Joy Harjo: A poem is a sacred site

Joy Harjo on poetry, heritage, and the importance of honoring the land

“…We knew we were all related in this story, a little gin
will clarify the dark and make us all feel like dancing. We
had something to do with the origins of blues and jazz
I argued with a Pueblo as I filled the jukebox with dimes in June,
forty years later and we still want justice. We are still America. We
know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die

Excerpt from An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo

It was a cloudy Tuesday afternoon as I sat on my couch, back to the window, and pushed my laptop open. Logging in to the Literary Arts & Lectures event page, there was an air of gratitude in the pre-event chatroom, poetry fans expressing their anticipation for the upcoming speaker: Joy Harjo

“We are here to acknowledge the gift of life, to express gratitude for coming together,” she began during a pre-recorded event introduction in which Harjo spoke of the importance of her upcoming projects and touched on the significance of honoring and protecting the land on which we live. “To guard the earth, as a person, as a mother, is not a romantic notion. It means we will have respect for life and the principle of motherhood.”

Joy Harjo/Photograph by Karen Keuhn

The April 20th edition of the 2020/2021 Literary Arts & Lectures Reading Series featured Joy Harjo, the first Native American (Muscogee Nation) poet, performer, and writer to be named Poet Laureate of the United States. As the 23rd U.S. Poet Laureate, Harjo has both published a new book of poems called An American Sunrise and actively working to uplift other Native American poets and writers with three special projects: Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry; Living Nations, Living Words: A Map of First Peoples Poetry; and When the Light of the World was Sub­dued, Our Songs Came Through — A Nor­ton Anthol­o­gy of Native Nations Poet­ry.

Each of these projects is a marvel of distinctive poetry, grounded literary voice, and historic abundance. Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry is the first printed, historically comprehensive Native American poetry anthology. This anthology is paired with its sister project, a beautiful digital platform created in partnership with the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center. This project, Living Nations, Living Words: A Map of First Peoples Poetry, comprises a map (with no visible boundaries) that lists the origins of each participating author. State lines, names, cities, and even country markers have been removed to honor the wholeness of the land. 

“The earliest indigenous maps of North America were not drawn,” says Harjo, “They were markers that mirrored the layout of the heavens. Anything from a mountain to a simple basket could be a marker. Many native poems contain maps of stars and the skies, markers of the sacred lands.” 

Joy Harjo/Photograph by Julien Lienard

As Harjo’s introduction closes with poignant words and calls to action—”…if we are to survive, and even thrive as a people, we must take care of our arts”—viewers are transitioned to a split-screen. There, Harjo is virtually joined in a live broadcast by Oregon Poet Laureate and International World Cup Poetry Slam winner, Anis Mojgani. Wearing a white collared shirt with structured shoulders, long draping earrings, and deep red lipstick, Harjo stands out from the beige, postered backdrop of her office as she greets the viewers warmly.

“What was your excitement about building the books in these two ways?” asks Mojgani. After a slight pause, Harjo answers. 

“The relationship of land and time together. To see how these two things coincide or interrupt each other… my original concept for this map was to have every native poet and every American poet to then show the connection. Like a genealogy of sorts,” she says in reference to Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry. Describing the anthology’s contents as poems of affirmation, humor, and fury, Harjo nods and smiles in agreement when Mojgani points out her use of the word “departure,” rather than “end,” at the finale of the book.

“I feel like I’m holding the door open saying look at all these poets…” she says, “because the poets are the truth-tellers. And we are in a time when being the truth-tellers can be dangerous.”

When asked about the continual dialogue between our current state of being, our living heritage, and human connection to the land, Harjo instructs us to consider the borderless map on the Library of Congress website, Living Nations, Living Words: A Map of First Peoples Poetry.  “Relationship to the land is incredibly important for indigenous people, those ties are very deep and wounded,” she explains. “The spirit of our people is still deeply embedded, even if we’ve been displaced or been moved… It was very important that indigenous people were seen as one: part of American poetry, but also: alive. That we are living people.”

