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Jeanne Emmons Pt. 2: Siouxland Public Media's Artist of the Month

Jeanne Emmons - The Red Canoe

Jeanne Emmons penned her first poem in kindergarten. Hand-drawn, Crayon colored flowers rimmed the edge of the page. Written to her mother, who kept the note, it said, “You are pretty. Deep, deep pretty.”


She’s been crafting lilting lines of life’s musings ever since. Her fourth collection of poetry, called “The Red Canoe,” is due to come out in August.


“I never really thought I would be a poet, a published poet,” she said. “I just thought I was writing for myself.”


But then, in 1991, the English professor at Briar Cliff University entered a poetry contest through the now-defunct Iowa Woman magazine. She won.


“Suddenly, I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I really can do this.’ Then I began to take myself seriously, joined a writing group and began to write on a regular basis,” she said.


Another source of her growing confidence was a colleague in the English department, Tricia Currans-Sheehan. They formed a writing partnership in which they would critique each other’s work. That’s when Emmons noticed that the other woman took her work seriously, and she encouraged Emmons to do the same.


“Without her, I’m not sure this would have ever happened for me. I began to just believe in myself,” she said. “And sometimes, I think that’s really all it takes for a writer.”


Emmons earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Texas-Austin in 1977. While there, she met her husband, Adam Frisch. Both were pursuing careers as English and writing professors. Both sent out dozens of resumes, desperately trying to get a job in academia, a feat some of their classmates would never reach.


They agreed to go wherever the first person got a job and the the other might have a hope of getting one. That was Sioux City.


Frisch accepted an offer from Briar Cliff University, and within a couple years, Emmons was working there too.


They planned to stay five years, but that turned into more than 30. During that time, their offices were down the hall from each other.


“It wasn’t so much that we brought home to work—although, our colleagues might’ve said differently in department meetings or something—but that we brought work home," she said. "And we did.”


They knew other married couples who worked at Briar Cliff, and they had a rule not to talk about work at home.


“Adam and I didn’t have that rule,” she said. “We vented to each other. Talked to each other. That has been one of the great gifts of our marriage. We understand what the other is going through. We get it. And we can talk about literature and poetry and fiction. It’s been great.”


Emmons, who retired from teaching three years ago, loves language and the way words roll off the tongue. She compares her reaction to that of Dylan Thomas who loved the rhythms of nursery rhymes. As a child, he didn’t know always know what the words meant, but he liked the sounds.


The way words sound when they’re put together is fundamental her poetry.


For Emmons, writing takes on a meditative quality. Her poetry makes her pay attention to life. It makes her slow down and sink deeper and deeper into the sweetness found in simple, fleeting moments.


“I told someone once it was like prayer, and she said, ‘No, it’s not.’ But she wasn’t a poet," she said.


In recent years, Emmons has been reflecting on her red canoe, which she bought with her prize money from the 1991 poetry contest, and she’s been pulling inspiration from McCook Lake, where she now lives.


This is “The Red Canoe on Still Water with Clouds,” originally published in Siouxland Magazine in 2010.


Below, the water is a sky so blue the canoe’s red might be a leaf unmoored from the sumac, buoyed by the pure float of cumulus.


Above, the same exuberance of white and blue, but without the scarlet gash of her body, empty as an autumn pod, and the dock some poet has lashed it to.


Across the lake, the dark brush and trees rise from their reflections, grounded both to the hidden earth and to radiant ideas of themselves, almost perfectly true.


One of her favorite poets is Gerard Manley Hopkins. The 19th century Jesuit priest was a master of stacking stanzas with nearly nonsensical words.


“He loved the sound of words,” she said. “He would put words together in really unusual ways. He sent his poetry to a number of people who thought it was too strange to publish.”


Here’s an excerpt from “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo.”


Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear, gallantry and gaiety and grace, Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace— Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath, And with sighs soaring, soaring sighs deliver Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty's self and beauty's giver.

Hopkins remained largely unknown until the second edition of his poems were published in 1930—a full 40 years after his death. The way he used language, rhythm and sound changed the face of modern poetry and influenced generations of poets, including Emmons.


In one of her poems, called “The Red Canoe Hears the Geese Come Back,” she intentionally tried to make sound.


A flock of them skims over the punk ice, the jangle of that gang yakking, drunk with spring, makes such a racket that, sunk on her flank, lonely, hungry, the canoe is yanked to attention. That gong call slung out to bring a rank of monks to morning prayer. Flung out over the bank, the muddy gunk, the dog dung thawing.


She’ll slide down the slope and dunk herself into the slush, out of this funk she’s sunk in. She rouses up, aware of the wrong of being too long withdrawn, wants to launch herself, beat her paddles in air. The drum of the wings, the throng strung out in vees against the dawn! Glory, honor, laud! She gawks in awe, longs to extend the red tongue of her body, and honk and honk and honk and honk and honk!


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. More information is available at Finishing Line Press.


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