NEA Literature Fellowships

Gabriel Spera

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(2009 - Poetry)


Blind hungerer, probing mandible of glut,
she'd raze the whole damn yard if given
half the chance, seasoning the dirt
with tight green peppercorns of dung. The lush
nasturtium leaves, just yesterday offered up
like soft communion wafers dyed
the minted green of all that fills our hearts
with darkness, now recall a child's first stab
at paper snowflakes, perfect forms debased
by graceless passage into fact. One thing is clear:
whoever promised us dominion over all
the beasts of earth has yet to clear it with
the bugs. Last fall, for instance, bowing
to snip the bounty of a summer's worth
of providence and mulch, what did I find
but a cabbageworm like this one,
lolling in a blur of flagrant marigold,
beading the corolla with her orange-tinted
excrement, her body, too, fluorescing, green
no longer as she built into herself
the glory of the petals she consumed
as though to show how what we hunger after
can't help but change us, stain us from within,
and that for every form and grace
there is a worm through which it passes,
given time, greedy enough to swallow
any flame, and every sun, and all
who turn their perfect hunger toward the light.

Gabriel Spera's first collection of poems, The Standing Wave, was selected for the 2002 National Poetry Series and published by HarperCollins in 2003. The book also received the 2004 Literary Book Award for Poetry from PEN USA-West. Spera has a BA from Cornell University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He grew up in New Jersey, and now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three daughters.

Photo by Rachel Lee

Author's Statement

I am probably among the few recipients of this fellowship without an academic affiliation. While most American poets gravitate toward university teaching careers, I have instead remained a part of the corporate world. Like [former] NEA chairman Dana Gioia, I have somehow ended up as "a spy in the house of commerce."

In some ways, this situation has had an unexpectedly beneficial effect on my poetry. I feel no external pressure to publish or produce, and so I am free to follow my inclinations wherever they may lead, for however long it takes. I have nobody reading over my shoulder, and nobody to offer feedback on my work; thus, I can remain free of outside influences and develop a style and voice uniquely my own. On the other hand, my situation presents distinct challenges. For one thing, it is extremely isolating. Very few of my co-workers are aware of my secret life as a poet, and I know very few poets in my city; thus, I rarely get the chance to discuss new ideas or share discoveries. Moreover, it can be difficult to muster the time and energy needed to sustain an extended poetic meditation after spending all day managing people at the office and most of the evening managing (with less success) three small children at home.

This fellowship is therefore essential for several reasons. It will help to elevate the stature of my work, and enable me to reach a broader audience through readings and publications. It also provides the means and motivation to devote more time to my work, providing both the financial support and the rationale for taking an extended leave from the office. Most important, it serves to validate my work so far and legitimize my need to continue writing poetry, even when it seems like no one's paying attention-because clearly, someone is.