November 16th, 2014
BY RANDY DOCKENDORF firstname.lastname@example.org | Yankton.net
The cover of Jim Reese’s new book of poetry leaves the reader hungry.
That’s because the cover of “Really Happy” features a peanut butter cup. The image cleverly plays on Reese sharing the same name as the company responsible for the addictive candy.
“I think the reader will like the cover,” Reese said. “The cover art is by the artist Bret Gottschall — he’s out of (Kansas City). Once I saw that painting Gottschall did, I had to have it on my cover.”
But don’t think the Mount Marty College professor’s third book is simply mind candy. Like the peanut butter cup, you can’t settle for what you first see. Take a bite, and there’s much more at the heart of it.
His poems are humorous as well as gritty. The settings range from late-night diners to bowling alleys to prisons. The prison setting draws on his work as the National Endowment for the Arts’ writer-in-residence at the Yankton Federal Prison Camp for the past seven years.
In “Really Happy,” Reese talks of his relationship with his parents and his children. He shares the experience of working with his daughter’s softball team and describes his children’s fascination with fireflies on a summer night.
But he also comes to grips with death. He talks about driving down Broadway Avenue in Yankton and witnessing a man dancing to his own music amidst a winter blizzard. And he describes standing in line at a pharmacy, where nearby teenage boys nervously try to buy condoms.
“’Really Happy’ is about the power of voice. It catalogs the city of Yankton from the Meridian Bridge northbound to wherever you’re headed,” he said.
Reese takes the “free spirits” he encounters and drops them in Yankton “The thing is, there’s a Broadway (Avenue) in most towns and cities, and there’s always someone belting out music to oncoming traffic,” he said. “I love those people. They don’t need a choir to sing with.”
Finding An Audience
“Really Happy” was recently published by New York Quarterly Books, a testament to Reese’s ability to cross cultural and geographical lines with his work.
“I was in New York performing — presenting a reading, whatever you want to call it — and the editor from the New York Quarterly was in the crowd. I talked with him afterwards and he encouraged me to submit to their magazine,” Reese said. “A few years later, they started publishing books (NYQ Books). I was in the right place at the right time.”
Whether rural or urban, readers share many of the same values, Reese said.
“Common sense values such as physical labor, honesty in human relations, an emphasis on the primacy of family and community, and intimate physical, emotional and spiritual connections to the land are more important now than ever,” he said.
“Really Happy” offers short prose as well as poetry, Reese said. At first, he wanted the collection to be all fun — nothing about death, his work at the prison or other serious subjects.
But he realized his work usually features a mix of comedy and tragedy.
Still, he wanted to offer a whimsical look at life.
“I hope as I’ve gotten older, I’m a bit funnier. I mean, I don’t fall out of bed and think today I must be more serious. So I hope the humor is there,” he said. “In fact, my wife told me the first poem in my book was funny — so there you go. She’s my best critic. And I know she made it through the first page. That’s promising.”
Reese’s “Really Happy” tour opens Jan. 16 at Zandbroz Variety in Sioux Falls. He performs Feb. 13 at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, then returns home for readings March 12 at Morningside College in Sioux City and March 24-25 at Augustana College in Sioux Falls.
He hits the East Coast later next year, appearing Aug. 12 at the Baron Arts Center in Woodbridge, New Jersey, and Dec. 5, 2015, at The Distinguished Poetry Center in Paterson, New Jersey.
“The ‘Really Happy’ Tour will take me to both coasts again and rumor has it even back into San Quentin. So as a person who always believes in rumors, I’m looking forward to all of it,” he said. “I’m curious to see how the Art in Corrections programs have changed since their re-incorporation in California this past year. I’m also excited to get to wherever they will have me present. I know I am headed to Detroit, New Jersey, Ohio and Alaska. All these places have been on my bucket list.”
For Reese, “Really Happy” allows himself to save the voices of himself and those around him.
“All of us have stories to tell. To me, that is much more important than a box of old photos. I like that box, don’t get me wrong, but in that box, the voices are dead,” he said. “I heard Rudyard Kipling said, ‘Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.’ I’ve never forgot that. It’s so true. Our voices are going to outlive us all.”
“Really Happy” comes at a very busy time for Reese. He is overseeing Paddlefish, the MMC literary journal. The annual work features contributions from both local and national writers. This year’s journal includes work from the late investigative journalist Charles Bowden.
“Charles Bowden and (his life partner) Molly Molloy were here at Mount Marty last spring as part of our Great Plains Writers’ Tour which I direct. I met Chuck Bowden at the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood about six years ago. We hit it off and were friends ever since,” Reese said.
“Every year he’d send new work to Paddlefish — he believed in our journal and mission. The latest issue of Paddlefish includes a letter to MMC students from him and Molly Molloy. Chuck recently passed away. He was the finest investigative reporter in our country.”
Reese plans to take MMC’s literary ventures to the next level, thanks to cyberspace.
“At Mount Marty, the creative writing journal is shifting gears. We are in the process of starting an online student literary journal and blog — we don’t have a name for it yet — but the writing and publishing students are busy brainstorming,” he said.
“We’re going to include more of these letters and correspondence from the award-winning writers that visit the campus. In the past month, we received letters from One Book South Dakota author Kathleen Norris, American Book award winner Maria Mazziotti Gillan and voice scholar Peter Elbow.”
Reese is also working with the new issue of “4PM Count,” the Yankton Federal Prison Camp journal, scheduled for release in December. The journal, now in its seventh year, features creative writing and visual artwork by inmates. The publication is free to individuals for educational purposes.
Reese’s annual writing and publishing class at YFPC has reached its limit of around 25 students. In response to increased demand, he is planning to open the classroom to more students for an all-camp creative writing workshop.
Reese said he has gained great insight from his work with inmates.
“You can lock a person up and let them out after so long,” he said. “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.”
Writing, art and education help open that door, Reese said.
“If a person never comes to terms with themselves, you are just going to send an angry person right back out into society,” he said.