Joy Harjo

Poet Laureate of the US and NEA Big Read author
Headshot of a woman.

Photo by Makita Wilbur

Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Joy Harjo: I’ll read “Road” and this poem is so stripped down and sometimes I wonder if it’s stripped down too much but I think about it, how our lives can be quite complex but then when it comes to it, it’s very simple. There’s a simple journey, a simple line, a journey. “Road”-- we stand first in our minds and then we toddle, from hand to furniture. Soon, we are walking away from the house and lands of our ancestral creator gods to the circles of friends of schooling and work, making families and worlds of our own. We make our way through storm and sun. We walk side by side or against each other. The last road will be taken alone. There might be crowds calling for blood or a curtained window by the leading bed. It’s best not to be afraid. Lift your attention for the appearance of the next road. It might be through a family of trees, a desert, or on rolling waves of sea. It’s the ancient road the soul knows. We always remember it when we see it. It beckons at birth. It carries us home.

Jo Reed: That is the Poet Laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo, reading her poem, “Road.” It’s from her recent book “An American Sunrise,” which is an NEA Big Read selection and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Joy Harjo is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. She’s the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States and the first Native American to hold that position. Joy Harjo is an artist who creates work in many different spheres. She’s written nine books of poetry, two award-winning children’s books, a memoir, several screenplays, three plays, and one musical. She’s also a musician, who plays the saxophone, flute, and bass. She and her band have toured around the world and she’s produced four award-winning albums. As a poet, she’s received more awards and honors than I have time to name. But I’m not sure what that tells you about the work itself because Joy Harjo’s poetry is a marvel. It’s deeply concerned with history, remembrance, and transcendence. It inhabits landscapes as it draws on myth and native storytelling. In her recent collection, “An American Sunrise,” Joy writes of tribal displacement, a trail of tears that sings of ancestral lands, of a history that remains present, and of a culture that’s essential. Because we’re all still sheltering in place, I spoke to Joy Harjo via the internet. She was at her home in Tulsa and I began there.

Jo Reed: First, Joy, thank you so much for giving me your time. But second, how are you? How are things in Tulsa?

Joy Harjo: Well, pretty quiet. Like every place else, the streets are pretty abandoned. The grocery store isn’t. We were over there yesterday and it was jam-packed with people, most people wearing facemasks and/or gloves, but I think that’s the most crowded place. You know of the crowded places in the city, but it’s very strange to-- I live in the Arts District here and usually, it’s just jamming with people and you go out and actually, the Arts District has become the homeless hub, homeless people walking the streets.

Jo Reed: It’s never easy to be homeless. God knows. But now, ugh...

Joy Harjo: Mm-hmm.

Jo Reed: Joy, you have a poem in “An American Sunrise” called “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War,” and I wonder if you thought about how to write a poem in a time of pandemic.

Joy Harjo: Yes, I have. I’ve had a few people deride me “Why aren’t you writing the poem to hold the country together, to pull everybody together? You’re the Poet Laureate. You should be writing this poem,” and I think about it and I think we’re all writing that poem. It’s not just me. I’m an ambassador of poetry. Yes, I’m a representative of poetry in this country, but I’ve been writing this poem all my life, a poem for these times, a poem for where we are and so on and yeah, how to write a poem in a time of pandemic-- I’ve been writing. I’ve been writing and writing and writing. The way I come to poetry, I’m not very good at writing occasional poems or poems that I want to have historic dimensions. I come to poetry in a much more smaller and intimate way and then sometimes it goes larger. So, in my dreams last night, I was trying to write that poem and it wasn’t working because I wasn’t coming at the poem from the inside. It’s a different kind of language if I come from it, “Okay, I need to do this and this and this,” in a poem. I don’t work well with an agenda for poems.

Jo Reed: I can understand that. Joy, when did you first come to poetry?

Joy Harjo: I came to the love of poetry-- I think I brought it in with me, actually. I think I brought the love of poetry in, but my mother nurtured that. She used to write songs. Actually, my first influence in writing poetry was song language with lyrics. My mother used to write songs, make demos, and send them off and sing her demos. She’s a very good singer and she also loved poetry. She always felt bad she had only an eighth-grade education, but what she brought from that education was really important. She brought the love of poetry and could quote William Blake and others. She loved the emotionality of rhythm and what it could convey in a song lyric or in a poem. I didn’t start writing poetry, though, until I was in my early 20s.

Jo Reed: What do you think opened that up for you, writing poetry?

