I kept sending it out.

I moved back to Minnesota to be with my family, and my family at that time, I had grown up relatively affluent, and my family, unbeknownst to me, was beginning to fall apart and was beginning to go into bankruptcy. So I was faced with a lot of challenges and difficulties there. And I had to find a job, I had my education, but I didn’t have a job really. So there were several rude awakenings awaiting me upon my return that happened gradually. The first thing that happened was the family house I had grown up in was sold and my parents moved to Oklahoma City, and then I moved to a farmhouse that they owned at that time in the country. And there I wrote a lot of, I began writing a lot with that book. I was all alone on a farm, a hundred acres in southern Minnesota. I began working for my father, who was a doctor, who had medical newsletters. So I began to be an editor of medical newsletters and doing book reviews. All kinds of medical topics for everything: right to die, Alzheimer’s, HMOs, PPOs, PHOs, all that stuff. I didn’t know anything about it, but I thought, Well, you know, this must be God’s will for me, so I began to do that. I did that for about four years until that fell apart. And I lived in rural southern Minnesota, and I loved it. I had every intention of living the rest of my life alone on a farm in rural southern Minnesota all by myself. I was perfectly happy to live my life that way.

And I wrote a lot of this, I began to write . . . there’s a poem in that book, “Autumn Song,” which goes right back to that time and remains sort of unchanged throughout all the revisions. I wrote that early on, and the genesis of a lot of those poems happened early on—that Cape Cod poem I read last night I worked on for seventeen years, I think, from the time I began. I was working on it right up until we sent it in to Houghton-Mifflin. Some of them were written a little quicker, that one was a long time. The “Gazhals” one was a long time. The little “Bestiary” poems go back to the farm, but then I rewrote them right at the end, before publication a little bit, with Louise Glück’s help. The last poem in the book is kind of a dream, memory, love poem, that sort of takes place at the farm, so then I guess my life is intertwined with this book so much it’s hard to describe it without telling you my life story.

I kept sending it out, I kept getting rejected. My friend back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, kept encouraging me and saying to me that I could do this, and I didn’t talk to that many other people about it. I talked to some, of course. But I basically thought people were not that interested. And I think by and large people are not that interested, you know, my working relationships, people were not really that interested in poetry, or so I assumed. Then my family fell apart further. The alcoholism in the family was out of control, and I had an intervention. It didn’t work. The farm was sold out from under me. I was disowned. I went into a mental hospital. I had a complete break. I couldn’t believe this was happening, although I sort of, you know from early development there had always been an emotional infidelity, a disconnect brought on by that illness, I think. So that changed the course of my life, and I met in the hospital, I met a nurse and her husband, and after I left the hospital I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know where I was going to go; I was now out of a job. I was now in the attorneys’ offices fighting for my unemployment benefits. My parents were suing me for embezzlement of funds from the business account—which was not true—and I had to go to court with that, and I had sort of . . . to start all over again, and I had no money, and so the nurse said that I could, she said, “Well, this is highly unusual, but you can come live, if you have no place to go, you can come live with me. Here’s my phone number in case you need it.” I said, “Okay, great.”

So I went back to the farm, and we fought and we fought and we fought. And then I left. I couldn’t fight anymore, and I felt myself going down hill again, so I left, and really have been without my biological family since then. So I was like 28, 29 at that time. I kept sending the book out. It was like my whole life, kept me together, so this story gets better.

So I lived with the nurse and her husband, and there’s poems in there about them. One about her husband called “Ponies” that I wrote on a picnic with them, but he’s since then passed away. . . but he also believed in me, that I could write this book. So I had these people in my life that believed in me. I also met a poet named James Merrill through friends, and I began writing him. So I had sent him parts of the book, and it was really juvenile early on and not very good. He came to visit me at the farm. I didn’t know he had AIDS, he didn’t tell anybody he had AIDS until after he died, that came out. So I didn’t, and it’s kind of heroic in a way, and he was this great poet, and I guess he felt that it was his choice. He was already ailing at that time, but I didn’t know that. Anyway, he said, "You know, it might be wise to take a little more time before you publish this book.” It had a different title, a different everything. And then he died. So that was my connection to the. . . and I thought, Oh, I’ve got this great connection, yeah, yeah, yeah, put in a good word for me, something will happen. Well, it never happened because he died.

