U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo on In the Moment
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Books Written by Joy Harjo
Books by Joy Harjo
photo by Lori Walsh

Joy Harjo says our nation has a broken heart. Poetry is a way to speak beyond words, and Harjo’s role as the new United States Poet Laureate includes an opportunity to not only advocate for poetry, but to show America how the story of American poetry is deeply informed by the story of Native American poetry.

Harjo is an internationally renowned performer and writer of the Muscogee Creek Nation. She joined In the Moment on November 19, ahead of her visit to Brookings.

Lori W.:
Welcome to In The Moment. I'm Lori Walsh. Joy Harjo, the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States is coming to Brookings on December 4th for a book discussion and poetry reading at the Oscar Larson Performing Arts Center on the campus of South Dakota State University. That event is free, but tickets are required. Joy Harjo is author of eight books of poetry and a memoir, Crazy Brave. Her many honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Jackson Poetry prize, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts award and the Lifetime Achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her latest book of poetry is called An American Sunrise and she joins me now on the phone. Joy Harjo, welcome. Thank you for making time for us today.

Joy H.:
Yeah, it's good to be talking to you. It's been a long time since I've been to Brookings.

Lori W.:
Let's talk about some of your South Dakota connections. Tell me a little bit about how your life has intersected with South Dakota and with people from South Dakota, from the tribes in South Dakota.

Joy H.:
I've been through there several times. Once I was part of a casting crew. I was working on a film for Nebraska Educational TV and I've been to Yankton many times. Standing Rock, I went there. I didn't make it up recently. I wasn't able to, but I was up in that community probably in the '70s or early '80s and just through the years I've had many, many visits up that way.

Lori W.:
You write in “Crazy Brave” about that time in the '70s where there was really this indigenous artistic renaissance and your connections with so many other artists. Did that period continue? Do you see that that is still happening today — that artistic output and celebration of the arts and activism?

Joy H.:
Certainly being at IA (Institute of American Indian Arts) and being part of that, or watching it happen, or being inside it while it was happening, caused a major shift. I think it's probably connected to all of them and maybe activism. Just to be a native person is an event of activism. Just our presence here, our presence here in this country.

Lori W.:
During your childhood, you inhabit this really poetic place, and you tell stories about playing with bees, for example, and not getting stung. There are many examples of how you're in this space that some people wouldn't recognize. How do you look now, as an adult, back at your childhood and connect that with poetry?

Joy H.:
I think as children, for one, we're closer to that door of emergence where we came from, and we're still connected to our creed. We realize that we're creative souls. We don't need anyone to tell us. Children are just naturally open and creative and a lot of times in our educational system, we start to shut down. We start to shut down with challenges. If that part of ourselves is to create, if our spirits are sad, that kind of creativity can be shut down, especially in a society that doesn't value what it means to be a creative person, an artist.

Lori W.:
How has that shown up in your life — people not valuing you as an artist, you as a poet, you as a musician? What does that look like in your life?

Joy H.:
I'd rather look at people who were wonderful and helped out. Sometimes it's even just the small things. I was an art student at the University of New Mexico and I would go into this art supply store. I remember going in and seeing Pablita Velarde who was an amazing Pueblo painter. She looked over at me and gave me a big smile, and it was a welcome — like, yes, here we're native women, native women making art. It was just like my grandmother and my aunt, my aunt who I was so close to. Small things like that matter. Then I've had some incredible teachers through my life. I would prefer to think of them and how I got help. It’s often in those small moments of affirming someone's existence or their gift, whether they're a child or someone older.

Lori W.:
And you're that person who does that for so many others now, especially in this new platform as U.S. Poet Laureate. Are you recognizing those people that you can tell when you meet them just by the looks on their faces, that you are opening that door for them — that you are affirming for them their own poetry, their own value, their own expression?

