I am thrilled to introduce you to a friend of mine. Alexis Spencer-Byers holds a special place in my heart because she has seen me in my hardest days and yet she still loves me! Alexis and I were roommates for most of my years in Jackson, Mississippi. We lived in several different homes and apartments and had plenty of adventures together. She has a new book of poetry out and we recently had a chance to chat about her experience as a writer. I am so grateful for her vulnerability in our conversation and in her writing. Don’t miss this chance to hear these words from her heart… My first time on the blog interviewing a friend and an author. Hope you enjoy!
Q: Ok, here goes… So I’m sort of obsessed with Krista Tippett who hosts On Being– a NPR program that describes itself as “ a spacious conversation about the big questions at the center of human life.” She always begins her interviews, no matter the subject, with the same question. What is your spiritual background? I know that spirituality seems to weave it’s way through your writing. So could you tell us about where you came from?
A: I’m not familiar with that program–I’ll have to check it out!
But to answer the question: I was raised in a non-religious context, though I would say there was a sort of spirituality inherent in my parents’ strong values for justice, service to others, and the conviction that every human life (regardless of race, class, or other form of “difference”) has great worth and dignity. I began exploring Christianity as a teenager, when my grandfather died and I found myself wondering about questions like, “Where did he go? Who’s out there? What is the purpose of life anyway?” Somehow, I’m not sure how, I had picked up the idea that church was a place where one could take these kinds of questions, so I started visiting a local Christian youth group with a friend from school. There is a moment that I mark as at least the beginning of my conversion to Christianity (a few months into my youth group attendance), but in many ways it was a years-long process of growing in my understanding of what it meant to be in relationship with God and receive the grace He had extended through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. (And after that, it has been a decades-long process of learning what it means to live as a person of faith in a world that presents a lot of confusing questions, difficult choices, and disheartening moments. But perhaps I am getting beyond the scope of your question…)
Q: No, not beyond the scope at all. I think your last sentence is true for so many of us. Another’s Treasure is a book of poems and you have another book poetry book out, Urban Verses. Last I saw you in Jackson, MS, I don’t remember poetry being a focus for you (I was at a pretty self absorbed time in my life, so i may have easily missed it.) Why poetry and when did you start writing it?
A: You did not miss anything! During your Jackson years, I was trying (not at all successfully) to be a novelist. The poetry did not start for me until 2003, and even then, I wasn’t trying to be a poet. I wanted to get back into fiction writing after a creative dry spell brought on by a failed adoption attempt. (An attempt that failed because of my own issues and not anyone else’s doings, I should mention.) As I sat at a table at a coffee house up in Canton, I almost felt like I was watching as my hand inscribed a couple of poems in my notebook. At first I thought it was just a fluke, but over the following weeks, they just kept spilling out of me. At first, I wrote about the apostle Peter and the struggles of his that paralleled my own, but eventually I began writing more personally about my own experiences (including the failures), observations, questions, encounters, etc. In the years since then, poetry has really become my way of processing life–it’s basically journaling, therapy and art, all rolled into one.
Q: So how did this book come together for you? The poems seem to span several years (and places) of your life.
A: It came together very gradually! For a while after the publication of Urban Verses, I didn’t write as much. (That initial batch of poems had been quite cathartic, I guess!) But I would still occasionally write a poem or two and file them away. About three years ago, I was spending a creative weekend in Santa Cruz with my mom, and it became another of those times when the floodgates just sort of opened. Various past experiences came back to mind, asking to be written about, and I also began putting on paper more of the emotions and thoughts surrounding my move back to California after nearly 15 years in Jackson–a move that had been desired and joyful, but also traumatic in its way, as it involved separation from the only community I had ever been part of as an adult. Anyway, at that time it occurred to me that I had enough poems accumulated and in process to start thinking about another collection. I put an initial manuscript together then, but got some feedback that the Mississippi and California sections felt unbalanced–I wasn’t far enough into my transition to have a solid sense of California as home (again), and the manuscript reflected that. So I kept the book project on the back burner as I moved to Los Angeles and pieced together a life here–finding a church, settling in a neighborhood, connecting with various like-minded organizations for service and participation opportunities, making new friends, etc.–all the while scribbling about the steps along the way. Eventually, it felt like I was ready to share about both of these major seasons of my life in a way that could substantively capture the beauty, joy, pain, sorrow, anger, confusion, wonder, growth, and other aspects of each of them.
Q: You are very vulnerable in your writing. Earlier you called it “journaling, therapy and art, all rolled into one.” What is it like for you to put your stuff out there for everyone to read, words from the heart?