So I kept sending the book out, I kept rewriting the book. I lived with the nurse and her husband for three years. I did not work for three years. I was grieving. I didn’t really know what grief was until that point, but I really was grieving for the next, almost three years, two and a half. I lived in half of a living room there in there house and brought one little cat with me from the farm. I gave away my dog, gave away my lot, sold my books, sold everything I owned and left there. Now, I was in Northfield, that’s where the nurse lived, were two colleges there, so I was surrounded by kind of academic types and, you know, talked to them about poetry and things like that. But to still to boldly mention that I had this book I was sending out was not right on the tip of my tongue, because, you know, who cares, I guess I felt. Across the street from me was a woman named Claire Rossini, who’s written a book. So I was meeting people and she was great, and her husband, Joe Burns, a painter, and they had a little son named Francis, and then they moved away. They live out on the East Coast now, but at that point they lived across the street from me, and she wrote a great book called, oh God, what’s the name of that book?

DW: Winter Morning with Crow . . .

SP: That’s right. She has these great poems in there, you know, those “Claire” poems where she gets a character, and it’s sort of novelistic in a way, and this character who is a college student, has all these experiences. I really love those poems. I encourage you to read them, and also a very moving poem about a baby that was born dead, and those are beautiful. So that happened to Claire, and she won a Bush Grant, and I was seeing all these things happen across the street. “What about me?” I kept . . . Carlton [College] had a computer lab at that time, and I was still young enough looking so I could pass as a student. I would go in there and write the book on their computers, because I didn’t have a computer. I liked the way everything looked on the type. So every year, ten contests, what are the other ones? I sent them to Fourway Books contests, The Tupelo Press Prize, The Bakeless Prize. Every single one of them. I learned about every single one of them through Poets & Writers. They have a listing of them and when the deadlines are and who to send them to, how much money they are. So I followed that religiously.

So after this grieving period, my friend in Cambridge said, “I think it’s time to get a job, get a job.” And I said, “Okay.” And I was trying to get all these jobs. I was working in a radio station, and I was doing a lot of reviewing for the radio, the public radio there at St. Elmo College, and doing book reviews on the air, doing a lot of radio work. I liked that, so I thought I’d get a job doing that. I never got a job doing that. I could never get a job with regular benefits with 401k. I could never get in! And I worked for the newspaper, and I did theater reviews for them for a while, that didn’t turn into a job. I tried to get a job with my religious background, counseling priests. I didn’t get that job, and I tried to get a job teaching high school, didn’t get that job. Well, I didn’t get that job because I was still kind of fragile at that point. I went into the interview and half way through the interview I began reciting this poem by Elizabeth Bishop, and then I started sobbing, and it’s like, “Claire, I was gonna handle the football team, the English class.” I thought, Okay, it’s not meant to be.

The manager for Brooks Brothers lived in Northfield, worked at the Mall of America, and I had wandered in at that time, and I did have some sort of encouragement, I had won the Minnesota State Arts Board Grant for $6000. I stretched the $6000 over two years. But by the end of two years I didn’t have anything left. I spent a lot of my days in this copy shop. I befriended these people who ran this Xerox store and I lived in there for this grieving period. I was doing stuff for the radio, and I was beginning, I was beginning to come back to life, slowly. But I needed a regular job. so I went to Brooks Brothers and I interviewed with them. Mary Beth was the manager at that time in the Mall of America in Minneapolis. She said, “Why do you want this job, you’ve got this education, what are you doing here?” And I said, “Well, none of these places I want to get a job will hire me and I need a job, I need a paycheck, I got to put bread on the table and I need it now.” She said, “Okay.” So I started within a week, I started there. I worked my ass off, worked really, really hard. I was the number one salesman in that store. I worked double shifts and I worked and I worked and I worked. I was still sending the book out. It was there that I met Ralph, who I wrote the title poem about seven years later, it started then, seven or eight years later. Still getting rejected, though, and not very many magazine publications either, but I did those religiously, too. I would do them in batches of ten; I would send three poems in each. I would have a cover letter and I’d send them out, send them out. I mean I must of sent out thousands, thousands and thousands, and didn’t get accepted that much. I did go to one writer’s conference at Sewanee early on in 1990. I met Donald Justice there. I don’t think that he would ever remember me. Well, he’s passed away now, great poet. Mona Van Duyn was there, she’s passed away. It was a nice, it was a good experience, but my writer connections were not that great, I wasn’t that hooked in. I had done some things with The Loft, which is a writer’s center in Minneapolis. I won a little prize through them. And I read with Galway Kinnell, that was early on, so I want to paint an accurate picture, there were little blips, things that were encouraging that were happening. It wasn’t like nothing was happening. But I wanted more to happen faster. I wanted this mythical book, but it wasn’t, the timing wasn’t right yet.

