Welcome to a new feature in Oakwood: issue previews to give you a taste of what’s coming up. We’ll include the following interview with South Dakota poet and author Jim Reese in our 2020 issue, forthcoming in April.
Finding Other Worlds in Midwestern Towns: A Conversation with Jim Reese
by Stephanie Schultz
Jim Reese is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Great Plains Writers’ Tour at Mount Marty College in Yankton, South Dakota. Reese’s poetry and prose have been widely published, and he has performed readings at venues throughout the country, including the Library of Congress and San Quentin Prison. Reese’s awards include First Place in the 2018 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Awards, a 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award from Mount Marty College, and a Distinguished Public Service Award in recognition of his exemplary dedication and contributions to the Education Department at Federal Prison Camp Yankton. His books include These Trespasses (The Backwaters Press, 2005), ghost on 3rd (New York Quarterly Books, 2010), and Really Happy! (New York Quarterly Books, 2014). His latest book is the essay collection Bone Chalk, recently released by Stephen F. Austin University Press. A fourth poetry collection, Dancing Room Only, is forthcoming by New York Quarterly Books in 2020.
Jim was my undergraduate adviser at Mount Marty, and we’ve stayed in touch over the last decade. I design 4 P.M. Count every year (the collection of writing and art he edits from his students at Federal Prison Camp Yankton), and we’re in a poetry workshop group together with a couple other Midwestern writers. In this conversation, we discuss his new book, Bone Chalk, a collection of essays tackling the experience of growing up in a major Midwestern city, how it contrasts with living as an adult in a much smaller Midwestern town, as well as experience teaching within the criminal justice system.
SS: This collection is your first comprised of prose pieces, essays. Prior to this, you’ve published three collections of poems. What made you decide you wanted your next book to be essays rather than poetry? And what is your process like for deciding if what you are writing is going to be a poem or prose piece?
JR: I had been slowly writing essays since I was a PhD student. In fact, my first published piece was a short piece of creative nonfiction. Brian Bedard, the former editor of South Dakota Review, really liked my work and was publishing some of my first short prose pieces. I was a city guy who was assimilating to rural life, or trying to. The voices of small town regulars, their cadences, quick wit, story-telling capabilities—the palaver fascinated me. I would find myself writing down one-liners and words I’d never heard before like “elbow bender” or “as worthless as tits on a Boar”—all of it was new and interesting to me. As I was recording these things I remembered what Ted Kooser said to me after a reading. He said, “Jim. That last poem you read was an entire Willa Cather novel.” He was right. I was a narrative poet, or calling myself one, and I really should have been writing prose. I think short (and sometimes long) nonfiction essays is what I should be doing. When you are in grad school you pick a genre and then you have to publish a book quickly if you want to secure a job—or have a fighting chance. The market is so competitive. So that’s why I waited until I had my first book contract (a collection of poetry) to dive back into prose. It was a relief. It’s harder to write prose. But, it gives me room to kick my boots off and stretch out.
Process. I still like writing poems. I definitely have a photographer’s eye. I used to joke with other PhD students that I’m going to rack up all this debt to finish this degree and I’ll wind up being a photographer—a job I had on the side. But, taking wedding photos is a drag. Everyone is stressed out and then they get wasted at the reception and want to be your best friend. It’s a bizarre world as a weekend wedding photographer. What it taught me was how to see something differently than the next guy. I mean, I’m looking down at a light switch in this room right now and it’s missing a cover. Ten years ago there was a cover on every light switch in this house. I, like most parents, worried about my daughters sticking their fingers or something in a light-socket. I also hated replacing them or looking at them. A vanity thing. The covers made me anxious, stressed. That image of an outlet can be a poem or it could turn into prose—it depends on how focused I am, if I am talking too much in my head. What’s it going to be? And it can’t just be a snapshot.
