Jennifer Zolper writes:
I like to imagine I have just begun to write, but my memory is a traitor. My father was a poet, and together we wrote our first poem, “Trees,” when I was about six. In third grade, I wrote a Haiku as part of a unit on Japan—perhaps my very first solo poem.
I did well in English through high school, but one effort marks my first payoff from writing: I wrote a letter to my music teacher explaining the reasons I would not be able to participate in the annual music recital. (For being absent, I was to receive a failing grade.) After reading my letter and checking some facts, he changed my grade to an A.
English major for a moment
A few of my English teachers suggested that I keep writing, but I never took them seriously. I took up fine arts, environmental studies, geology, geography, and graphic design. For one brief moment, I was an English major in college. However, my first class was English Romantic Writers, and after two weeks of Blake, I changed my major back to geography!
Meeting the Master
During my third year of college I was introduced to Christianity by my dorm-mates, and four months later that seed bore fruit in a personal relationship with God. However, the circumstances of my life choked off my faith for seven years, and I wrote very little.
The only Christian poet
When I began to write poetry again, I wanted to use my writing only for God. I was so new to Christian writing that I thought I was the only person writing Christian poetry. I knew no other writers. After years of this, while looking for an on-line Christian magazine, I found Utmost Christian Writers and began writing seriously. I have just begun to find my own voice. Not all of my poems relate to God, but my aim for those that do is to connect the reader to Jesus in a personal way and present the gospel in a way that is fresh, non-threatening, and thought-provoking.
A Poet's Places
Raggers Point is a place on my childhood YMCA camp property. You have to go through a special ceremony and be led there blindfolded. It's a guarded secret. The person in the photo is looking out over the dropoff, about 30 feet.
You can sit on the rocks on the very edge and dangle your feet. It's one of my favorite places, though it's been a decade since I have been there. It's about 2 hours up the mountain from my home in the valley.
Pinecrest Lake is busy with vacationers all spring, summer and fall. This picture was taken New Year's Day. A New Year's hike was once a tradition for me, through the snow to the dam about a mile away. The year this photo was taken, we found mountain lion tracks behind the dam.
This place is about 1 1/2 hours up the same hill from the valley. In each of these places everything troubling seems to fall away. It is very peaceful and still.
An Interview with Jennifer Zolper
Utmost: Does the Utmost Gallery represent the first publication of your poetry, or have you been published before?
Jennifer: I had not been published before. Although I have written poems since childhood, I didn't begin writing for an audience until August 2002.
Utmost: Now that your poetry has been published, how important do you think that step was? Does it change anything?
Jennifer: For years, I was intrigued by the idea of being published. I am very new at the process of sending out manuscripts to editors. However, in this short time I have learned that editors are just people with their own literary tastes, and I do not want to write to please editors. Also, space limitations and pre-selected themes for a publication can get a good writer's work rejected as quickly as a poorly written poem. It was important for me to see the process "behind the curtain," and then refocus my energies on writing for my intended audience, whether or not they ever read my work.
Utmost: Your poems deliver strong images that step beyond the bounds of expectation, definitely not cliche. How do unusual images occur to you?
Jennifer: I don't know how other people think, but my thinking language is visual. It translates well into all sorts of impractical artistic pursuits. I think in images and abstracts. It happens as my "first language"--though often I have to shuffle through a few parallel images for a subject before I find one with enough structure for a poem.
Utmost: Do you ever wonder, while writing a poem, if people will think it's a bit too strange?
Jennifer: Not really. When I'm writing, I am focused completely on bringing out something internal and throwing it out into the external arena. That is the hardest part. Once I write down the bones of it, I begin a more objective process, but the editing serves to condense and refine, not to alter what I've dredged up. Any creative person who's put work out to the public has soon realized that the responses can cover the whole spectrum.
Utmost: When I read your poem, "More Than One Golden Idol," a smile tugs at my mouth despite the seriousness of the subject matter. Are you having fun with your reader? What makes you laugh?
Jennifer: I actually think my poetry is too serious and could use a lighter touch at times. "More Than One Golden Idol" was conceived as a serious poem about the first commandment to have no other gods before the Lord. But while doing scriptural research in the middle of writing it, the passage in Exodus 32:1-22 came alive in a new way and my jaw dropped. I wrote the poem while in shock of my discovery and asking the question, "Do you see what I see!?" It takes a lot to make me laugh out loud, but human beings give me the best odds.
Utmost: How long do you carry the "seed" of a poem before you begin to write it at the keyboard?
Jennifer: That's hard to say. It's a little like saying, "What are you going to talk about in therapy today?" I sit down and ask myself "what's in there?" My poetry is what comes out.
Utmost: The setting of your Christmas poem, "December 22, Vietnam," is striking. Tell me about the process of conceiving that poem and writing it.
Jennifer: I started with the selection of a theme. I didn't have enough experience with homes for the elderly to write about one. I had lived through 21 Christmases without Christ, but I didn't come up with any good imagery for that. I shuffled through mental "prison" images until "prisoner of war" came up. It took some time, maybe an hour, but I began to put together a little movie in my head of a young Christian soldier taken prisoner and suffering in parallel ways to Christ. He was remembering Christ at Christmastime, not his birth, but his death, because of what he was suffering. And that is how Jesus is, he meets us where we are, with what we are suffering, regardless of our culture or any other worldly consideration. That is the underlying message that I hope tagged along with the uniqueness of the poem.
