Sunday, June 9, 2024

Q&A with Jennifer Richter




Jennifer Richter is the author of the new poetry collection Dear Future. Her other books include the poetry collection No Acute Distress. She is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Oregon State University.


Q: What inspired you to write Dear Future, and over how long did you write the poems in the collection?


A: This book project started in 2015 when I first read Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker article “The Really Big One” that incited nationwide panic by predicting devastating earthquakes for the Pacific Northwest, where my husband and I have chosen to live and raise our children.


I immediately felt the need to respond to Schulz, to dial down the anxiety stirred up in me and make space—in our collective future—for hope.


So I wrote a reverse erasure of the article, a form I invented that moves from the article’s last word towards its opening. I crafted the poem backwards to, word by word, reverse the article’s powerful spell.


These poems were written in a seven-year period when our teenaged children were starting to look ahead to college and envision a life beyond us, and then leaving for the new homes they’d chosen.


Their absence was a “Really Big One” I felt reverberating through my body; in the house our family’s lived in for over 20 years, I was startled and unsettled by the vast silence that remained in their wake.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Dear Future to me represents a very basic but profoundly universal plea: that everything in the end will be okay.


At this year’s AWP conference, a woman walked up to my press’s table and stood there silently for a long time, staring wide-eyed at my cover. Eventually, she said—whispered, actually—that she’s kept a journal her entire life and starts each day’s entry “Dear future.”


I’m hoping that my title conveys—along with some concern and anxiety—her beautifully intimate, vulnerable tone.

Q: The poet Diane Seuss said of the collection, “In this vastly human, deeply honest collection, Richter revels in enjambments that jolt us like an earthquake, like love.” What do you think of that description?


A: My enjambed, unpunctuated lines are mirroring the breathlessness, urgency, and periodic panic I experienced while writing these poems.


I’d never written consistently in that form and didn’t consciously choose it; early poems for the collection just showed up like that, and the form continued to feel right for the project.


The book, to my mind, is one long love letter to my family; the fact that Seuss pairs love and earthquakes delights me, because fueling the book is the belief that love—in the face of small- and large-scale disasters—is perhaps the one equal-but-opposite force we can call upon to settle us, save us.


Q: What do you think the poems say about motherhood?


A: It’s one of the great privileges of my life, getting to be part of our grown children’s daily lives, and I hope the collection conveys that. Dear Future is a portrait of the ways we—as communities, families, and individuals (mothers!)—cycle through periods of shattering and healing.


To my mind, the first shattering is giving birth: the mother’s body and heart blown open. From that moment, I think mothers become very familiar with struggle and recovery—often cycling through them many times in a single day, other times over a period of many years.


I hope that, all my life, my children will see me as a constant source of strength and feel they can turn to me for help; one of the collection’s central tensions is the mother’s ongoing question of when to step back and when to step in.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve been teaching my MFA poetry workshop this spring as Experiments in Ekphrasis, and it’s been wonderful to write poems alongside my students in response to art of other genres.


Perhaps a thread of ekphrastic work will be part of my next collection, but it’s too early to say. Something I love about ekphrasis is its inherent homage to other artists—each poem offering what feels to me like the ultimate compliment: your work inspired mine.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’ll be reading in Portland, Oregon, on May 29 and in Corvallis, Oregon, on May 31; I plan to extend this launch into the summer and fall, traveling perhaps to Chicago, the Bay Area, and Texas, all places where I have dear friends and family.


Dear Future was reviewed on Episode 25 of the VerseCurious podcast, available on Apple Podcasts as well as RedCircle:


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--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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