Poet Laureate Joy Harjo Rewrites America’s Myths

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Carlo Allegri/Getty
Carlo Allegri/Getty

I started a Joy Harjo reading jag the summer before last in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at op. cit., a magical store in whose forest of books, new and older, I picked up her 2012 memoir, Crazy Brave. I knew Harjo was the U.S. Poet Laureate, the first Native American so exalted, but I had never read her work. Her memoir’s opening scene hooked me right away:

“Once I was so small I could barely see over the top of the back seat of the black Cadillac my father bought with his Indian oil money. He polished and tuned his car daily. I wanted to see everything.

“We were driving somewhere in Tulsa, the northern border of the Creek Nation. I don’t know where we were going or where we had been… I wonder what signaled this moment, a loop of time that on first glance could be any place in time. I became acutely aware of the line the jazz trumpeter was playing (a sound I later associated with Miles Davis). I didn’t know the words jazz or trumpet."

“My rite of passage into the world of humanity occurred then, through jazz. The music was a starting bridge between familiar and strange lands.”

Americans Have Never Loved Poetry More—But They Call It Rap

That bridge runs through Harjo’s impressive trek of 22 books of poetry, six albums as a jazz saxophonist and husky spoken-word poet, two children’s books, two plays, last year’s memoir sequel Poet Warrior, screenplays, and editor of major anthologies. Awards, prizes, and honors include the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lily Prize for Lifetime Achievement, the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, a Guggenheim, and two NEH fellowships as she begins her fourth year as Poet Laureate.

Harjo’s story is an American epic, a triumph of the spirit, reshaping history’s lens on the West, rewriting a national myth of endless space.

Harjo built on discoveries of the familiar—a world of Muscogee Creek ancestral memory, shared by elders in Oklahoma—leading to her early influential encounters in New Mexico with poets, jazz musicians, writers, and painters. The scenic lilts of self-discovery in her early work never took Harjo far from a steely focus on the dynamics of identity, enduring and transcending government injustices heaped on Indians, a legacy she came, over time, to see as precursor to the greater earth plundered by pollution, heaving from convulsions of the climate.

If a single theme marks Harjo’s output, it is a spiritual quest, seeking the soul. “I consider poetry soul talk, song language,” she said in a 2009 interview. “That’s only one definition. There are as many ways to poetry as there are to God.”

<div class="inline-image__credit">Jack Mitchell/Getty</div>
Jack Mitchell/Getty

From “Reconciliation, A Prayer,” in the 2002 collection How We Became Human:

I.

We gather at the shore of all knowledge as peoples who were put

here by a god who wanted relatives.

This god was lonely for touch, and imagined herself a woman,

with children to suckle, to sing with—to continue the web of the

terrifyingly beautiful cosmos of her womb.

This god became the father who wished for others to walk beside

him in the belly of creation.

This god laughed and cried with us as a sister at the sweet tragedy of

our predicament—foolish humans.

Or built a fire, as our brother to keep us warm.

This god who grew to love us became our lover, sharing tables of

food enough for everyone in this world

II.

Oh, sun, moon, stars, our other relatives peering at us from the inside

of god’s house walk with us as we climb into the next century

naked but for the stories we have of each other. Keep us from giving

up in this land of nightmares which is also the land of miracles.

We sing our song which we’ve been promised has no beginning or

end...

In Poet Warrior, Harjo circles back to devastating childhood episodes initially described in Crazy Brave, with new details on how she survived her early years. The father she initially adored, who came from a family with land generating some oil lease revenues, was an airline mechanic and raging alcoholic who chased women, beat his wife, and terrorized his kids. Joy’s mother sang as she bustled in the kitchen to sweet radio songs, doing a memorable take on Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” getting the girl into jitterbug dancing. After the divorce her mom had to work two jobs.

The child had a poetry anthology which opened a new world with the kindred spirit of Emily Dickinson: “Alone in my need to be alone, her voice reached out from the pages and made friends with me... I liked to read aloud to myself:

‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you — Nobody — Too?

Then there’s a pair of us!’

