Joy Harjo: Poetry reminds us we're all connected

Sandra Hale Schulman

Joy Harjo, Muscogee Creek, says being appointed to a second term as U.S. poet laureate is an honor, 'especially during these times of earth transformation and cultural change'

Sandra Hale Schulman

Special to Indian Country Today

To Joy Harjo, poetry is an important reminder that we are all connected through more than words.

And the world needs that now more than ever.

Harjo, Muscogee Creek, has been tapped by the Library of Congress to serve a second term as U.S. poet laureate.

She said the appointment is an honor, "especially during these times of earth transformation and cultural change.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, Harjo’s work has been featured in The Poetry of Home, a new video series from The Washington Post and the Library of Congress featuring four U.S. poet laureates on the theme of “home” at a time when so many people are sheltering in place.

“Poetry reminds us that we are connected beyond words, and to communicate through poetry has the potential to expand the conversation into wordless depths, to help us move collectively into fresh cultural vision,” Harjo said in a statement released by the Library of Congress. "To get there in understanding, we begin with the roots. In this country, the roots are found in the poetry of the more than 500 living Indigenous nations.”

Harjo, 68, was first appointed in 2019, becoming the first Native American to hold the position. She will now serve as the nation’s 23rd poet laureate consultant in poetry for 2020-2021. 

Joy Harjo
(Photo by Matika Wilbur)

Harjo acknowledged at the time that she was as surprised as anyone when the call came from Washington, D.C., asking if she would accept the honor.

“I was in shock but immediately said yes because I knew what this would mean for Native people,” she said during an appearance at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival over the winter. 

“It would give a louder voice to us, and I could feel doors opening," Harjo said. "How many stories of Native people by Native people are out there? Not nearly enough as statistics show the general population doesn’t even think we’re still alive. We are not a big part of the story, but if you look you’ll see we are astronauts, musicians, athletes, and now poet laureates.”

Now with a second term on the way, she can complete the larger online poet mapping project she started in her first term, as well as gear up for the release of “When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry,” to be published by W.W. Norton in August 2020. 

Beginning Sept. 1, Harjo will focus on her signature laureate project, “Living Nations, Living Words: A Map of First Peoples Poetry.” 

Developed as a digital project with the Library’s Geography and Map Division, this web mapping application is geared toward storytelling to showcase contemporary Native American poets from across Indian country.

Included in the project will be Native poets’ biographies, along with recordings of them reading their poems. 

“Joy Harjo is such an inspiring and engaging poet laureate,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said. “I’m thrilled she said yes to a second term to help the Library showcase Native poets from coast-to-coast. Her profound musical and literary talents are a gift to the nation.”

Harjo, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 9, 1951, is the celebrated author of nine books of poetry — including most recently “An American Sunrise,” (W.W. Norton, 2019). Harjo has written a memoir, “Crazy Brave” (W.W. Norton, 2012), that won the 2013 PEN Center USA literary prize for creative nonfiction, as well as a children’s book and a young adult book.

She has taught at UCLA and was until recently a professor and chair of excellence at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She has returned to her hometown, where she holds a Tulsa Artist Fellowship.

When she found her way to poetry, she says she had a "sense of this is what I had to do."

"I had found something in poetry not found in painting that was so compelling. I could write about Native women, fighting for our rights in over 500 tribal nations," she said. "As a seer and a mystic, poets generally have to learn to listen to what is beyond the pain of your people, to the atrocities against Natives. A mystic is looking in to spiritual being. When I write I go into a zone, find a lyricism to the story matrix. My dreams go to another place, I travel. Having stood at the edge of a realm, I saw energy, a luminosity that connects all of us.” 

The goal of the laureate is to seek to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry. In recent years, laureates have initiated poetry projects that broaden the audiences for poetry.

For more information on the Poet Laureate and the Poetry and Literature Center, visit loc.gov/poetry/.

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Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and has produced three films on Native musicians.

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