Joy Harjo thought the phone message she received on May 2 from the Library of Congress was something routine.

“I had worked with the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library in the past,” Harjo said. “When I called back, I was put on hold for a moment, then a woman’s voice came on and said, ‘This is (Librarian of Congress) Carla Hayden, and I want to congratulate you on being named the 23rd poet laureate of the United States.’

“It was a pretty stunning thing to hear,” Harjo said. “It was like a lightning bolt from one of our famous Oklahoma storms.”

Harjo, a Tulsa native and citizen of the Muscogee Creek nation, is the first Native American and first Oklahoman to be selected as the nation’s Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.

The official announcement was made Wednesday by Hayden. Harjo will succeed Tracy K. Smith, who served two terms as poet laureate.

“It’s a huge honor,” Harjo said, who will begin her duties in the fall, starting with opening the library’s annual literary season on Sept. 19 with a reading of her work in the Coolidge Auditorium.

Harjo, who is a member of the 2019 class of Tulsa Artist Fellows, is the author of eight books of poetry, including “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings,” “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky,” which received the Oklahoma Book Arts Award; and “In Mad Love and War,” which received an American Book Award and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award. She is the author of an acclaimed memoir, “Crazy Brave,” and is in the process of editing a major anthology of Native poets.

Her recent honors include the Jackson Prize from Poets & Writers (2019), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation (2017) and the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets (2015). In 2019, she was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Harjo is equally acclaimed as a composer and musician. She plays saxophone with her band, the Arrow Dynamics Band, and previously with Poetic Justice, and has released four award-winning CDs of original music. In 2009, she won a Native American Music Award (NAMMY) for Best Female Artist of the Year. She is currently working on a musical about the Muscogee Creek people’s contributions to the origins of jazz and blues.

Her next book of poems, “An American Sunrise,” to be published by W.W. Norton in August, grew out of Harjo’s tenure at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

“The Muscogee Creek people were all over that area, and we would go to visit all these historical places — some that were marked as historic sites, others that were from family stories,” Harjo said.

“We were getting ready to move back to Tulsa. I asked myself, after seeing all these historic places full of tears, loss and incredible beauty, what did I learn here?” she said. “What did I learn by going back — because we’re often warned not to go back. So these poems are really about that journey. It’s really a celebration of being human.”

That is a quality highlighted by Librarian of Congress Hayden in her announcement.

“Joy Harjo has championed the art of poetry — ‘soul talk’ as she calls it — for over four decades,” Hayden said in a news release from the Library of Congress. “To her, poems are ‘carriers of dreams, knowledge and wisdom,’ and through them she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making. Her work powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us re-imagine who we are.”

Harjo joins a long line of distinguished poets who have served in the position, including Juan Felipe Herrera, Charles Wright, Natasha Trethewey, Philip Levine, W.S. Merwin, Kay Ryan, Charles Simic, Donald Hall, Ted Kooser, Louise Glück, Billy Collins, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass and Rita Dove.

During his or her term, the poet laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry. The library keeps to a minimum the specific duties required of the poet laureate, who opens the literary season in the fall and closes it in the spring.

In recent years, laureates have initiated poetry projects that broaden the audiences for poetry.

“Because I’m in the poetry business,” Harjo said, “I’ve paid a lot of attention to what people have done as poet laureate. Everyone has done something different. I’ve been particularly impressed with things like Tracy K. Smith’s work with poetry in rural communities and Robert Hass and his Watershed project.”

As for what she will focus on during her time as poet laureate, Harjo said, “I have several possibilities in mind, but all involve using poetry to communicate across cultures, to highlight the contributions of Native writers, and work toward the humanization of Native peoples.”

Harjo said that, when she was growing up in Tulsa, “I know a lot of young people were turned off from poetry when the teacher would ask us to ‘tell what the poem means.’ But sometimes, it’s better just to listen. I mean, we all listen to something like ‘Hotel California,’ but could we really explain what it means?

“What is so amazing about poetry is that it’s a way to speak beyond words,” she said. “Every poem is a way to time travel, because reading a poem requires you to slow down.”


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James D. Watts Jr.

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James writes primarily about the visual, performing and literary arts. Phone: 918-581-8478