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Regent Student Jolene Nolte Wins Award for Poetry

May 06, 2020
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“It felt like a gift, one of those rare times a poem came to me, rather than being something I chipped away at gradually.”

Congratulations to Regent student Jolene Nolte (MATS, expected ’20), who won first place in the poetry category in this year’s Evangelical Press Association’s Higher Goals Awards.

Her poem is entitled “The Single Life,” and you can read it here in Fathom Magazine, where it was originally published. The poem also appeared in her Regent Integrated Project in Arts & Theology, in an edited form.

The Evangelical Press Association’s annual awards ceremony recognizes achievements occurring in member publications in a variety of categories. This year’s ceremony was held by online live video ceremony on April 21.

In this interview, hear her muse on poetry and theology and unpack the story of the winning poem.

Huge congratulations on this honour! What was your reaction on hearing the news? 

Thank you! I was shocked. I hadn’t realized my work was submitted. In the poetry world, you get used to about a ten percent acceptance rate, meaning, of the poems you send out, only about one in ten actually gets published. Often you have to pay to submit your work for consideration, particularly for prizes. So getting a prize for something you did not realize you were nominated for is a huge and encouraging departure from poetry norms!

What got you interested in poetry? 

The first time I remember writing a poem was as I was listening to Jars of Clay as a preteen. Their lyrics made me pick up a pencil and paper and want to try to write something as moving and beautiful as their lyrics. My high school English teacher opened up poetry proper for me as a reader. He was obsessed with Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. When we read Keats’ “To Autumn,” I was hooked. As an undergraduate, in a creative writing course, I encountered Denise Levertov’s “Caedmon,” and it inspired me to write both because of its aesthetic excellence and its paradigm for the poetic vocation: Clumsy, faltering Caedmon’s call to poetry wasn’t because he was already eloquent but because he was responding to something divine and beyond him.

How have you grown as a poet during your time at Regent? 

I came to Regent because I wanted to learn more about God and the world and myself in it, but I also needed a context in which poetry made sense. Before coming to Regent, I was in a context where immediate comprehensibility and the bottom line were what made sense; I’d succumbed to that, suppressing my desire to write poetry as a result. Regent definitely opened up space for me to write again, provided ample “meat food” for my poetry to feed upon, and helped me connect with other writers. I’ve learned to be more precise yet also allow room for implication. I’ve learned that there are readers I can trust. I’ve learned, and am still learning, patience. Poetry is slow going. I’ve learned to trust that the process—showing up with a pen in hand and just seeing what comes, and then coming back again and again, revising, workshopping, revising again, waiting, revising again—can actually yield something. Or maybe not. I’ve learned not to be too precious about it if it doesn’t.  

Tell us about this poem. Where does it come from and what do you hope it does to the reader? 

This poem has a very Regent-y genesis. I took a summer poetry course with Chad Wriglesworth. One of the poets we’d studied was Mary Oliver and how her voice is almost pastoral: how the “I” in her poems speaks with such warmth and authority beyond any one individual’s “I,” and how she often addresses the reader directly with “you”s and imperatives. Chad had also given me feedback to cut all adjectives and adverbs from my poems and then add in only the essential ones. With that in the background, one evening I was wearing a dress in a room, alone. I’d also recently heard a sermon talking about the virgin Mary in connection with singleness. I knew I needed to surmount my insecurity to have a portfolio of poems to present later that semester for Vocation of the Artist, so I sat down with a notebook and pencil, and the poem began. It felt like a gift, one of those rare times a poem came to me, rather than being something I chipped away at gradually. (There has been fine-tuning, though, even since it was published.)

I’ve had the honour of reading this poem a couple times for live audiences. It is such a privilege—as well as a surprise in my case—to feel a room full of people in rapt attention as you read. A Regent friend who was at the first reading told me she was literally on the edge of her seat; she still refers to “The Single Life” as “that poem.”

I hope the poem clears space for readers to slow down and notice, not just the words of the poem, but also their own interior landscapes. On one level, the poem is an honest portrayal of the pain of being single, particularly as a Christian woman. But it’s not limited to that, and I hope it invites readers to consider their own singular lives, especially in those “fallow” spaces, to offer them honestly to God—and to be ok sitting in the tension of unanswered questions.

Can you give us some off the cuff musings on how you view the relationship between poetry and theology? 

Christian Wiman says that poetry often does theology better than theology does. (His book He Held Radical Light is a great exploration on this question of the relationship between poetry and theology.) If we deal in propositional statements all the time, we’re tempted to forget we’re dealing with inexhaustible mystery, not a manageable system; that we’re dealing with the Incarnation, not disembodied -ologies. Obviously, I think there is value in the -ologies, but they are not comprehensive or even the only way of knowing. Poetry needs theology, too, so that it doesn’t become inane. In my experience, though, poetry and theology are so intertwined, I almost lack the vocabulary to talk about them separately. I’ve pursued them together. My desire for reading and writing poetry grew alongside my desire to read theology. 

Both disciplines have taught me to be more precise in my use of language, and poetry and liturgy together have taught me that words resonate best with silent space around them, and that words that bear repeating can be more true than we know. Poetry and theology at their best, I think, can introduce us to the living word—and get us to the edge of what is beyond words.

What poet or poem is inspiring you right now? 

Louise Glück. I read The Wild Iris and Meadowlands recently. Both collections are stunning. She has a brilliant way of weaving voices in and out of each other across those collections. I’ve also been coming back to Jane Kenyon’s “Otherwise” recently.

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