A Q&A with Joy Harjo, poet laureate of the United States

The first Native American poet laureate talks about hearing the collective heart of the country, and the importance of listening.

Shawn Miller/Library of Congress
Joy Harjo became the 23rd poet laureate of the United States in 2019.

Joy Harjo is the 23rd poet laureate of the United States and the first Native American to hold that post. A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and an acclaimed musician, she has published nine books of poetry and released five award-winning CDs. After her inaugural reading in September 2019, she traveled extensively, performing solo and with musicians for audiences of various backgrounds and political affiliations. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is a Tulsa Artist Fellow.

Q: Why are poems so necessary?

Poetry tries to hold all aspects of human memory – grief, failure, love, joy – and moves toward a liminal space in the borderlands between here and there, in between yes and no, what was and what is to come. The great paradox is that poetry uses language to create a place you can go when human words fail. 

We go to poetry to find a road to understanding, and not just any road – it must be compelling, and take us somewhere we’ve never been before. Even before the pandemic,  sales of poetry books had gone up. The audiences for poetry have grown dramatically since the last national elections four years ago.

Q: You have described poetry as a conversation of the soul. How is poetry “soul talk”?

Just about every poet out there – from Walt Whitman to Emily Dickinson to Marilyn Nelson – is ultimately writing a conversation with their soul. Each one has a different patterning, of course, a kind of sound frequency you can hear. And every poem has poetry ancestors. 

My own poetry ancestors include a great-grandfather who helped me enter the realm of poetry. He was a good speaker and I think some of my sense of language comes from him. I have some of his handwritten pages of sermons. I also consider Emily Dickinson a forebear. I hear her in her phrasing, a single human voice rising from the seclusion of a room or darkness or loneliness.

The whole country seems to be in that kind of place right now, so quiet you can hear the collective heart. We might feel especially alone because we have been individually isolated. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. All sound becomes magnified; that’s when we can really listen.

Q: Why is listening important? 

Listening is the tool required for life, and for any art. It doesn’t matter if it’s literature, painting, or architecture. You might listen with your eyes to color or to the line or just shape. But it’s all about listening with all of your senses. 

Q: How did you come to love poetry?

I didn’t start writing poetry till I was almost 23. But I came to poetry as a child because my mother, with her eighth grade education, loved and read poetry, mostly Tennyson and the visionary Blake. 

She also wrote love-song lyrics – ballads were her form – and worked with some of the best country-swing musicians. 

What I have discovered is that most traditions of poetry have their roots in music, and when you go back to those roots we all have, you’ll find poetry hanging out with music and hanging out with dance. They form a threesome.

Q: When did you start writing?

I started writing poetry around the time of the Native American Renaissance, which began in 1969 when N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa novelist and poet, won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. I was an art major at the University of New Mexico and had an eye towards a career in art, which made sense since I had a grandmother and a great aunt who were painters. Then I started attending poetry readings, and discovered Native poets. That’s when I realized that poetry was part of me, and could reflect my own life as a Native person. 

Q: As poet laureate, do you feel that you provide the same validation for other Native writers?

This position has made it possible for me to open a door of self-affirmation for Native Americans, who still don’t see themselves represented much in the culture. This position has enabled me to open a door for many. I represent poetry and the power of what poetry can do: It can speak across chasms, through gunfire. It has saved lives – including mine – and enlarged countless levels of meaning. I am only one of many gifted poets, one of many Native poets, one of many voices who have something to offer in these times and in timelessness.

Q: How would you describe the gift of poetry?

Every gift comes with sacrifice. There is always something demanded. To take care of the gift of poetry demands listening, even when it seems as if there is nothing or no one there. It remembers listening to history and beyond history. It means walking a road of language alone, until you teach someone how to hear you. My mission is to take care of the gifts that I carry, to develop and feed them, and then to share them. We must all take care of our respective gifts, because with them we will find the answers to our problems. With poetry, we can sometimes sing the answers. 

Eagle Poem

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.

– Joy Harjo

“Eagle Poem,” from “In Mad Love and War,” copyright © 1990 by Joy Harjo, published by Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, and used by permission.

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