Painting Pictures With Words: An Interview With Oklahoma Poet Robert Spencer

by Lyndsie Stemlow

Photo by Brandon Isaak

Photo by Brandon Isaak


Robert Spencer has been writing over half of his life. He is part of an inimitable community of Oklahoma artists who knock glasses on the weekend, collaborate and uphold each other’s artistic endeavors. Musicians like Shilo Brown (also known as Bloody Ol’ Mule), Ryan Lawson and Brad Fielder, painters like Chris Johnson and Rawb Carter and many others flock to the mobile home Spencer shares with his longtime girlfriend LaNita in rural Choctaw, Oklahoma for boozing, bonfires and D.I.Y. art and music showcases.

It’s the day of the interview. My photographer and I are navigating the rough country roads to Spencer’s place. At one point we must yield to a collection of cows and horses leisurely crossing the road. A reedy geezer in a stained wife-beater directs the crowd of animals to the other side of the road and waves us on. Once we arrive, we are waylaid by a pack of affable dogs at the gate. Spencer invites us into the trailer from the front porch and promptly offers us each a cold one. It’s hard to believe once we’re sitting in the kitchen that we are in a mobile home at all. LaNita has painted a Gustav Klimt inspired fresco of a sprawling tree on the front door of the trailer. It is embellished with cool aquamarine stones and placid hues of green and blue paint. A faithful rendition of a clear blue sky has been painted onto the living room ceiling and gives the viewer the feeling he is gazing into the dome of some hallowed chapel. We retire to the Spencer’s library, complete with a full service bar, fireplace and a striking yellow-and-black compass LaNita has painted across the center of the floor. We settle in with a drink, and I begin my questions.


Photo by Brandon Isaak

Photo by Brandon Isaak What got you writing, Bob?

Spencer: Well, originally I wanted to be an artist. I took an art class in high school. All my friends were good artists and I just realized that I just…couldn’t. I took art for almost four years and I didn’t improve. I had all these things in my head but I could never do it, you know, so I guess in a way I just ended up painting pictures with words. Do you have to get into a certain head space to write your poetry?

Spencer: Sometimes I’ll go long periods without writing at all, then all of a sudden it’s kind of like a flood where I’ll write for weeks or even a month or a couple of months. Every time I hadn’t been writing in a while, I start writing again and it starts coming out I think, “Why haven’t I been doing this the whole time?” Then eventually it kind of runs out. It does that every time. Eventually, I just got this other stuff I’m doing and the well runs dry for a while. But I never think of it as writer’s block. It just comes back around later. I feel like the periods of time I’m not writing, I’m gathering information that’s going to come out in some sort of way later. Who have you been reading lately?

Spencer: Annie Proulx’s “Wyoming Stories 2,” some stuff by Barry Hanna and Harry Crews. I don’t read much poetry. I read more short stories and novels and those are more my influence, but I’m into writing more compact [pieces]. Poetry is just the way it comes out for me. I don’t know if it’s an A.D.D. thing; I like to write something and I’m done. I don’t really know, but all I know is I don’t read a lot of poetry. I’ve read some of Charles Bukowski, and I’ll read some poems in his books, but I might not read a whole book of his poems. But I’m actually more influenced by his novels and books of short stories. What personal experiences in your life have influenced your writing?

Spencer: This is going to sound so mundane, but bad breakups that influenced poems of mine like “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too.” When I originally wrote that poem it was less funny and more angry. I let it sit for a while and when I came back to it for a while I started taking things out of it. It was about a girl I lived with for over a year and she had a Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too tattoo right above her ass. That part was a true story. In a way it started out kind of a revenge type poem, but I turned it into a more interesting poem by taking a little bit of the meanness out. The title of your first book was “Slam it Up Your Ass.” Is that a reference to how you feel about slam poetry?

Spencer: It was derogatory at the time. Now I just don’t give a damn. I’m not into it but I don’t care if other people do that. It’s not what I am doing. It was the time period 2003, and I just thought it was funny. I think there was a girl at the time who had a chap book out called “Slam,” which I thought was funny, you know, to call your book of slam poetry “Slam.” Pretty generic. So, that was actually why I called mine “Slam it Up Your Ass.” What is your advice for younger poets?

Spencer: If you’re going to go to poetry readings, don’t feel like the format with which people read, or slam poetry, that you have to do that. I’m kind of on my own path, doing what I want to do, and I feel that’s what other poets should do, and not go to poetry readings and think, “This is what I should be doing.”

When I ask Spencer about the new project he’s working on (a full length album of his poetry), he seemed to grow a bit uneasy, stating that it is a work in progress. However, he graciously agreed to share something with the readers of OKC.NET.

The following poem is an untitled piece from Robert Spencer’s upcoming album, which will be recorded by musician Ryan Lawson and some other of Bob’s friends.

Sometimes, you’re driven to do things you don’t want to do.

Things that just don’t make any sense at all.

It’s times like these that you question your existence.

Were you really put here to work like a dog and be treated like one in a hot warehouse

loading heavy boxes into trucks for a measly minimum wage?

Or spread black tar on roofs in the one-hundred degree heat while someone inside the

building below is sitting in an air conditioned office jerking-off to porn and will be making more in two months than you’ll be making in a year?

You have to make ends meet, someone has to do it you tell yourself, but why me?

It’s a hard thing to watch someone that is half your age advancing in a company that

doesn’t even know an eighth of what you know about the job.

But, you’re driven along hoping if you work hard you’ll be rewarded.  When the payoff

never comes you become a bitter person.  You’ve spent half your life working for a company that don’t give two shits about you.  They would just as well flush you down the toilet and hire new, educated blood to fill your position.  You’re old and your clothes are old and the young are so fresh and new and full of vigor and ideas on how to fix the company; and, although you know their ideas are dog shit you don’t get a say in the matter.

You do your job counting the days to retirement hoping you don’t get canned due to budget cuts.  You realize that you’re more expendable than the new hirees that are younger than your own kids.

The hate begins to build when these cool wizards have advanced above you or hired into a position you were next in line for.  This animosity clings to you like a suit of tarnished armor and causes a chasm between you and your spouse, so that not only is your job shit but your home life is too.

Your better half leaves and gets the house.  Your marriage of twenty-seven years is crushed into dust.  Your heart turns to pudding and you grovel and plead, but she’s done.

It’s too late for apologies.  

Your boss isn’t very understanding of all the time you are taking off in order to stitch your life back together.  He’s afraid he’s going to have to cut you loose.  He needs people that are going to give one-thousand percent.  You tell him you’ll work nights and weekends, but he’s done.

The severance pay might get you by for a few months.  You’re tired and the thought of starting over at the age of fifty-eight makes you sick.

Sometimes, you’re driven to do things you don’t want to do.

Things that just don’t make any sense at all.

It’s times like these that you question your existence.  


If you’d like to find out more about Robert Spencer’s poetry, please contact him on Facebook:

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