Undergraduate Wins Keene Prize for Literature


Annie Baker

Undergraduate English student Katherine Noble is the first undergraduate student ever awarded the Keene Prize for Literature. Photo courtesy of Annie Baker. 

Kelsey McKinney

Katherine Noble, a poet with long blonde hair and a way with words, has recently added another prize to her list.

The English department announced on Monday that Noble is the most recent recipient of the Keene Prize for Literature for her collection of poems "Like Electrical Fire Across Silence." The Prize, named after E. L. Keene who graduated from the University in 1942, is one of largest student literary prizes. The $50,000 award is granted once a year, and Nobel is the first undergraduate recipient. 

The Daily Texan chatted with Noble about her recent award, her inspiration and what's next.

The Daily Texan: Does this prize mean something different to you than the others you've been awarded as an undergrad? 

Katherine Noble: Receiving the Keene Prize has been a pretty overwhelming experience. I submitted without telling many people, and never thought I would place. It's humbling and meaningful to know your work is resonating with other people, especially when they don't know you personally.

DT: What ties the poems in this collection together?

Noble: These poems generally deal with themes of intimacy, both with God and in romantic relationships. The narrators in the poems struggle with the inevitable loneliness that sneaks up on you when you are alive. There is a loneliness that comes from engaging with a silent, intangible God, and a distinct loneliness present when you fall in love with other people. Not to mention the inevitable loneliness of childhood that no one likes to remember – that leashing loneliness you experience before you inherit your autonomy.

DT: Do you have a favorite poem that someone else wrote?

Noble: I am inspired by Corey Miller's poetry all the time. He is my significant other, so I am biased, but he is an incredibly talented poet. He is finishing his MFA through the Michener Center at UT and was a finalist for the Keene. Also, I have been on a Linda Gregg kick this semester, since she taught my friends at the Michener Center this spring. Her poem "Let Birds" makes you want to get really good at being alive.

DT: You studied Frank Stanford for your senior thesis. Do you see his influence anywhere in your own work? 

Noble: Frank is a monster. His poetry has influenced my life in general – he has taught me to be in awe of the world and to try to make meaning out of the quotidian. Frank was wild, brave and soft – which are all traits I hope to have during my lifetime. He also never stopped wrestling with God, as is evident in his poetry and his epic poem. I think we have that in common. One of my favorite quotes by him is: "Everyone wants to drive the hearse, but only the poet is willing to die."

DT: When did you start writing poetry? 

Noble: Early in elementary school. In fifth grade, a friend and I wrote a book of poems and "quotes to live by" called "A Handful of Gems." It was horrific. We made up inspirational truisms. One was "you can't roll a cube" which just isn't correct, because of the whole dice thing. It takes a long time to stop being bad at any art form, I think.

DT: What does your creative process look like? 

Noble: My creative process involves a large amount of time doing nothing, and then doing something. I go on long walks – in the graveyard connected to my backyard or around our neighborhood in east Austin. I think long walks are creative people's secret to success. That and a lot of alone time, which looks suspiciously like laziness to most other people.

We don't give our imaginations enough space to speak to us these days – or to invert the world into art. You have to let your brain suck stuff up, and then let it sit quietly and turn into metaphors and images and narratives. I spend too much time wandering around the world wide web, so I am guilty of this as well. Anyway, after I write a poem down, I edit it over the course of a few months. And I try to read as often and as broadly as I can. 

DT: Do you have plans for the collection after this? 

Noble: I am beginning a series based on the Via Dolorosa (Stations of the Cross) that doesn't involve Jesus explicitly. In the South, Christianity is the cultural vernacular – the Christian narrative is everywhere. It permeated my adolescence, so the myths come up again and again because they are so terrifying, lovely, and poetic.

Forcing the cliched vernacular about Jesus and sin and love into original and affecting language is difficult and meaningful to me. Maybe I'll grow out of it eventually. But as my favorite poet, Jack Gilbert said, "For the poet, there is no choice [of theme]. There is the single infinitely variable Theme. The single poetic theme of life and death. The question of what survives of the Beloved."

DT: What's next for you? 

Noble: I'm moving to Oregon for the summer to work as a groundskeeper at an old logging mill that has been converted into a cooperative for students. It's in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and it is the most beautiful place I've ever lived. Then, I'm coming back to Austin and considering going to graduate school. ​