Stadler Center hosts discussion of queerness and spirituality

Michael Taromina, Assistant News Editor

The Stadler Center’s Writers in Conversation series returned for another installment of deep and methodical virtual conversation on Feb. 21, moderated by 2021-2022 Stadler Fellow Joshua Garcia, regarding poetry, spirituality and queerness with poets Carl Phillips and Spencer Reese. 

Both Phillips and Reese spent the hour discussing their relationship and past and present experiences with the divine culture of Christianity, and how they found poetry to be a solace tool for expressing and interpreting how God and Jesus can align with queer folks just as themselves. They began the night reading one of their own poems, Phillips reading “Singing” and Reece reading “Portofino.”

Carl Phillips authored a dozen books of poetry, most recently “Pale Colors in a Tall Field,” and two works of criticism. He was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2006 and has served as judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets since 2011. His many honors include an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Library of Congress and he has been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

His friend, poet and Episcopal priest Spencer Reece is most recently the author of a memoir, “The Secret Gospel of Mark.” His debut collection of poetry, “The Clerk’s Tale,” was selected by Louise Gluck for the Bakeless Poetry Prize, and his second collection, “The Road to Emmaus,” was longlisted for the National Book Award. Among his honors are Guggenheim, Witter Bynner and NEA fellowships and Whiting Writers’ Award. 

After the readings, the poets delved into their spiritual upbringing and how it impacted their writing. Both had little religious influence in their childhoods, citing personal events to be the guiding force that led them to morality. 

Spencer was asked about his use of Christian literary devices to talk about gay deaths. He reinforced his mantra that the Christian narrative is not a victim story, but rather, a hopeful one. He found that as a gay man, it is not “helpful for him to live his life as a victim,” even though he suffered the brutal loss of a dear cousin and lived through the AIDS epidemic. 

Phillips’ question was about his peculiar themes that push erotic tones to spiritual moods. He said he was fascinated with stories of the martyrs and the concepts of surrender, pain, pleasure and victimhood that correspond both between the transcendence that occurs in the church and in the bedroom. 

Both Phillips and Spencer commented on their analysis of poets such as Dickinson and Hopkins, preaching how their suffering and sexual anonymity are the reason they both can live, walk and write freely today. Phillips specifically said how their poetry helps him believe in the “divine forces and sparks divinity within him all the time.”

Through language and figurative methods, each poet deducted how they perceive the relationship between parable and poetry in the Christian sense. Reece believed that poetry’s meaning always allows for mystery, bringing to light our urge to go back to it, read it and write it. Phillips furthered that by comparing the mysteriousness of poetry to the mysteriousness of the Bible and God itself, humans embrace both.

The poets concluded with a brief question and answer session where they furthered their conversation on the broad explorations of spirituality with queer people, highlighting the spirit of choice and judgment in life and the power of writing a “conquest narrative.”

Reece ended the zoom call by stating poetry “saved his life,” and it is his duty to give it back to others, which he believes is very Christian of him. Additionally, Phillips claimed poetry is a “form of faith and therapy” that has allowed him to trust it and treat it like any religious practice, such as prayer.

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