Joy Harjo. Photo by Paul Abdoo, courtesy of Blue Flower Arts



Joy H.:
Well, that's the gift of this position. It's an honor and there's a lot of responsibility, but the gift of it is that just coming in at this time as a native woman, as a poet in a time like this. You know, the country is split and it's a broken heart essentially. Stepping into the position at this time, is a doorway and in that doorway there's not going to be any fixing of that broken heart until all the stories of the people of this country are acknowledged. Poetry can do that. Poetry is a way to speak beyond words. I think of all the native poets. A lot of people will say they've never even known there was a native poet. What this position says is, yes, there are native poets. Yes, we're human beings. It really does come down to that level. Yes, we write poems. It's not just me. We have hundreds, hundreds of native poets, very young and older than me.

Lori W.:
And it says something. People have commented on what it means at this particular day and age in American history that they chose you, that they chose a Native American poet. At a time when there is brokenheartedness they said, this is who we need right now, this voice. Turn your ears in this direction, please. What do you see your role as during your tenure? What do you have in mind?

Joy H.:
Well, I'm a poetry ambassador for everyone or for the poetry, for the art of poetry. But what's important is that the country see how we're connected, native poets. It's important that they know we're all still here. There's over 500 something federally recognized tribal nations and that there are many poets. There are many who start to listen. Poetry is an art. We all need it. We can all use it. I helped edit along with many, many of our best native poets a Norton Anthology of Poetry, of native poetry. It's from the oldest poets, poems you find mostly in English, some in our native languages, to the most recent youngest poets. That's going to be part of it, to show that we're also part of this whole story, the story of poetry, the American story of poetry, just like we're essential to the American story of history, of what this country is.

Lori W.:
What are some of the early representations of poetry? Are they all tied to music and song and prayer? What are you finding some of those early representations are?

Joy H.:
I think the earliest one we have is from the Kumulipo, which is the Hawaiian creation story and beautiful poetry from that. I think most poetry of the world is not written down. When I went to look for poetry after I studied poetry and read poetry — we sing it and we speak it. It's an incredible very Muskogee type of speech-making that goes on in the circles. It’s sheer poetry. It’s an art form. So we have examples of some of those earliest poems. The earliest poem in English we have is by a young native man who passed really young. His name was <Elieser,> and we don't know his tribal affiliation. He was published by Cotton Mather of all people. (editor’s note: Cotton Mather was a Puritan minister known for his influence in the Salem Witch trials.) I think the youngest poet is a young Dene/Navajo poet Jake Skeets who has a new book out.

Lori W.:
You mentioned music, and music is such a part of your life. Will you tell us about finding music for the first time? It’s such an important formative story that I think a lot of people who follow your work know. But for people who don't know: What's one of your earliest memories of experiencing and discovering jazz and music?

Joy H.:
Yes, that moment. It was back when there were no seatbelts. I was in my favorite place in the car. My dad always had a really nice car. He used his Indian oil royalty money to upgrade his cars. I think it was a black Cadillac. I remember sitting behind him and smelling Old Spice. I loved the radio, and I was probably about three years old, maybe four, and the radio was on. I heard this sound. I realize now it was a Miles Davis trumpet. I went into this space, you could call it an intuitive kind of space. I went into this space where I experienced everything in that moment. It’s like I kind of walked through time, and I could see my parents from a distance as if I were much older. It was a moment of having compassion for that moment — and hearing — and my ears opening or being opened by that sound of that Miles Davis horn.

Lori W.:
You write about this bending of time and the way time is folded in “An American “Sunrise,” about riding in your car on the road to Atlanta. <In this poem> you're an adult. You're driving, and you have this time bending moment where things that happened in the past are happening right now. Do you think poetry keeps you connected to those kinds of experiences?

Joy H.:
I think so. Anyone who's practicing their art, you'd go into that — you're quiet. What happens in the quiet? Well, you're no longer hearing the sound of your voice yammering. The quiet opens many, many doors into imagination, into the ancestral zone, into the place where you hear the plants, and the stones. Artists create out of that kind of space and we all need it. It's (available) less and less these days when everyone has constant access to anything you can find on the Internet. It’s cut out a lot of that creative listening time so that we learn not to listen, not just to each other, but not even to ourselves.

