IAIA - Institute of American Indian Arts

Jennifer Foerster

Alumnus Still Feels IAIA Community

Jennifer Foerster (Muscogee) has her first book of poetry out, Leaving Tulsa, with University of Arizona Press. Jennifer received her BFA in creative writing from IAIA in 2003. She earned a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in poetry from Stanford University in 2008. Jennifer grew up attending international schools in Europe—her father was a diplomat for the U.S. Air Force—and spending summers in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with her grandmother. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College and currently works as a grant writer in San Francisco. Jennifer took a few minutes to share her work and memories of IAIA.

How has IAIA influenced your writing style?

IAIA was the first writing community I was a part of. Before, I didn’t think creative writing was a possibility for me. I’d never been to a poetry class. It was wild. It was the origin of my acceptance of writing in my world. Something really special happened with that group of us writing at IA during those years. Now that circle expands. It feels like we all drink the same water. I’ve been to other writing communities and it doesn’t feel the same way.

      Hear some poems by Jennifer:     

        American Coma

        Going West

        Tracing Magdalena   

How was your experience at Stanford for the Wallace Stegner Fellowship?

At Stanford, it felt like we were peers. It was all about the business and the profession. Who would get published first? There was a lot of competition. With the IA writing community I had the connection of “I truly and deeply support this person and support what they’re doing in the world; it really matters to me and to the world.” At Stegner, I realized the world of writing was very political. Like any world there’s a business side. It was a bit of a reality check of the writing world. But I would do it again. It was a good experience—I was paid for two years to write and go to readings.

Is there one moment that stands out for you at IAIA?

My first day at IA my life changed. I realized, “This is my community now.” I met some of my closest friends on that first day on campus. I realized I wanted to be a part of the student government, to take ceramics classes and work in the studio at night, to study in the writing program.

Arthur (Sze, IAIA professor emeritus) and Jon (Davis, IAIA creative writing professor) let me know early on, yes you can actually do this for a living. It’ll be hard—maybe the hardest job out there—but you can do it. The first time I edited a poem, really edited it and blew it up so it wasn’t even close to what I started with—that’s when I knew. A poem could take ten years; a poem could take me a lifetime. I knew I was willing to do this work forever.

What is the future of Native poetry?

It will be to stop isolating Native people from poetry. The division has always been: refined literature is European; oral storytelling is for Native people. In the Americas, Native literature is very self-absorbed—we don’t know any Canadian writers. So the future is the integration of literatures not included in that Western canon, revising it from the beginning.

What is IAIA’s role in Native literature?

IAIA already has a role, it’s already influenced Native literature. Now the role is to allow the institute and the curriculum to grow with its students. The New Media department is a great example. New students are coming in who know how to manipulate 3-D graphics because of what they grew up watching and playing, and now IAIA can support that medium of storytelling.

Native literature is not defined—it doesn’t have boundaries. That’s the paradox of it. It’s very indeterminate in what it means. The worst thing is to say Native lit is one way and if you don’t conform, you’re not part of it. There’s the same pitfall with Native visual art. What you understand is: these impulses are all true impulses to write. 

What Made IAIA so special for you?

My dad worked as a diplomat for the Air Force so I moved around a lot growing up. IA felt like home to me—it was a community of different tribes. I went to international schools where everyone was from different place, countries and you just accept different ways of speaking, different religions. IA was like that international school.

The key in Native literature, at IAIA, we all form a community, we’re a family but it’s a given that we’re different. At Stanford and Vermont there’s an expectation of monoculture. Like a forced monoculture. There’s a lack of ability to understand differences. IAIA was a relief—it’s a community where we accept each other’s differences.