Kooser would say a poem has to have some lift—some magic at the end. The truth about those light sockets is I miss those covers now. I knew then if the covers were there my daughters were protected. Now, my oldest daughter has car keys and I can’t watch over her like I did back then. So, is that a poem—is that the lift? I could write a whole book about trying to protect my daughters. It’s whatever moves you at the time, I guess. I also know, before they decide what it’s going to be, I encourage my students to just write. Write everything down. Don’t worry about editing or what it’s going to be. Just free write. And then let it simmer. Walk away. Think about it—the people in it. The why and what will come later.
SS: Being in a writing workshop group with you, I know you utilize outside critiques often to help hone your writing. What else do you do before you decide a piece feels “done”? And what happens when a piece never really feels “done”?
JR: Oh, yes. I will use, build upon anyone’s ideas—usually they make my work better. I’m in a good group. You guys are publishing lots, so I know that the criticism is usually spot on. And when someone gives me an idea and I incorporate it—more ideas keep coming. New ideas. You guys are pretty good about telling me if you think the piece is done. If I don’t hear that or really feel it, I’ll send it to two more editors I work with. I usually do that either way. I’ve found a handful of people I really trust to cut my stuff up—throw it out—or tell me how to improve it. You have to find those kinds of people. People you can truly trust to be honest, who can also take criticism.
Lots of people want to be in writer’s groups but can’t take the criticism. It’s like just showing up for the game and expecting to perform well. It just doesn’t work like that. Any athlete knows that. Why can’t some writers figure that out? It’s mostly amateur writers. Good criticism, good ideas on how to improve your work is so valuable.
SS: There are so many great phrases throughout the book like “minimum maintenance road” or referring to lunch as “dinner” that only someone who grew up in the boonies of the Midwest would know. Do you write with a certain audience in mind?
JR: Well, thanks. I learned lunch was called dinner when I first went to the farm. Supper was in the evening. I guess, I am writing for the regulars. I have to connect with them. Also, I am fascinated by people. You have to be. If you are genuinely irritated by people, if you don’t like people, you can’t be a writer. I think writing our stories is how we connect, how we are going to survive some of the turmoil our country is in now. Story. Our inimitable voices. It’s so important. At the end of the day, what is it you want? To be heard. To leave your mark. I can’t think of a better profession to make that happen.
SS: In “Mid Heart West Land,” you ask “Is writing a fit profession for a man?” You didn’t know then. Do you now?
JR: Yes. It is. I always felt like I had to get my hands dirty—to sweat—for it to be really called work. Well, if you sit at a computer long enough, you can sweat. And when you take writing seriously you realize how hard it is. It’s just like baseball. Most of the time when you go to the plate you fail; you don’t always get a hit. Baseball, like life, like writing, is failing a lot of times—failing to succeed. I have to go to the gym, too. And get outside and do something—work with my hands. I have to or I’ll go mad. When I wrote that line, “Is writing a fit profession for a man?”—that was 14 years ago. “Mid Heart West Land” was one of my first essays (originally called “Cat Scratch Fever”). Back then, I didn’t know for sure.
SS: The term “otherworld” is referenced in the book, and to me, it seems to be a theme—places we want to belong (for you, country/rural life), but are still foreign to us.
JR: There’s a lot of assimilation going on. Earned belonging. Whether it’s at the prisons I teach at or the lane I drive down.
SS: The “Midwest Bumper Stickers” trifecta of retrospectives were unexpected poetic pockets within the collection, each a litany of vastly different Midwestern perspectives and values. I patiently waited until the last retrospective for “Where the heck is Wall Drug?” It’s a classic, bipartisan and funny. Which bumper sticker saying was your favorite?
JR: Those are funny. They are all real and witnessed in South Dakota or Nebraska. That’s one long found poem/essay/collection of observations that I’d been working on for years. I still am. I don’t know if I have a favorite. It just amazes me the stuff people put on their cars. I was doing a police ride-along (my next book) two nights ago and we were behind this car and couldn’t quite read the stickers in the back window so I joked and said to the officer—shine the spotlight on them. He didn’t, but he did get close to the side of the car and the stickers said (and I’m not joking—there were two) Mommin’ ain’t easy. Kids up in this Bitch. Can you believe that? People amaze me.
