First Native American to be named U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, a Member of the Muscogee Creek Nation

Harjo at “Legacies: A Conversation with Sandra Cisneros, Rita Dove, and Joy Harjo”, 2017 courtesy of Gage Skidmore under CC BY-SA 2.0

“I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars, and know anything of meaning, of the fierce magic emerging here. I am witness to flexible eternity, the evolving past, and I know we will live forever, as dust or breath in the face of stars, in the shifting pattern of winds.”Joy Harjo, Secrets from the Center of the World


I don’t think I’ve seen Laureate news spread as quickly as this announcement today by the Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden: that is, the appointment of Joy Harjo as the nation’s 23rd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2019-2020. Harjo will take up her duties in the fall, opening the Library’s annual literary season on Sept. 19 with a reading of her work in the Coolidge Auditorium.

Harjo is the first Native American poet to serve in the position – she is an enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. She succeeds Tracy K. Smith, who served two terms as laureate.

“Joy Harjo has championed the art of poetry – ‘soul talk’ as she calls it – for over four decades,” Hayden said. “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 reimagine who we are.”

Harjo currently lives in her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is also the nation’s first Poet Laureate from Oklahoma.

Poet Laureate of the United States Joy Harjo, June 6, 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller, Library of Congess

“What a tremendous honor it is to be named the U.S. Poet Laureate,” Harjo said. “I share this honor with ancestors and teachers who inspired in me a love of poetry, who taught that words are powerful and can make change when understanding appears impossible, and how time and timelessness can live together within a poem. I count among these ancestors and teachers my Muscogee Creek people, the librarians who opened so many doors for all of us, and the original poets of the indigenous tribal nations of these lands, who were joined by diverse peoples from nations all over the world to make this country and this country’s poetry.”

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.

Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 9, 1951, and is the author of eight books of poetry – including “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings” (W. W. Norton, 2015); “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky” (W. W. Norton, 1994), which received the Oklahoma Book Arts Award; and “In Mad Love and War” (Wesleyan University Press, 1990), which received an American Book Award and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award. Her next book of poems, “An American Sunrise,” will be published by W.W. Norton in fall 2019. Harjo has also written a memoir, “Crazy Brave” (W.W. Norton, 2012), which won the 2013 PEN Center USA literary prize for creative nonfiction, as well as a children’s book, “The Good Luck Cat” (Harcourt, Brace 2000) and a young adult book, “For a Girl Becoming” (University of Arizona Press, 2009).

As a performer, Harjo has appeared on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” and in venues across the U.S. and internationally. In addition to her poetry, Harjo is a 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.

Harjo’s many literary awards include the PEN Open Book Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book. Harjo has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her collection “How We Become Human: New and Selected Poems 1975-2001” (W.W. Norton, 2002) was selected by the National Endowment for the Arts for its Big Read program. 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 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.

RELATED:

This post compiled courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress, Wikipedia, Amazon, and my personal library.

About the Laureateship

The Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center is the home of the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, a position that has existed since 1937, when Archer M. Huntington endowed the Chair of Poetry at the Library. Since then, many of the nation’s most eminent poets have served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and, after the passage of Public Law 99-194 (Dec. 20, 1985), as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry – a position that the law states “is equivalent to that of Poet Laureate of the United States.”

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.

For more information on the Poet Laureate and the Poetry and Literature Center, visit loc.gov/poetry. Consultants in Poetry and Poets Laureate Consultants in Poetry and their terms of service can be found at loc.gov/poetry/laureate.html.

The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library, offering access to the creative record of the United States – and extensive materials from around the world – both on site and online. It is the main research arm of the U.S. Congress and the home of the U.S. Copyright Office. Explore collections, reference services and other programs and plan a visit at loc.gov, access the official site for U.S. federal legislative information at congress.gov, and register creative works of authorship at copyright.gov.


ABOUT

Recent in digital publications: 
* Four poemsI Am Not a Silent Poet
* Remembering Mom, HerStry
* Three poems, Levure littéraire
Upcoming in digital publications:
Over His Morning Coffee, Front Porch Review

A homebound writer, poet, and former columnist and associate editor of a regional employment newspaper, my work has been featured widely in print and digital publications including: Ramingo’s Porch, Vita Brevis Literature, Connotation Press, The Bar None Group, Salamander Cove, I Am Not a Silent Poet, The Compass Rose and California Woman. I run The Poet by Day, an info hub for poets and writers and am the founding/managing editor of The BeZine.


“Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.”  Lucille Clifton



 

“Fear Poem, or I Give You Back” by poet and jazz musician Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo (b 1951), Mvskoke (Creek) Poet, Musician, author and key player in the second wave of the Native Merican Renaissance (literary efflorescence)

Joy Harjo (b 1951), Mvskoke (Creek) Poet, Musician, author and key player in the second wave of the Native Merican Renaissance (literary efflorescence)

All you have to do is listen to the news or browse through Facebook or Twitter or the blogosphere to know that people are in pain and fear – personal, political, cultural. Two or three years ago Joy Harjo invited us to share her poem and after the news tonight, I thought this might be a good time to post it again. / J.D.



