“My role as a poet is as a healer,” says Joy Harjo. “Poetry is a healing force.”
The 68-year-old Native American writer first felt that restorative power during a difficult time early in her life. “Poetry came to me at a point in which I had no words to express the depth of experience of being native in this country,” she says.
Now Harjo has a chance to offer that medicine to the whole nation. She was appointed 23rd poet laureate of the United States on Wednesday. As a member of the Muscogee Nation, she will be the first Native American to serve in that honorary position when she begins this fall.
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, who made the selection, said in a statement, “Joy Harjo has championed the art of poetry — ‘soul talk’ as she calls it — for over four decades. To her, poems are ‘carriers of dreams, knowledge and wisdom,’ and through them she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and mythmaking.”
Harjo’s poetry is celebrated for its insightful attention to the spiritual and natural worlds. In lines that can be deceptively simple or strikingly complex, she often explores the persistence of myth in contemporary experience.
The author of eight collections of poetry, including “In Mad Love and War” (1990), Harjo has won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and the Wallace Stevens Award, and earlier this year she was awarded the $65,000 Jackson Poetry Prize. She has also distinguished herself as a teacher, actress and writer of nonfiction. In her late 30s, she learned to play the saxophone and has since released several CDs and toured around the world with her band, the Arrow Dynamics.
“I came to poetry first through music,” Harjo says. “My mother wrote songs and sang in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She particularly liked to write ballads, heartbreak-heartache songs, and so I grew up with a lot of country swing musicians in our house playing music. I loved the poetry and song lyrics. For me, it was like merging rhythm and meaning and sound. Songs can make you feel better. They could shift the whole world.”
She acknowledges that the world could use some shifting now in this politically contentious era, and says that poetry offers a crucial way forward. “Poetry demands that you stop, put everything down and listen, and you listen in poetry with your soul,” she says. “That’s part of what I plan to do here: to make connections with poetry so that we can hear across these divisions and these lines that are hurting everyone.”
The poet laureate position, maintained through the Library of Congress, comes with a beautiful office in the Jefferson Building and a modest stipend, but no official duties. Each poet is free to design the one-year position however he or she would like. One of Harjo’s first projects will involve using her new pulpit to humanize Native Americans for a country that still harbors so many misconceptions about them. “We all need humanizing,” she says, “but especially natives because we’ve been so bound and ‘disappeared’ by images that really have nothing to do with us. That means bringing communities together to listen to poetry and to hear each other.”
Harjo’s appointment adds to a resurgence of appreciation for Native American writers. Louise Erdrich won the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction in 2015 in recognition of her series of novels about the Ojibwe. Last year, her sister, Heid E. Erdrich, edited a prominent anthology called “New Poets of Native Nations,” and Tommy Orange’s novel, “There There,” about Native Americans living in modern-day Oakland, was widely hailed as one of the best novels of 2018.
“We’ve always been here,” Harjo notes wryly. “I guess it’s a renaissance of publishing.” Along with several other editors, she is currently working on a major new historical anthology of native nations poetry called “When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through” (forthcoming August 2020, W.W. Norton). Her own new collection of poetry, “An American Sunrise,” will be published in August, a month before she gives her first public presentation at the Library of Congress as poet laureate on Sept. 19.
The new attention to native writing is gratifying but not entirely surprising to Harjo. She remembers when she was very young hearing elders in her community predicting the kinds of disruptions we’re seeing now in the world — “divisions of people and droughts and floods and storms that are many times the magnitude of the storms way back then.” She recalls the elders predicting that, when those challenges come to pass, America will “seek out indigenous people to remember who they are as human beings who are part of an Earth soul.”
Harjo’s mother died in 2011, but she knows how proud she would have felt to see this moment. “The experience of poetry was so close to her heart. I kind of carried that gift from her and took it to another place.”
Once there were songs for everything,
Songs for planting, for growing, for harvesting,
For eating, getting drunk, falling asleep,
For sunrise, birth, mind-break, and war.
For death (those are the heaviest songs and they
Have to be pried from the earth with shovels of grief).
Now all we hear are falling-in-love songs and
Falling apart after falling in love songs.
The earth is leaning sideways
And a song is emerging from the floods
And fires. Urgent tendrils lift toward the sun.
You must be friends with silence to hear.
The songs of the guardians of silence are the most powerful —
They are the most rare.
“Singing Everything” copyright © 2019 by Joy Harjo. To be published in “An American Sunrise,” by Joy Harjo (August 2019; W. W. Norton & Company). Reprinted by permission of Anderson Literary Management.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.