SS: People are amazing in such weird, awful, and also beautiful ways. You do such a wonderful job of painting the pictures of people like George, Vernon, Carl, Brant. Was it challenging to perfectly capture their essence on the page, these people you knew so well, but, long ago?
JR: Well, you have to remember I’ve been working on some of these essays for ten years or more. Carl (an amalgamation of a handful of guys in Nebraska), Vernon, and George might be dead now. Brant (name change)—all these guys I looked up to at some point in my life and maybe still do from time to time. I spent a lot of time working with them or hanging out with them—you don’t forget their tics, unique character, and qualities. You know when you meet someone interesting, you hang on their every last word. I tried to do the best I could to paint a picture for the reader and bring them to life on the page.
SS: Another big character in the book is Christina O’Day. The story of Christina and her murder is disturbing, emotional, and a tender topic for you. What was the process like for you to write about this event? It obviously took you a long time to publish anything about it. Is it still difficult to write or talk about the topic? How has losing a friend in this manner influenced you as a human being?
JR: I wrote a poem about this in my first book—out of anger. It didn’t do her justice. It’s something you never shake. Christina was a friend to many of us. We were young and full of adventure, and then a classmate of mine raped and killed her. This was a guy who used to help me with my math homework in middle school. He wasn’t dumb. The murder was very premeditated. There are no words for what it did to her, her family, the little girl she was babysitting at the time (who is alive, thank God), and to so many people who loved and cared for her. I also didn’t think I was an authority to speak on the subject. I didn’t try again until just a few years ago when the guy who murdered her came back up for a retrial because he was 16 when he committed the crime. Laws changed. As WOWT news reports, Twenty-six years after the murder, a Supreme Court decision means one of O’Day’s killers, then 16-year-old Christopher Garza, is in line for re-sentencing. That’s based on new research showing at that age, a portion of a juvenile’s brain is not fully developed.
Christina and I weren’t best friends. But we were friends, you know. We hung out together. We used to go to this place called The Swing in Omaha to dance—lots of us did. I remember the last time I was in a car with her going there. I wish I could remember more. All I have are flashbacks. Glimpses of her and me and our friends. As I give presentations about this book and talk about crime and punishment, I think it’s important to mention how so many criminals DO deserve a second chance. I DON’T think Christina’s murderer does. Neither does the judge who resentenced him. Here’s WOWT 6 news again: Garza has been resentenced for the 1990 murder of Christina O’Day. He was given 96 to 110 years in prison. Judge Polk said by factoring in the “Good Time Law” and time already served, Garza would be eligible for parole in about 23 years. Garza is one of two men who beat, raped and murdered Christina O’Day as she was babysitting. At the age of 8, Beth Ann listened as the brutal crime unfolded.
By writing and speaking about crimes that affected me, the inmate students I teach, their families—how crime has affected my family and my friends and their families, I hope we can come to a better understanding of how transformative justice can work to benefit all. However, that doesn’t mean I’m a liberal professor who is soft on crime. Public safety is still our number one concern. Some people are evil and do evil things. So, yes, it’s very hard to write about this and talk about it, but what’s the alternative? Silence? Christina isn’t here to speak for herself and I think—as a man who’s taught in the prison system—I do know a little more than the next guy about transformative justice, reform, and rehabilitation. 95% of criminals are coming to a neighborhood near you, do you want them educated or not?
There are a few heinous criminals who I think should never be let out of prison. But, I’m not a judge, either. I’m sure there are thousands who believe Christina’s murderer should stay in jail forever.
