Q&A with local writer Elizabeth Spires on her poetry collection, ‘A Memory of the Future’

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In the present climate of pervasive news alerts and social media, many of us have grown weary of the noise. The din of so many emphatic voices drowns out our own thoughts. Just finding space and calm in which to reflect is a challenge. Thankfully, the poems in Elizabeth Spires’ new collection, “A Memory of the Future,” help to create just such a space.

Elizabeth Spires has been in Baltimore since the late seventies, writing poetry collections (“Memory” is her seventh), children’s books, and teaching at Goucher College. Soon after I moved to Baltimore in 2000, I was talking poetry with a recent Goucher grad who introduced me to Spires’ work by lending me a copy of her fifth collection, “Now the Green Blade Rises.”

“This is my Bible,” the recent grad told me. The poems anticipated and articulated questions I didn’t know how to ask. They were straightforward, but not simple. It is no surprise that words like grace, wisdom and universal are repeatedly used to describe Spires’ work, nor is it a surprise that her latest collection follows suit.

Reading “A Memory of the Future”provided me a sense of calm and focus I have not felt much in the past couple of years. Since the beginning of her career, Spires has impressed readers with, as poet John Taylor wrote in Poetry, her “subtle, crystal-clear poetry . . . that is constantly philosophically suggestive, while never becoming pretentious or belaboring.”

A Memory of the Future” furthers Spires’ legacy as a poet who does not shy away from the big questions: Who are we? Why are we here? How can we reckon with loss, mortality, the passage of time? How can we know who we really are? In her poem “Cloud Koan,” Spires writes:

Questions, so many questions.

Must one have a name? A face?

Must events be describable?

And what is it like to simply

drift, to have no destination?

One envies an existence

without shame or regret.

The point of these poems, it seems, is not to definitively answer any of these questions; rather, it seems, the questions themselves are the point. The idea of meditation appears throughout the text, as do Buddhist ideas about the nature of existence. The deep spirituality of the poems is therapeutic, but Spires also keeps her readers grounded in this world, writing about universal experiences of family, aging, grappling with death. The poems provide numerous moments of recognition. For example, she reflects on children growing up and moving on in the poem “They Drive Through Childhood in Their Little Cars”:

Older now, we know, if we know nothing else,

that we love them as they were, and are,

though what they are keeps changing. We can’t keep up.

In perhaps the most topical poem in the collection, “The Streaming,” Spires reflects on the destructive and alienating force of technology:

. . . But today, a space of silence

in a church where figures kneel and pray their pain may cease:

Lord, take away the pain. Among flickering candles, they pray.

Shattered. Shattered by a ringing phone. But still you pray.

Leaving, you pass a girl standing in the shadowed nave.

Holding a book bag tightly to her chest. As if it were a shield.

Two words on it, only two words: STAY HUMAN.

Elizabeth Spires’ beautiful poems spark the hope that it may be possible, after all, for us to do exactly that. See her in person at the launch for “A Memory of the Future” at the Ivy Bookshop on Sept. 7. She will appear with poet Michael Collier.

Baltimore Fishbowl: You were born in Ohio, but have lived in Baltimore for decades. What is it about this city that keeps you here? Why do you think so many writers choose to live here?

Elizabeth Spires: I moved to Baltimore in 1978 to get an M.A. in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. I wanted to stay in this area and for many years I’ve taught at Goucher.  We raised our daughter here. But what kept me here for so long?  Growing up in a very small town in the Midwest, I always wanted to live on the East Coast where more is happening culturally. Water is important to me. The Chesapeake Bay region–the flat landscape, water melding into sky–has always felt like a kind of psychic home. I also love the fact that Baltimore has an Amtrak station! Trains are my favorite form of transportation.

As to why so many writers live here, I think they realize that Baltimore has a quality of life here that would be unaffordable in places like New York City. It’s a very livable city. And it can be nice, and less distracting for your writing, to live on the periphery, rather than in the center of things.

BFB: Since your debut in 1981, you have written six books of poetry. In what ways have your subject and style changed over time? What was unique about the experience of writing “A Memory of the Future”?

ES: I think each of my books reflects, roughly, the decade I am moving through. Beginning with my first book, “Globe,” I was both looking back into childhood as well as feeling preoccupied with (romantic) love. Then came marriage, travel, the birth of my daughter, the death of my mother, and more recently, an interest in Zen, in meditation, in Asian texts and Japanese art. Why Zen? Because this current decade for me is about change and casting off, about stripping things down, about simplifying. I want in my poems right now to boil things down to their essence. In a way, “A Memory of the Future” may be my most “naked” book, but by naked I don’t mean confessional. I mean it is unembellished, unadorned. It’s simply about the “I” making its way through the world.

BFB: A profile of you that appeared in Ploughshares in 1999 quotes you as saying, “I feel preoccupied with my sense not only of rapid change in my own life, but in the world around me.” Is this still true? Do current events and the political climate influence your work?

ES: The political scene is immensely disturbing and depressing, but I think it will pass with another election cycle or two. I want to stay informed but am also trying to limit the amount of toxic political news that I absorb in any one day. What worries me the most is technology, this speeded-up, electronic age. What’s happening on the digital front is really, really frightening. For example, people’s widespread addiction and fascination with their phones, texting, and social media platforms. Enormous chunks of our lives are being gobbled up and hardly anyone is resisting or fighting back. Sometimes those concerns creep into a poem.

BFB: Your husband, Madison Smartt Bell, is also a renowned Baltimore writer. Do you read each other’s work? Did he give you feedback on these poems? Do you have other early readers?

ES: We don’t read or critique each other’s work before it’s published, thank goodness, but I know that some writer couples do. I did have one lifelong friend, a professor at Vassar, William Gifford, that I sent all my poems to. He died in 2015, and “A Memory of the Future” is dedicated to him.

BFB: Are there particular writers who inspired or influenced this collection? And who are you reading now?

ES: To talk about influences would take several pages. But here are some high points, books that have been really important to me: “The Zen of Creativity” by John Daido Loori, “Primary Speech and “The Unshuttered Heart” by Ann Belford Ulanov, “Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan” by Roger S. Keyes, “Mountains of the Heart” by Kameda Bosai, and “Virgin Time” by Patricia Hampl.

I’ve also been reading (and rereading) a lot of fiction: The “Regeneration” trilogy by Pat Barker, “Old Filth” by Jane Gardham, “The Collected Later Novels” of Willa Cather, and everything by Colm Toibin.



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