Intrigue of the Heart, Tafisha Edwards Interviews 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.

She is the author of Leaving Tulsa (University of Arizona Press 2013). “In her first magical collection of poetry, Jennifer Elise Foerster weaves together a mythic and geographic exploration of a woman's coming of age in a dislocated time. Leaving Tulsa, a book of road elegies and laments, travels from Oklahoma to the edges of the American continent through landscapes at once stark and lush, ancient and apocalyptic. The imagery that cycles through the poems—fire, shell, highway, wing—gives the collection a rich lyrical-dramatic texture. Each poem builds on a theme of searching for a lost "self"—an "other" America—that crosses biblical, tribal, and ecological mythologies.”

The following interview was conducted via phone on May 16, 2013. It has been edited by Laura Pegram and abridged for publication.

TAFISHA EDWARDS: Thank you for making time for Kweli today. As I prepared for the interview, I read Angles of Ascent, A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, edited by Charles Henry Rowell. In a review of Angels of Ascent, Alli Carlisle wrote: “To anthologize is a political act. As political acts go, though, it’s a relatively subtle one.” This made me think about an anthology that you are a part of: Sing, Poetry from the Indigenous Americas, edited by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. I wanted to hear your thoughts on Sing, perhaps in the context of an anthology being a political act, and about what came up when you started working to contribute to Sing.

JENNIFER ELISE FOERSTER: I think Sing is a tremendous anthology and I have so much respect for Allison Hedge Coke. She is one of my teachers and I continue to learn from her. Allison Hedge Coke did an amazing thing by making that anthology happen. I do agree that the anthology is a political act and a subtle one. I probably have eight Native American literature anthologies on my bookshelf right now and they are all completely different, with different slants. I hope that people learn to read anthologies as that, as a wonderful opportunity to read a collection of work that has been identified as representative, but at the same time with the acknowledgment that it is not everything. If someone says I now understand Native American literature or African American literature as a result of reading one person’s anthology, well, therein lies the danger of anthologies. And yet making anthologies are so important. In the making of Sing, Allison had to create a map, a way to approach, and then she opened the blinds to a great landscape and began to discuss it in terms of indigeneity. She allowed that landscape to be very diverse, allowing indigenous voices of the Americas to come in (and not just American federally recognized tribes). Multiple languages and ideas were allowed to come through in Sing. So I think it was a very courageous act. It’s a courageous act to set that landscape and it is important because it brings awareness. That’s really the key thing. Sing brings awareness, and hopefully it sets people off in new directions. Someone can read the anthology and it may encourage readers to say I am really interested, and I want to go look at some more Hawaiian authors, or follow a particular author and investigate their work in other places. I am really glad to be part of this anthology. It was a great honor.

TAFISHA: Leaving Tulsa, the title poem of your collection, is included in the Sing anthology. Can we talk about the title poem, from its placement in your book, to the fluidity and structure of the poem, to the tenderness and gentleness with which you treat the subject? I would really like to delve into that. 

Leaving Tulsa (EXCERPT)

Grandma fell in love with a truck driver,
grew watermelons by the pond
on our Indian allotment,
took us fishing for dragonflies.
When the bulldozers came
with their documents from the city
and a truckload of pipelines,
her shotgun was already loaded.

Under the bent chestnut, the well
where Cosetta’s husband
hid his whiskey—buried beneath roots
her bundle of beads. They tell
the story of our family.
Cosetta’s land
flattened to a parking lot.

Grandma potted a cedar sapling
I could take on the road for luck.
She used the bark for heart lesions
doctors couldn’t explain.
To her they were maps, traces of home,
the Milky Way, where she’s going, she said.

After the funeral
I stowed her jewelry in the ground,
promised to return when the rivers rose.

JENNIFER: I grew up traveling a lot. My father was in the Air Force, so we moved every few years. We were mostly moving between the U.S. and Europe. We lived in Austria and Massachusetts, and Belgium, England and Colorado. In the summer, my parents always sent me and my sister to Jenks, Oklahoma to hang out with my grandparents and my cousins. So it was really home for me. It lives in a very special way. The sound of the crickets and the smells of the deep heavy summer, the richness of that. I feel very close to that particular place, to the land that was my grandparents, and I am really emotionally tied to it. So that poem has a lot of that in it. And I like to read that poem because when I read it, it really does conjure up the smell of the place, and a certain longing and melancholy that I felt when I was there. I still feel it. I talk about my relatives and a little bit of history in this poem. It was based on when I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There was a point in time when I would drive to Tulsa every other month to visit my grandparents. Being on that road took over my consciousness. I would feel this tremendous sadness the morning I would be leaving. My grandparents would be waving good-bye and as I drove, I felt such a distance from them. I felt like I was going into the horizon and it would just break my heart. I’m glad that you like that poem.  