I think it’s important to talk about this with victims and their families. How can we understand crime without doing so? I write in Bone Chalkabout being on panels with very famous crime writers—I’m the poet who writes about prison. After this particular banquet and presentation on crime an Edgar award-winning novelist said, “Oh, I totally have to pick your brain to find out what criminals are really like.” That was the third time a famous crime writer had said that to me. A person in my position should be writing about what he sees on the front lines and what’s real. That’s what I’m doing. And poetry isn’t going to cut it. I have to do more. How else will we learn the truth? Did you know that one out of every three Americans of working age has some sort of criminal record?
SS: I write about the midwest a lot, but from a Minnesotan perspective, which feels very different than Nebraska. We’re not cornhuskers or bugeaters. We’re vikings, Scandinavians doncha know. You could break down the Midwest region into two subregions: “Great Lakes” and “Great Plains.” Do you find different Midwestern states feeldifferent to you? You refer to the top door handle of a pick up as a “holy crap” handle but in Minnesota we call it an “oh shit” handle. I feel like these subtle differences help Midwesterners to tell each other apart. But do you think someone from the coasts would be able to tell us apart? Have you ever written about that? I often find myself, in my writing, comparing where I live to other places.
JR: I call it an Oh Shit handle, too—doncha know? That was an editor’s change. And I should have put my foot down and said no. I cut back a lot of profanity. There was a time in my life where I believed cussing and (if my characters cussed), that it made us sound tougher than we were. So I let them change that word. Shit isn’t a bad word. I don’t know why I didn’t change it back.
Here’s what I know to be fact about the Midwest. People in Iowa drive like shit. I was born in Iowa which gives me authority to say that. I’ve been back to Iowa every year to see my family and things haven’t changed. I’m not sure why they drive so terribly. Some people call it the “Iowa stare.” Or, Idiots Out Wandering About—that’s lame, though. Most Iowans I know are really cool and polite like most Midwesterners—they just struggle behind the wheel. Everyone knows it’s a problem. Iowans aren’t Minnesota nice, but close.
What else I know to be fact is Nebraska will never be able to buy a national football championship. They need to give Scott Frost a chance. And Runzas are the bomb! Also, I think from living in Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota it’s safe to say there are at least ten ways to say Sloppy Joe. And finally, Midwesterners are nicer than people who live in coastal communities. That’s a fact. We know everyone will move back to the middle of America eventually. Global warming is real and we have to maintain our hospitality—it’s in the contract.
SS: I guess Iowa is what brings us Minnesotans and Nebraskans together—we also picked on those Idiots Out Wandering Around. Earlier this year I went to Nashville, and my friend (who is from Omaha) and I took an Uber carpool. The other person we picked up, who was a Tennessee native, chatted us up and realized we weren’t from that area. We asked her to guess where we were from. She said, “You look like California but you sound like Great Lakes.” This was an identity I was totally okay with having. Do you find yourself having a definitive identity rooted in where you live? Or are you still at conflict with the city boy/country boy thing?
JR: You really know me. I’ve tried to lose some of the city mannerisms that haunt me. I mean, I can honk at people here in my little city and half of them won’t know who I am. I try not to give them the bird or scream. I can still be an ass when I’m driving. I try not to be, but I can’t. I really think I’m a good driver. My daughters would probably argue that I’m insane. My wife could possibly agree. The city in me has never left the wheel. I like to drive fast—California stop. And the problem is you can’t go over 30/35 MPH in many places in this city—that’s a drag.
There are so many good qualities I learned from living in small towns. Listening being number one. The second best quality is looking—really seeing my surroundings. It’s hard to adjust to nosey people, but it comes with the territory. In the city you can just leave—find a new friend. In small towns it doesn’t work that way.
There are some hilarious things going on everywhere. You know, I can sit at a kitchen table and listen to people talk for 40 minutes about how a relative stranger is vaguely related to someone they kinda know. It baffles me how they can trace a family tree—it’ll eat up the whole afternoon. I think on bad days I’ll leave this town/small city for a bigger city. On good days I like it just fine. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you—it took me awhile to figure that out and that the grass isn’t greener somewhere else.
