An introduction to Jennifer Elise Foerster, author of the debut poetry book Leaving Tulsa (University of Arizona Press, 2013). In a discussion of how and why she writes, Foerster described the magic of writing: “The mind is a great labyrinth, and when I write I feel like I’m in the labyrinth.” Foerster holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has received numerous fellowships and was Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Foerster’s poems have been anthologized in Sing, New California Writing 2011, and Turtle Island to Abya Yala.
Quick Facts on Jennifer Elise Foerster
- Website: www.jenniferfoerster.com
- Home: San Francisco, California
- Comfort food: Thai green curry, and green chile
- Current reads: Chris Abani’s novellas
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on my next book. I like to write poems in a linked fashion, so I write on a really big canvas. I’m kind of following an image narrative and different characters. For instance, in Leaving Tulsa, one of the characters that shaped the book is Magdalena, and there are images of the road, of fires in the distance, desert, children in the desert making a ship out of tires—stuff like that. Now I have a new collage of images that are haunting to me, and a whole new cast of characters that I’m following: an old woman, a beach, there’s someone carrying a birdcage on their back. I don’t really know what they are or how to piece them together yet, so I’m just trying to write out the images. It feels like I’m working on twenty poems at once that may all merge into one poem, or not. That’s how I write, rather than writing one poem at a time. I chase images and try to find a story in them. It’s like a dream, like trying to remember a dream and write it out.
“I chase images.”
Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?
I really don’t know why. I just do it. I think I could not write; I don’t have a need to be generating language, so I’m not a writer that loves words and needs to be playing around with them. I think that like any art form, it’s a tool for another way of seeing. It’s the landscape of the other world, the playground I get to go to when I write. The mind is a great labyrinth, and when I write I feel like I’m in the labyrinth.
How did Leaving Tulsa come together?
I struggled a lot with what a first book should be, and what I wanted my first book to be. I had different versions of the manuscript over the years, and it changed names and faces. Some poems have been in it from the beginning, but I continued to revise them, and it changed shape based on other poems that emerged. When I decided what to finally put together, a lot of poems went out and new ones came in. It definitely came together as a whole piece the whole way through, rather than having so many pages of poems and then adding more poems to that. It was this whole entity that was constantly shifting over the years. If I hadn’t published it when I published it, I would still be shifting it and writing that book right now.
What do you hope readers will take away from your work?
I hope readers can feel at home in the poems. I hope they find a flicker of recognition of their own in-between space, of timelessness. A lot of it is about searching, following intuitions, not reaching a conclusion, and this constant process of clarifying oneself, and trying to find a story that is a mystery. The poems try to allow navigation through that mystery, and I hope that will open something up for readers. I hope it will feed that part of the human mind which is shadowy. I think that part of our lives always needs to be explored, and poetry can help that.
“I hope it will feed
that part of the human mind
which is shadowy.”
Whom do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?
I’m always amazed at anyone who is reading my work. I have no idea what goes on in people’s minds when they read my book, or anyone else’s poems. Just like I’m sure when I’m reading someone else’s poems that I could never really convey to them what I’m experiencing, whether or not I’m experiencing what they intended me to experience. What would please me most is if a diverse group of people read my book.
Where and when do you prefer to write?
I don’t have a writing schedule. I write sporadically, and I write like a collector, using different journals all the time. It’s really not very organized. But generally, I write at home really late at night, when I know that the world is asleep. That’s when I start putting the pieces together; the rest of the time I’m just collecting things.
Where would you most want to live and write?
Ideally, I don’t think I write very well in my current lifestyle. I keep imagining my ideal place where I’d be a more productive writer. I have a lot of poems in the works, and ideas that I want to pursue, and I begin but end up getting distracted. A lot of people would say, oh, it’s not a distraction—living your life, especially living in the city, it creates poems. But for me, it doesn’t really. For me, the poems come from a really quiet interior space. I don’t get imagery for my poems from walking around the city and interacting with people, but I love doing those things. I feel divided.
