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Joy Harjo

"The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress."
Grace Cavalieri Interviews Joy Harjo, September 2019, Day of Inauguration

Grace Cavalieri
This is the Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress I'm Grace Cavalieri. Our guest is the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo. She’s one of the most significant women in the history of poetry. So congratulations, and the audience would love to hear your voice with an opening poem.

Joy Harjo
Thank you so much. I'm really happy to be here, and I guess for the opening poem I'll start with a love poem. And as I was coming up in learning poetry, I was always cautioned that love poems, that's not real poetry, and it's hard to write a really good love poem and so on. And so I will take a risk here and read a love poem called Dawning
Even the birds were still sleeping
When I touched ground.
I went around the house, opening
Windows, then the plants
Made my tea, wrote until breaking
Of morning I went back
Up the stairs to see if you were waking.
Ever so quiet the smoky light
Covered the hills, no one making
The rounds yet to pick up trash
Or edge the grass. You were dreaming
When I cradled your head.
Your mother's loving
Tenderly in place though she's been gone
For many years, and you graying
Though ever handsome
In my arms. I tiptoe back to the breaking
Of light and let you sleep—
My king, my everything.

Beautiful. Joe Harjo. She's our new Poet Laureate. What did you do? What happened when you found out you were Poet Laureate? Did someone call you on the phone? What happened?

Yes. Actually Rob Casper tricked me. He did! He had sent me an email and said, “I have a quick question for you. Can you call? Which of these times works for you?” And so I told him. And, the body’s wise. It knows. When he said that, this electricity went through, and I thought, well it's probably, you know, it's the National Book Festival. I've been there, and I've got a book coming out and all of that. So then I called at the designated time, and he comes on and says, “Wait a minute, we’re all here,” and I thought we're all here? And then he said, “Here, speak with Carla Hayden, the head librarian of the Library of Congress,” and then she said “We want you to be the 23rd US Poet Laureate, and I was hit. It was like being struck by lightning.


Totally surprised?


Yes it was a total surprise. I had no idea.


A good surprise. We're so happy. You know they're lined up around the block for your  pening tomorrow. The tickets were out, the seats are gone. What do you think people want from you?


I think this particular Poet Laureatship, I'm stepping into a certain time and place that's really about the people, and it's about what people were wanting and needing in these times, which has to do really with, I think a native voice for one. Because it was told - I used to sit in these circles long ago, and they said eventually they're going to come back to us. Because this is the root of what is America is these lands. We’re part of this story.


Oh, what a thing.

And so that's part of it, and it's in these times we need poetry. it's we go to poetry. We always - human beings, all human beings, always go to poetry.


There coming for your poetry.


They’re coming yes, for poetry.


Joy is a Native American born in Tulsa. She's internationally known, and an award winning poet, writer, performer, saxophone player of the Mvskoke Creek nation. And we would love another poem.


Okay, let's see. I’ll read this one, A Refuge in the Smallest of Places, for Emily Dickinson, who knew about small places and how large things can be found there and for all those fleeing on those ancient migration trails north for home.
Someone sang for me and no one else could hear it
When I had given up and made knife marks on my arm
Or drank and gave myself away or was given
Someone sang for me and no one else could hear it
When demons came with rope and cages
To take my children from me and imprison us
Someone sang for me and no one else could hear it
Now I am here in this timeless room of lost poetry
Gathering up the destroyed and forgotten
Because of the songs someone sang that no one else could hear
But me

Joy Harjo. Nobody reads like you do either. I've always wanted to know more about your teaching. I know the last place was Tennessee, right?



Northeastern? And you taught a class, the Excellence of Creative Writing. So was that like a super class of creative writing, the very best of the best?


No, when I taught there, I was Chair of Excellence at University of Tennessee Knoxville.


Oh, that was where the title came from.



What did you do when you walked into the classroom? How did you get them to know that vulnerability and strength were the same thing? Because that's your gift to the world, that vulnerability is strength. How did you impart that to the students, just by being you?


There's a long story about getting to that place. Just by poetry. I think poetry gives us that, and reading poetry of poets from all over the world then. And reading and writing, and so on. But to get to that place in teaching took me years. I have not taught consistently. What would happen with me through the years, I would have a really good teaching job, teaching creative writing, and then I would get to a point where I wasn't getting time for my work. So I would resign and do freelance for some time. And then I was lucky in that somebody would say, “we would like to hire you here,” and I would work for awhile, and you know, I have good references, but I would leave. But there was a point in my teaching where I realized I wasn't teaching like me. I was burdened with how I thought I was supposed to teach...


