Joy Harjo started writing as a college student in New Mexico in the early 1970s, during what she described as “the beginning of a multicultural literary movement.”
At gatherings around the Southwest, she began meeting poets, including Native American ones. Hearing them perform made her realize that poetry was available to everyone, including her. “It became a way to speak about especially Native women’s experiences at a time of great social change,” she said.
Since then Harjo, 68, has written eight books of poetry, a memoir and two books for young audiences. Now the Library of Congress has named her America’s new poet laureate. She will take over for Tracy K. Smith, who has held the position for two years, and joins the ranks of such acclaimed writers as Rita Dove, Louise Glück, Billy Collins and Juan Felipe Herrera. Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, is the 23rd poet and first Native person to be selected for the role.
“I’m still in a little bit of shock,” said Harjo, who now lives in Oklahoma, where she was born. “This kind of award honors the place of Native people in this country, the place of Native people’s poetry.”
[ Read “Fall Song” by Joy Harjo. ]
Rob Casper, who heads the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress, which houses the laureate, praised the “great humanity” of Harjo’s poetry. “She can have a kind of great sweeping vision and still speak so directly as one human being to another in a way that I can’t help but feel completely moved by and believe in,” he said.
In a statement, Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress, said Harjo’s work “powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.”
Harjo grew up on Native land in Tulsa, the eldest of four children. “I was told that I was the shyest kid at Indian school, and I liked painting, because I didn’t have to speak,” she said. She did not grow up around many books, but she did hear many stories, primarily about her ancestors, including tribal chiefs who were among her father’s people. She grew up seeing her grandmother’s artwork in their home.
In her 2012 memoir, “Crazy Brave,” Harjo recounts a difficult childhood that included substance abuse, an abusive stepfather and the challenge of becoming a teenage mother, but when asked about it now, she merely said: “We are flawed human beings, and yet there was love. I made it through. We all did.”
She attended a performing-arts high school, then studied painting at the University of New Mexico. She later attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has since published volumes of poetry that explore the connection between spirituality, nature and womanhood, with a focus on Native American history and experience.
“My poems are about confronting the kind of society that would diminish Native people, disappear us from the story of this country,” she said.
She has won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and her newest collection, “An American Sunrise,” will be published by W.W. Norton in August.
Harjo hasn’t decided exactly what she will do during her time as poet laureate — appointees usually choose a focus or project to carry out during their tenure — but said she hoped “to remind people that poetry belongs to everyone” and that it can draw from a range of human and natural experiences, “sunrise, sunset, eating, enjoying company, births, death, all of it.”
She is also a musician who has released four albums and said she wanted to highlight the intersectional nature of poetry with music and dance, as well as to speak to the present social and political divides.
“Just as when I started writing poetry, we’re at a very crucial time in American history and in planetary history,” Harjo said. “Poetry is a way to bridge, to make bridges from one country to another, one person to another, one time to another.”
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Concepción de León is a digital staff writer covering news and culture for the Books section.
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