There are pros and cons to everywhere. Right now my daughters love it here—good schools, they have an amazing dance teacher—they beat teams in Minneapolis, so, they are learning from the best. I think you did the right thing by moving to the Twin Cities. It’s a lot of fun. Lincoln, Nebraska is a great city. Sioux Falls is pretty cool. Ankeny, Iowa—cool place. Austin, Texas—love it. San Luis Obispo, CA—cool, too expensive. I like a lot of places, but this is where I am, and there are some fantastic people in South Dakota. I wish our politics were different. I really do. But on a local level Yankton is very nice—very safe. The college where I work is exploding with great things. Mount Marty has turned into everything we’ve been dreaming of, so I’m really excited to be a part of that. And I get to work at the federal prison here which has been very rewarding, and it’s given me a chance to help others change their lives for the better. I am lucky, too. I get chances to read and perform and give workshops throughout the country so I get to see all these places most people don’t. So, I can attest it isn’t greener somewhere else. Every place has their perks—what’s yours? I can have fun wherever I go.
SS: What writers have influenced you the most? There is, of course, your boy Ted Kooser. But is it just Nebraska poets? Just Midwestern writers? Do you find inspiration in other regional writers who are outside of your region?
JR: Kent Meyers is a great friend and editor. The late Chuck Bowden helped me a lot. I think he takes the prize as the best gonzo reporter. Maria Mazziotti Gillan in Jersey has helped so many writers throughout the world. Jim Daniels in Pittsburgh. Geroge Bilgere in Ohio. Patrick Hicks in Sioux Falls. Kevin Clark in California. I could go on an on. I love writers who help other writers.
SS: Your essay “Never Talk to Strangers…” has a very Bill Bryson vibe, the way you weave in and out of personal narratives and stories, and news article quotes and statistics. What writers have helped influence the way you write about your experiences working in the prison system?
JR: Chuck Bowden influenced my crime writing and Kent Meyers gave me the tools and careful criticism I needed to help me shape that essay. Neil Harrision. Jamie Sullivan. You. Maria Gillan. My publisher Kim Verhines. My dad is a very good editor, too. I am very lucky to have parents that continue to encourage me. My dad is an actuary by trade but could be one of the best editors I know. He obviously has an inside view of my life—better than most, which helps. He’s seen me at my worst and best. He knows me. All of you are wicked smart. Great readers. All your advice helps. And the Yankton Police Department has granted me a lot of rein to hang out and learn and see crime on the front end. I’ve done over 200 hours of ride-alongs. I’ve learned so much from sergeant Javier Murgia.
SS: Through reading this book, I learned you were a Criminal Justice major as an undergrad. I never knew that. But it makes so much sense with how you’re writing and teaching career has shifted to include teaching in prisons, going on ride-alongs with Yankton police for field research. How do you foresee this Criminal Justice education base to continue to influence your work?
JR: I’m very interested in expressive writing and investigative journalism. And now that I’ve done so many ride-alongs and completed the citizens academy it’s given me the tools and experience to write my next book which I am working on and outlining now. No matter what you do, you have to be hungry. If Chuck Bowden were still alive he’d tell ya, “Appetite is the road to life and culture.”
SS: In the book, you said ten years ago, when you first started teaching at the prison, you didn’t have a comeback to “Why in the hell would you want to help prisoners?” After ten years, do you have an answer now?
JR: Yes. I’m starting my 13th year now working in prisons. Here’s what I know. A recent 2013 RAND Corporation report found strong evidence that correctional education plays a role in reducing recidivism: “Education is key to turning our justice system around. The study concluded that every $1 spent on prison education translated into $4 of savings during the first three years, post-release.” If nothing else, if you are just worried about “Your Tax Dollar,” that’s why you should care. More importantly, though, is that prisoner education helps transform lives on both sides of the fence. You can lock up a person and let them out after so long. Maybe during their incarceration you teach them a trade—that’s great. What you also have to do is help them tap into the emotional instabilities that brought them to prison in the first place. If a person never comes to terms with himself or herself, you are just going to send an angry person right back out into society.