Oh, I love that you said that.

Joy an academic setting. And I had a student at UCLA who came in with her friend, and she said to introduce, her friend wanted to meet me, and she said to her friend, “I wish she would teach the ways she writes poetry,” and it was difficult to hear that, because I knew that I had been overwhelmed by what I thought I was supposed to be doing, which was not me. I had to come at it in my own way, which the best poets, artists, people who fix cars, and really anyone, we have to be we are.


That's it, isn't it?



Because we fall into the trap of convention, and then we realize the only thing we have to give is what's inimitable. What we have. and so I think just coming to that, if we could teach teachers that the first day, but artist more than ever. So Joy Harjo is with us. She has won so many awards we would be here late, so I'll just read some of them. The Ruth Lilly Prize from the Poetry Foundation for Lifetime Achievement, the 2015 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets for Proven Mastery in the Art of Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the United States Artist Fellowship. She was inducted into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame, and today she is ours. We’re at the Library of Congress, I’m Grace Cavalieri, and Joy is going to read another poem.

This one is called Let There Be No Regrets, and this was written for Bears Ears National Monument, which at this moment is being parceled out for development, quote unquote, and it opens with a quote by Wayne “Minogiizhig” Valliere, and he said, I heard him say this, it was “We're not losing the birch trees, the birch trees are losing us.”

The songs and stories that formed us are restless
and need a place to live in the world of our grandchildren.
They are weary with waiting.

Earth continues to dream her earth dreams
Though desperate thoughts fed by money hunger roam our minds.

To the destroyers, Earth is not the person.

They will want more until there is no more to steal.

Earth who does not know time is patient.
The destroyers will destroy themselves.

So many earth spirits take care of this place. They emerge from
the cliff walls.

They emerge from the waves of waters.

Our ancestors are not only human ancestors.
What do you see when you fly to the top of the ancestor tree?

Let there be no regrets, no sadness, no anger, no acts of
disturbance to these lands.

What do you see when you fly to the top of the ancestor tree. Poetry is healing. You are said to be a healer. What does that mean?


I've come to the conclusion that when we come into this world, we come here, every person who takes breath, comes in to be healed. That every person's journey is in essence a healing journey, so that means that everyone is in some state of healing, and we'll help each other in small and large ways.


Do you think everyone knows that though? Poets know it.


I think poets do. We don't always call it that. I mean, we're pursuing, there's the level we're pursuing our art. We're pursuing language, we're pursuing the place without words with words.


There's where you live.


Yes it is.


There’s where you live. No one excels you in bringing forth the living and the dead, actually, emotionally, and poetically. And what you have which is so unusual, and so rare, and so precious is that you really are connected with the spirit world. And you can get into your nighttime mind and connect - take away that veil between here and there. And your poetry is full of it. People actually show up. And that is, I think, going to heal the world.

I think it's true for everyone though. We always, if you think about it, we're just as much in the world of the intangible because so many of us, we’re running our memories. Things come to us, dreams, we get in any field of endeavor.


But you say it. You say it, you tell it, you teach it. And it's not okay just to have, to know it, but to spread the word, to say, wait a minute, we are really part of infinity. We’re just the little edge of it. And that's in all of your work, and I think that is one of the reasons you're Poet Laureate of the United States, because this is a message that needed to be said and couldn't have maybe it been said before?


I think there are poets innately, we play in that field.


That’s our sand box!



And Joy Harjo is with us. We're at the Library of Congress, I'm Grace Cavalieri. I am thrilled to pieces. I've been reading you since 1975.



Yeah, when I was teaching at Antioch College, and you had a little teeny pamphlet out.


Yeah I had that. That's when it came out. It was The Last Song.


And I was teaching women poets, and there were not that many printed. I'll tell you, I had a book in 1970 of Voices in Poetry and there were 400 pages, and there were like 5 women poets in there.


Yeah. The first anthology of Native poetry, contemporary Native poetry, there were no women in it at all, and that came out in the early 70s.

But here we are! Joe Harjo, another poem please.


The Story Wheel
I leave you to your ceremony of grieving
Which is also of celebration
Given when an honored humble one
Leaves behind a trail of happiness
in the dark of human tribulation.
None of us is above the other
In this story of forever.
Though we follow that red road home,
one behind another.
There is a light breaking through the storm
And it is Buffalo hunting weather.
There you can see your mother
She is busy as she was ever
She holds up a new jingle dress, for her youngest beloved daughter.
And for her special son, a set of finely beaded gear,
All for that welcome home dance,
The most favorite of all—
when everyone finds their way back together
to dance eat and celebrate.
And tell story after story
of how they fought and played
in the story wheel
and how no one
was ever really lost at all.

