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Lawyer Nolan makes the case for poetry

By day, mild-mannered Tim Nolan is a lawyer, applying the steady words of the law to help his clients.

By day, mild-mannered Tim Nolan is a lawyer, applying the steady words of the law to help his clients. By night, however, he sets aside all of that — the title “Super Lawyer,” conferred by Minnesota Law and Politics, the lawyer jokes that whittle at a guy’s self-esteem, the steady paycheck that makes other things possible.

At night, Nolan is a poet. Later this week, he’ll find out if he wins his case to take home a Minnesota Book Award for his first poetry collection, “The Sound of It” (New Rivers Press).

“I hope I am a poet who happens to work as a lawyer, although some days it feels the other way,” he says. The two roles are not mutually exclusive. “What I’ve learned as a poet about brevity, how to tell a story, how to persuade a listener — all this helps in practicing law. At the same time, my training as a lawyer — learning to figure out what matters in a case, thinking about the desired outcome and working toward that, learning how to argue successfully — these have all helped me to write poems.”

Nolan’s poems are spare, thoughtful and artful yet unpretentious. He is a keen observer of the characters that people his world and steps quietly from one generation to another, watching people and recording history. He’ll watch his teenage children from an adult perspective, then look back at his own youth before taking a closer look at himself now. “I always felt too old to be at that party,” he writes, an old soul from the start, it seems. It follows, therefore that practical Nolan didn’t embrace the starving artist’s life.  

“I always wanted to be a poet, but I knew I had to make a living, and I didn’t particularly want to teach. My wife, Kate, and I were living in New York (we both grew up in Minneapolis). We wanted to have kids and couldn’t imagine how we would do that in New York.  So, we came back here, and I went to law school,” he explains. He gave up poetry insider jobs with the Paris Review and Columbia: A Magazine of Poetry and Prose, and settled into the legal world. But at the same time, he taught poetry to schoolchildren, started the Diamond Lake Poets group 10 years ago, and kept writing and submitting poems to literary magazines, and found homes for poems with Ploughshares, The Nation, Gettysburg Review and others.

“Over the years, I kept sending poems out because I felt like I had something to say in a way no one else was saying it. Eventually, I became almost indifferent about both rejections and acceptances, and I came to realize that I had no real control over the decision,” says Nolan. “It meant a lot to me when a long poem in sections called ‘Beyond the Sign of the Fish’ was accepted in its entirety for an issue of Ploughshares edited by Rita Dove. That acceptance sustained me for a long time. Then, getting my poems read by Garrison Keillor on “The Writer’s Almanac” was almost like being introduced to a narcotic.”

Nolan says he was thrilled to be named a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award. “When you write and try to publish poems, you become so inured to rejection that when you are recognized for your work — it’s so unusual — and it’s a great feeling.”

Tim Nolan will be among nominees appearing Saturday at the 21st annual Minnesota Book Awards at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in St. Paul.