For Jennifer Richter, poetry is an expression of art that challenges writers to convey the most they can, with the shortest amount of words possible. She calls it the economy of language, and admits that it’s never something that’s easy to follow, but she thrives under the pressure placed on every line, every word. Her life, especially her family, is an ongoing source of inspiration as she continues to gain notoriety as an accomplished poet.
She is currently an instructor of creative writing at Oregon State University, and a 2017 Oregon Book Award Finalist. She’s written two books of poetry, one called Threshold, which became a national bestseller, and the other, No Acute Distress. I was lucky enough late this past summer to ask her a few questions about her life, her work, and her process.
Corvallis Advocate: At what point in your life did you decide to become a writer?
Jennifer Richter: I have always been a writer. My parents recently moved out of the house I grew up in. My mom was the type who saves everything. She unearthed some of my past juvenilia, some old poems of mine. As long as I can remember, I have liked to write creative stuff. I had a high school teacher who let us write creative pieces, instead of always writing essays. I think about that a lot, and how much I appreciated that.
My parents were very supportive of my writing, but I never really knew that I could actually be a writer as a profession. In college, I began to take Creative Writing courses and realized I really liked writing and wanted to go in that direction.
CA: Why Poetry?
JR: As an undergrad, I went to Indiana University. The first class I took there was just a basic creative writing class. I had no idea what style of writing I should be doing. My teacher, Tony Malone, pushed me towards poetry. He said my poems were really good – that if writing poetry was something I wanted to do in life, I could do it.
I don’t know if I could have actually articulated it then, but the reason I have stuck with it and the reason I love the genre is because it is such a distilled little piece of art. That so much is riding on every little word. You can’t get sloppy like you can with sentences. I like that pressure. Especially if I am writing about something that is challenging or difficult. I can’t go on and on about it because I only have so much room to say it. It is a relief, and also a challenge….
I do write things right now called prose poems, they just look like paragraphs. It is a shift from the line to the sentence. The tricky part of that is that you can’t lose the music, you can’t lose the rhythm. You still can’t get sloppy.
Prose poems have helped me to write, and to approach subjects I haven’t known how to address yet. It takes the artifice out of it a little bit.
I wrote a lot about being very ill, about a really dark and difficult time in my life, and I didn’t want to make art out of it. I needed to talk about it and get it out… Neat structured poems were not a good way to describe the kind of life I had been living. That kind of form did not mirror what I was going through. It was unruly, uncontrollable. It seemed false to present it in that way.
CA: What else are you working on?
JR: I am working on a third book of mine. My husband Keith and I joke that our next books are going to be happy books.
The next book – I want it to be about the consideration of gratitude. Also, looking back at that time in my life and how many people supported me. I was in such a survival mode that I did not look up much to recognize how much help we were getting from everyone who stepped up. I want to recognize that, and move forward to the next new chapter of life.
CA: Can you tell me about your writing process?
JR: I write so many drafts. My students don’t believe me. But, I was working on a poem this summer. I worked on it for over a year. Chipping away at it.
My revision process is that in the first draft, I write down anything I might ever say about this thing I am writing about. I just dump it all out. Then the revision process is about pulling out as much as I can from that mind dump. I realize very quickly what the best stuff is. It is about paring it down to the essentials.
In later drafts, I focus on considering the audience and their point of view. I am interested in inviting the reader in. It is a balance.
CA: Where do you get your inspiration?
JR: If I am feeling uninspired, I read… That feels like a way to keep my brain in writing too, by reading.
Also, my kids continue to be incredibly inspiring to me – how they navigate the world and what they think about. Experiencing their fresh vision about whatever is really inspiring to me. They are just wise little human beings. I recharge a lot by just talking with them.
I am obsessed with transitional moments, and they seem to be inhabiting those all the time. As teenagers, they are balancing the transition of being in-between both children and adults.
CA: What poet are you into right now?
JR: Ross Gay. We brought him, last year, as a visiting writer to OSU. He is a powerful, articulate, and amazing poet. I got to meet him, and I love him and his work.
Ross Gay was a 2015 finalist for the National Book Award for his book of poetry Catalog of Unabashed Attitude. An excerpt can be found on the Poetry Foundation website: https://www.poetryfoundation.
CA: Any last thoughts?
JR: I think writing is really hard, and unless you are a writer, I think it is hard to really explain.
Somebody once asked if she could hypnotize me. I said sure, and I don’t actually remember it at all. She did it, and she said I was really easy to hypnotize. She believed I was easy to hypnotize because as a writer who is writing, it is like you are in a kind of trance state. You are tapping into your subconscious. Every writer knows that feeling of being in the “zone”. They have already trained themselves to go into a trance state. Writers kind of naturally go into that state all the time.
By Jennifer Moreland
to a doctor before they are interrupted.
– New York Times, 11/30/05
It started right here, the back of my head.
The ache, the throb, the stab: it isn’t those
that keep me up. I’m in a separate bed.
(Fragile. Don’t Touch. Perishable.) We make
our kids keep quiet inside. Nobody’s fine.
You know that ad–some New York hospital–
a family’s silhouette in sepia?
Think how many hearts are saved by treating
only one. How many more are wrecked
with every round of inconclusive tests?