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'Bone Chalk': Jim Reese Maps Out The Heartland In Memoir

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Jamie Ridgway
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Jim Reese

Jim Reese has already published three books of poetry — many of those poems — the people, places and situations — have a kind of second life in his latest work, a memoir in essays titled Bone Chalk. Those places are mainly in Nebraska, the place Reese called home for most of his formative years. While this is Reese’s first published book of nonfiction, Bone Chalk will remain indelible for readers from any place.

Highlights from the interview with Jim Reese

On the transition from publishing poetry to publishing creative nonfiction

You know, I really, really love it. I was very lucky too. I was working on my PhD at the university of Nebraska when Ted Kooser received the Pulitzer Prize and became the United States poet Laureate. So we watched him a lot with students, what he did and, you know, he really just put his head down and got to work. I think he did like 270 readings in two years while he was the United States poet Laureate. But when he wasn't on the road, he would come back and come to our readings and he would visit some of our classes that we were teaching as graduate assistants if he could find time in his schedule. So I would always try to find time.

One time he was at our graduate school reading and it was called "The No-Name Reading Series," and it happened to be my turn and I read a poem and ended the reading. And he walked up to me and he said, "You know, Jim, that last poem you read is an entire Willa Cather novel." And he smiled and he kind of walked away. And I thought about that for a long time. You know, when you're in graduate school, you pick a genre because you want to publish and you need to publish to get a job. And so you kind of stick in that genre. And you do the best you can. I liked poetry a lot, but I really liked narrative voices and the voices of all of these writers I was studying. I was writing essays on the side and I just continued, kept continuing to do that. And, you know, and I love it.

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I think as a writer, what my main goal is I want to share my stories with as many people as I can. And I want to make my mark. I hope my voice makes a difference, especially when I'm writing about crime and punishment.

On the essays in the book about bumper stickers

I'd put it in my first book and then I just kept on every time I'd see a bumper sticker. I would write it down and I just kept doing that. And then I first started putting this book together, it had more of a scrapbook kind of feel.

I had more of these little, like I had newspaper clippings, different things that were unique to the Midwest. But when it came time to put the book together, the editors and the publisher said, "Hey, we see what you're doing here. We think the essays are strong enough to stand on their own where you don't have to do this, but we do want to keep the bumper stickers." So I intersperse those throughout the book because it does paint a picture. It just amazes me still every day, what people put on their cars.

On the essay that is the centerpiece of Bone Chalk.

The essay is called "12 Years in Prisons: What Criminals Teach Me." I've been working in the federal prison for now 14 years. And I teach writing. My main goal is to help men come to terms with the emotional instabilities that brought them to prison. And we publish a yearly journal called 4:00 PM Count.

It could be the only journal in the country that's been consecutively published now for the last 12 years. Even last year during the pandemic, we were able to bring out a journal. So I'm doing that work. I spent some time working at San Quentin doing some training there, looking at their arts programs. I worked for a couple of years in the state prisons here in South Dakota with men and women.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.