Joy Harjo: ‘Words were materials – colors and flowers dancing on a page’
Sandra Hale Schulman
Wearing a black suit, long turquoise beaded earrings and silver rings on her heavily tattooed right hand, Joy Harjo strode onto the Crest Theater in Delray Beach stage at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in Florida last week.
As the special guest speaker during the weeklong festival, Harjo appeared for two nights before sold-out crowds of 323 each night. One evening was for an interview, and the other was for a reading and book signing.
As the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate since June, Harjo has been outspoken about injustices done to Natives in the US., something she says she knows firsthand, having grown up with reservation commodity food rations in Oklahoma, a place where she says she faced unspeakable prejudice.
Harjo, who has taught at esteemed universities, is a winner of multiple awards for her writings including the PEN USA Literary Award for Creative Non-Fiction, the American Book Award, the 2015 Wallace Stevens Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She was also inducted into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame.
Harjo, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, was interviewed by the 2019 Santa Barbara Poet Laureate Laure-Anne Bosselaar. She admitted to Bosselaar during the live interview that she was as surprised as anyone when the call came from Washington, D.C., asking if she would like to accept the poet laureate honor.
“I was in shock but immediately said ‘yes’ because I knew what this would mean for Native people,” she said. “It would give a louder voice to us and I could feel doors opening. 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.”
Harjo shared that she had a difficult road before becoming poet laureate. She told the story of how she was kicked out of her troubled abusive home at the age of 16, was a single teenage mother in Oklahoma, and as an artist and writer, had been having visions since “before birth” of a world beyond.
“I grew up with a mother who was into music but a stepfather who was abusive,” Harjo said. “She turned me onto poetry with books and songs.”
She told a story about how easily her innocence was lost as a child.
“I used to play with bees and make family stories with them, moving them freely into place, they never hurt me. My mother's friend saw what I was doing one day and yelled to stop it they’ll sting you, and as soon as she said that to me they did,” she said. “I never played with them again.”
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As she grew older, Harjo said she turned to painting after having a breakdown with two young children. She then said she discovered the power of writing. “It was the spirit of poetry that reached out in the doorway between panic and love” when she was unsure of what to do with the roiling waves of creativity urging her on. At first.
Harjo explained how she watched a Native performer merging song with dance and spoken words. She had a breakthrough that poetry could be her path.
Harjo said she realized it was a way artists could “write about our lives.”
“From a distance, I saw what I could participate in. I wrote my way through, words were materials – colors and flowers dancing on a page instead of a paintbrush. I thought back to when I was 8 years old and got a poetry book from my mother, ‘The Golden Book of Poetry,’ but it was all different types of voices, nothing from my life,” she said. “After all the abuse I had been through, I saw this as a way to transform what is harsh into something nourishing.”
Harjo shared her first poem, titled “Fear Poem,” or “I Give You Back:”
I release you, my beautiful and terrible fear.
I release you.
You were my beloved and hated twin, but now, I don’t know you as myself.
I release you with all the pain I would know at the death of my children.
You are not my blood anymore.
Harjo then dove into the world of writing. She has since released several books of poetry along with a memoir, “Crazy Brave,” that details her path.
“I 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. As a seer and mystic poets generally have to learn to listen to what is beyond the pain of your people, to the atrocities against Natives, even to that place where the man you adore is coming at you,” she said. “A mystic is looking into a 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.”
Harjo spoke to how her position as poet laureate could help Indian Country.
“As someone who works with young people, I’m alarmed at the Natives highest rate of suicide, what can poetry do in my position? I try and find pathways to healing, go through the wound, sometimes with words, sometimes with music, if we don’t feel connected to our soul,” she said. “Art can be medicine for the nation and bridges to one another. If we listen we can hear, follow that vibration.”
Harjo performed after her talk the following night. She showcased her award-winning saxophone playing, an instrument she took up at age 40.
She has five award-winning CDs of music including the award-winning album “Red Dreams,” “A Trail Beyond Tears” and “Winding Through the Milky Way,” which won a Native American Music Award for Best Female Artist of the Year in 2009.
Harjo’s most recent book of poetry is ”An American Sunrise,” and she is working on an anthology release this year.
See her website for a schedule of upcoming events.
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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