Joy Harjo Shawn Miller

Joy Harjo, photo Shawn Miller

The last time I saw Joy Harjo, she was in the sweltering living room of a threadbare vacation rental in Santa Fe, where she was brainstorming with some of the country’s most prominent Native American poets. Santee Frazier and Layli Long Soldier were there; so were dg okpik and Roberta Hill. It was July 2018, and they were working on a new W.W. Norton anthology of Indigenous poetry.

“Let me give you the grand tour,” Harjo said at the time. “Here’s some exposed wiring.”

“That’s right — you were there,” Harjo says now, sitting on her bed at her house in Tulsa, Oklahoma, snacking on guacamole and tortilla chips and talking into her laptop. “I reported the homeowner, and then he had the nerve to drag me online. But all the rental houses in town were taken. We had no place else to go.” She snickers and shakes her long black hair out of her face, and then disappears from the room.

The 69-year-old poet and musician from the Muskogee/Creek Nation of Oklahoma was recently appointed to a second term as U.S. poet laureate. She's the first Native American and the seventh woman to hold the illustrious position. (There have been 16 men.) 

A moment later, Harjo returns with a book. “This is it,” she says, her eyes sparkling. “This is the galley of the anthology we were working on. It comes out in August.”

When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, edited by Harjo with Jennifer Elise Foerster, Leanne Howe, and others, is the first historically based anthology of Native poetry that goes from time immemorial to the present. It was edited entirely by Indigenous writers and includes more than 160 poets. Among them is Luci Tapahonso, the inaugural poet laureate of the Navajo Nation and professor at the University of New Mexico. She is a longtime admirer of Harjo’s work, the reading of which she compares to having a long-awaited lunch with a good relative.

“Her poems remind us that although laughter, love, and loss often travel together, all three have nurtured and strengthened us in different ways,” Tapahonso says. “Like good coffee, her prose offers encouragement when it is most needed and evokes the traditional stories that have sustained us for generations and continue to support us in these turbulent times.”

IAIA Alumna Harjo will give the 2020 IAIA Commencement address, as well as receive an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities on Saturday, Aug. 22. The event begins at 11 a.m. Stream it at iaia.edu/commencement.

This spring and summer, while self-quarantining and putting the finishing touches on the anthology, Harjo also wrote a new memoir that she’s calling For Justice, For Love. She sent that manuscript to her publisher in late June, took a few days to do nothing, and then started returning emails to people who wanted to talk to her. One of them was Pasatiempo.

Pasatiempo: How has your life changed since stepping into the role of U.S. poet laureate? Has it been a radical shift?

Joy Harjo: When it was first announced, it was crazy. I’ve never dealt with that kind of energy. I’m kind of low-profile. For years, I’ve traveled. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people. My work has an audience, and it’s taken me a lot of places. But this energy was almost overwhelming. I just got appointed for a second term, so it’s a little quieter now. Some things have changed, though — yeah. Suddenly, I have a certain credibility I didn’t have before. That’s a big one. It’s useful.

Pasa: How so?

Harjo: It’s useful for Native people, for saying, “Wait a minute, we’re human beings.” That might sound basic, but it is that basic. We’re here, and why do we keep having to say that we’re human beings? We are poets, we are dancers, teachers. We’re all kinds of people. We’re not just Disney’s Pocahontas.

Pasa: Do you think your role is more important for educating non-Indigenous America about Indigenous people, or for Indigenous people’s self-concepts?

Harjo: That’s hard. I think it’s important for both. When you do a second term, you usually have a project. My project is a story map that will be available digitally on the Library of Congress website. It will be a map of the United States where tribal peoples are living, and show contemporary poets from those different areas. You can click on those links and hear the poet read a poem.

Pasa: How is For Justice, For Love different from your last memoir, 2012’s Crazy Brave?

Harjo: I think I take more risks in it. The concept behind it for me was to think about becoming and getting to this age, and all the teachers [I’ve had]. Some of the teachers have been poets. Some the water. Getting to this point, and how I have, maybe, moments of coming to terms, or wisdom, or failures. Something like that. It comes into the present. It’s also about female empowerment and how we are all together in this field of meaning.

Pasa: How have you been thinking about world events like the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement? It’s such a strange time, and you’re in this elevated role.

Harjo: We’re certainly at a crucial moment for the Earth. Once everything started shutting down, the Earth got a little bit of a rest. And then most of us shut down, and that takes you inside to a kind of reckoning. That’s what we’re all involved in right now — an Earth reckoning, a historical reckoning, a cultural reckoning, societal and social reckoning. We’re all here together and our lives have changed. I think we all acknowledge that we needed to change. I think that became more and more apparent as we were all sequestered and we couldn’t do the usual things we do for fun or to keep ourselves from ourselves. The positive part of this is that as we continue, we always go toward what can enlighten and lift people up. We have a shared existence, and what do we want to make of that? We cannot allow police violence to go on, or even the violence within ourselves. We don’t have room for that anymore if we’re going to grow into a society of equality.

Pasa: To do that, wouldn’t Americans have to get past their positions of intransigence on race and politics and everything else our culture is fighting about?

Harjo: There is a divide. But the divide means there’s an opening. There’s a chasm. What can happen? How do you use that? I haven’t figured it out yet. I like funny things, and the other day I posted a video of a cardboard maze with a little mouse. The mouse climbed over the maze. I think that’s what we need. 

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