SS: It would be interesting to read some of your poems side by side these essays because the essays give us a bigger picture look at the experiences that have shaped and influenced you as a poet. Do you write poems and essays in tandem?
JR: I kept writing poems about my work in prisons and everyone wanted more so that’s when I decided to write the long essays and also why I am working on the next book about crime and punishment.
SS: I was surprised to read in “Buckets, Indians and Habaneros” that you are a Yankees fan. That doesn’t sound very Midwestern.
JR: I liked Rickey Henderson when I was younger. He was so fast. He played for a lot of teams. I liked the Yankees because my dad was a big Yankees fan and that’s what we watched. Now he lives in Kansas City, so…
SS: I loved the sort-of theme of running in “Man vs Food.” I write a lot from the perspective of a runner and I actually use that activity to digest my surroundings, what the Midwest is and means. And I know you’ve been running more, and that Linda is a big runner. Do you think you’ll write more essays (or poems) on running?
JR: I feel like I’m writing a running book now. It’s the crime and police book. There’s a lot of momentum in it. We are chasing solutions. And we do go very fast in police vehicles at times. I’ve said more than “Oh, shit” when I’ve been on some ride-alongs—specifically one time when we were first responders—thank God we got there quick and everyone lived.
SS: In a Kirkus Reviewswrite-up of the book, they state that the Midwest can be a hard place to pin down. Do you feel that way? You seem to have a pretty good grasp of what the Midwest is and means to you, at least.
JR: I think Midwesterners are as wide open as the plains. There is not a single definition that delineates the prairies or its people. 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 what make up most Midwesterners that I know.
SS: After reading the title essay, I wondered, What is Jim’s bones’ chalk?What is the tool meant to compose his life’s story? Teaching? Learning? Making art? Telling stories? Helping others?
JR: All of it. I hope I can keep adding to that list. I’m learning by getting my hands dirty—earning my street credit. There’s a reason they nicknamed me bucket calf. I don’t leave. I hang on. I don’t think you can write about something until you invest a lot of time with it. I see writers doing research, and research is important, but there’s no better way to study people, crime, prisoners, police, than by being around them a lot. My goal, and I always make sure my goals come true, is to direct and film. I will do that. It just makes sense for me to do it. I wish I could take cameras into the prison with me—I’d have already done it.
SS: What was the biggest challenge in writing this book or pulling the collection together?
JR: I wanted to make sure it was at least 150-175 pages. Another publisher who was interested in the book at the same time SFA Press was said they wanted to see more work. I had this prison manuscript I was working on so I cut 175 pages down to 33. That was a challenge. But it seemed to fit in this collection (and that other manuscript wasn’t ready and I really wanted to include something about my work in prisons). That press was interested (I think) in trying to develop this thread that ran throughout the collection. It’s good for marketing. I get it. But, how do you define a person? There isn’t one thread—we are complex people and this first collection of essays (which some might categorize as a memoir), doesn’t have a definitive narrative thread that runs throughout like a work of fiction. I think there’s a lot of crime in a lot of these essays. And then there’s some that are way out there, hilarious observations from the Heartland—all of them recording the zeitgeist of the time.
SS: Thanks so much for sharing your maybe-memoir with us, Jim.
JR: Thank you, Steph, for the amazing questions.
About the interviewer:
Stephanie Schultz is a marketing professional by day, a clothing reseller by afternoon, a runner by evening, and a poet by night. She has most recently been published in The Under Review (Winter 19/20). Some of her poems can be found in Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland (Ice Cube Press, 2014) and Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America (Ice Cube Press, 2015). She has an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University and lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.