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Sarah Unruh ’12

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Community has shaped young poet and teacher’s work

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – For Nathan Bartel, it’s about work and community.

Only four years out from finishing his undergraduate degree, Bartel is back at his alma mater, Bethel College, as an assistant professor of English and writer-in-residence.

After Bartel’s first semester at Bethel, Brad Born, leader of Bartel’s required first-semester freshman colloquium section, wrote on Bartel’s final paper that he might want to consider English as a major. “I believe in serendipity,” Bartel says, so he did consider it. By the middle of his sophomore year, his identity as a writer was established and he had to make only one decision: Which discipline gets my focus, fiction or poetry?

He chose poetry and apparently has never looked back.

He graduated from Bethel magna cum laude in 2002 with a B.A. in English and a Thresher Award for his senior seminar, “Terror’s Ghost: An Essay on Literature and Terrorism.” After a year in which he taught in the day school at Prairie View in Newton and applied to graduate schools, Bartel went west to the one of his choice, the University of Montana in Missoula.

In 2004, halfway through the Master of Fine Arts program, Bartel was one of the winners of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship for that year. The $15,000 apiece award goes annually to two young poets chosen through a national competition open to undergraduate and graduate students in creative writing or English, enrolled in a university or college at the time of the application. Students must be American citizens under 30 and not have published a collection of poetry or had one accepted for future publication.

In 2005, at the urging of one of his professors at UM, Bartel applied to the Fine Arts Work Center of Provincetown (Mass.) for one of its fellowships. Ten visual artists and 10 writers receive the fellowships each year. Bartel was one of the writers. All you have to do for the seven months (October-April) of the fellowship, he says, is live there at the center.

So he did. And he wrote. He now has a manuscript, tentatively titled The Pangaea, that is mostly complete and ready to begin “going out to first-poetry-manuscript competitions.”

The Pangaea does not have one particular story or theme undergirding it. Rather, the connections have to do with recurring images of, among others, islands, Rocky Mountain landscapes, Newton and Kansas itself, friends and family.

Bartel grew up at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp near Divide, Colo., where his father, Allan, was director for many years before becoming vice president for Admissions at Bethel. The Bartel extended family is deeply rooted in south central Kansas, however, and Nathan Bartel says he has always felt like part of the Bethel community. Now, as faculty member, he is experiencing the community in a different way.

He’ll finally get to find out what the professors are laughing about at the faculty tables during lunch, he told the Bethel student newspaper, The Collegian.

Community in several forms has helped to shape Bartel’s writing life. When he was researching graduate schools, he says, the University of Montana’s MFA program stood out for what he perceived as its emphasis on community. “As an English major, you tend to read between the lines anyway,” he says. “The U of M program felt very community oriented and it proved to be so.

“That’s rare for an MFA program,” he continues. “My understanding is that many are hyper-competitive. It just wasn’t that way at Montana. The emphasis was on treating everyone’s poems in a way that encouraged everyone to write better. ‘Poems matter insofar as people matter’ – we treated each other as if we mattered.”

At the Fine Arts Work Center, he picked up on the sense of community from the people making up the wider one of Provincetown. “I’ve never been in a place that seemed to have the attitude of ‘Come one, come all, we’ll love you and welcome you,’” he says.

As for the community of 20 at the center itself, he notes, “Any time you get a group of artists together, the dynamics will be interesting. I made some really good friends there and I found the dialogue with other artists to be really stimulating and exciting.”

One of the main benefits of the seven months at the Fine Arts Work Center, he says, was time. “I expected some sort of clarity: ‘Oh, this is what I’m doing.’ That didn’t happen. What it was: If one poem didn’t go well one day, I could try again a day later or a week later.”

Now that he is writer in residence at Bethel, he hopes to help develop the college’s community of young writers. In that position, he holds extended office hours where any student, whether in one of his classes or not, is free to come and talk to him about their writing.

It’s unusual for a college of Bethel’s small size to have a writer in residence. However, “We knew [with Nathan here] we’d have this creative writer, a poet who’s already had some distinction early in his career,” says Born, now interim academic dean. “This was a way to add some hours to his teaching load [which is light in the fall] and have him be of service and interest to students.”

Bartel is teaching only the Fiction Writing Seminar this semester. He had limited it to an enrollment of 15 to allow for the workshop format, but because of student interest, he divided the class into two sections. It has a total enrollment of 19.

“Nathan has a keen theoretical mind, yet he is committed to poetic expression – to the cadence and concreteness of the poetic line,” Born said. “Nathan’s ability to forge together a scholar’s acumen and a poet’s sensibility is rare, and our students will benefit from the range of creative writing and teaching experiences he brings to the classroom.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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