Lori W.:
Is everyone, in that sense, a poet. Can anyone write poetry? Can anyone connect with poetry? Who is poetry for, and how do you view those big-picture questions about poetry.

Joy H.:
You don't have to be a poet to write poetry. It’s a useful tool for getting to know what's going on. There’s something very satisfying about being able to move your body to music, or move your mind — move your words — to a kind of word music, or to paint something with images to a poem, or move towards a kind of knowing that wasn't there when you started writing with your pen or pencil or on the computer. We come to poetry for understanding, for places of transformation, like birth and death or falling in love — any of those points where we witness something that terrifies us or gives us great awe or small, momentary awe. It’s a useful and incredible tool.

Lori W.:
“An American Sunrise” is described as a dialogue with history as you revisit some of these places where people were forced to leave everything behind. And yet you also evoke a strong sense of presence for people who are currently being forced to leave a place they love behind. How do you see that connection — that connection between the Trail of Tears and the current migrations people are facing today.

Joy Harjo, photo by Matika Wilbur


Joy H.:
I start the book with a quote by one of the survivors of the Trail of Tears who says when they made it to Indian territory, to Oklahama, they killed all of our babies. It’s a terrifying thought to lose all of our children. When I think about the border, I think about how a lot of what's going on politically in this country is same thing going on during the time of Andrew Jackson. It's a very similar kind of time. Andrew Jackson illegally forced the removal of many, many tribal groups in the Southeast and around the country — out of their homelands. There's a similar thing going on at the border because for the most part, those are indigenous peoples and there are old migration routes.

Universal law states — it is built into every cell of our hearts — you do not harm children. You do not bring intentional harm to children and families. That's what's being done in our name here in this country. And that's what was done in the name of the country during removal, when our children were either killed on the Trail of Tears or taken away to be raised without their families, without their languages, without their home in order to break the heart of the people — to destroy the people.

Lori W.:
As part of that conversation, do you see, do you feel sometimes poetry is the best way to address that part of a larger tapestry, is it inadequate? Do you have a sense of how poetry intersects with meaning during such challenging, historical times?

Joy H.:
One art form cannot address everything we need. All the different art forms have ways of expressing ourselves towards a compassionate world, and poetry is part of that. Poetry is one of the tools. There are many tools.

Lori W.:
One of the things that struck me about “Crazy Brave,” the memoir, was what you call “the knowing” that has served you throughout your life. I guess I would have called it intuition if I was talking about myself, but you have this deeper sense of “the knowing” and being in tune. Tell us a little bit about what you mean when you say that and how you can tap into that knowing to help find direction in your own life.

Joy H.:
I tried to find a way to talk about that in “Crazy Brave” because it's something that is inborn with everyone. Look around in the space and there are all kinds space, all kinds of of frequencies. I guess for me the knowing came at a very young age. Even as a little child I liked the company in that space, I liked being in that space. I liked a lot of time alone; I still like a lot of time alone to be in that. I think every human being needs that. Ultimately it’s about knowing yourself which is about knowing the world. If you don’t understand yourself you’re not going to be able to connect to anyone else either.


Lori W.:
That says a lot, right?

Joy, H.:

Yeah, right.

Lori W.:

Joy Harjo we're looking so forward to welcoming you back to South Dakota and to Brookings for the upcoming event. We really appreciate your time for South Dakota Public Radio listeners today as well.

Joy H.:
Thanks so much and I look forward to visiting there soon.

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United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo joined In the Moment on November 19, 2019.

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Joy Harjo Reads “Grace”

Recently appointed U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo stopped by the Academy of American Poets for a pop-up reading on June 17, 2019. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1951, Joy Harjo is a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation. She is the author of several books of poetry, including An American Sunrise, which is forthcoming from W. W. Norton in 2019, and Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (W. W. Norton, 2015).