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Joy to the world

Tulsa’s Joy Harjo becomes the first Indigenous U.S. Poet Laureate

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo

Shawn Miller, Library of Congress

From her 10 collections of poetry to her memoir Crazy Brave (2012), Joy Harjo blends traditions and myths drawn from her Muscogee (Creek) heritage, poignant insights into relationships and ordinary life, the power of womanhood, and a language that confronts both the spiritual and natural worlds. Her place among American poets reached its highest recognition on June 19 when she was named U.S. Poet Laureate—the first Indigenous writer to ever hold the honor.  

Harjo speaks truth to power regarding the significance of Native American life and its complex role in world history. Her poems are studied in high schools and universities across the globe. Harjo’s work draws from her early years in Tulsa, her time studying in New Mexico, and her early career traveling and writing. But in her poem “The Last Song” (1975), Harjo writes, “oklahoma will be the last song / i’ll ever sing.”

Mason Whitehorn Powell: First off, congratulations from myself and The Tulsa Voice.

Joy Harjo: Aw, thank you.

Powell: Where were you when you received the news?

Harjo: I was sitting here in my studio on Archer [Street] and I had been sent a message a day or two before asking if I had time to speak—they just had a simple question and I figured it was about something else. So when I called and got the news from the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, to tell me they wanted me to be the 23rd U.S. Poet Laureate it was—it’s a momentous event. What can you say? Nothing compares to it except maybe a kind of tornado that works in another direction.

Powell: Since the announcement, you’ve commented that this accomplishment is bigger than yourself. Can you talk about that?

Harjo: When I say it’s “bigger than myself,” it brings honor to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, to all those relatives and ancestors on both sides of my family that have everything to do with the poetry in the first place. It’s an accomplishment that represents—I can’t represent everybody—but it’s symbolic I suppose. It’s an honor that extends to and opens the door for all Indigenous poets and writers, and young writers and poets everywhere who often come up through different pathways than the usual trajectory of a poet.

Powell: In what ways have you noticed the landscape of Indigenous poetry change since your first publication, The Last Song,  in 1975? 

Harjo: Oh, it’s so different now. The Last Song came out when I was an undergrad student at The University of New Mexico and I had gone from being a pre-med back to art and then eventually a creative writing degree—and there was no internet then, no cellphones, no texting; it was such a different world. Publishing was a different world. It’s shifted greatly.

I came in at a time when there was a great flowering of Native poets and writers, multicultural writers—African American, Mexican American, Chicano, Asian American—it was a huge flowering going on in the late ‘70s. And then through the ‘80s and ‘90s it started to get a little thin, but lately there’s been this huge blossoming again of Native poets, so much that there are three major anthologies of Native poetry coming out—two of them are out, and another one is getting ready to be published next fall. None of them are repetitive; there’s so much going on. So many fine young Native poets.

Powell: What’s in store? What’s the future for Native poets and writers?

Harjo: Let’s see, the future. Well poetry is the art that often speaks beyond what you know and it can often be prophetic. Sometimes I think of a poem like a pocket—a kind of basket or container that contains a particular moment in history and time, and usually there’s a season and a part of land associated with it; and when you enter that space and come out the other side of a poem, you’ve been changed. Also, if you’ve listened, you know yourself a little better.

Powell: More than most poets, your work has a very strong spiritual element. What’s it like translating those aspects of your life into words?

Harjo: I don’t know that I try to do it consciously, I just do what I was given to do. That means I write about sort of what nudges me or taps me on the shoulder and what touches me. A lot of people have the misconception that poets—that our lives just go from inspiration to inspiration and if we’re not inspired then we do crazy things to make ourselves inspired. But it’s often a lonely art, and you get to know yourself because you spend long hours sitting and thinking and not thinking and reading and engaging—really engaging with the unseen presence of what words mean, how they mean, history, the earth-herself and so on. That’s what we poets do and then we render our perceptions and the sounds and the questions and the understandings, we render them into these constructions called “poems.”

Powell: I’m curious about how you approach cultural trauma and other historical elements in your work. I think it’s a sensitive subject and it’s often hard for non-Natives to understand these issues.

Harjo: Well I think every book I’ve done has everything to do with cultural trauma. I see almost every poem as some sort of investigation of it, triumph over it, or acknowledgement of it. 

Powell: Do you think that today in the 21st century, younger Indigenous people might be in some ways further from those cultural traumas? How can they understand their history and connect with it in a meaningful way?

Harjo: Oh, I don’t think they’re far from it at all. They may not know the exact names, they may not know the exact details, but they carry it. We carry these things forward until we undo the knot, until we find a way to transform the materials into something beautiful and useful. So they’re doing the same thing. They’re dealing with so much. I really feel for these young people.

Powell: Thank you for saying that. I can only approach this from my own Osage perspective. We always have to understand that there’s so many other Indigenous cultures and peoples, and sometimes it’s hard to bridge those gaps of understanding. 

Harjo: There are. I think most of the country doesn’t realize that we’re such diverse nations: Indigenous Nations—that’s a particular layer, and then you have the layer of immigrant cultures which are very diverse. I mean there’s diversity even in a family. We’re all not the same person. We may have very divergent takes on culture and the world. We’re not a stereotype. We’re not one person. We’re not locked back with the Calvary killing us all off. We’re here and we’re vibrant and living and we have so many stories to tell and so many songs to sing—we’ve barely touched it. So, the young people have so much to explore and so much work to do alongside the rest of us who have been at it for such a long time.

Powell: An American Sunrise is forthcoming this year. What can readers expect from this new collection? 

Harjo: That collection is built around—well, one of the American stories, which is the removal of Native peoples from the east to Oklahoma, so I take a particular thread with that from my own family. Following one Trail of Tears for one part of my family—there were many of them—because there’s a lot of relatives and a lot of family lines [that] go into a genealogy. So I follow one of my sets of grandparents, their trail, and it’s about how we got here, and maybe where we’re going.

Powell: What does it mean to you personally to return to Tulsa as a Tulsa Artist Fellow and be firmly rooted in that place right now?

Harjo: Well, coming home is a long, long story [laughs]. There’s a lot of artists all over the world. There’s always this story of people all over the world, of leaving and coming back and the return home. I came back in 2011 to help my mother, and when she passed, I had moved back within a month. It surprised me. And I had been gone since I left to go to Indian boarding school in the late ‘60s. So, that was a big thing, to come back, because it meant facing all the challenges I fled from—you always have to come back and face them. But it also meant a renewal. It became very clear to me that this is where I was planted, and this is where the rest of my work was to be done. Of course, my work is all over the world, but ever since coming back, everything has clicked into place. It’s interesting. My destiny is so tied in with Oklahoma—it’s so tied in with my Muscogee (Creek) people. I’ve probably known that since I was a little child, because they were always—the ancestors—they’re always with all of us. But I could always feel them right there with me.

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