Joy Harjo has written nine books of poetry. Her newest is An American Sunrise, and she's reading from that today. Another, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, and She Had Some Horses. She also wrote Crazy Brave, her memoir that won many awards, including the Pan Award, and the USA Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction, and the American Book Award. What do you do with all these awards, put them in your underwear drawer? It's just nice for the minute, right?


No, I appreciate them. The list of failures is much longer.


I like that very much.


No, I always remind young people who get dismayed because things aren't coming. I mean, I've been doing this fifty years now. I realize it's been fifty years I've been writing, and for most of those years there's been no recognition. She Had Some Horses, which is now considered a classic, got no attention.


It is a classic.


It was not. It’s only until very recently actually that...


But everybody knows The Table Poem,


Yes, that’s true.


We all know those poems. But I read your memoir, and there were tough times in the beginning. Your mother had to side with your stepfather. There was some betrayal, some rejection. But at the end of it, I came out feeling she has brought the family together, and transformed it from, kind of breakage, in the beginning, and that that is what’s sacrosanct with you, the family. And that's what you make - you transform something into something else. And it's in all of your work.


That’s true.


Talk about the family a bit.


Well you're right. People will often ask you what's your poetry about, and how do you answer? I always say it's about transformation. But I had really good materials to work with. We all did in the family. There was breakage. There's breakage that came down through the ancestral line. It's not really a line, it's a field, and when you get to a certain age you start seeing it. And you see that everyone is still alive - it's a living being. I said what we say and do affects everybody backwards... forwards, of course, we know that with the children grandchildren, but also backwards, and sideways. So yes, I came up with, you know, it's historical trauma. There is a lot of historical trauma in my family from Mvskoke Creek nation, and on my mom's side, the Cherokee side, and the Irish in there. I recognize those ancestors too. But there was always love and that's the transforming ingredient. That's the elixir so to speak. It's more than that. It's a force of being that ultimately, I believe, that that's what survives ultimately. In all of these stories, and they're all stories, we come here to heal. Well healing can be really difficult, and even ugly and rough to go through what you need to know to become yourself.


Yes. I want that line. Just a big line like that, what you need to know to become yourself. That's all we need to know. That's all we need to know really. And so in this book An American Sunrise, I really like your poem about washing your mother. It’s too long for us to read, but it is about rectifying things. It is about the final touch, the washing, the touching. And then you go back, it brings us into memory. I want everyone to remember the title of the book An American Sunrise, and go right to that poem is it called How I washed my mother?


Washing My Mother’s Body, and I came to that because I didn't get to.


That's right.


And I realized - I was in the middle of totally something else, and the poem came. It's like the poem told me well, if you can't wash your mother's body in person, you can wash your mother’s body now. So, I went back in time in the poem. Because in poetry you can do that.

And that was transformation. Yep, that's it. And so you change the narrative really. And if you were not able to do it in reality, you did it even more real than ever because this will last forever. Washing your mother would have been a moment in time, but this is going to be something we read and make permanent forever, which is really kind of magic isn't it?


Well this whole process, whether you're a creator in art, or children, or poetry is a kind of magic.


And then when you combine magic with social justice, that's high holiday! And that's what you do. You do! How you get politics and love and progress, and make a big wonderful salad out of that, it all works. Because you know why? It's you, that's why it works right?


Well it's me, but what is me, or what is I? It's we, you know. It's ultimately we. From the beginning there's always been these ancestors speaking. Oh they’re there. Everyone comes in. I got to be at the birth of several of my grandchildren and there's always somebody, an ancestor, who comes in with everyone.


Visually I have seen, also, the dead. And everyone can.



They just have to open up that last neuron in the brain that is about belief.

Yes. They feel them. They know, they dream. Everyone does. It's part of part of our toolbox really.


Isn’t it amazing how people deny their nighttime mind, and pretend that that is something, oh that was just an irregularity when I went to sleep and all those things - they just dismiss them as not the most important part of their being?


Yeah, it's about half their life. Of all of our lives.


Let’s have another poem. Joy Harjo is also, she didn't bring her saxophone, but she's a renowned musician, and she has a band The Arrow Dynamics. She’s won five award-winning CDs of music including Red Dreams, A Trail Beyond Tears, and Winding Through the Milky Way and that won the Native American Music Award for Best Female Artist of the Year. Let’s have a poem.