A: Well, it’s terrifying, to be sure! But, as with many things in life, with greater risk can come greater reward. I don’t mean that monetarily (I definitely still fall into the “starving artist” category), I just mean that the more I am willing to open myself up to others through my writing, the more potential there is for a reader to connect deeply with the material–and the more chance there is that said reader will share that response with me, which gives me a sense that my struggles and efforts have had a purpose beyond my own life, which is lovely. (That was a bear of a sentence–I apologize!) I imagine this all sounds a bit familiar to you, as your own writing is so wonderfully transparent, honest and heartfelt!
Q: I can identify with that desire to connect with others through writing. The written word can be powerful! When I read the section about Gloria (a mutual friend from Jackson) and your living with her in her last days fighting cancer, oh my- that was so emotional for me! There were tears and it connected deeply with me. I’m curious if there are any specific poems that are really special to you? Maybe you could share one here?
A: Yes, that section was a very emotional one for me to write as well! There was so much in that season that was profoundly painful, and also so much that was truly beautiful, inspiring and joy-giving. “Clean-Up” is a special poem to me, because it reminds me of Gloria’s generosity of spirit–how, even when she was going through something so terribly difficult herself, she had such great concern for neighbors of ours whom many people would have written off or just been angry at. And while I can’t prove that she and God conspired from heaven to bring about a transformation on our block (and maybe in those young men’s lives…), it certainly seems possible, and that thought gives me a lot of joy and comfort. Here is the poem:
For months, you sat on our front porch,
praying for the drug dealers
across the street
to find a more honorable way to exercise
their entrepreneurial inclinations.
Impressed not only by your persistence
but also by your tender-hearted bravery,
I observed as you greeted these young men
day after day
and told them of the fervent aspirations
you held for them.
When you died,
great gaping holes opened up
in a multitude of hearts,
homes and institutions,
and the world was changed for the worse—
except for this one thing:
In the wake of your departure
the illicit traffic on our block
ground to a halt,
and as I rested in the blessed quiet
I could only surmise
that you had seized an early opportunity
of whispering your loving petitions
the listening ear of God.
Q: So I’d love to know what literature has influenced your writing. Favorite authors? Favorite books? Poetry or whatever. No matter to me. I’m always looking to hear about good writing. And finally, what are you reading right now?
A: My reading life, like so much of my life, is a bit of a patchwork. Two of my favorite writers, in terms of their dexterity, precision and musicality with language, are Jane Austen and Aaron Sorkin. I loved reading W.E.B. DuBois in college, largely for the prophetic-feeling nature of it–as I think about it, now would probably be a good time to revisit some of his work. (Along those lines, Isaiah and Amos are biblical favorites!) While I’ve always enjoyed reading fiction, in the last five or ten years, I’ve really grown in my appreciation for memoir. Some in that general category that I’ve especially appreciated are Tattoos on the Heart (Father Gregory Boyle), Same Kind of Different As Me (Ron Hall & Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent), True Notebooks (Mark Salzman), and The Soloist (Steve Lopez). Recently, I’ve been reading and enjoying poetry by Luis J. Rodriguez and Richard Blanco. Many of my favorite poets, though, are the young men and women of Street Poets (www.streetpoetsinc.com) and InsideOUT Writers (www.insideoutwriters.org), and the women and girls of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (http://awwproject.org). Talk about writing with vulnerability and courage! I am in awe of these brave young (and some not-as-young) writers. Oh, and I’ve also been reading the Percy Jackson books (I’m in the middle of book #9 right now…), at the request of a friend’s rather precocious nine-year-old daughter, who wanted to be able to discuss them with me when I came to her house for weekly small group meetings.
Thanks! I’ve got some new reading to add to my list! And the Percy Jackson books are a huge hit around here. Someone may be getting the whole series for Christmas. Shhhhhh…..
Q: Ok, so last and final important question!
Are you still the San Francisco Giants’ biggest fan?
(I’m pretty sure I have memories of your mom sending the games to you in Jackson, recorded on VHS tapes…)
A: (I won’t tell, I promise!)
Well, I would probably be in trouble with a whole lot of people if I claimed to be the Giants’ biggest fan, but I am certainly what many (especially here in L.A.) would call an obnoxiously fervent one! (You have an amazing memory–I had completely forgotten about those tapes! Now there is MLB.tv, which has become one of my favorite things.)
Lisa, thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to visit with you today! It has been a real joy. (It would have been wonderful to meet up for an in-person chat over coffee in Jackson–I’d love to introduce you to Koinonia, and it would be fun to revisit Cups together as well–but I guess the capability for online instant messaging is almost as cool as transporter technology…)
If you would like to order a copy of her latest book, Another’s Treasure, OR her other book, Urban Verses, check out her site and use the code LAM1412 to get a discount.
Alexis Spencer-Byers was raised in San Francisco; completed a degree in English at Amherst College in Massachusetts; engaged in various types of community development work in Jackson, Mississippi; and currently lives in Los Angeles, where she works as a church administrator and freelance copy-editor. While in Jackson, she co-founded Koinonia Coffee House, an inner-city café and community gathering place.