“Two nobodies equal one somebody. Emily’s poems told me she found herself with words. Poetry was a refuge from the instability and barrage of human disappointment. When I read and listened to disappointment I was out of the crossfire of my parents.”

Her mother did a rebound marriage to an older man who gave them a big house and a dictatorship demanding that his wife serve him, whipping the kids, stealing Joy’s diaries to see what she was thinking, trying to grope and fondle her as she reached puberty. For a time, she attended an evangelical church whose preacher condemned nonbelievers. “I was given excellent instructions on hell every Sunday morning and evening and Wednesday night”—such that she quit, brooding: “Why would the Creator-God make everything, then deem only those who were of a certain religion or church worthy of an eternal life?”

In Crazy Brave, she writes, “I loved the erotic poetry of the Song of Solomon… The beloved was also God. I turned to these songs in the Bible to escape the pedantic sermons of the preacher. I preferred to consider God as a beloved rather than a wrathful white man who was ready to destroy anyone who had an imagination.”

As a teenager she found rescue with acceptance to the Institute of American Indian Arts, a high school in Santa Fe where she boarded in the late 1960s, meeting young Seminoles, Sioux, Creek, and Pawnee students among those from other nations, awakening to a Native American renaissance as they found expression in classes on drama, literature, music, and the arts. She toured with one of the school acting companies. The kids grooved to the psychedelic rock shows that colored Santa Fe, then a hippie outpost of the old West. She fell in love with a Cherokee boy, became pregnant, ended up going to live with the boy and his cloying mother in Talequah, Oklahoma. After working day jobs to cover babysitting for her son while the boy-husband failed to get jobs, she took the baby and moved to Albuquerque, a single mom balancing work and classes at the University of New Mexico.

She fell in love with a poet by whom she had another child, only to realize that his wild binges, jumping in hotel swimming pools where he wasn’t staying, crawling home with flowers and florid apologies, were a disaster she had to escape. Her home “became the safe house for many of my Indian women friends whose husbands and boyfriends were beating them,” she writes in Crazy Braze, recounting how one woman ended up in hospital with her jaw wired after a beating, losing a semester in college. “These fathers, brothers, and husbands were all men we loved, and were worthy of love. As peoples we had been broken. We were still in the bloody aftermath of a violent takeover of our lands. Within a few generations we had gone from being nearly one hundred percent of the population of this continent to less than one-half of one percent. We were all haunted.”

As a teenager she had begun traveling in Oklahoma, getting to know far-flung family members, learning about the Trail of Tears by which Andrew Jackson in the 1830s sent Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee nations of the Gulf South to Oklahoma where land theft by U.S. treaties further tightened the geography of their lives. “They were the tears of the dead and the tears of those who remained to bury the dead. We had to keep walking. We were still walking, trying to make it through to home,” she writes in Crazy Brave.

At 19 she joined the Creek-Muscogee nation, adopting the surname Harjo in honor of a grandmother whose artworks inspired her. “Just as I felt my grandmother living in me, I feel the legacy and personhood of my warrior grandfathers and grandmothers who refused to surrender to injustice against our peoples.”

In Albuquerque, at U.N.M., Joy Harjo became a poet, charged with a spiritual sensibility given shape by the stories and tribal history she absorbed in the Muscogee Creek Nation. The challenge of poetry was stark, as she writes near the end of the first memoir.

“I could not express my perception of the sacred.

“I could speak everyday language: Please pass the salt. I would like… When are we going… I’ll meet you there.

“I wanted the intricate and metaphorical language of my ancestors to pass through to my language and my life.”

Her search for the sacred found a new dimension in the ethereal saxophone plateaus of John Coltrane in A Love Supreme, in the bebop rhythms of Charlie Parker and, first-hand, in Jim Pepper, a many-traveled reed player “from the heartlands of the Mskoke people” who gave her soprano sax tutorials. In hours away from the reading and writing she played scales and absorbed poetic cadences of the music.

From the title poem, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (2015):

This would be no place without blues, jazz—Thank

you/mvto to the Africans, the Europeans sitting in,

especially Adolphe Sax with his saxophones… Don’t forget

that at the center is the Mvskoke ceremonial circles. We

know how to swing. We keep the heartbeat of the earth in

our stomp dance feet.

