Reese: More Tales To Tell

By Jay Gravholt

Mount Marty University (MMU) Associate Professor of English Dr. Jim Reese recently released “Dancing Room Only,” a collection of new and selected poems.

In a recent conversation with the Press & Dakotan, Reese explained how his love for writing, poetry, music and humor all weave their way into his works.

Reese said he drew some inspiration from former Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner Ted Kooser while Reese was obtaining his Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska.

“(Kooser) became hugely famous and he talked to us a lot about what I always liked about poetry which is that it can be accessible,” he said. “I’m just really interested in narrative voice. And I was a songwriter and a mediocre guitar player in bands, so that’s what drew me to poetry originally.

“(Kooser) would joke with me and say, ‘You really need to be writing nonfiction. Your poetry is very narrative. It’s story driven.’ I really like capturing people’s voices on the page. Not only small details or observing the world around us, but making the ordinary strange and preserving those voices, especially now.”

In his new book, Reese gathers some of his best works and then adds several new poems and essays.

“I’m excited about all this stuff,” he said. “I’m just glad there’s a book with the selected poems. I think, as a writer, we like to look back at stuff we’ve written. I tried to pick what I thought were the best out of the last three books and put them all together. The editors at New York Quarterly did, too.”

The author has written three poetry books — “These Trespasses” 2005; “ghost on 3rd” 2010; “Really Happy” (2015) — and work of non-fiction, “Bone Chalk,” that was published in 2020.

The title “Bone Chalk” seems to encapsulate Reese’s approach to writing and the vulnerability necessary to create art. He means to write with your bone’s chalk — a deep, personal connection.

“That’s what we need more of,” Reese said. “I’m tired of worrying about what other people are going to say. My writing, I want it to be about discovery and not just display. I think when you have those good intentions as a writer, whether you’re doing poetry or essays or fiction, I think that’s the ticket.

“I think a lot of writers, before they even get started, are already throwing up walls. ‘I don’t want to say this. What if I offend somebody?’ They’re just worried about telling their stories. Maybe they feel ashamed about something. When you want to make those human connections, you have to be real on the page. So, we go back to voice and we go back to the stories that matter to us. We go back to being real, and you can’t be real if you’re not vulnerable.”

In Reese’s work, the reader will notice several heavy topics that can stir emotions, but they are balanced out by many works of humor — a dichotomy Reese relishes.

“You have to be willing to just be yourself on the page,” he said. “I mean, writing is just talking on paper. People need that connection I think now more than ever, and I think they also need to know that they’re not the only ones that have these kinds of feelings, emotions, worries, concerns.

“But also, I think what I love about writing is the humor and making people laugh. To do that, you have to be willing to be self-deprecating. … I love being able to tackle serious subjects and then funny subjects, too. So, there’s these two different sides of me. There’s this humorous guy and this crime guy, the guy that’s worked in a prison for 14 years.”

Speaking of those years he’s spent teaching prisoners, that subject is leading him on the journey to his next book — “Coming to a Neighborhood Near You: the Business and Repercussions of Crime and Punishment.”

In that book, scheduled to be published in 2025, Reese will delve into some serious subject matter telling stories of the prisoners with whom he’s met throughout the years at prisons such as Yankton’s Federal Prison Camp, the S.D. State Penitentiary system and San Quentin in California.

It’s also an introspective search to understand how crime has affected Reese, as well.

“It’s a journey inside prisons to understand why people commit unlawful acts and a search to help process my grief over the rape and murder of my teenage friend by a fellow classmate,” Reese said. “There is a lot of addiction and mental illness in the prison system. There are the violent offenders who belong in prison, but rehabilitation sometimes gets lost on the non-violent offenders.

“The fact of the matter is, one in every three people of working age in the United States has some sort of criminal record, so we’re all affected by crime in one way or another. Whether you agree with rehabilitation or not, the facts are every dollar spent on prison education equates to $4-5 taxpayer savings. And, we’ve reached a point in our country that we can’t afford to keep locking people up.”


Reese recently had the opportunity to be the opening act for renowned author and humorist David Sedaris.

Sedaris had corresponded with one of Reese’s classes back in 2008 and the two became pen pals, so to speak. When Sedaris had a show scheduled at the Sioux Falls Orpheum last October, he gave Reese a call and asked if he’d be his opening act.

Although the two had corresponded, they hadn’t yet met in person.

“I wasn’t nervous about getting in front of the crowd, but I think I was nervous about meeting him because I’m such a fan of his. He just has this way about him that he can make us laugh, but his work is so heartfelt. He’s such an inspiration for me and so many writers, and there’s no other author I can think of that connects to my students or readers more than him.”

When Reese isn’t teaching or writing, he’s leading the Great Plains Writers Tour, and is the editor-in-chief of Paddlefish (MMU’s literary journal) and Treble Hook (MMU’s online publishing platform).