Joy Harjo: I find out things by writing sometimes. Of course, I read and listen and go back in memory, but I realize that what really-- it was certainly hearing that there were native poets and we could write poetry that came from the place and the events and the culture that were our lives, but I also realized when I was writing something on a poem, “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee” by N. Scott Momaday, that I started writing poetry because I loved that ritualized places or language and I see every poem as a kind of a ritual, a beginning to things, that there were kind of ritual to make something happen or to open memory or to open understanding or find another way of using language to open some kind of acknowledgement or door. It works in that way and I came to poetry because I was certainly enthralled with how the use of sound and language could evoke change and open up ideas and notions that I had never thought of before until I put my pen to the paper or-- I used to write on typewriters-- or started hitting those keys.

Jo Reed: Your collection, “An American Sunrise,” is an NEA Big Read selection and it weaves together poems and prose and lyrics and excerpts from oral history and I wonder why you chose to construct the book with such a multiplicity of voices.

Joy Harjo: So, yes. I guess this all started, this multiplicity of voices, which I’ve done in some way or the other since my book, “The Woman Who Fell from the Sky,” and with that book, I thought about poetry and how poetry is in my Muscogee Creek community, which is mostly as performance and in song language and oratory and I thought about how poetry occurs usually in a lot of communities. So, I constructed that book thinking about poetry as an oral performance because even in a book-- even if it’s something in a book, it has the roots-- it’s about orality. I constructed “The Woman Who Fell from the Sky” with that. I did the same thing with “A Map to the Next World” with entries that were a lot more prosaic and “American Sunrise,” I’m also thinking of oral performance. But in this book too, I’m thinking particularly of how we hold the memory of a people in this country and especially of a people that’s been forced to immigrate from homelands to where we are now here in Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma.

Jo Reed: You know, in “American Sunrise,” history is certainly prominent, but intergenerational trauma also figures prominently throughout the book and it reminded me of the recent television series “Watchmen” because “Watchmen” begins with the Tulsa Massacre in 1921 and then spent the rest of the series looking at the impact of that event on three generations going down the line and in that same way, as it is in your work, history is just always present.

Joy Harjo: I think it is, not just in my work, I think it’s present everywhere. I will have to watch that series. It’s on my list because I’m living right down the street from the place of that massacre, the Tulsa Massacre, which included a lot of Creek Freedmen citizens and Muscogee Creek citizens, Freedmen citizens, and I’m also living at the intersection of the Cherokee Nation west of the Mississippi, the Muscogee Creek Nation west of the Mississippi, and the Osage Nation.

Jo Reed: Joy, tell me how the book “An American Sunrise” came to be.

Joy Harjo: That happened because I was teaching. I had agreed to take a Chair of Excellence at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville for a number of reasons and it turned out to be one of the best decisions, wonderful people, wonderful place, but it provided us a launching place-- my husband is also Muscogee Creek-- to drive around to places that had belonged to our families, historical places. So, we were often driving around going to places that we knew about in family stories and in stories in our history books. So, the book came about-- we were getting ready to leave Tennessee and I looked out into the trees and my spirit asked “What did you learn here? What are you going to take with you?” and I began this conversation with history. It’s a person who returned to our homelands to find that we were not there, that we had been utterly disappeared from any culture in the Southeast, that we were essentially there as stories or people who used to be, even though we were very alive and we’re a people and continue as a people with our culture, our language, and so on. But to be there was so disturbing and shocking and to realize that I am home in our homelands and we are not here.

Jo Reed: Well, the book reflects on the centrality of remembering and there’s the remembering over generations, but then you have a different kind of remembering. It’s through generations, but it’s also a kind of quotidian remembering and I’m thinking about the poem “Honoring,” which I think has such particular resonance right now and I wonder if you would read that for us.

Joy Harjo: Yes. I’ll read this one because it really is-- I mean, if you think about what the pandemic has shown us is that we’re all absolutely connected and that’s really what this poem is about is about acknowledging those connections and realizing that even the nature of our interaction with those connections makes a huge difference. “Honoring”-- who sings to the plants that are grown for our plates? Are they gathered lovingly in aprons or arms or do they suffer the fate of the motor-driven whip of the monster reaper? No song at all, only the sound of money being stacked in a ban. Who stitched the seams in my clothes one line after another? Was the room sweaty and dark with no hour to spare? Did she have enough to eat? Did she have a home anywhere? Or did she live on the floor and where were the children? Or was the seamstress the child with no home of his or her own? Who sacrifices to make clothes for strangers of another country and why? Let’s remember to thank the grower of food, the picker, the driver, the sun, and the rain. Let’s remember to think each maker of stitch and layer of pattern, the dyer of color in the immense house of beauty and pain. Let’s honor the maker. Let’s honor what’s made.