You might try dancing theory with a bustle, or a jingle

dress, or with turtles strapped around your legs. You might

try wearing colonization like a heavy gold chain around a

pimp’s neck.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Paul Abdoo/Getty</div>
Paul Abdoo/Getty

Harjo earned an M.F.A. at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the late 1970s, followed by a string of college teaching positions, broadening her reach as a writer, spoken poet, and tenor sax player; the academic jobs took her to places like Phoenix, Fairbanks, Los Angeles, and Honolulu among other stops before making hometown Tulsa her base.

She experienced a conceptual turning point in 1990 while attending a conference of indigenous peoples in a mountain village near Quito, Ecuador, discussing a counter-response to the approaching celebration in the Americas of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in 1492.

“I’ll never forget the arrival of the people from the Amazon villages,” Harjo wrote in a 2010 piece for Muscogee Nation News. “They walked up to the encampment barefoot, with their beautiful, colorful feathers and spears. They came to share a story of American oil companies, and how the lands were being destroyed and their way of life irrevocably broken, as their lands were rich with oil.”

In that piece, written during the BP oil spill, which sent a vast petroleum slick onto beaches and through wetlands along the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas, Harjo thought of Philip Deere, a Muscogee-Creek spiritual leader who gave a ringing speech at a 1977 UN meeting in Geneva: “We, the Indigenous Peoples, are the evidence of the Western hemisphere. No matter how small a tribal people may be, each of them has a right to be who they are.”

Thinking back on Deere, who died in 1985, she considered his “prophecies and others like him” who had been “warning for many years of these earth changes and advised us to change our behavior, but we did not take heed. It is crucial that we don’t give up in our minds and hearts as we watch our world shift.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Joy Harjo speaks onstage during the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences’ 11th Annual Governors Awards in 2019.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Kevin Winter/Getty</div>

Joy Harjo speaks onstage during the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences’ 11th Annual Governors Awards in 2019.

Kevin Winter/Getty

In a coda to that world-shift, borne of a brooding day with a long flight delay at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, she wrote “Everybody Has a Heartache (a Blues),” collected in Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (2015). Here’s a sequence from the long poem:

Everybody has a heartache—

This silence in the noise of the terminal is a mountain of

bison skulls.

Nobody knows, nobody sees—

Unless the indigenous are dancing powwow all decked out

in flash and beauty

We just don’t exist. We’ve been dispersed to an outlaw

cowboy tale.

What were they thinking with all those guns and those

handcuffs?

They just don’t choose to remember.

We’re here.

In the terminal of stopped time I went unsteady to the beat,

Driven by a hungry spirit who is drunk with words and

songs.

What can I do?

I have to take care of it.

The famished spirit eats fire, poetry, and pain; it only wants

love.

I argue:

You want love?

Do you even know what it looks like, smells like?

But you cannot argue with hungry spirits.

Everybody has a heartache…

In photographs Joy Harjo cuts a grand figure, looking younger than 71 with long black hair, body art inked across her right wrist cradling a tenor saxophone, the face uptilted with a smile to beat the band. Her despair at history’s crimes and ravaged Earth has a long counter-rhythm in love song poetry composed at turns and open stretches on her long road, a gathering voice that registers the sacred in a shift to the incantations of an elder, the song-lines capturing time past, time to come.

In her latest collection, An American Sunrise: Poems (2019), she has an untitled piece that harks back to the 1990 congress of indigenous peoples in Ecuador where she met the barefoot Amazon village people with beautiful outfits and stories of oil-drilling horrors. Her update on this event extends the consciousness of our time:

In the women’s circle, a striking Bolivian Indian woman in a

bowler hat stood up. She welcomed us, and noted that she was

surprised at all of the Natives attending from the United States.

“We thought John Wayne had killed all of you.”

(This was not a joke.)

“And why,” she asked, “Do you call yourselves America? This

hemisphere is one body, one person. She is America.”

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Jason Berry is the author of City of a Million Dreams, a New Orleans history and subject of a new documentary, using jazz funerals as a lens on the city’s evolution.

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