I lived in a writer’s colony in southern California for a little bit, and for me it was the perfect place because it was totally isolated. I lived in my own little cabin, and there was no electricity. There were a few other people there in their own cabins, and the rule was, if you want to visit with someone you had to go to the main house and leave a note for them in their mailbox. Once a week there was a van that would take us into town to get supplies, so you had some social time, but basically you could be by yourself and not even speak to anyone for a week at a time if you wanted.
What do you listen to when you work?
I can’t listen to anything with lyrics. I also can’t listen to music that’s really good, because it’s like it has its own lyrics—I start following the melodies and instrumentation; it’s like a poem. So I try to listen to nothing, but if there’s noise in the house (because I live with other people), I tend to listen to white noise, like rainstorms, or something really repetitive.
When you’re stuck, where do you look for inspiration?
Well, I go to sound usually. I don’t listen to music for inspiration, but I listen for the sounds of the words. If I get stuck on a poem, it’s usually because I’m thinking about the meaning too much. I often find that if I try to compose the poem and focus on the music of the poem, then that lifts me out of it.
How do you balance content with form?
I’m very liberal with my forms, and I allow the form to change constantly in the process of the making of the poem. In other words, I don’t start with a determined form. I let the form shift depending on what content emerges. At the same time, I try not to let one or the other dominate. I try to let them inform each other. With content, I try not to get too hung up on the narrative. I like to let what I’m trying to relay to the reader be a little bit loose as well.
How have your goals as a writer changed over time?
Now that I’ve published this first book, I think my original goals, from when I was younger, have returned. They’re much more broad. I want to write lots of books of poems; I want to write novels; I want to try a screenplay—I want to write as much as I can. All of my unattainable goals have returned.
“All of my unattainable
goals have returned.”
There was a period of time before the book came out where I wanted to release all of those goals, and even be okay with maybe never writing again. Maybe I was discouraged, because of the nature of our writerly world—it’s really hard to get your work published, and it’s hard to keep going when you’re not getting published. Releasing those goals was a way of releasing the pressure.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Strengthen your interior space. It’s the most important thing we can do, not just for ourselves and our lives, but as writers it’s important because it helps us get through those times that I was just talking about. It seems like there’s a sort of formula for aspiring writers these days: go to school, get an MFA, and try and teach. But it’s not a reliable formula, and maybe not even the best formula for becoming a writer. Everyone has their own path into their writing, and ultimately it will require that interior confidence. You have to believe that what you’re doing, what you’re seeking, really is important to you, even if you don’t fully understand why yet.
“Strengthen your interior space.”
What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?
Arthur Sze was one of my teachers, and he told me two things that were really great advice. One was that, if you don’t want to work, then I would recommend not trying to be a writer—this is a hard job, and you’re going to have to work really hard. I realized that my desire and my willingness to revise, to know that I can do better, are part of my willingness to work hard. When things get difficult, I remind myself of this and think, I’m going to work harder.
The other piece of advice was that he’d have this thing where he’d say, when you’re trying to revise a poem, that there are places in the poem that have heat, as if you could feel them if you were to put your hand over the poem. Focus on those. So I try to do that in my mind when I’m working on a poem. I realized that a poem can live and breathe in different ways. Whenever I’m stuck on a poem, I try to feel the poem and I try to think of it using different senses.
What do you find most challenging about writing?
What’s challenging about writing is that it involves language. For me, the language of the poem is a tool, it’s not the thing. Sometimes I feel like the language can get in the way of the poem.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
I love to walk, garden, and do anything outdoors.
About Jennifer Elise Foerster
Jennifer Elise Foerster received her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts (July 2007) and her BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico (2003). She has received fellowships to attend Soul Mountain Retreat, the Naropa Summer Writing Program, the Idyllwild Summer Poetry Program, Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, and the Vermont Studio Center. From 2008-2010, Jennifer was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Of German, Dutch, and Muscogee descent, she is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma. Jennifer grew up living internationally and now lives in San Francisco, California.
[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Jennifer Elise Foerster.” Words With Writers (July 12, 2013), https://wordswithwriters.com/2013/07/12/jennifer-elise-foerster.]