Poet of note: Spencer Reece ’11 M.Div.
By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.
Not long ago, in mid-January at Marquand Chapel, friends and family gathered around third-year M. Div. student Spencer Reece as he was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church. One month later, on Feb. 16 at Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center, friends and family came out to support him once again to watch James Franco’s cinematic ‘translation’ of Reece’s critically acclaimed poem “The Clerk’s Tale.”
A play on Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales story of the same name, ‘The Clerk’s Tale’ is a piece about the lonely and mundane existence of a retail clerk at “an expensive clothier” and his aging co-worker, “the old homosexual.”
One might wonder how Franco—a Hollywood celebrity actor and emerging filmmaker who co-hosted this year’s Academy Awards ceremony—came into contact with a Yale Divinity School student.
Unbeknownst to some at YDS and the larger Yale community, Reece is no mere aspiring poet. After having worked for almost two decades as a retailer clerk at Brooks Brothers, first in Minneapolis and later in Florida, Reece, after being rejected by over 300 publishers, found his poem “The Clerk’s Tale” in none other than The New Yorker. Ripples throughout the literary world spread, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Yale adjunct professor of English and Rosencranz Writer in Residence Louise Glück chose Reece’s manuscript for the highly esteemed Bakeless Poetry Prize. Eventually, in 2004, Houghton Mifflin published a collection of Reece’s poems under the title A Clerk’s Tale. Among other awards, Reece is a recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.
Franco is well-known in the world of the seen (Hollywood), whereas Reece is known in the world of the unseen (poetry). These worlds collided one day last semester at Berkeley House— Reece’s place of residence—when Franco, who happens to be a Yale graduate student, met with Reece to discuss the possibility of “translating” his poem into a short film. Recalled Reece, “When I met James, I felt my gut instinct tell me to give him my blessing, and send him on his way, and allow it to be his own thing.” Accepting the blessing, Franco decided his film translation would seek to “deliver the inner life of the character.”
Reece’s live reading of his poem before the film was shown provided a fascinating backdrop to the screening. The audience bore witness to the act of translation, wherein the nature of an artwork is simultaneously retained and altered.
Following the screening, a Q & A session among Reece, Franco, and the audience ensued. Reece said he was very pleased with Franco’s interpretation, but he added that seeing an actor portray a certain version of himself (the clerk) on screen was a surreal experience. For his part, Franco noted, “These short films are probably the things I’m most proud of.” He also discussed some of his intentions in terms of narrative structure, actors used, cinematic techniques and choices, and the difficulties of attempting to visually capture the power of the poem in real-time, often without direct reference to the text itself.
The one dimension of the text that Franco’s film and Reece’s poem share is the ending of “The Clerk’s Tale,” which reads, (in the one medium as black text against a white page; in the other medium as white text against a black screen):
See us loosening our ties among you.
We are alone.
There is no longer any need to express ourselves.