Jennifer Richter’s Relief through Nature

By Scott Bartley


Readers have enjoyed the work of Jennifer Richter (ΦBK, Indiana University, 1991) in journals such as Poetry, the anthology A Fierce Brightness: Twenty-five Years of Women’s Poetry, and in her bestselling book Threshold (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009). Now she’ll be reaching a different audience through an unconventional medium. Painted on glass overlaying a 9’ x 9’ photograph of wildflowers, a poem of hers will be installed on the Labor and Delivery floor of Kaiser Permanente’s Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro, Oregon, scheduled to open August 2013.


Richter’s poem is one of seven chosen from 400 submissions by local artists. The contest aimed to furnish the hospital with poems of four lines or fewer that provided “tranquil relief through nature”  with “life-affirming styles,” according to the call for submissions. Never before having written a commissioned poem, Richter comments that “at first it felt oddand restrictiveto be aware of a specific audience during the writing process.” Overcoming initial feelings of restriction, Richter balanced her personal poetic voice with the requirement to deliver a message to her audience. The poem reads:


          My daughter opens buds before they’ve bloomed,

          a careful peek into each sweet secret center.

          Only three, she knows already they’re wise inside— 

          the flowers saying Look at all this light.


Richter tempers the specificity of “my daughter,” “only three,” with the universality of what she describes as “a gorgeous symbol for us all”: “flowers bending toward the light.” Throughout, a conversational diction keeps the poem open to all who will encounter it.


Richter attributes part of her facility in navigating the competition’s demands to the fact that she could have been the poem’s intended audience. She herself is a mother and for six years spent time in hospitals, battling a mysterious, chronic illness. But the poem’s focus on outreach should also be attributed to a strand that runs through all of Richter’s life and work. She taught in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University for four years, but at the same time led a poetry workshop for recovering substance abusers at the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco.


Richter, the current Visiting Poet in Oregon State University’s MFA Program, owes her own start to another poet’s egalitarian embrace. In fifth grade, she won a writing contest to attend Gwendolyn Brooks’s Young Authors Conference in Illinois, where Brooks was Poet Laureate. Richter still remembers how Brooks “spoke to us like we were her peers.” Richter acknowledges that while “poetry makes some people feel excluded,” she prefers to help her students “approach a poem as more of an open doora personal invitation to come in and make themselves comfortable,” a preference that Kaiser Permanente is supporting, too.

Scott Bartley is a new Phi Beta Kappa member from Amherst College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English. Amherst is home to the Beta of Massachusets chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.


Richter Poem