April 11, 2014. Late night. A wonderfully grimy bar in Norman, Oklahoma. I drove six hours to be here. I’m reading some words at Noir at the Bar and every reader before me feeds the insecurity in my belly with their outstanding work. I congratulate them all and try to drown the insecurity in cheap beer. A while later, I’ve read my work without sounding like a scared kid at a playground and there’s only one reader left. A guy with a beard and a beer sets up a table, which no one else has done, and brings out some papers. He starts reading. Two poems later, the audience is in the palm of his hand, their mouths open like tiny birds begging for food. The reader’s name is Robert Spencer, and his work is a timeless, brutally honest, and raw slice of blue-collared Americana.
Back then, you couldn’t buy Spencer’s books because he had none. Luckily for readers everywhere, Broken River Books head honcho J. David Osborne decided that Spencer’s poetry was something that had to be shared with the world. The result of that decision is Everything Used to Work, a book that collects some of the best poems from the king of Oklahoma Grit. This is not a book for those looking to be soothed by poetry; it’s a scream in the night that tells stories about heartbreak, hardcore boozing, inappropriate behavior, and “ramshackled bum fucked fuckers squaring off in the county line bar ditch.” Written with equal degrees of honesty, sadness, and humor, the poems in this collection are all about things from the real world filtered through the eyes of a man who’s seen most of what the world has to offer. Take “Cut It All Loose”:
Coming up out of nothing.
It’s what keeps things interesting,
moving and jerking like a decapitated snake.
Lose the reins to the freight train and
let it run wild into the wilderness.
Carve your name in someone else’s liver
and suck on it until you’re drunk.
Sure, you can take this collection and spend a few hours with its author. However, the best thing you can do with it is to take it is as manual for life, to see it as a manifesto for those who want to squeeze every ounce of significance out of our time on this Earth:
“Holler, cuss, and cause a fuss just because the people at the party are a fucking drag anyway. When there’s nothing left to drink tear the bag out of a box of wine, squeeze it like the nipple of hope, and suck out every drop.”
Spencer’s work is the antithesis of pretty, useless poetry, which is the kind that has made poetry unpopular with most readers. The writing here is about hangovers and fights, mothers who stab their kids and lifeless bodies with bullet holes in the chest found in the snow. These poems are about dead friends, lost love, sex, getting kicked out of bars, childhood memories, and vomiting by the side of the road. Authenticity sings in Spencer’s words, and listening to that song is a beautiful and harrowing experience.
The first time I tried bean dip I was five.
A kid I barely knew shared some corn chips
and bean dip with me at a church picnic.
I was surprised at how well I liked it.
We both talked about how good bean dip was
and that’s the only conversation I remember having with him.
I saw him around on the school playground,
and occasionally at church, but we never hung out again.
Two years later his mother stabbed him thirty-seven times
with a butcher knife.
She claimed he was chock-full of demons.
Everything Used to Work is simultaneously an outstanding debut and a collection of the best poems produced over an entire career. Robert Spencer is the best living poet you’ve never read, and changing that would be a very wise move.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Zero Saints, Gutmouth, Hungry Darkness, and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.