ast Thursday, Sept. 27, Elizabethtown College welcomed poet Jennifer Foerster to campus for a very special writing workshop at the Bowers Writers House and a reading in the Brinser Lecture Room (BLR) of Steinman Hall. At 4 p.m., the Bowers Writers House was brimming with hushed excitement as students filed in for Foerster’s poetry workshop. The student participants for this workshop event were widely diverse in their interests; some were writers and some were readers; some read fantasy, some read realistic fiction; some wrote creative non-fiction, some wrote only when they were compelled by coursework.
Foerster catered to all interests in her workshop, beginning with a quote by Albert Camus, a twentieth-century author, journalist and philosopher: “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” She encouraged students to contemplate the things in this world that open their hearts. She asked students where their creativity comes from, how they see the world, how they interpret it in writing or in thought. The reading of Camus’ quote set the tone for the workshop quite beautifully; the discussion that followed addressed the changing of the seasons, the corresponding changes in the people experiencing it, and the way this affects creative expression.
“I’ve been struck by the trees,” she said of her arrival in Elizabethtown. “There’s nothing so green as Pennsylvania.” She mused about how “nice” people are in this area, how welcoming and hospitable they were to her during her stay in Lancaster. She was not hesitant to remark on the beauty of the landscape, especially now that summer has faded away and autumn is beginning to take hold.
She shared a very personal detail with the students at the workshop, as well; it was something that brought a new sense of intimacy to the discussion. She divulged that she had recently lost a friend, and another friend of hers had written her a letter of condolence. In this letter, the sender wrote, “How kind of autumn to grieve with you.” This, Foerster said, was a reference to the falling leaves of autumn and how this natural process mimics the falling of tears from grieving eyes. Foerster asked the workshop participants if it is possible that we project our human emotions onto nature, if we give it anthropomorphic qualities that parallel our own thoughts and emotions.
Whatever the answer to this, Foerster insisted that we need not know it. She described poetry – and the creative process that yields the poems themselves – as a great mystery, and the writer must immerse himself or herself into it in order to explore it. Delving into these mysteries allows the writer to discover more about themselves, to tell the story that the poem wants to tell. Our experiences shape our poetry, and therefore, the mystery of a poem is often the mystery of life itself. “Being in the mystery is the only way to tell it,” she said. “This is life. I am alive.”
The concept of powerful imagery was also addressed, and Foerster asked workshop participants to think of the images that move them, that inspire them, that live within them. She emphasized the importance of an image and how we translate the mental picture into the words on the page. Waking dreams, memories and even memories of previous dreams are a few examples of the images that drive Foerster’s poetry. Writing is the only medium in which she finds herself able to translate these images into something that others can see, understand, and can relate to. “I have no other way to deal with them,” she said, reflecting on how her writing process is the sole method of this acceptance and appreciation for the images that are constantly permeating her inner thoughts. Foerster shared another quote, this one by Pierre Reverdy, a French poet of the twentieth century: “The image cannot spring from any comparison, but from bringing together two more or less remote realities. The more distant and legitimate the relation between the two realities brought together, the more emotive power and poetic reality it will possess.”
At 7 p.m., students from the workshop, as well as students and faculty from the general campus, were invited to hear Foerster read her poetry in the BLR. Workshop participants who attended the reading could see why Foerster had chosen this Reverdy quote to describe her approach to imagery in poems; her writing was rich with unlikely, abstract, unexpected and delightful images. Common themes were wandering, searching, forgetting, dreaming and losing innocence. The poems deeply reflected Foerster’s Native American roots, featuring concepts and objects that sang of old cultures and places; bones, feathers, rocks, rivers and all manner of flora and fauna were present in these works. They told intricately-woven stories of life in the Southwest, of travelling a merciless and glorious landscape, of making connections with other people and searching for a lost America that will never exist again. On these great adventures, readers and listeners follow Magdalena, a character of Foerster’s conception that she describes as “the ghost of America … of the continent” and as an “alter-ego” of hers. Magdalena takes readers on powerful, moving adventures through time and space as Foerster crafts the fantastical, apocalyptic, and sensual poems that Etown students and faculty had the pleasure of hearing at the reading.
Jennifer Foerster earned her bachelor’s degree (B.F.A.) from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M. in 2003. She received her master’s degree (M.F.A.) in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in July 2007. Her poetry has been published in magazines and journals such as Ploughshares, Shenandoah, Passages North, Many Mountains Moving and Drunken Boat. Her poems have been anthologized in several volumes, most notably “Poetry from the Indigenous Americas.” Foerster is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, lives in San Francisco, Calif., and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University from 2008 to 2010. She works as a grant writer, asking governments to allow more funding for environmental conservation and protection projects such as those that preserve the redwood forests in California.
Foerster’s workshop and reading were a part of the College English Department’s Guest Poets Series. For more information on upcoming poet visits and events, visit www.etown.edu/centers/writershouse.