TAFISHA: There are several poems in your collection that I return to for the depth and breadth of your story. In Leaving Tulsa, I felt that melancholy and that deep familial love and a subtle critique of colonial mentality. It was very subtle and very restrained, and not at all overpowering. But it could have taken the poem in another direction.

JENNIFER: Originally, an earlier version of that poem was very heavy handed. I was really hyperfocused on the takeover of the land because I see that constantly, and with that land in particular. Cities grow and people build and build and build. And so I think the poem began in a different way. And then it became very personal. At that same time, there was that consciousness of getting on the highway. The American highway continues to be run over so much. It is fast moving and more land is lost as we build more pavement and bigger cars. I am a participant in that highway. I drive it and I need it and I crave it. And yet it too is an enemy.

TAFISHA: I want to circle back very quickly to Leaving Tulsa, the collection as a whole. What was the most difficult part to articulating these poems? What challenged you the most? Whatwere the most challenging moments of compiling and creating and writing and rewriting Leaving Tulsa?

JENNIFER: It was all challenging. I think time was a challenge because of the realities of the publishing world. They do have so much power over how we write in a way. I had this consciousness that I am finishing a book and now I am going to send it out. Then a year passes, and another year passes and of course, I am still shaping the book. That whole time, the manuscript is there and I’m still shaping it. I couldn’t keep my hands off of it. Part of the challenge is when do we know that a book is finished. It is going into print, so you really have to be done with it. I hope that what it is now, is its best manifest. But I know that if it were still sitting on my computer, or in piles on my desk, I would still be changing it and rearranging it, and it would be a new story and a new beast, in articulating it, knowing that the “it” was ever changing. So the hardest part for me was acknowledging that this is IT. That was the hardest part for me. The penultimate IT was the best possible version of the book. I was so afraid of publishing it prematurely. The choreography was important to me. At the last minute, I was still taking out poems and putting in new ones and that changed the entire choreography. The poems were linked. I was really conscious of creating linkages and putting them in order so certain things would reveal themselves at different times. So it felt like a madness. It drove me crazy. At different times, I tried physically weaving them in different ways, hanging them up and trying to thread them. Putting threads from one poem to the next. Then you get to the point where you think ok, I am over thinking this too much and I need to just let it be.

TAFISHA:  In March 2013, you participated in Native Innovation, a landmark symposium at Poets House in NYC. This event brought together a new generation of Native American poets for an in-depth look at the dynamic state of current Native American poetry and poetics in the 21st century. During Native Innovation, you gave a craft talk called Fugitive Dust.

"I work as a grant writer for a living and I get to learn all of this great language because I am usually writing environmental grants. And so recently I came across this phrase that is commonly used called fugitive dust. It is a scientific term for air pollutants. So I decided I would make a craft talk called "Fugitive Dust." In "Leaving Tulsa" people ask me if there is a storyline driving the poems, and if so, how the story began and when. "What is the book about?" they ask. Well, I was once driving from Tulsa back to Santa Fe and somewhere around Sapulpa, I saw a few pages snagged in the trees alongside the interstate. That's how it began, I think. But it also began a long, long time ago somewhere inside a stone or, like all stories, in the splay of stars that are the futures and the echoes of the past. It is a story of America and there is a woman named Magdalena and she is telling it to me. I know the story, but I don't know the story. These poems are the fugitive dust of the story. But I couldn't tell it to you in any other way than through poetry. What is one's poetics other than this attempt to decipher, this attempt to use language to evoke the ineffable. I believe in approaching everything I do as a listener, to travel as a follower."

TAFISHA: In your craft talk, you said “I don't begin with technique or form, even though beginning with form can be a very helpful way to approach the dark, like turning on a lamp in the corner to allow your sight to begin building out the corners and objects that make the room. But trying to see in the dark, adjusting your eyes to different forms and shadows, listening, feeling through the dark, for me, this is when I begin to see the poems.” So I want to hear more of your thoughts about that.

JENNIFER: When I sit down to write a poem, I feel just as chaotic as the world around me, my exterior landscape. But the interior world is just as alive and complicated. I am also dialoguing in my internal world, which is very peopled by voices and pasts and histories and ancestors and friends and lovers. I think our interior landscapes are just as peopled as our exterior landscapes. So there are dialogues going on as I write. I really do strive to learn how to begin with more of a form. I have always admired my peers and friends who begin with structure first (e.g., “I’m going to write a pantoum”) and then begin to mold the clay around that structure. But I am trying to give myself permission to honor my process. Truthfully, when I begin to write I have no idea where I am going. I am always at a starting point. But we are always beginners. Every moment, every breath. When I sit down to write, I am walking into a dark room and I can’t see anything. I can’t find the light switch, so I have to orient myself with the use of my hands. That is kind of how I feel when I write. It is more surprising in a way. And I don’t mind walking into a dark room.    

