Issue 80 |
Winter 1999-00

About Elizabeth Spires: A Profile

Think of the word "spires" or the word "aspires," and you see ascendance, a reaching, a rising up, a breathing upon, a breathing into life -- you hear the word "spirit." Elizabeth Spires's work seems deeply linked with all the facets and motives of these words associated with her name. Even in her first book of poems,
Globe, published in 1981, one senses a poet of deeply metaphysical and transcendentalist leanings, its first poem "Tequila" already interested in "taking the only road / out of the valley, / the one that leads everywhere."

Born in 1952 in Lancaster, Ohio, Spires avidly read her way through the Children's Room of the Circleville Public Library. Her choices in books were particularly indiscriminate, "including about three hundred sappy biographies," she says. She then moved on to the
O. Henry Awards volumes in another part of the library and remembers distinctly, when she was twelve, reading Flannery O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge." It was then that she decided she would be a writer. In retrospect Spires feels that probably one of the most defining gifts her parents gave her was the unspoken assumption "that girls could do anything that boys did . . .
and that they had a perfect right to. I read any book that I wanted to, went to any movie that I wanted to, and had no curfew as a teenager. This in a fairly conservative small town where many parents were overprotective of their children." Though neither of Spires's parents went to college, it was assumed she would. She attended both parochial and public school, and although she never felt pushed, Spires pushed herself (she admits she was an overly serious child). Her decisions about going to the East for school, majoring in English, and becoming a writer met consistently with her parents' approval. "I guess they had faith that I would figure out some way to support myself as I pursued my goals," she says.

Although she thought she would write short stories, at Vassar College she started taking poetry workshops, studying first with Judith Kroll, then with William Gifford (he continues to be a crucial friend and discerning voice). She decided that if, five years out of Vassar, she had not had some "positive response" to her work, she would give up poetry altogether. Until that time, she would devote all her time and energy to it.

After she graduated, Spires worked in Columbus, Ohio, for an educational publisher as an editor and freelance writer of children's reading texts. Her poems began to appear in
The New Yorker, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, and
Partisan Review, among other prestigious magazines. (Of course, this period was not without its sting: Spires recalls receiving, in a one-year span, fifty rejection slips in a row.) In 1977, Spires also approached Elizabeth Bishop, a longstanding influence, to ask for an interview; it was subsequently published in
The Paris Review, and, as Bishop's last full-length interview, remains a vital literary record.

Spires moved to Baltimore in 1978 to pursue her M.A. at the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. Her master's thesis eventually became the book
Globe, described by Norman Dubie as "wonderfully born of metaphor . . . almost like a dream [these poems] reproach us, and still we wake refreshed."

Since that time Spires has followed with three more volumes of poems:
Swan's Island, Annonciade, and
Worldling, and several children's books -- three published relatively recently. She's won grants from the Guggenheim and Whiting foundations, had poems appear in dozens of anthologies, and edited
The Instant of Knowing, a collection of occasional prose pieces by Josephine Jacobsen.

Spires met her husband, Madison Smartt Bell, just as
Globe was being published. She was giving a reading at a summer writers' conference in Maine where Bell was staff assistant to George Garrett. They were married in 1985 at the Ladew Topiary Gardens just outside Baltimore, and, except for a year here or there in London or Iowa, they have continued to live in Baltimore, both teaching at Goucher College, writing, and raising their eight-year-old daughter, Celia.

And now here Spires is at mid-career, a time she's looked closely at in other poets, such as Robert Lowell and John Berryman, for what can be learned from their shifts of approach. "I don't think it's some sort of phoenix-like redefinition for me," she says, "so much as a new stage or chapter that grows out of whatever was there before; there's no part of a life that springs out of nothing. I am still just writing poems about what is directly in front of me that's all-engrossing, trying to write really directly. I've never been prolific; for me poems are like major events. Even if they're about something small -- that something may seem small to other people, but it doesn't feel small to me."

At middle age, she's realizing more than ever how important relationships are to parents, mentors, close friends -- "those who have died, are dying, or are going to die" -- and what's received from this older generation. "I don't think I realized. I thought middle age was about life, not death. If you're lucky, you're still far from your own death or halfway, but not all the way." Her poems now are exploring such losses and relationships, the ways one unwillingly advances into a void that is made up of loss, where, as she writes in a new poem, "soul to soul, / we would have forever / never to speak again."

