Rita Mae Reese

Contributor Interview: Rita Mae Reese

What’s your connection to the Midwest?

I moved to Madison for my MFA in 2003, then was in San Francisco for four years where I met my wife. When my lectureship was up, I was lucky enough to get a job in Madison, a city I love. I grew up in West Virginia, which isn’t quite the Midwest, not quite the South, and definitely not East Coast, but to me feel likes a blend of the Midwest and the South.

Favorite places or features of the region?

I love Madison, and I love Wisconsin. I love Wisconsin because there are folks like Karl Gartung, a truck driver who worked to create and support Woodland Pattern from his salary; and Lorine Neidecker, who mopped floors in a hospital but wrote the most amazing poetry—like a Midwest Emily Dickinson; and Bob and Belle La Follette, who shaped the Progressive tradition and made it a leader nationally in basic fairness for families and workers. The place itself is beautiful but for me it’s the people that make me love it. And I have to give a special shout-out to the libraries here. My home library is Pinney and the librarians there are the best.

What is your favorite season of the year?

Whichever season I’m in except in February, which is the longest month despite its number of days.

Has the Midwest been an influence or inspiration for your work, and if so, how?

It has definitely provided inspiration. I think the sheer number of really talented writers and other artists here provides a wonderful sense of community. For me, this is the absolute place to write.

Pencil, pen, typewriter, computer?

I start poetry with pen and paper and then move on to my computer. I’ve just switched to Scrivener for longer projects (like the novel I’m working on) and it’s really been so incredibly helpful. Before, it felt like the project very quickly became unmanageable. So now I’m much more comfortable originating scenes on the computer but I keep a notepad close by always, and still have a dozen or so blank books around.

What’s the best job you’ve ever had?

Teaching, by far. I’ve worked at Wendy’s, for a lesbian press, cleaning houses, as a VISTA, at a nonprofit that coordinated religious organizations for social justice, and at an HMO in Florida. Each one of those was interesting but teaching, even when my students were under-performing, was a gift. I still think of my former students, even from fifteen years ago.

What’s the worst job you ever had?

When I worked for the nonprofit, I actually had to work as a lobbyist for just a week or so on a food bill and that was the worst, because it was infuriating. It was like watching toddlers play with matches while the house was actually already on fire.

What do you do in your free time?

What is that? I’m the literary arts director at Arts + Literature Laboratory (which is a volunteer position and not a “real job” or it might have won as my favorite—though teaching is tough competition) and that is very time-consuming. I also have two children and design lesbian poet trading cards for Headmistress Press. I also like to read, cook and garden when I have time.

Favorite food or beverage?

I love ginger, chocolate, sourdough bread, and cheese. Some of my favorite things about Madison are the CSAs, the bakeries, and the chocolatiers.

Do you have a pet?

We have three cats and one dog. Our cats are Elsie, Tango, and Mudlette. I got Mudlette from a feral cat colony when I lived in Tallahassee. Sixteen years later, she is still feral. Our dog is Nina, a rescue from one of the kill-shelters in the South. She’s a Feist, which is where the word “feisty” comes from, but she’s really very sweet.

What’s on your radar now? Current projects?

I am working on two things sort of simultaneously. The first is completing my first novel, Summer of the White Dog. It’s a ghost story set in West Virginia, where I grew up. The second is a new poetry collection titled Self-Portraits as George Washington’s Teeth, which looks at the relationship of history and empathy in America.