Part II

SR: So then I got, I worked with Brooks Brothers since 1997. After a year and a half at the Mall of America, I realized, you know, I come from this beautiful, bucolic farm life into the Mall of America. I didn’t like malls in the first place, and I had accepted this job, and I saw there was a listing of where all these other Brooks Brothers were, and I thought, Okay, I could go work somewhere else. This might be my way out. So it was really a blessing that I didn’t get any of those other jobs that I wanted so badly. And God was definitely leading me in the right direction. I just had to trust. And my friend in Cambridge was still encouraging me at this time.

What happened was a friend of my parents came in the store at Brooks Brothers, saw I was there, and said, “What happened, what’s going on?” I began to tell the story, and I thought, I don’t want to keep telling the story. I’m telling it now, but I don’t want to keep telling the story at work to everybody that comes, and sort of go through the melancholy of the loss, and I thought, No, I don’t want my life to be about this, I do not want to go through life as a victim. So it was the first step for me, and I talked to my friend in Cambridge, and he said, “Well, you know this couple that you know wants you to come and visit them in Del Ray Beach, why don’t you go there? For good, for keeps.” I thought, Oh God, I don’t know if I can do that. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. But I did, I transferred to Store 28, which was on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. I didn’t know anybody but this couple. They said I could stay for ten days and then I had to find a place of my own. So that’s what I did. I got a one-way ticket from the Mall of America, I sold everything, I sold all my books again, I couldn’t take them with me. I sold all my winter clothes. I packed my two suitcases, one steamer trunk and a couple of other things, and I shipped everything and I prayed like hell that this was going to work out.

So, then, I’ve been in Florida ever since. I kept sending the book out. And nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened. But I kept sending it out, I kept working on it. So the present, or close to the present. I was working at Brooks Brothers, my friend who I had dedicated the book to was starting to get very ill in Cambridge. He was also very poor, he was evicted from his apartment, he was put into a nursing home, but he was still encouraging me. So what happened was, I had sent it out to the ten places, and by this time, you know, I’d done this so many times, I forgot where I sent it. I was already writing another book since sending out this book. It was January, I had . . . was closing the store, 10:30, 11:00 at night, folding down all the cashmere sweaters, making them look perfect with the two pieces of tissue in them, folding board and doing all that. And I was really kind of blue, I thought, I guess this is it. You know, I had this dream where I had this book and it’s not going to happen and I’ve just got to accept it and move on. And it’s okay that, I thought this, okay, my friend encouraged me, but it’s, you know, I got to be realistic. You know, maybe this is my life, to work here at Brooks Brothers, to advance through management and this is, must be God’s plan. I just need to accept it. So I came home, right around when I was thinking this I came home and there was a message on the machine, and it was Michael Collier from the, he said, “I’m calling from the Bakeless Prize and I need to speak to you.” I thought, I’m the runner-up, he’s calling to tell me that I’m the runner-up. I was so sure of that. So he called me and he said that you’re not the runner-up, um, you’ve won. I said, “Are you sure? Sure it’s not Spencer Lease or Spencer, are you sure?” “Yep, I’m sure. Please, just, we’re accepting it with reservations because it needs a little work, are you willing to do that?” I said, “Well, sure.”

It was a shock, I didn’t tell the management at Brooks Brothers for six months. I didn’t tell anybody. I couldn’t believe it. I could not believe it. But then Louise started calling my little apartment every day because we had to do these rewrites, so it was this weird time of, I mean I was on the phone a lot ,and then I’d dash off to work and just get there in time for the one o’clock shift. That was very instrumental, to have a voice like that who believed in the poems and could see what needed to be worked on, what needed to go, because I had looked at it for so long.

Well, the other funny thing was when Michael Collier said it won, I said, “Well, what’s the name of it?” because I couldn’t remember, I said this or the new thing, which is now just a pile of rubble, but, so fortunately, you know it was this, so that was good. So Louise and I worked on the rewrites, and I contacted the nurses in the nursing home and told Durrell this news, I wrote him a letter, they would read him the letter because he wasn’t coming to the phone anymore. So he knew about it, then before we had done the rewrites, and I said to Louise, “Well, you know maybe we could try,” where we said together or something, “maybe we could try to get a few of these published somewhere,” because hardly anything was published anywhere. So I said, “What about The New Yorker,” or she said, “We’ll try The New Yorker.” I said, “Well,” I said, “I’ve sent there for a million years, I just get that rejection letter, it’s a form rejection letter,” and she said, “We need a password, and I know what the password is.” I said okay, so we sent them off, and I guess she let Alice Quinn know that they were coming or whatever the password was.