TAFISHA: As a poet, you also work with memory fragments. In your Fugitive Dust craft talk, you said “memory rarely comes to us as lyrical or logically ordered narrative, at least for me. It arises in bits and pieces, moments of vague recognition, disordered associations.” Could you elaborate on these bits and pieces of substance? 

JENNIFER: Substance is a good word for memory. I think memories and dreams are always floating through us. Sometimes we're conscious of them and sometimes we're not. And sometimes I wish I could turn it all off, you know. So it is definitely a substance, like a fragrance in the air that is released from an oil, or a seed. There to pass through us, clinging to us. That is what memories and dreams do. They affect everything. They affect how we face the day and how we interact with one another. So I am interested in working with them. But I like to learn about other people's memories too. Whenever I meet someone else, I really want to hear all about them, not just how they see today, but what they carry with them. What memories are they dancing with or trying to get rid of? We are all in this process of trying to release things that we are clinging to, and to hold on to other things that we still need, like traditional medicines. And that is such a human thing. So I really like to be in that dialogue with myself and with other people.

TAFISHA: Placing yourself in conversation with other poets and in conversation with your own memories could be frightening, to say the least.

JENNIFER: It is frightening and it is such an amazing part of being human. And I think that is why we need to support each other and listen to one another. I think it can help us ultimately to love one another because we find common humanity in that struggle, in that fear.

TAFISHA: I want to go back to something that you said earlier about your admiration for poets that can sit at the table with a very clear intention to write a pantoum or a sestina on any given day. In the last three lines of your poem The Outskirts, the insertion of that comma changes how one reads that line.

The greening / hills seal themselves, / shut around the graves.

And in your poem, Birthmark, you use internal rhyme.

I begin. To teach myself / to swim. Inside a continent.

You use a rhythm with short, punctuated lines, almost a staccato rhythm. It is a wonderful moment in that poem. Of course, your book is filled with them. If you didn’t set out to engage in a particular form, then how do you begin to craft a poem?

JENNIFER: Music. I love music and I like poems that have music in them. I begin without form, but what happens when you start to create things is you start latching on to certain rhythms or certain color schemes that excite you. As I start navigating through this material, and vibrate with other material on the page or in my mind, I start looking for order. And the way I find order is finding the song, the rhythm, syncopation. Something I can sway to. When I find that rhythm that I can sway to, then I want to make it unique, so it is a particular song that doesn’t sound the same as the other poem and doesn’t sound too predicable. That is the biggest thing that starts to shape it for me. I like lines that have sound to them and that are fun, and have tensions and rhythms. I am working on a lot of poems at once right now. Nothing is fitting into place. I just hope that the music will start to emerge and that will help me to ultimately shape a design. Maybe that is why I resist starting with form because I want to see what music comes out of the material.

TAFISHA: I notice that you have affinity or love for sections in your art. I found it very interesting that you spoke of the moving pieces or fragments of your own work because you can see them on the page. For example, in Voice Lessons, the entire poem is broken up, for the most part, into two line stanzas or couplets. But then the reader moves toward the last third of the poem and we’re breaking up into three line stanzas and single lines.

JENNIFER: I like fragments because that is the way things appear to us in this world, as fragments. A moment in time, a particular image, a particular memory. And yet all these things are little spinning vortexes that are somehow interacting with each other in ways we cannot see. In poems, I am playing with images and memories to see what happens if I put them together. I also like writing with consciousness of fragments because you can move things around and it allows me to not get stuck in the narrative because I have a narrative mind, but I’m really a bad storyteller. So sometimes I am making up these stories for these characters that have relationships with one another. So someone can ask “well, who is Magdalena?” and I can wax on forever about Magdalena and the different manifestations of who she might be. So writing in fragments gives me more freedom to move the past and future around, and objects and subjects around, so that the object becomes the subject, and the subject becomes the object. I like allowing things to switch places to see what happens, and fragments let you do that. You can move them around like magnets on a refrigerator.

TAFISHA: Sounds like freedom to me. Why don’t you tell me about Magdalena. I was very curious about her and about who she was. You said that you could speak about her at length, so why don’t you do that. 

