I was elated to discover that the Library of Congress has appointed Joy Harjo to a second term as United States Poet Laureate!
In addition to her poetry, music, and speaking engagements, Harjo is working on two exciting projects. According to the Library of Congress, one is “Living Nations, Living Words: A Map of First Peoples Poetry…a web mapping application geared toward storytelling, to showcase contemporary Native American poets from across the country,” billed as Harjo’s “signature laureate project.”
The second project is hot off the press, released August 25, 2020, When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, where “Joy Harjo gathers the work of more than 160 poets, representing nearly 100 indigenous nations, into the first historically comprehensive Native poetry anthology,” says Google Books.
Wow and wow. Impressive and much-needed creations. Thank you, Joy Harjo.
Harjo’s memoir Crazy Brave, is a great place to begin acquainting oneself with this intriguing woman.
Jam-packed with powerful life experiences, what struck me most in Harjo’s story is her belief and trust in the knowing; how she tunes into the ancestors’ wisdom and warnings. When times are most challenging and Harjo needs to make a difficult decision, she listens.
For example, while contemplating hitchhiking from her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma to San Francisco to escape her stepfather’s tyranny, she heeds the knowing and doesn’t go:
“Though I was blurred with fear, I could still hear and feel the knowing. The knowing was my rudder, a shimmer of intelligent light, unerring in the midst of this destructive, terrible, and beautiful life. It is a strand of the divine, a pathway for the ancestors and teachers who love us”(Brave 81).
A few years later, back in Oklahoma, sixteen and pregnant, she roams the streets for clarity:
“As I walked, I could hear my abandoned dreams making a racket in my soul. They urged me out the door or up in the night, so they could speak to me. They wanted form, line, story, and melody and did not understand why I had made this unnecessary detour.
‘Think for yourself, girl.’
‘Your people didn’t walk all that way just so you could lay down their dreams’”(Brave 135).
One of Harjo’s big breaks comes in 1967 when she is accepted to the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), a progressive high school in Santa Fe:
“As we made art, attended cultural events, struggled with family and tribal legacies, we sensed that we were at the opening of an enormous indigenous cultural renaissance, poised at the edge of an explosion of ideas that would shape contemporary Indian art in the years to come. The energy crackled. It was enough to propel the lost children within us to start all over again. We honed ourselves on that energy, were tested by it, destroyed and recreated by it”(Brave 87).
Although it wasn’t an easy, clear path following her attendance at this school, Harjo never lost sight of that energy and has continually created from that energy, an impressive smorgasbord: drawing and painting, stories and poetry, and music, lots of music.
At IAIA, the arts provided an outlet she desperately needed:
“I marked myself once with a knife. I was disappearing into the adolescent sea of rage and destruction. The mark of pain assured me of my own reality. The cut could speak. It had a voice that cried out when I could not make a sound in my defense. I never made such a mark again. Instead I chose to slash art onto canvas, to pencil marks onto paper, and when I could no longer carry the burden of history, I found other openings. I found stories”(Brave 91).
She embraced music too. To date Harjo has five award winning albums and she currently tours, sometimes playing solo and other times with a band. She sings and plays flute and saxophone. She learned to play saxophone when she was forty, inspired by her grandmother, whose name she chose for her own:
“In the early 1900s, my grandmother Naomi Harjo learned to play the saxophone. I can feel her now when I play the instrument we both loved and love. The saxophone is so human. Its tendency is to be rowdy, edgy, talk too loud, bump into people, say the wrong words at the wrong time, but then, you take a breath all the way from the center of the earth and blow. All that heartache is forgiven. All that love we humans carry makes a sweet, deep sound and we fly a little”(Sunrise 77).
Yet center stage for Harjo is poetry: “I had no way to translate the journey and what I would find there until I found poetry”(Brave 25). Harjo has published nine books of poetry.
Her most recent, An American Sunrise, arose from the journey she made home, east of the Mississippi, “I returned to see what I would find in these lands we were forced to leave behind”(Sunrise 5).
In the introduction to the book, Harjo reminds us, “On May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson unlawfully signed the Indian Removal Act to force move southeastern peoples from our homelands to the West.”
An American Sunrise includes passages of history, such as the one above. These devastating and enraging historical facts frame the poetry, poetry that sings songs of pain and loss, beauty and hope.
Here’s one section, ‘We are still in mourning’, from the longer poem, Exile of Memory:
The children were stolen from these beloved lands by the government.
Their hair was cut, their toys and handmade clothes ripped
From them. They were bathed in pesticides
And now clean, given prayers in a foreign language to recite
As they were lined up to sleep alone in their army-issued cages.
Another of Harjo’s poems Singing Everything, traces loss, longing and a possible way back:
Once there were songs for everything.
Songs for planting, for growing, for harvesting,
For eating, getting drunk, falling asleep,
For sunrise, birth, mind-break, and war.
For death (those are the heaviest songs and they
Have to be pried from the earth with shovels of grief).
Now all we hear are falling-in-love songs and
Falling apart after falling in love songs.
The earth is leaning sideways
And a song is emerging from the floods
And fires. Urgent tendrils lift toward the sun.
You must be friends with silence to hear.
The songs of the guardians of silence are the most powerful –
They are the most rare. (Sunrise 53)
In her life and in her art, Harjo addresses some of the most difficult issues, such as addiction: “Heroin is a fool companion offering freedom from the gauntlet of history…/Enough chemicals and processed craving/And you can’t push away from the table,”(Sunrise 11).
And another one, patriarchy: “with our mother’s own loathing set in place by patriarchal scripture, the smothering rules to stop insurrection by domesticated slaves…wives. It hurt everybody’s song. The fathers cannot know what they are feeling in such a spiritual backwash”(Sunrise 93).
Harjo does not shy away from asking poignant questions, as in For Those Who Would Govern:
First question: Can you first govern yourself?
Second question: What is the state of your own household?
Third question: Do you have a proven record of community service and compassionate acts?
Fourth question: Do you know the history and laws of your principalities?
Fifth question: Do you follow sound principles? Look for fresh vision to lift all the inhabitants of the land, including animals, plants, elements, all who share this earth?
Sixth question: Are you owned by lawyers, bankers, insurance agents, lobbyists, or other politicians, anyone else who would unfairly profit by your decisions?
Seventh question: Do you have authority by the original keepers of the lands, those who obey natural law and are in the service of the lands on which you stand? (Sunrise 74)
I was drawn to read An American Sunrise out loud, which is unusual for me. Something about Harjo’s poetry makes me want to speak it, bring it vocally into the room to fill up the space. People say that when Harjo reads her poetry, she performs and often sings it.
When Oprah Winfrey asked Joy Harjo what being named 2019 United States Poet Laureate means to her, she said, “It honors native people and my ancestors and the ancestors that feed the poetry, that have kept us alive and thriving through all of it.” We are so fortunate to have her in this role for another year!
Thank you Joy Harjo for listening to the knowing and sharing it with us.
Joy Harjo is a #NastyWomanWriter.
© Maria Dintino 2019
Harjo, Joy. An American Sunset. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2019.
Harjo, Joy. Crazy Brave: A Memoir. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012.