Utmost: The outdoor photographs you've shared with us represent some beautiful scenes. Does nature inspire you to write poetry, or does your inspiration have other sources?
Jennifer: Nature itself does not inspire me to write. I don't feel passionate enough about it as subject matter. However, I need to be able to close the world out while I filter through the emotional, philosophical, spiritual, and mental/visual sources of my poems. My poet's place is inside myself, and whatever location will get me there will work--in my car in a parking lot with the windows rolled up will work. As long as it's quiet. Birds, crashing waves, a rushing river, none of these will be conducive to writing for me. Both favorite places I chose are secluded and quiet, and they also have special meaning for me. They are places that I feel spiritually alive and at peace, and if I visit them, I like to do it in the off-season when no one is likely to be there. I don't always choose to write while I am visiting, but they do provide a stillness that is necessary for brewing poetry.
Utmost: On a day-to-day basis, what is the importance of poetry to your life?
Jennifer: I didn't know how important it was to me until I added it to my life on a daily or weekly basis. In a way, it is as important a fuel to my embrace of life as scripture. I have to be discerning about which poetry books I read, of course, but the affirmation I feel of being akin to other writers is soul-enriching, whether I am reading my favorite secular pieces or a Christian author.
Utmost: If you could write a truly great poem about one single topic, what would that topic be?
Jennifer: It would be an exotic tale of fiddlehead ferns dancing in the prehistoric mists that would cause every reader to realize the Lordship of Jesus and begin an experiential love relationship with God. Well, with or without the ferns.
Utmost: What book would you most highly recommend (poetry or otherwise)? Why?
Jennifer: Each person's own self-authored book. Why? Because I believe we find out what we really think, and by extension who we really are, by writing it down and surprising ourselves with what we didn't know was there.
Utmost: What is your favorite food? Do you have any favorite recipe you'd care to share with Utmost?
Jennifer: My favorite food is anything I can eat at the computer without getting crumbs in the keyboard. Lemon Bars count if you lean way back.
Marin Deluxe Lemon Bars (from the San Francisco Encore cookbook)
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Ingredients for crust:
8 oz. unsalted butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 cups flour
1/4 tsp salt
Ingredients for filling:
2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
Cream 8 oz. unsalted butter and 1/2 cup powdered sugar together. Stir in 2 cups flour and 1/4 tsp. salt. Mix well. Press into an ungreased 13x9" pan. Bake 15-20 minutes, or until golden. Remove from oven and let cool slightly.
Blend together 4 eggs, 2 cups granulated sugar, 1/4 cup lemon juice, 1/4 cup flour, and 1/2 tsp. baking powder. (The original recipe calls for 1 tsp. grated lemon rind, but I never have it.) Pour mixture over warm crust. Bake 25 minutes and make sure center of pan is set. Sift additional powdered sugar over the top and let cool before cutting into squares of your newest addiction!
I shift to the floor, shuffle pleas for wisdom
Neither wise nor worthy of you
I still naively trust that you attend to me
Trust you to translate your holy whispers
Into thoughts, ways, words I can use
To smooth these dog-eared days
What worth is my crumpled praise
when these crisp green sacrifices smoke
like tiny doves and bulls on an altar
Would it come more precious to you
With a shaking hand, hold out my fears of life
Prayers folded with hard-pinched seams
Walk through fear to unburden another
Sing boldly to you in a voice off key
What currency will suffice for praise?
Those things held back, the hidden parts
Sweet offerings to you, though I may not see
The beauty when another's cross is raised
I must unfold my secrets for your glory
For in facing fear I must rely on you
And so between us the act is blessed
No matter if others don't see the beauty
And those who do see will be few
As the folds uncrease, my questions rest.
Copyright©2002 by Jennifer Zolper
Green Pastures and Other Colors (Psalm 23)
Her favorite shades of green are moss and sage;
It has nothing to do with grass at all,
Or being greener, or of fences barbed
To keep the sinners honest, lest they fall.
She doesn’t care about the pastoral tone,
The dirty sheep that wander, toeing dust.
The sheep have one another, she’s alone
And green to her is only money lust.
She would crave the pasture if she knew
The green is not just cud, an ovine vice.
Poking monocots, these grasses few
Stand with God, a scripted sacrifice.
For life torn out of rocks and barren ground,
Jesus draws her from her indifferent bed
To show where death hides life: His blood is found.
For her, salvation isn’t green, it’s red.
Copyright©2002 by Jennifer Zolper
December 22, Vietnam
I think it's almost Christmas '73.
I've lost track of the turning of the days
since being captured wounded in the jungle.
Friendly fire hurts just as bad.
They dragged me underground and
tied my hands with rags,
chafing now as bad as any chains.
I never understood their urgent chatter,
but when I felt the splintered wooden board
numb my ear, and then the other one,
no one said another word—just mumbles.
I wonder where my buddies are out there,
Maybe home by now, I think between
waves of hunger I can almost hear.
Thinkin 'bout what day it soon may be,
I think of that young man, older than me,
captured, whipped and beaten, far from home.
And hit by friendly fire: death aimed by men
whose chattering made little sense to him.
I cannot hear his name if I am saying it,
but I mouth it carefully, with punctured breath.
He's closer to me now than He's ever been.
If it's okay with God, I celebrate this:
His suffering in the battle for our souls.
'Cause dying here in this Golgotha jungle,
I'm not thinking of the baby Jesus.
Copyright©2002 by Jennifer Zolper