But that night, nothing happened for the longest time, so I thought nothing’s going to happen and then I was fixing a pair of pants for a man and his wife, the wife was very upset—“Look at his, look at his pants, they’re not right, they’re not right”—I’ve got pins in my mouth, we’re pinning up the crack of his, the seam of his pants. “It’s too tight, it’s too tight,” the phone rings, it’s for me, it’s Alice Quinn, and she has a surreal voice anyway, she sounds like Laurie Anderson: “Spencer, this is Alice Quinn from The New Yorker.” So anyway, I couldn’t stay on the phone long because I had a pair of pants and the woman was getting more and more upset, so she said, “Well, anyway, we’ve decided to accept your poem.” And I was in a state of shock. I finished the pants, I went to call Louise on the phone, I said, “Louise, it was Alice on the phone, they’ve accepted that poem,” and Louise said, “You sound like somebody just died.” But I was in a state of shock. The poem ran, and this is weirdest, I can’t even explain it, the poem ran that morning, Durrell died that afternoon, the day the poem ran, he knew the poem was coming, and so it was the weirdest day of my life. People were calling my house, his sister called me and said, “Durrell’s passed away,” so I was crying, I’m taking these phone calls from people who are so happy about seeing the poem. And it was a weird confluence of events, that he was finally ready to leave me right at this moment, was a lot to take in.

Then several months down the line when I debuted the book in New York, I called his sister, and I said, “I’m reading in New York at the Poet’s House on March 29, and I hope you can come.” And she paused on the phone, and she said, “That’s his birthday," and I thought, Oh, my God. So I read the book on his birthday, which seemed really fitting, in New York. So that’s it. I mean, the first reading I had was at the Library of Congress, I got on the plane with my friend Jenny, who you met, I said, “Come on, Jenny”—I didn’t have a partner in my life at that time—I said, “Come on, I’m not going to experience this alone. I’ve lived alone for twenty years as if, I’m not going to do this alone, you’re going to come with me.” So I bought her a ticket, and we went up to Washington D. C., and we had a blast. It was the first reading. I wept and wept and wept. It was very emotional, as you can imagine, after all these years and just thinking this, really almost giving up at the end, and then having it come true in this wild way. It was pretty overwhelming, but pretty wonderful . . .it’s been pretty amazing. So that’s the story. That’s enough warts. That’s it.

Question: So is that where you’re still at, the store . . .?

SR: Yeah, yeah, I’m still there.

Q: Full time?

SR: Yeah, full time.

Q: How are you juggling?

SR: That’s a good question. It’s been really challenging because retail is an exhausting business, I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but it’s very people intensive. I don’t know another business like it. It’s got everything in it, it’s psychology, it’s politics, it’s merchandise, it’s the exchange of goods, it’s the oldest business in the world, it’s got all that in it, but it’s consumerism and it’s consuming, I mean it, it definitely sucks you in. I had no intention of being in it, but it’s provided me with a life. I’ve experienced great bounty since this has occurred, and I won the Guggenheim, which was another shock-a-roo. And so I’m going to step down to four days a week because I’m going to blow my circuits soon if I don’t. It’s been, the last two years have been stressful, no question about it. We opened a new store, we’re the largest store in Florida. It’s a four-million-dollar store, I’m the assistant manager, and I’ m responsible for a lot of stuff at this point, all the visual merchandising, being sure I know what the numbers are if the district manager calls, each person’s . . . touch base, how much they’re making, are they making their threshold. It’s a lot to keep in your head. So with some trepidation, because I’m sort of used to it now, I’m going to step down and be there four days a week.

Q: How do you manage your time? I mean, how do you . . . do you have specific timesthat you write, specific times you revise, and then you have to be at work? I’m just curious at that personal side of how you manage to compartmentalize? It’s pretty striking, being so passionate, that I’m sure you have a lot of passion about your work at Brooks Brothers . . . .

