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Joy Harjo Becomes First Native American Writer to Be Named U.S. Poet Laureate

Harjo, a member of the Muskogee Creek Nation, says the appointment ‘honors the place of Native people in this country, the place of Native people’s poetry’

Joy Harjo is the author of eight poetry books, among them The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, which received the Oklahoma Book Arts Award. (J. Vespa/WireImage)
smithsonian.com

On Wednesday, the Library of Congress announced the appointment of its 23rd poet laureate: Joy Harjo, a poet, author, musician, performer and activist, whose lyrical verses draw on the Native American experience through a female lens. A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, Harjo is the first Native American poet to hold the prestigious position.

“I’m still in a little bit of shock,” she tells Concepción de León of the New York Times. “This kind of award honors the place of Native people in this country, the place of Native people’s poetry.”

Harjo, who was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is also the first poet laureate from that state. Once she formally assumes the position in September, she will take over from Tracy K. Smith, who has served two terms, and join the ranks of past poet laureates such as Louise Glück, Billy Collins and Rita Dove.

The duties of the poet laureate are non-specific, but the Library of Congress says that people who are awarded the honor seek to “raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.” Smith, for instance, traveled the country to share her works. Harjo tells Hillel Italie of the Associated Press that she doesn’t yet have a “defined project” for her tenure—but she is ready for it.

“I’ve been an unofficial poetry ambassador—on the road for poetry for years,” Harjo says. I’ve introduced many poetry audiences to Native poetry and audiences not expecting poetry to be poetry.”

Harjo, who is 68, is the author of eight poetry books, among them The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, which received the Oklahoma Book Arts Award, and In Mad Love and War, which was awarded an American Book Award. Her ninth collection, An American Sunrise, will be published in the fall; the poem from which the book borrows its title is a reflection on the resilience of the Native American people:

“We are still America. We know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die soon.”

Harjo is also the author of books for children and young adults, and a memoir, Crazy Brave, in which she chronicles the details of a difficult childhood: an alcoholic father, an abusive stepfather, teenage motherhood, poverty. But speaking to de León of the Times, Harjo once again emphasizes resilience.

“We are flawed human beings, and yet there was love,” she says.
“I made it through. We all did.”

The critically acclaimed memoir, which won the PEN USA Literary Award for Creative Non-Fiction, also follows Harjo’s journey to becoming a saxophonist—hearing Miles Davis on her parents’ car radio marked a pivotal moment—and a poet. In the 1970s, Harjo began frequenting literary gatherings around the Southwest, where she met Native American poets and came to realize that she too could immerse herself in the artform. Writing verse, she tells de León, “became a way to speak about especially Native women’s experiences at a time of great social change.”

Harjo’s work pulls on personal experiences and collective ones, while exploring themes such as indigenous storytelling and traditions, social justice and feminism. In “She Had Some Horses,” for instance, Harjo uses the animal to represent the many complex, exuberant facets of a woman:

“She had horses with eyes of trains.

She had horses with full, brown thighs.

She had horses who laughed too much.

She had horses who threw rocks at glass houses.

She had horses who licked razor blades.

She had some horses.”

Speaking to NPR’s Lynn Neary and Patrick Jarenwattananon, Harjo says that being named poet laureate is significant not only for her, but “for Native people in this country, when we’ve been so disappeared and disregarded.”

“I bear that honor on behalf of the people and my ancestors,” she adds. “So that's really exciting for me.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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