Jo Reed: Oh, that’s such a beautiful poem and I was so happy to reread it when I was getting ready for this interview. So, thank you.

Joy Harjo: Thank you. It’s one of my favorites but yeah, I get so hyper-critical of my poems. I think “Hmm, I should have done this or I could do this,” but thank you.

Jo Reed: Silence seems so critical for you in your work and also, for you as a person, as I’ve read your memoir, “Crazy Brave,” and you talk about the importance of silence in that book and I’d like you to comment on that.

Joy Harjo: I think when the spirit of poetry came to me and basically snatched me because I was going in another direction and certainly, speaking coherently or beautifully was not something you would associate with me. I always stood in the back and didn’t say anything. What the spirit of poetry was that at the center of being chosen was well, if I agreed to do the work of poetry, I would follow through and I have, and two is that I needed to learn to listen. The agreement was “Okay, you need to learn how to listen and if you agree that that’s what you need to learn how to do, we will help you through poetry and with poetry, you can be of use in this world.” So, I agreed and learning how to listen, which involves silence and engaging in silence, which really isn’t so quiet at all, it’s filled with resonances of history, of mythical and mythical presences, and it’s filled with the voice of the earth and earth beings.

Jo Reed: I was really reminded of an interview I did with the jazz musician Roscoe Mitchell and silence figures prominently in his work. There are big patches of silence in his music and when I asked him about it, he said “Well, yeah. Silence is perfect. So, if you interrupt silence, you better have something to say.”

Joy Harjo: That’s great.

Jo Reed: Isn’t that wonderful?

Joy Harjo: I love that and it’s true.

Jo Reed: Music has always been central for you and you wrote in your memoir, “Crazy Brave,” literally, it was on the first page-- you wrote about listening to Miles Davis and what that meant to you. Can you describe that?

Joy Harjo: Well, I can tell you. That memory of a child-- yeah, what it did was, again, silence is absolutely important and I love the idea that it’s kind of-- it is perfect and you better have something to say and certainly, Miles had something to say and it wasn’t always words. That’s one thing is I think poets, we go to words because we’re looking for that place beyond words and then when you have a horn and you do it with music, you get at it another way and so, to hear that horn was to go into that place without words, where when you hear that and you’re not really totally versed in the world of words yet, you’re able to take perhaps even more of it in and to read it even in a more profound way than when you have so many words badgering you to get through, you can’t hear anymore. We’re bombarded with-- it seems like these days, we get bombarded with words and yet, if you stop with music and especially jazz-- I mean, I think especially jazz, there’s a lot more places for opening in unusual ways and closing out a moment for silence to exist and in the usual forms of popular songs. That’s what I love about it even though most of my family doesn’t like jazz, but what I love about jazz is the way you can take a horn and with a tone or a series of tones up against the backs of silences, something happens that is-- it’s like what happens in a poem.

Jo Reed: Well, you play a few instruments, including the saxophone. What drew you to the saxophone particularly? When did you start playing?

Joy Harjo: I started playing when I was almost 40 years old and I like the sound of it. I can sing and the saxophone led me back to singing, but I don’t have that kind of Aretha Franklin voice that I’ve always loved. So, the saxophone allows me to have an Aretha Franklin-like voice. Anyway, these singers, these heartbreak blues singers that just tell it like it is but are so unique in the way they move their voice to express that emotion. So, that’s what drew me to it and then I remembered going to Sandra Cisneros’ place in Chicago, her family house when I was a-- we were students at Iowa and she had all these brothers running around the house and one of the brothers had on Gato Barbieri, the Argentinian sax player and oh, my God, when I heard that, that also was another step onto the path of saxophone because his horn was a cry. I could just hear him, the same cry that is flamenco and blues.

Jo Reed: Well, you wrote a prose piece in “An American Sunrise” about the sax and I would love to have you read that now.