"I see where the next book is heading; it is preoccupied with these losses," she says. "Middle age is about beginnings and ends. For me, at least. Especially if you become a parent in middle age." In her fourth book of poems,
Worldling (Norton, 1995), Spires focused with a pressing intelligence on conception, pregnancy, and motherhood, on the exact ways in which these are transformative experiences. Her meditations on the subjects are immaculate and lyrical. In her poem "The First Day," she writes, "I have had a child. Now I must live with death."

"I know that that's a line that makes some readers cringe, but to me that's the way it was. You have to say it, but then you realize that the way you said it is probably not good enough. Maybe the line doesn't achieve it in language. I wasn't striving to be ultra-poetic. That line connects to what I'm still thinking about: my own mortality and the mortality of those close to me. And, too, there's the actual physical end: you start to wonder what happens after death, what shape and form are we in after we die? There's a subject for poetry!"

Spires says she's never thought in terms of giving herself formal writing projects. "When I was working on my second book, the one thing I thought about was that I had more of a sense of a line. I thought the syntax of my sentences was becoming more complicated and emphatic. I like writing poems with long lines the best, but I don't have ideas for them very often. You feel like you've got all the power in the universe behind you -- you're in charge of the waves of the ocean: here I am making it all go and happen."

Some of the poems she's working on now are "shadowed by myths" -- a poem, for example, about Robert Frost in which he compares himself and his wife, Elinor, to Cadmus and Harmonia. "These characters in myth are archetypal figures. Trying to see deeply into your life, you may, sooner or later, see it clearly in archetypal terms. There's nothing we can live through or experience that doesn't already exist as an archetype." Almost in one breath she has at the ready Philip Larkin's disparaging and snide corrective about poets' use of "the universal myth kitty." But, too, there is Allen Grossman's expansive and inspiring lecture on Orpheus, a piece she theorizes has resoundingly informed contemporary poets' uses of myth. Spires keeps "searching and scouring" for writing to excite her, for poets that she's not read at all. May Swenson and the Australian poet Gwen Harwood are her current amazements, just to name two.

A sense of her deepest writerly passions and resolve comes clear, though, as she discusses her writing for children. She is particularly taken with the phrase "a word-inspired world," used in one critic's review of her recent children's book
The Mouse of Amherst. The mouse in question, Emmaline, becomes diligent wainscot apprentice to Emily Dickinson. Emmaline laments, "There was an emptiness in my life that nothing seemed to fill." Her longing to "touch something untouchable" leads her to poetry and to, as a
New York Times critic notes, "the nourishing power of words." To Spires, this "word-inspired world," this world of reverie and imagination, is what completes one's existence, makes it feel full and whole. "Without it," she says, "the physical world seems impoverished. But with it, day-to-day life feels endless and infinite."

"Children who like to read, and who grow up with books in the house, easily enter the world I'm talking about," says Spires. "I'm concerned, though, at the number of children who don't know this world of words exists. The
way a story or poem is written, as well as what it's about, can pull children into thinking about this whole business of language. It can make them think about the power of words and imagination and, possibly, how they can use that power themselves."

"For most adults, the relevance of poetry to their lives is even
less than I would have believed it was in my twenties and thirties, and I didn't think then that I had any illusions. Most people appear to be living without poetry quite nicely. They may turn to poetry at some terribly critical moment -- a birth or wedding or funeral. But how can anyone possibly commit to a life of words and not be concerned about what poetry has come to mean, what place it occupies in the present time and culture?" Her comments call to mind the fevered work of anthropologists trying to keep a foundering language alive. "You feel this force against you if you write serious fiction or poetry; you're trying to do your part. You hold on -- blown horizontal -- and just try to not let go of the tree."

Spires is thinking of a new poetry assignment for her students at Goucher College, based on May Swenson's poem "Too Big for Words." She'll ask her students to place themselves at that border between language and the ineffable, the very place from which Spires has so compellingly spoken throughout her career. Just as she says in her own introduction here, with "the edge of time so close," she continues to stand at each and every threshold resolutely, looks with directness as she is "lived by events." She attends to them, giving keen attention to everything from workmen raking seaweed into piles at the empty governor's mansion to how a white curtain on a fall afternoon can suggest the soul or time's continuum, its lifting a figure for the present's fluid move into the past.

A. V. Christie's first full-length interview with Elizabeth Spires appeared in 1995 in the Southwest Review.
She has since reviewed a number of Spires's books.