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Jeanne Emmons Pt. 1: Siouxland Public Media's Artist of the Month

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After winning her first poetry contest 26 years ago, Jeanne Emmons received the prize money and decided, “I’m going to use this $500 for something life-changing.”

She bought a canoe. A Coleman RAM that only came in one color at the time. Red.

“It was going to take me out onto the water, onto a creek, onto a lake, where I would not normally be,” she said. “I thought it would bring me experiences that I hadn’t yet had. And it has.”

 

The canoe became a means of transportation, exploration, part metaphor and meditation. In between lines of rhythms and rhymes, it took on a life of its ownand ultimately, became the subject of Emmons’ new book of poetry, called “The Red Canoe.”

You can find the retired English professor paddling out onto the still waters of McCook Lake. Emmons and her husband, Adam Frisch, left Sioux City for a lakefront property in South Dakota more than a decade ago. Writing poems helped her adjust to their new way of life.

“Moving there felt like more than going a few miles,” she said. “I felt like I had gone from the Midwest to the West. Because, you know, in South Dakota, you can drive 80 miles an hour; gambling was legal; and fireworks were legal. It just felt like a totally different place.”

This is “The Red Canoe Goes West,” originally published in Paddlefish in 2008.

She has hitched up her ropes and moved to South Dakota, along with all the rest of our belongings, the same way the canoes of Lewis and Clark were urged west around that bend, upstream, against fear, against fatigue, with all their guides and gear.

 

Now she can be wilder. As weathered as the empty pod of a catalpa after it has spit out its seeds. Unregulated as a red die about to be tossed onto the green felt. Eager as a bottle rocket on the grass. She’s altogether as pointed and kick-ass as a red leather cowboy boot – bred for swaggering, sleek in the water, svelte.

After reading the poem aloud, she said, “That was my sense of like, now, I’m a South Dakotan.”

“The Red Canoe” is different from her other collections of poetry, which included “The Glove of the World,” published in 2006; “Baseball Nights and DDT” in 2005; and “Rootbound” in 1998.

In her earlier works, Emmons wrote about her childhood, growing up in Louisiana and Texas during the polio epidemic in the 1950s. She wrote about past love interests, her husband and their two children. She dedicated one of her books to her father, an influential figure who shared her love of words. He was an English professor too.

None of those people are in her new 32-page collection, which is available for pre-orders through Finishing Line Press. The canoe becomes a lens through which she sees the world. It becomes her “poetic consciousness.”

“I’m in the book as the owner of the canoe. To some extent, I am the canoe,” she said. “So there’s this sense of being propelled along, but you don’t know who’s paddling, and you don’t know what’s propelling you, necessarily. The canoe has that impression. It’s an odd book in that sometimes we’re in the point of view of the canoe.”

One of her poems is called, “The Canoe Wishes Not to Be Red.” The boat is bothered by its redness, its disruptive nature. Emmons uses wordplay and personification to draw a comparison between the canoe and the literary life of its owner.

“A canoe is a quiet boat with just the paddles and the sound of the dip of the paddles in the water. Poets tend to be that way,” she said. “When a canoe is red, it’s standing out. And to be read, as a poet, when you have a book coming out for instance, you feel very exposed out there in the world.”

Fearing criticism, the poet wishes not to be read.

“When the book is actually published and now you know it’s going to go out there and perfect strangers are going to read it, then you feel that real sense of exposure and vulnerability,” she said. “People are going to know you at a level that even some of your best friends don’t know you.”  

Jeanne Emmons - Watercolor Painting Women's March
Women's March, watercolor by Jeanne Emmons.

  Since she retired from teaching at Briar Cliff University three years ago, Emmons thought she would be penning poetry all the time. But her attention has turned toward working on a young adult trilogy with her colleague, Tricia Currans-Sheehan. And she’s taken up watercolor painting.

So she maintains a disciplined approach to crafting new poems, often setting aside four-hour stretches of time at least twice a week to go down to her study, her sacred space, where she can read and write.

“If I waited for inspiration to strike, I would seldom write,” she said. “It strikes when you open your sails. You just go down there; you open your sails mentally and work. And in the work, the inspiration comes.”

This time around, Emmons found seemingly endless inspiration from her red canoe and observing it through the seasons.

This is “The Red Canoe Dreams of Spring.”

On a frozen lake, there can be no reflection, no meeting of minds between earth and sky. The snow on the ice may shimmer under the light of the moon, but Heaven is no closer, cannot marry the Earth.

The red canoe is lonely at the ice-edge. She longs for the spring softening, the limber dip and roll, when the body of water takes the moon’s form into its bed, eases her from the rarity of space to the common tenderness of thaw, and mingles with her in the shimmer and motion of love.

She dozes and dreams she is the moon, a crescent waxing. Coppery, polished. Then she dreams herself skidding headlong down the sky onto the ice. She does not break. The lake goes soft, takes her into its heart, strokes her, rocks her in its arms. She feels her blood heat up and move in her.

Jeanne Emmons is Siouxland Public Media’s Artist of the Month. Her new collection of poetry, called “The Red Canoe,” will be released in August. Pre-orders can be made online through Finishing Line Press.

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