“It also made sense to organize the book by place, starting in the North.” she says. “It became clear when arranging the poems that way, it could be seen how much landscape played into poetry; presented the importance of place,” Harjo says of When the Light of the World was Sub­dued, Our Songs Came Through — A Nor­ton Anthol­o­gy of Native Nations Poet­ry, a comprehensive anthology she edited, featuring poets from 574 federally recognized tribal nations on over 400 pages.

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to parents Wynema Baker Foster and Allen W. Foster, Joy Harjo left home to attend high school at the Insti­tute of Amer­i­can Indi­an Arts and began writing poetry at the age of 22. By 1975, she published her first book of poems, The Last Song. After earning her MFA at the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, she went on to teach English, Indian Studies, and Creative Writing at such institutions as the University of New Mexico, Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawai’i, Insti­tute of Amer­i­can Indi­an Arts, Uni­ver­si­ty of Colorado, and University of California Los Angeles. She is the only Poet Laureate to be awarded a third term in her position.

According to Harjo, the effects of land origin passed down through familial bloodlines and community connection can dictate one’s relationship to the elements. Whether we are inclined to adapt to colder weather or feel more spiritually fulfilled in the warm embrace of the sun depends heavily on the birthplaces and homelands of our ancestors. Through poetry, the essence of a location depicted through written language can become a historic and sentimental record. It is in this way that a poem can be considered a sacred site. 

Harjo wants us to understand that heritage is a living thing, not a concept. Her work, particularly rooted in her Muscogee heritage, asks questions about humanity, nature, and perseverance. She uses her poetry not only to uplift Native American culture but to interrogate the general influence of time, asking how spending days on the land can influence an individual’s personal sense of time’s passage. 

Joy Harjo/Photograph courtesy of University of California Santa Barbara

With Mojgani streaming in from Portland, Oregon, and Harjo from Tulsa, Oklahoma, the interviewer had multiple virtual hurdles to overcome, therefore missing out on many of the thoughtful audience questions addressed to Harjo throughout the night. While I wished I could have received Harjo’s opinion on what individuals today can do to become better stewards of the land they inhabit, I did thoroughly appreciate her response to a viewer’s question about the correlation between art and resilience.

“I still don’t understand, except for that I know artists and their art are usually ahead,” she begins. “Stepping ahead because it’s what we do not know, but what we need, the art becomes a map of thinking, ‘Okay, where are we going?’ Art has questions, it doesn’t have answers. Whatever it is, it has to hold the spirit of the people.”

As the interview ends, Mojgani thanks Harjo for her time while the chat room fills with virtual applause, and I am left to consider both her message to the people and her message to young writers. This message includes some of the best advice she has recalled receiving: be yourself.

“Yourself comes when experience settles in, you move with resonance, and take in the truth of the world.”

Joy Harjo has published many books of poetry, edited several anthologies, written two children’s books, and released her 2012 memoir called Crazy Brave. Her forthcoming memoir, Poet War­rior: A Call for Love and Jus­tice, will be available during Fall 2021.

About the author

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, choreographer, filmmaker, and writer from Rehovot, Israel, currently based in Portland, Oregon, by way of San Diego, California. She has trained in Tel Aviv under Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company studying Gaga Movement Language and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. Havin is the founder and artistic director of the Portland-based dance company The Holding Project with which she received a Disjecta Contemporary Art Center 2016 Artistic Residency. Her films have been showcased internationally in Israel, Greece, Mexico, Austria, and France, receiving awards from Mexico City Videodance International, Portland Dance Film Fest, Thessaloniki Cinedance, and more. Havin is the founder and host of the occasional reading series It’s Rhubarb, and her literary works can be read in publications such as The Dust Magazine, Unchaste Anthology, When She Rises, and Gravity According to Birds. With a process rooted in the duality of her upbringing, Havin weaves together a collectively introspective body of work, honoring both heritage and the natural world.

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