Spencer Reece goes from the mall to Episcopal priesthood

Posted: Friday, January 25, 2008

Spencer Reece, the so-called "Brooks Brothers" poet who found fame in 2004 with the publication of his first collection, "The Clerk's Tale," is leaving the store where he works in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., to become an Episcopal priest.

Mark Randall / South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Mark Randall / South Florida Sun-Sentinel

"It's been a long time in its gestation," Reece said recently during a break at Lynn University in Boca Raton, where he was talking with students about poetry. "But I attended divinity school at Harvard in my 20s, so it's not coming out of nowhere."

Reece will leave for Connecticut this summer, where he will study for three years to earn his ordination, after which he plans to work with hospice patients.

"I felt called," he says simply.

After winning a Guggenheim grant in 2005, Reece found himself with sufficient funds to cut back on his hours at the Brooks Brothers store, from five days a week to three. He used part of his free time to volunteer at the Gerstenberg Hospice Center in West Palm Beach.

"I don't know exactly what called me to the hospice center, but my father is a doctor and my mother a nurse," says Reece, 45. "When I got to the hospice center I felt I'd come home."

Hospice is non-denominational, Reece says, but spiritual guidance is provided for those who want it. He noticed the number of clergy did not match the number of patients.

"I began to feel passionately I could do this work and that it's needed in the culture," Reece says.

The decision to enter the priesthood is a dramatic choice for a writer already famous for the striking way he became recognized as a major poet.

As a young man, Reece earned a bachelor's degree from Wesleyan University, an M.A. from the University of York in the U.K., and a graduate degree in theology at Harvard.

But after conflicts revolving around alcoholism, among other things, Reece became estranged from his parents and found himself required to pay his own way.

Reece took a job at the Brooks Brothers store at the Mall of America in Minnesota, where he surely must have been one of the most overeducated salesclerks in the world. In his spare time he wrote poetry, year after year, more or less in secret, with very little encouragement.

"Poetry is a calling, too," Reece says. "I always thought of poetry as a passionate hobby, but it never became spliced with a career. I never entered a creative writing program, which might have funneled me into an academic job."

For 20 years Reece had "thousands" of rejections from poetry magazines - "The Clerk's Tale" was rejected 300 times - his only literary encouragement an epistolary friendship with famed poet James Merrill.

In 2003, however, Louise Gluck, then poet laureate of the United States, selected the manuscript of "The Clerk's Tale," out of a thousand entries, for the Bakeless Poetry Prize.

What really kept Reece going through all the years was his sponsor in an addiction support group, Durrell Hawthorne. Although Reece is open about his life, he follows the principles of his program by not identifying publicly which program he attends.

"Durrell was a father figure to me," Spencer says. "He always kept telling me I could do it."

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