Okay, this one is called Memory Sack. It’s a short one.
That first cry opens the earth door.
We join the ancestor road,
With our pack of memories
Slung slack on our backs
We venture into the circle
Of destruction,
Which is the circle
Of creation
And make more—

Another poem I like, and I probably can't pronounce it, I would say Sahotasakis? Two women sing.


Oh yeah that's... yeah.


That’s a good one, because it's it says so much about your indomitable ability to go on.


Well it’s not just mine. This is a traditional song that came on the Trail of Tears.


And how do you say that word?


Che-ho-toe-sockatees. That’s better.


Would you read it?


Well the thing is, I'd have to sing it. Which I can do.


Oh we can handle that.

It’s said that two beloved women sang this song as their band came over on the Trail of Tears. One woman walked near the front of the people, and the other walk near the back with the small children. When anyone faltered, they would sing this song to hold them up.
Chenaorakvtes Momis komet
Awatchken ohapeyakares hvlwen
Do not get tired.
Don’t be discouraged. Be determined.
Come. Together let’s go toward the highest place.


That went right to the center. Would you do that tomorrow night?


I probably will as part of something. Yes.


Do you know what you're going to do yet? I mean, is it still a fluid idea? Because you will sing won't you? You'll be having music.


Yes. I will have a band there. Actually I'm going be playing with Larry Mitchell and Robert Muller and Howard Cloud. I've played with them often so I'm excited they’re coming to perform. And yes, I'll be singing.


This is a night to remember. Joy Harjo is our guest, and I often think of all the things you do. And one of them is playwriting. And that is so different an art form, because the poem is about feeling, and ideas sensuality. But the play is really hardcore, about people talking. What is your process there?


Well there's one that was just published right before An American Sunrise called Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light, a Play by Joy Harjo with a Circle of Responses, and that was published by Wesleyan in March. So that was different. it was a one woman show, but still the character Red Bird would speak with the Spirit Helper, who was there but unseen, and then Larry Mitchell was my - I called him the Guardian Spirit. He played guitar as I would play and sing through the play.


So you performed it?


Yes, I performed it.


Can it be performed by anyone else?


I suppose it could be. It would be different, but it could be. And then I'm working on another play called We Were There When Jazz Was Invented, which has several characters.


You had one about two people in a hotel room that committed suicide? What was that?


No. What that play - I put out a call and that's one I want to get to, and that's another play. It was going to be, what was the title? But it's about a family. Students, they're grown from Indian school, who were friends at Indian school coming together because one of their friends has committed suicide.


And that's a play you're going to write.


Yes, that's another one once I get this one finished I'm in the middle of. I plan to have the book of this. It's a musical play, not a strict traditional western musical.

I see.


And so I'm in the middle of working on that, and I'll start working on the music, And then I want to do that other play.


I find you to be highly disciplined. So I'm wondering if you work in segments. Like you say, you wake up in the morning and you say, “Today I'm going to do this play,” and you don't get your mind cluttered with trying to do poetry. So you are very - are you very pristine about your schedule?


No, because my schedule is, even before the Poet Laureateship, which I've been doing, there are a lot of demands with this. I was busy then!


I know. Joy Harjo. We are just so very proud and thrilled that you represent our country, and I know it's going to make us change to the good, and just by your being, demonstrating how we can be ourselves. Is there anything to fear in life?

Oh yeah. Yeah, always. But again, it's what you do with it. It's what you - one of my earliest poems was The Poem to Get rid of Fear, and it came because I needed it. It was given to me because I needed it to live.


May we have a final poem?


This is called An American Sunrise, and based on the Golden Shovel form invented by Terrance Hayes, and the last word of each line is from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, We Real Cool.
We were running out of breath, as we ran to meet ourselves, We
Were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to Strike
It was difficult to lose days in the Indian bar if you were Straight.
Easy if you played pool and drank to remember to forget. We
Made plans to be professional—and did. And some of us could sing
When we drove to the edge of the mountains, with the drum. We
Made sense of our beautiful crazed lives under the starry stars. Sin
Was invented by the Christians, as was the Devil, we sang. We
Were the heathens, but needed to be saved from them: Thin
Chance. 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 the music as I filled the jukebox with dimes in June,
Forty years later and we still want justice. We are still America. We.


This program is produced with thanks to the Library of Congress Poet Laureate Office. The voice of Joy Harjo, twenty-third Poet Laureate of the United States of America. Her new book is An American Sunrise. The program is produced by Forest Woods Media Productions.