Because of the fear monster infecting this country, I have been asked for this poem, this song. Feel free to use it, record it, and share. Please give credit. This poem came when I absolutely needed it. I was young and nearly destroyed by fear. I almost didn’t make it to twenty-three. This poem was given to me to share.” Joy Harjo

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.
I give you back to the soldiers
who burned down my home, beheaded my children,
raped and sodomized my brothers and sisters.
I give you back to those who stole the
food from our plates when we were starving.
I release you, fear, because you hold
these scenes in front of me and I was born
with eyes that can never close.
I release you
I release you
I release you
I release you
I am not afraid to be angry.
I am not afraid to rejoice.
I am not afraid to be black.
I am not afraid to be white.
I am not afraid to be hungry.
I am not afraid to be full.
I am not afraid to be hated.
I am not afraid to be loved.
to be loved, to be loved, fear.
Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.
I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart
But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
of dying.

c Joy Harjo and W.W. Norton, from She Had Some Horses

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…With a double shot of heart, beauty, freedom, peace and grace that blends traditional Native rhythms and singing with jazz, rock, blues and hip-hip,
Harjo is right at the top of the best contemporary American poetry and music artists.”
—Thomas Rain Crow, The Bloomsbury Review

LET US GIVE BACK THE FEAR.

RELATED:

CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (18): Joy Harjo, Crazy Brave


ABOUT

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Poet and writer, I was once columnist and associate editor of a regional employment publication. I currently run this site, The Poet by Day, an information hub for poets and writers. I am the managing editor of The BeZine published by The Bardo Group Beguines (originally The Bardo Group), a virtual arts collective I founded.  I am a weekly contributor to Beguine Again, a site showcasing spiritual writers. My work is featured in a variety of publications and on sites, including: Levure littéraure, Ramingo’s PorchVita Brevis Literature,Compass Rose, Connotation PressThe Bar None GroupSalamander CoveSecond LightI Am Not a Silent PoetMeta / Phor(e) /Play, and California Woman. My poetry was recently read by Northern California actor Richard Lingua for Poetry Woodshed, Belfast Community Radio. I was featured in a lengthy interview on the Creative Nexus Radio Show where I was dubbed “Poetry Champion.”

* The BeZine: Waging the Peace, An Interfaith Exploration featuring Fr. Daniel Sormani, Rev. Benjamin Meyers, and the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi among others

“Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.” Lucille Clifton

CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (18): Joy Harjo, Crazy Brave

Joy Harjo (b 1951), Mvskoke (Creek) Poet, Musician, author and key player in the second wave of the Native Merican Renaissance (literary efflorescence)

Joy Harjo (b 1951), Mvskoke (Creek) Poet, Musician, author and key player in the second wave of the Native American literary efflorescence

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 Crazy Brave (Norton & Company, 2012), Joy Harjo’s eminently engaging memoir, flows like a long prose poem. It is rich and well-built on a foundation of tribal mythologies, a strong sense of her ancestry, her difficult childhood and youth and salvation found in poetry and music. From her birth to a handsome much-loved fire-spirit father who inherited Indian oil money, allowing him to indulge a passion for cars, and her beautiful water-spirit singer-mother whose voice was stilled by a bully of a second-husband, Harjo tells the story of girl who survived a physically and emotionally abusive step-father, crushing poverty and the greater cultural obscenities to become one of our most influential poets and a formidable advocate for justice for Native Americans and liberation for women.

I was entrusted with carrying voices, songs, and stories to grow and release into the world, to be of assistance and inspiration. These were my responsibility.”

*****

I can’t imagine the human being who wouldn’t relate to Joy Harjo’s history, but those who have come from “broken” homes, poverty and a family of mixed ethnicity will most especially appreciate it and perhaps find some healing and strength in the pages of Crazy Brave. That Joy Harjo survived so much to become a decent loving person leaves the rest of us with no excuse; and any writer, poet or musician will take to heart the dreams and visions of that long journey to find hope and creative voice in poetry.

Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke tribe was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, an area where the Native American trail of tears ended, an area to which the indigenous peoples were removed – forced to relocate –  as people of European descent moved into their original home places. The removed were the Five Civilized Tribes – Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Mvkoke and Seminole  – who were living as autonomous nations in what is now the American Deep South.

“I fought through the War Between the States and have seen many men shot, but the Cherokee Removal was the cruelest work I ever knew”. Georgian soldier who participated in the removal

*****

When the World as We Knew It Ended
It was coming.
We had been watching since the eve of the missionaries in their long
and solemn clothes, to see what would happen.
We saw it
from the kitchen window over the sink
as we made coffee, cooked rice and potatoes
enough for an army.
We saw it all, as we changed diapers and fed
the babies. We saw it,
through the branches of the knowledgeable tree,
through the snags of stars, through
the sun and storms, from our knees
as we bathed and washed the floors …
The conference of the birds warned us as they flew over
destroyers in the harbor, parked there since the first takeover.
It was by their songs and talk we knew when to rise,
when to look out the window

excerpt from When the World Ended in How We Became Human, New and Selected Poems (W.W. Norton & Co., 2004)

*****

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Joy Harjo’s poetry and music are influenced by her ethnic heritage and her feminist and social concerns as well as by her love of word and sound and her education in the arts. Largely autobiographical, her poetry is informed with descriptions of the Southwestern landscape and the mythologies, symbols and values of the Mvskoke people. Hers is the sort of writing that sits with you to become part of your own bone and marrow, which is the way of good poetry and good story. A poet of the people but also a critically-acclaimed poet, her many awards include the Wallace Stevens Award of the Academy of American Poets, The William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America and the American Indian Distinguished Achiement in the Arts Award. She is the recipient of several grants and is a teacher, musician (saxophone) and singer.  She has published some fourteen books and ten music albums.

It was a dance,
her back against the wall
at Carmen’s party. He was alone
and he called to her – come here, come here
that was the firs time she saw him
and later she and Carmen drove him home
and all the way he talked to the moon,
to the stars, to someone riding

excerpt from There Was a Dance, Sweetheart in How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems (1975-2022) (W.W. Norton & Co., 2004) © Joy Harjo

If you are reading this post from email, you will likely have to link though to this blog to enjoy the video. Joy Harjo’s Eagle Song, poem and music:

© review, Jamie Dedes; poems, Joy Harjo, photographs courtesy of Ms Harjo