Interview With a Poet: Jim Reese
Jim Reese is an assistant professor of English and the director of the Great Plains Writers’ Tour at Mount Marty College in Yankton, S.D. He is also editor of “Paddlefish.”
His most recent collection of poetry is These Trespasses (Backwaters Press, 2005, 2006), which includes Pushcart Prize nominated poems.
His writing has appeared in New York Quarterly, Poetry East, Prairie Schooner, Paterson Literary Review, South Dakota Review, New Delta Review and elsewhere. He is the 2008 National Endowment for the Art’s Writer-in-Residence at the Yankton Federal Prison Camp.
After Long Busyness: If I’m not mistaken, you’re two issues in with Paddlefish. How has it been received?
James Reese: We are reading submissions for our third issue right now. The deadline to submit by is Feb. 28th. Paddlefish has been well received, I believe. We are now getting anywhere from 10-20 submissions a day. Sometimes more. We advertise in three venues–Poets and Writers, Writer’s Chronicle and NewPages.com. You can also go to www.mmcpaddlefish.com for more information on our submission guidelines and to see our online extension which features authors of the Great Plains Writers’ Tour.
ALB: As editor in chief, what’s your overall goal for Paddlefish?
JR: My goal as editor is to publish great literature. Also, to give emerging writers a place to showcase their work. Some of my favorite cover letters are those that read, “This is my first story” or “I just caught a monster walleye today, and I wrote this poem. I hope you like it.” It’s amazing how many writers send cover letters that say they’ve published in more than 750 journals—that’s a lot of journals—are there 750? I’m not interested in that. I think all editors are interested in publishing the best material that comes their way–period.
ALB: What do you hope readers are taking with them from These Trespasses?
JR: Wow, that’s a good question. I mean, I hope they appreciate the poems–appreciate the voices I’m trying to preserve on the page. That they take them home or into the back alleys and say, “Hey, listen to what this guy says–he’s dope!” dodjg dbo (Sorry, my daughter is in my lap as I’m trying to type this)..vgnnf sdgfhgnf
In all seriousness, these girls, that’s the most important thing right now for me in my life and in my writing—I don’t see that ever changing. If something were to happen to me I know they’d have these poems–a better picture of their father than any Polaroid. They’ll always have a big part of me they could take with them every day. A lot of the poems in the new book I’m about ready to shop around are about them. Here’s one that is forthcoming in the Connecticut Review:
A Pony for Paige
Paige, you are only four-weeks-old
and your sister demands she help out.
I hope you know how proud
she is wiping dry skin she calls crumbs
from your face; proclaiming to paint another
red, white and black design you can stare at.
Before that, though, your mother
puts the finishing touches on the barn
she has built in the living room
to house the ponies—blackie Morgan, brown Spirit and
I reinforce the support beams, but can’t
for the life of me figure out how to
secure the ladder to the loft.
Some people might think it odd,
a barn in the living room—let them think
whatever they like.
The creatures awake early here.
Willow galloping with colts, fillies and foal
across wood floors.
Your eyes open ever so slowly
to peek at this parade of wild animals.
In between rides
and morning breakfast
Willow checks, then checks again,
to see if you are awake. When she
finds your eyes open
she cannot contain herself: Look Daddy,
Paige is smiling!
Then back to the Mustangs she trots,
taming first one, then another,
waiting as only a child can wait
for the time when
they can do the tending, tugging
Eric, I’m very interested in saving voice(s) on the page, whether it’s mine or say, my grandfather’s or the guys at the prisons I work with. All of us have stories to tell and to me that’s much more important than a box of old photos. I like that box, don’t get me wrong, but in that box, the voice is dead.
You ever have that nightmare, if you had to lose your eyesight or your hearing, which would it be? For me, if I had to choose, I’d have to say I’d keep the ears. I can’t imagine a world without music—without voice.
I just sent my mother a poem about my grandfather—he’s alive yet, in a nursing home in Florida. Unfortunately, he’s not the same man now who raised my mother–who taught me how to fish–to go after what we wanted. His story is very important to my family and I—without poems about him, good and odd, I’m afraid some memories would be lost. So I feel obligated a lot of the time, when something strikes me, to write it down for my family, for others. Words are forever—these voices are going to outlive you and I. Here’s a poem about him—that was published last year in the Paterson Literary Review:
His Secret Stash
by Jim Reese
After my grandparents moved into my
parents’ dining room in Omaha;
after they wound up in South Dakota
one evening after getting the oil
changed in their car;
after the police came and tried to reason
and ask questions about their whereabouts;
we packed their belongings again
and moved them into an assisted living home.
We left my grandfather’s rifles and shotguns
underneath the basement stairwell, against his will.
And now, a few years later,
my own parents are moving
and I inherit the guns.
When I look through the gun cases
a worn black Rolf’s wallet falls out.
I know it’s my grandfather’s although
there is no ID.
Inside are seventeen dollars, three silver dollars;
one for each of his daughters—I’m sure of this,
and an Enderlin Diamond Jubilee token celebrating
the North Dakota town’s 75th Anniversary.
The token is good for fifty cents at all
Enderlin banks until July 31st, 1966.
I come to realize that this is his secret stash.
The secret stash he has forgotten about
or misplaced. Or perhaps,
the one that triggered the amnesia,
this disease, this loneliness of memory.
I find his wedding picture
folded and creased five times.
A black and white of my grandmother and him
on the steps of The Little Brown Church.
The pastor is smiling, everyone is smiling.
My grandfather chinless with glee
and my grandmother standing tall, grinning,
her slip exposed.
I try and keep the picture unfolded
as I gently slip it into one of the wallet’s plastic
All I can do now
is write this.
Should I send it to him?
Should I send it to my mother
ALB: Poetry from the Upper Plains or Midwest is often referred to as “accessible,” often not in a flattering way. Do you think there’s a better description?
JR: I hope I’m not beating a dead horse here—I suppose that’s okay; the horse can’t feel it anyway. But I’ve argued this issue—I’ve written critical papers about the importance of rural voice in contemporary American poetry—here’s my opinion: There is not a single art form that defines the Plains. Common sense values such as physical labor, honesty in human relations, emphasis on the primacy of family and community, and intimate physical, emotional, and spiritual connections to the land are more important now than ever. Plains art forms and aesthetics are different from urban in some respects, but we all share a special connection with the land and are concerned with preserving and sustaining our natural resources which serve as the wellspring of our most basic value systems. Poetry and prose with a Plains and rural aesthetic assert the value of the land, thus making its experience visible and comprehensible to the public at large. In this manner, poetry and prose are also capable of transcending a designation as being merely regional.
Ted Kooser has been quoted as saying, “Poetry is about communication. Anyone in the world can write a poem people can’t understand.” I have that quote pasted outside my office door. If Plains poetry is accessible—good—hot damn! Maybe that’ll bring more readers to the big dance.