The Lost Book (EXCERPT)

               I’m just another lost American
smashing locusts on her windshield
                            addicted to a damaged range
and the highway that seams it—

that I would name you Magdalena
              prairie dress hemmed
                           with a gasoline rainbow

JENNIFER: I think it started as an actual physical presence or some person, you know. She is someone who somehow inserted herself into my life. I gave her a name. I didn’t know who she was. She was an image, you know, like an obsession. And I think that that happens a lot to me and I start writing. And it is like having a dream about this person. She keeps coming into your dreams and you are like, “who is this person?” You can kind of see them and you begin to describe their features, but then their features change. But there is something consistent about that presence, and I don’t know what it is. So she evolved from that. I found that I was writing in conversation with this presence. Over time, I started to build her and she became Magdalena. And so I allowed the poems to start being in conversation with her. And I also started to come up with stories, as I do, and I felt she was like a twin, another version of myself that I am seeking. That is what we do in dialogue, we try and seek. It is like looking in the mirror or looking at each other and allowing ourselves to be mirrors of one another. She also became a political entity and a geographic entity as well. She became a figure for history, a figure for this landscape, the landscape of this country and how our recent history has interacted with her and where she is now. When I was little, I remember being very struck by this sculpture of the Magdalena as a sort of biblical figure. It was in a museum when I was a kid and I couldn’t get that figure out of my mind. I became obsessed with her as a figure. In my subconscious mind, there is an overlay of that, the presence of this being in the biblical tradition.

TAFISHA: Was it difficult to trust that, not knowing where it would lead you? As poets, we all have our obsessions and our preoccupations. But to follow that voice and to follow that presence. How did you trust that instinct?

JENNIFER: That is a really good question. I don’t know that I always trusted it. I think that I distrusted it because I think I am attaching too much meaning to an image stuck in my head. An idea which is just an idea. So I had a lot of distrust. But at the same time, what is there to distrust or trust: an idea or an amorphous being or a story cycle that I am working with. It could be weaving a great terrible magic over me, but even then, that’s okay in trusting it. I think that it is a good thing to trust the curious mind, wherever it wants to go. Of course, it feels dangerous to say that we should trust our curiosity because curiosity can take us to very harmful places. But I think that it is good to trust true curiosity and true bliss and interest of the soul because there is a reason we are drawn to it. We may not know the reason, but there is a lesson there. It is part of our path. I definitely experienced a lot of distrust over obsessing over a particular image. But I have learned to allow myself to follow those impulses, you know. It is like following an intrigue of our heart. It is amazing where it can take us.

TAFISHA: I understand that you recently spent some time in Nicaragua with Inner Change Works.

JENNIFER: Oh, I am so glad that you mentioned it. It is like such a glee, allowing the worlds to be crossed, you know. My family has a nonprofit organization that started with work my mother has been doing in Nicaragua for many years. We all kind of work on it together. So I was just there for a little while. She spends a lot of time there and I was just able to go this one time briefly. One of the projects that we are working on right now is a theatre mentorship program with university students in Managua, and children and high school students in different communities. Right now we are working with one community in Managua outside of a garbage dump called La Chureca.  A lot of people work in that recycling center. A lot of children were born living inside the interior of the garbage dump and a lot of people are still living there. There have been a lot of renovations going on in the last 5 years in that area. So we are working with some students. Really what we do as a nonprofit is we become facilitators, because we really believe that solutions for change and solutions for better futures come from within community, not from the outside. And that all of the resources that are needed are there, on the ground. They just need to be put together sometimes. We believe in networking, trying to see all the pieces that are there and putting them together so that it can be a moving working thing that can make a change and become its own sustainable entity. So that is a brief overview of theory of the organization. But I love going to Nicaragua and I love that the country recognizes and sees itself as such a poetic country and it honors and loves its poets so much. One day I would love to be more involved poetically with Nicaragua because I love their poetry and their poets, but I need to become fluent in Spanish first. But for now, our projects focus on education and health in relation to community development. We host community health fairs, and establish community health councils and integrate theatre and performing arts into community health.

TAFISHA: I am very interested in marrying the arts with community health. And I wanted to get your perspective on why it is so important not to relegate art as a frivolous pastime, when it can be an integral part of one’s own personal health and community health.

JENNIFER: A lot of teaching takes place through arts, through song. That is how we can teach one another healthy lifestyles, so it is hardly a frivolous pastime. One person teaching someone else about traditional medicinals, or ways to brush your teeth when you don’t have a toothbrush or toothpaste, or the importance of not burning your trash too close to your home. Elders teaching lessons to the youth and our youth teaching younger children. And then there is laughter. Laughter is medicine for the soul. And so is weeping. There is beauty in all of that. I think it is essential. I think it is so important for young people. I think of so many kids who are in circumstances where they don’t have something to express themselves with and someone listening to what they are expressing. All that energy is being kept in. To love and to feel loved, to know that you have something unique and beautiful to love, is an important part of one’s healthy development. Giving artistic opportunity to young people invites them into the world.

TAFISHA: Thank you, Jennifer. Is there anything that we missed? I know that this is an odd question for an interviewer to ask. Sometimes there are things that you would like to say and I want to give you an opportunity.

JENNIFER: No. I am so grateful for your wonderful questions. I feel that you have such an amazing perception and so many interesting things to say and I think that the poems that I read of yours are just very searing and beautiful. So thank you. It was really a pleasure to talk with you.