Get to know Joy Harjo, the first Native American Poet Laureate
By Michael W. Pannell
Photo by Matika Wilbur
Joy Harjo has been United States Poet Laureate since June 19, 2019. The first Native American Poet Laureate will be in Macon on Feb. 19 for poetry readings, discussions of her work and book signings at Middle Georgia State University (11 a.m.) and Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park (5:30 p.m.).
Harjo is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the last tribal nation to inhabit the Ocmulgee Mounds and surrounding southern areas prior to forceful and illegal relocation to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). In addition to establishing her poetic voice, Harjo is a memoirist, playwright, children’s author, popular saxophonist, teacher, editor and activist. Her books include “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings” and “Crazy Brave,” a memoir. She has received many awards and been elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
In announcing her as Poet Laureate, Librarian of Congress’ Carla Hayden said Harjo “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.”
As United States Poet Laureate, what’s your advice to young people who hope to be poets?
To love and believe in your art. You have to take care of it by always reading, studying, learning and listening. I see the poet as someone singing of the history and mystery of what it means to be human. But learning and listening – that should be the same for any person who is alive and trying to make the most of this thing called living. I would also hope young poets understand poetry is not so much a career as a calling. Poetry is such a different art form than other art forms and not the easiest to make a living at. Most successful, published poets also take jobs in editing or teaching or something – we need to make a living!
What do you hope your audiences will take away from hearing from you as a person?
I think as a Muscogee (Creek), I want them to know my people didn’t disappear; we are still here. Sometimes we’re poets, sometimes saxophone players, sometimes accountants or ballerinas or homemakers. We’re human beings who are still alive individually and as a people even though we were illegally run out of Georgia and unable to leave a living presence. There are homes still standing that belonged to Muscogee (Creek) that were illegally taken when we were forced to pick up and leave lands and farms and businesses. I’ve visited a home near Columbus once owned by a close relative. It’s still there, still standing. One of the first times I performed in the Southeast, at Auburn University, I mentioned I was the granddaughter of Monahwee, whom they call Menawa, a central figure at the nearby Battle of Horseshoe Bend grounds. There was a collective gasp because suddenly I was essentially a ghost standing before them. They assumed we were all dead, massacred. No, I said, we are over 60,000 today.
Have you visited Ocmulgee Mounds previously? What does the site mean to you?
Yes, I’ve visited two or three times. I loved going. I love celebrating it as a place of my history and people but it’s disturbing as well. When I was growing up, a lot of older people said don’t look back, don’t go back because of the grief. I understand that, yet I went back and, yes, I did encounter a grief and heartbreak that becomes palpable in your bones because of the injustice of being forcibly taken from such a beautiful place that for generations was home – a place where a rich life and culture was established. So, the question of how to deal with such a story of disruption comes up and that’s what my latest book, “An American Sunrise,” deals with. I think it’s very important – very important – that Ocmulgee Mounds be a monument to the living and not to death. It’s important people aren’t just looking at the past and that we were here long before colonization, but see we did not end – despite having been displaced through hardship. We’re people of great dignity and knowledge.
As you say, the Muscogee (Creek) have had a rich, joyful but deeply difficult history. Your own story reflects similar hardship from childhood. What would you tell parents is the most important thing about raising their children?
I think parents need to let their children be who they are. Yes, parents are a god-like and powerful influence and are there to guide, but they should respect their children’s path. As someone who’s been around and taught many young people, the biggest heartbreak is seeing parents forcing a path they want for their children on them, or one they wanted for themselves, rather than nurturing and guiding them carefully along their own path. Everyone is here to fulfill their own mission.
How would you want to challenge those of us in Middle Georgia?
I think my presence is a challenge. A Muscogee (Creek) is standing here and we were not destroyed. Our stories and who we are still matter and are part of this place; that needs to be integrated into the story here. And know there are many stories. I can’t speak for all Native Americans – even that term leads to misunderstanding because there are 500 different cultures as different as France is from Italy.
As a working poet, what writing projects are you involved with? And as a worker in words, do you have a favorite word at the moment?
A favorite word? I can’t think of one but sometimes that happens. I remember a time I was using the words “beauty” and “beautiful” so often my editor questioned me on it. I used “thousands” a lot also. But right now, I don’t think there’s one I’m obsessing over. As far as working on something, I’ve started about three projects and am writing a new memoir. I’m reading heavily in Native poetry because I’m editing a Norton Anthology of Native writing with a whole team of Native poets. Musically, I’ve taken a deep dive back into James Brown and am discovering so much! I hear so much of my Native ancestral music in it.
How has being Poet Laureate inspired or changed you?
At first, the title was intimidating but it’s such an honor. Generally, though, I’m doing what I’ve always done: be an ambassador for poetry. I continue to read and learn and listen. For a while, all I was reading was quantum physics. Now, I’m reading a lot of art history, Muscogee (Creek) history and, of course, poetry and Native writing.