SR: Yeah. I do, I suffer from perfectionism. I’m just coming, I was just talking about that with a close friend of mine last week and how I need to let go of that. I don’t need to be perfect at work. I don’t need to say everything perfectly, do everything perfectly. I don’t need to be applauded for every job I do, but that’s my journey with my . . . a lot of adult children of alcoholics I have learned, you know, suffer from some of these things, and at this point in my life, let go of some of them because they’re not serving me. I write whenever I can. In the last two or three years, I have written a lot, and a lot of it has been very bad and sort of versions of what’s in there. It’s not new, that new yet, I guess, but I did write one little one that I think is okay. And I’ve worked on that for a long, long time. So I go over it, I try, I’m trying to read a lot now, actually mostly fiction. If I read poetry it’d drive me crazy. So I think I should be doing this, I should be doing this, so I just keep reading fiction and nonfiction, and I love biography. So I’m just reading a lot and, I did write one little thing, though, and I have a notebook of stuff, and I try to keep a diary, so it just happens when it can, when it can, there’s no set time, really, although I think I’m more of a morning person as I age. When I was younger, I was a night person, my twenties and my thirties, but by your forties, or my forties, I’m much more of a morning . . . if it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen in the morning.

Q: Do you have a writer’s group?

SR: No, no I don’t. There are not a lot of writers, poets in Florida. There are some. I met Campbell McGrath, who teaches in Miami, but that’s almost three hours from me. I liked him, I thought, Oh, this will be a good friend to have, but, you know, it’s hard to have a friend with that distance. He’s got a young family, and so I don’t really. Most of the people that I show my stuff to are not poets. Well, except Louise. I show Louise Glück my things. Actually, I showed her this one poem that she thought was okay . . . some of the others, I have sent her what I . . . and met with her since the book. She said, “I’m interested in seeing what you’re doing,” so it was helpful to know that it wasn’t that good. So I’m just sort of struggling with that. All over again, I’ve started all over again, and it’s kind of daunting. So I guess, yeah, I’m just trying to live more, live life now and have more life before there’s more to write about, I guess.

I have ideas of things I do definitely . . . I’ve been trying to write, but they just aren’t that good. So I’ve been doing research, I’ve been doing all kinds of stuff, but, I had this idea I want to write about the city of Hartford, so I read all these books about Hartford. My mother grew up in Hartford, but it’s not coming together. There was a horrible circus fire there. I read all about that in—I remember my mother telling me about it—in 1944. They used to dip all the tents in paraffin to make them waterproof, and they caught fire in Hartford, and it was a big disaster, but besides being really interested in it, I’ve sort of tried to write about it, but it just isn’t working. We were talking on the phone about writing from self-experience as opposed to writing like a more detached?—is that the word?—so that kind of concerns me or interests me. I tried to write a really detached book and I couldn’t do it, and at the same time I read in, at the Library of Congress with a woman named Dana Levin. Have you read her book called In the Surgical Theatre? It’s a great, incredible book, but that was the kind of book I wanted to write. It was a sort of this detached, vatic, omniscient, personal/impersonal voice and I thought, Oh, that’s what I wanted to do, but I guess I didn’t, so . . .

DW: Spencer, it always seems to me that a lot of the writers that you’ve spoken of as inspirations, like Merrill or Bishop . . .

SR: Right.

DW: . . . and even the metaphysical poets, I was just . . . Maybe it’s the kind of capacity to write a poem that is very personal sometimes and other poems which are observational, but just filled with so much of the self and the woundedness of the self even when that’s not referred to specifically. Bishop’s a great example . . . in a lot of ways. Maybe it’s, maybe we think of it as too strict of a dichotomy sometimes.

SR: I think I do. I don’t know why that is, maybe that’s, it’s not all black and white or it doesn’t just have to be one thing or Sylvia Plath doesn’t have to be all bad just because she was a confessional poet. I mean I think she’s still a great poet. She, those words . . . they live, they work, so a lot of people of her generation, they don’t.

Q: I really admire the non-confrontational way your poems are confessional, you know, just eases itself in there. You’re just, you are clearly emoting in the background, you’re clearly feeling everything that’s said and that’s attached to it, even distant observations, things that seem distant. For me, every line has you behind it feeling every line, and that’s something that’s really hard for me to do. I, you know, I tend to . . . somewhere in the middle of the poem, a poem like that I’ll start, I’ll get lost. I’ll get lost, either in my own head or trying to make the observation interesting or dramatic or whatever you’re trying to get at, and I lose that ease. Greg actually last night, Greg Donovan describe it to me, it’s like he’s watching a boat, a very small boat in calm waters, he’s just kind of pushing it out and you get in the boat and you don’t even know that you’re there and it just kind of evens out. So, you know, I really, I envy it.

SR: Well, thank you.