Joy Harjo: Oh, okay. Sure. Yeah. Here it is. “When Adolphe Sax patented the first saxophone on June 23rd, 1846, the Creek Nation was in turmoil. The people had been moved west of the Mississippi River after the Creek Wars, which culminated in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. We were putting our lives back to together in new lands where we were promised we would be left alone. The saxophone made it across the big waters and was introduced in brass bands in the south. The music followed rivers into new towns, cities, all the way into our new lands. Not long after in the early 1900s, my grandmother, Naomi Harjo, learned to play saxophone. I can feel her now when I play the instrument we both loved and loved. The saxophone is so human. Its tendency is to be rowdy, edgy, talk too much, bump into people, say the wrong words at the wrong time, but then you take a breath all the way from the center of the earth and blow. All that heartache is forgiven. All that love we humans carry makes a sweet deep sound and we fly a little.

Jo Reed: I love that sense of the saxophone just traveling through history. It’s just wonderful.

Joy Harjo: Yeah. I think it’s important. It’s like the poem, “Honoring.” It’s important to honor the ancestors of whatever it is we do. Familial ancestors, and not all of them deserve to be honored, honor those ones who deserve to be honored and the same thing with the ancestors of music or the ancestors of the-- I love my saxophone and honor that history of them being made, just like honoring the poetry ancestors. That’s why I included a poem by Emily Dickinson in here and then I included a poem in “American Sunrise” by my daughter, Rainy Dawn, as just like okay, here poetry comes to me from Emily. She’s one of my predecessors and I want to honor here and then my daughter, who follows with her poem, “Directions to You.”

Jo Reed: You wrote or described-- I think that’s more accurate-- “poetry as a conversation of the soul,” and I’d love to have you say a little bit more about that to tease that out a bit.

Joy Harjo: I think you could probably argue that any art is like that, any art because the path of an artist, we travel outside the known universe even as we’re traveling deeply inside and yet, are very much part of the natural world of shape, sound, architecture, aesthetic, and so on. But when you go into the deep like that, who do you speak with? Where does art come from? I think of a collective soul, the collective soul of earth. What is earth? What is this universe, this galactic universe as well as the soul of particular kinds of plants? What makes the soul of this two-legged human race and so on? What I love about that journey is that kind of communion. I feel like a poem or a song becomes a place that you can go in and pull up chairs and sit down or sit down on the ground and listen and then you become part of that communion.

Jo Reed: I wonder when you’re beginning to create, do you know when you sit down if what you’re doing is going to be a poem or a song or a piece of prose, a piece of music? Do you have a sense of where you’re going when you sit down or do you sort of let it unfold as you go?

Joy Harjo: It depends. Sometimes I do that. Sometimes-- right now, I’m in the middle of a memoir, but other things come in. I wrote-- out of the blue, totally out of the-- unexpectedly, I wrote probably the best song lyric that I’ve ever written and then I did it differentiate-- a song lyric is I hear it in a little bit different way, even though some of my poems become lyrics and then if I sit down to write a poem-- it’s different when I sit down to write a lyric because the lyric, I’m aware of the other elements of music and how those lyrics will move with music. With a poem, I’m still in a musical mode, but it’s different. I’m not-- I’m listening in a little bit different kind of way, just like the difference between when I’m working on my musical play versus this memoir, but I’m hot on the memoir right now because I have a good deadline. If I think I know what I’m doing, then that’s when it doesn’t work. If I say “Okay...” and I open it up and follow, usually, something comes out of it, but there’s a lot of revision. I do a lot of revision and reworking and I think I probably revised “American Sunrise” more than any of my books, even though it was done in a relatively short time and even though I revised this so many times and even now, I’ll catch something and think “Oh, I should have done this,” or “Maybe this or this,” btu that’s part of it.

Jo Reed: I’m curious-- when you sit down to create a poem, do you begin with an image or is it a sound or is there a story that you want to tell via poetry?

Joy Harjo: Like with the poem “Honoring,” I got carried away by the rhythm.

Jo Reed: The rhythm is gorgeous.

Joy Harjo: Yeah. The rhythm is what carried-- often, probably my most famous poem, “She Had Some Horses,” again, I got carried-- I’m very rhythm-oriented. That’s why I picked up playing the bass too. I love the bass. I guess during this period where we’re all kind of holed up in our places, I’ve been playing a lot of bass and enjoy it as such a rhythmic thing, but some of them are images or some of them like the poem “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War,” it starts-- how in the world do you start? What’s the starting place for any of us, whether we’re poets or not? Where do you start in the story of history? History is such a huge thing and then you come out, okay, Muscogee, where do you start? That’s where the first line came “You can’t begin just anywhere. It’s a wreck,” and that was me as a poet too, thinking okay, how am I going to start talking about this history that is so painful that when I try to read history books about Muscogee Creek history, I read a chapter and then I have all these books sitting around with bookmarks in them because it’s so painful or it pisses you off or you try to make sense of something that can’t be made sense of and something comes out of the somewhere that’s nowhere. It’s probably that perfect silence that Mitchell is talking about, that perfect silence is the place of giving us these gifts.

