Joy Harjo knew her life was going to change when she answered a telephone call from the Librarian of Congress.
Carla Hayden called Harjo earlier this year to tell the Tulsa native and member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation she had been selected to be the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States.
“I knew that everything was going to change the moment I said yes,” Harjo said. “I just had no idea exactly how it was going to change, though. There is nothing that can really prepare you for something like this.”
On June 19, Harjo became the first Native American and the first Oklahoman to hold the position of U.S. Poet Laureate, joining a list of distinguished poets that includes W.S. Merwin, Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Donald Hall and Tracy K. Smith.
According to the Library of Congress, the U.S. Poet Laureate is “the nation’s official poet,” whose work is “to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.”
The specific official duties of the position are kept “to a modest minimum,” according the Library of Congress, “to afford each incumbent maximum freedom to work on his or her own projects while at the Library.”
Harjo officially began her tenure as Poet Laureate on Sept. 19, with a public reading as part of the annual literary series at the Library of Congress. Interest in her presentation was such that the crowd filled the library’s Coolidge Auditorium and two overflow rooms. It was also distinctive for being perhaps the first time such a presentation featured the U.S. Poet Laureate performing with her band (Harjo is also an award-winning musician).
Since then, she has been on the move almost continuously, traveling around the country to give readings of her work, often featuring poems from her most recent collection, “An American Sunrise,” to taking part in the special Academy Awards Governors’ Award ceremony to present fellow Oklahoman Wes Studi with his honorary Oscar, from giving lectures about the place of poetry in people’s lives to championing other native poets.
“I’m probably the first native poet that most people have ever heard of, because of this position,” Harjo said. “But there are many great native poets working today. So whatever I do as Poet Laureate will really be about placing native poets on the literary map, so to speak — to make sure people know that we are still here, and that our voices are heard.”
Sharing poetry and giving back
One of the ways Harjo plans to accomplish this goal is through a project that began before she was named Poet Laureate.
Harjo is the lead editor for the forthcoming “When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry,” set to be published in the fall of 2020.
“I really see this as a service position, not a ceremonial one,” she said. “It’s about honoring poetry, and sharing poetry, even with audiences who think they don’t like poetry. So it’s important for me to be out there, even though I’m really a very private person who would love to be able to be at home in Oklahoma, with my family, with my tribe.
“I’m going to be doing what I’ve been doing for the past 50 years — it’s just that the intensity has changed,” she said. “And I know whatever has been given to me does not belong to me. It’s part of Tulsa, of Oklahoma, of the Muscogee Creek people, of the country.”
Harjo’s own poetic voice first began to be heard when she was in her 20s.
“It kind of surprised me,” she said. “I grew up in a house just off of Admiral Boulevard, and there were no poets anywhere around there. Of course, I read poetry, but in no way did I have any idea that I would become a poet. I mean, it’s not something that comes up on career day at school.”
Harjo’s first artistic interest was in painting, which led to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“That was where I first started meeting people who actually were writing poetry,” she said. “But it wasn’t until I attended the University of New Mexico, where I heard a lot of contemporary native poets and got involved in the KIVA Club (a student organization that, at the time, was involved in the efforts to fight for civil rights for native peoples), that something really galvanized me. I just started writing and it took over. I certainly didn’t plan it.”
A distinguished career
Planned or not, Harjo’s career as a writer has resulted in eight books of poetry, an award-winning memoir, “Crazy Brave,” and honors that include the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas, the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, and the Ruth Lilly Prize in Poetry.
Harjo said she also really had not planned on her latest collection, “An American Sunrise,” which grew out of her recent tenure teaching in Tennessee, and revisiting historic Muscogee Creek lands and hearing family and tribal stories.
“Usually I sort of accumulate a bunch of poems and then start searching through them to find themes might run through them,” Harjo said. “But this book surprised me by its appearance. It kind of came out all together.”
It includes a poem Harjo said was one of the most difficult she’s ever written, “Washing My Mother’s Body,” a loving description of her memories of her mother, as she imagines the gentle ministrations Harjo was not able to show her mother after death.
“I didn’t expect to write that poem,” she said. “It was just one of those things that asserted itself and just came out of me. And I realized later that I really needed to write that poem. I was not in control of what happened with my mother when she died, and poetry gave me the ability to go back in time and take care of what I needed to do. And it was very helpful for me.
“And I think, for people who may be afraid of poetry, or haven’t much experience with it, this is a way to explain the power of poetry,” Harjo said. “Poetry is what we turn to in times of transformation — births, deaths, marriage, falling in love, falling out of love, death. We always turn to poetry at these times, whether it’s a Psalm from the Bible, a classic poem or something newly written. Poetry speaks to our history, and holds our spirit — it tells us who we are as a culture, as a people.”
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