Muscogee poet Joy Harjo says Leaving Tulsa, Jennifer Foerster’s first poetry book, "reminds me of the urgent vision fueling Jack Kerouac's On The Road." Jennifer was on the road so much between New Mexico and Oklahoma that she always felt like she was leaving Tulsa, or arriving. Her poems are like a road fever, always entering, leaving, arriving, waking up into different dream states. Reviewers have called her work, lyrical, passionate, urgent, intense and serious. When I first read this book, I must admit I was lost, wandering around her landscape. But when I heard her read at Collected Works in Santa Fe, her voice and spoken word provided me the map.
She becomes the Crow of her stories, black feathered dark angel stealing and gathering shiny objects of value, stringing these memories into a gypsy necklace or a clan medicine bag. We are guided as the crow flies, along her maps, following ghostly footprints, down highways, along shorelines, looking for a memory called Homeland or America.
Jennifer is of German, Dutch and Muscogee descent. She received her BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts and MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, attended several residencies and was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. She’s the latest of a great group of young poets: Sherwin Bitsui, Santee Frazier, dg nanouk okpik, Layli Long Soldier, Orlando White, Lyla June Johnston.
The author wondering what, exactly, he has just witnessed. Photo by Jonathan Wheelhouse.
You've been around the world, kind of, what's like to be back in New Mexico, and are you back on the road?
I feel New Mexico to be a home base, as I lived here for so long and still maintain work relationships, friendships, and community ties. Since I moved to San Francisco a few years ago, I try to visit New Mexico as often as possible and still consider this home in many ways. I think I’m always, always on the road, though. I grew up constantly moving, so being on the road is how I locate in a way.
What's your relationship with Oklahoma—is it your homeland? Do you need to return, or is it kept in your heart?
I don’t feel I need to leave or return—as I have family there, it is always a homeland, and it is always in my heart and beneath my feet. I was always aware that Oklahoma was a place my relatives and ancestors were moved—exiled—to. But I’m respectful of my relatives who turned this into a new life, established a new home, worked to create a new space to thrive, to overcome the obstacles, dispossession, and suffering. So that today it’s not a place of exile but a homeland for the Tribe and also for my family members. I have great respect for this. I am also aware of impermanence of place and home in my own life experience and history, so leaving or returning is never a final act. Home and Land are constancies that are always in flux, that’s the way of the earth.
You must be happy with the response to your book.
I’m deeply humbled by the response to this book, and feel a stronger sense of responsibility to continue to write and listen, to learn to be a better poet. More than anything, I want to continue to work. I had help and inspiration from countless sources: friends, families, teachers, animals, challenges, dreams. Maybe there is only one source, but if so, it is multiplicitous, and I am living in gratitude for all these helpers and friends.
People describe your work so emphatically—some call it "mystical" or "spiritual." You seem to be always searching for something. What would you call your work?
I am delighted by various ways people might describe these poems. I don’t know what to call my work but work—not in the job sense but in the sense of "endeavor" or "art." I like to try new approaches, and I’m a beginner all the time.
What's your immediate future and any thoughts on a longer view?
I will be back in San Francisco soon, where I’ll have some Bay Area readings, and my grant writing work to continue with. I have a lot of projects I’m working on, including a children’s theater project in Nicaragua through my family’s non-profit, InnerCHANGE WORKS. I am also learning Mvskoke (Creek language), and working this process into a series of new poems. I will have the next book finished by fall. In the longer view, I hope to be present and attentive and do good work, but I don’t know where or what that will be.
We are all here to help each other, I believe, so I hope to do that in the way I’m purposed to. I do believe that writing will always be involved in that.