Jo Reed: Joy, you’re the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States and the first Native American Poet Laureate. Do you see your appointment in some ways providing a reaffirmation for Native peoples, an inspiration in the way that N. Scott Momaday was for you when he received the Pulitzer?

Joy Harjo: Definitely. The outpouring was-- it was and is amazing and what has been so exciting is that it has helped this image or this standing in this place-- I realize it’s about poets. It’s about women. It’s about so on, but for Natives, this position became a doorway for affirmation, especially for young Native poets, writers, artists, just people. It’s been astounding, actually, the effect that this position has had in Native communities because we’ve been so disappeared in American culture, period. You look at any aspect of American culture and we’re not there or if we’re there, the cavalry is chasing us or we’ve been disappeared or lamented, but we’re very much here and we’re very much present and the roots of America-- there would be no America without us.

Jo Reed: No, certainly not. Joy, during your tenure as Poet Laureate, what is it that you’d like to accomplish? What’s your vision of what you want to do while you’re in that position?

Joy Harjo: Well, I remember when I first started writing poetry, I was a painting and drawing major, a studio art major at the University of New Mexico. When I walked in and told my painting teacher, who had been my mentor, that I was giving up painting for poetry, which didn’t make sense to a lot of people, but I thought about it a lot, of course, and then sometimes, you’re just moved. Like, the poetry spirit did come to me and did say those things and I knew that’s what I had to do, but I knew what I wanted to accomplish as much or more of anything, one is the art of it, of course. We all want to engage with the art of it in a way that matters, but I also remember saying to myself “If I do anything else, I want people to see, I want Americans, I want the world to see indigenous peoples as human beings.”

Jo Reed: You dedicated “An American Sunrise,” and I’m quoting now, “To children so they may find their way through the dark,” and I wonder, especially now, if there are any poems or music that you’re leaning into that help you right now.

Joy Harjo: I’ve been in the middle with my team, with my editing team, which includes LeAnne Howe, Choctaw poet fiction writer, storyteller, Jennifer Forester, Muscogee Creek poet, and many other contributing editors in the final editing of this “When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: a Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry.” So, I’ve been leaning a lot into Native poetry and Leslie Silko, who I always go back to some of her early poems, she always had this sense-- she’s very prophetic in her novel making and I think her poetry gives her insight into a place that’s quite timeless. Music-- I always go back to John Coltrane. I’m trying to listen now to everything he’s done from the very beginning and oh man, I’ve been listening to-- where do I start? I listen to a lot of James Brown. He’s quite profound and Louis Armstrong, the two of them, and then, of course, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, of course. “Sketches of Spain,” of course, is one of my favorite, favorite albums. If I had two albums I could take with me, it would be John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Miles Davis, “Sketches of Spain.” Their work is timeless. You listen to them and you could say “Well, this belongs in such and such an era.” There’s no age to that. There’s a kind of timelessness. Poetry goes there. When poetry is really working, you wind up in a place of timelessness.

Jo Reed: And I think that’s a good place to leave it. Joy Harjo, thank you so much for giving me your time and for giving me years of your incredible work. Thank you.

Joy Harjo: Well, thank you so much too. I enjoyed visiting with you.

Jo Reed: I enjoyed it as well. Thanks. That was the Poet Laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo. Joy’s latest book, “An American Sunrise” is an NEA Big Read selection. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts and then please leave us a rating on Apple because it will make us happy because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe, stay kind, and thanks for listening.

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Joy Harjo (Muscogee/Creek) the Poet Laureate of the United States (and NEA Big Read author) joins me this week for a far-ranging conversation about poetry and music. We talk about—and she reads poems from—her most recent collection An American Sunrise. She talks about her family history on the Trail of Tears and how it led to An American Sunrise, her long deep relationship with the spirit of poetry, her equally long love of jazz and her commitment to honoring her poetic ancestors as well as her familial ones. It was a great conversation—she’s deeply thoughtful, engaging and funny. If you enjoy the interview half as much I did, you’ll love it.