HARTINGTON — A Hartington man gets a thrill out of witnessing the power of words.
If used properly, words can provide the energy and emotion to move and inspire people, said Jim Reece, who grew up in Omaha but now makes his home in Hartington.
Reese understands all too well the importance of April’s observance of National Poetery Month.
He is an Associate Professor of English at Mount Marty College, Yankton. S.D., and the director of the school’s Great Plains Writers’ Tour.
He is the editor of the literary journal Paddlefish and the author of several collections of poetry, which includes “Ghost on 3rd.”
Reese teaches inmates at Yankton Federal Prison Camp and since 2008 has been visiting and working with men at San Quentin Prison and has made visits to Folsom Prison – both in California.
He uses poetry to tell stories that can be filled with humor or bring tears to the eyes.
Some of his poems bring back a memory of long ago, others are about prison life or the hardships of living on the Plains.
His poems turn the familiar into the extraordinary.
One of Reese’ more recent books, “Ghost on 3rd” has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize – the awards will be decided April 18.
In “Ghost on 3rd” Reese takes the reader on the daily routine and long nights of raising two small daughters, shows how family is not a burden but a complex source of joy, and tells about teaching poetry to inmates in a prison.
Fordyce and Irene, S.D., are among the places that make appearances in “Ghost on 3rd.”
The title poem “Ghost on 3rd” is about Reese’ grandfather.
His grandfather – the world’s best story teller – is now suffering from Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home in Florida.
The story about his grandfather is very important to Reese and his family – without the poems some of the memories would be lost.
“This is a tribute to him and to all good men and women,” Reese said.
Reese is currently writing about his neighbor Jerome Suing.
Jerome and Reese’s grandfather both fought in WWII. Reese considers it an honor to record their real life endeavors.
“Jerome’s an original Ghost Mountain Boy from WWII,” Reese said. “He and I have talked for hours and this summer I plan to finish the story about him, which will go into a book of creative nonfiction stories.”
Reese’s other passion is taking the written word into prisons.
“The last two visits to Folsom we didn’t get far – there was a riot on both occasions we were there,” Reese said. “At least this year we made it into the parking lot.”
Reese said he would be lying if he told someone he wasn’t intimidated when he first started teaching inmates but he has learned a lot from them.
In fact, Reese likes having inmates as students.
“What’s so great is the students are always at the prisons. You don’t get any e-mails about having to miss class – they want to be there. Most do their homework, too,” Reese said. “And they have their eyes set on a final goal – to become a published writer.”
Reese, and others who teach within the prison systems, believe it is all part of a higher goal. Education is key to turning the justice system around, he said.
The U.S. is the worldwide leader in incarceration and needs to re-evaluate what needs to be done, Reece said.
Reese had read in the San Quentin newspaper that it was great for prisoners to learn a trade such as becoming a plumber, but there is more that needs to be done.
“What you also have to do is help them tap into the emotional instabilities that brought them to prison in the first place. Writing, arts and education in corrections will help open that door,” Reese said. “If a person never comes to terms with himself, you are just going to send an angry plumber right back out into society.”
Reese feels teaching at the Yankton Federal Prison Camp has made him a better professor.
“I learn something from my students every day, whether they are in prison or not,” Reese said.
Teaching in the prisons has challenged Reese to work in a different way – which in turn has made all of his teaching richer.
Reese grew up in Omaha and was a city kid but he learned about life on the Plains after he fell in love with a country girl.
He followed his wife’s brothers around to learn about a life that was foreign to him. The brothers told him if he was going to write about farming and ranching he would have to get a job working for next to nothing.
While he was in grad school, he worked as a hired hand outside of Cortland, a small town south of Lincoln. Reese learned a lot that summer and lived to tell about it.
He found out life on the Plains isn’t always easy when you live off the land.
Reese said he feels obligated a lot of the time, when something strikes him, to write it down for his family and for others.
Poems can be like an old box of photos.
“As a writer, the most important job I have, I think, is getting these important stories and poems down on paper. Anyone can take a picture – and don’t get me wrong, I love pictures,” Reese said. “Wouldn’t it be cool to open up a box of stories – of voices – 50 years from now? There is something you can’t hear in a photo – can’t see on Facebook.”
There is a scene in one of Reese’s nonfiction stories about his father wearing a silk robe.
“When my father read that, he told me – I’ve never owned a silk robe in my life – it’s cotton, get it straight,” Reese said.
A poem in Reese’s new book is about an anonymous lady from Hartington who makes a pie out of cherries that she has kept in her deepfreeze since 1978.
“She wouldn’t let me write about her or the pie until I tried a piece for myself,” Reese said. “It was a good piece of pie – surprised the heck out of me.”
Reese attended Wayne State College and was Willy the Wildcat in 1991-92. He received his master’s at the University of Omaha and his PhD at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
Reese has been at Mount Marty College since 2006.
“Linda and I wanted to move somewhere close to her family or mine. Luckily we found jobs near her parents,” Reese said. “Linda is a respiratory therapist at Sacred Heart Hospital.”
For those who are interested, Reese has a website – jimreese.org will take them directly to online bookstores.
An article on page four of this week’s Cedar County News was written by Reese after he moved to Hartington during the summer of 2006. It shows his response to living in Hartington after growing up in the city.