Joy Harjo

American Poet Laureate

Joy Harjo (May 9, 1951) is a poet, musician, author and the first Native American United States Poet Laureate.

Joy Harjo in 2019

Quotes edit

  • There are many of us and we're not just poets. We're teachers. We're dancers. Essentially, we're human beings. And you would think that at this time we would not have to say that. But we still are in the position, strangely enough, that we still have to remind people and the public that: We're still here, we're still active. We have active, living cultures and we are human beings and we write poetry.
  • We talk about needing food, clothing and shelter, but ... that's bodily. But we also need to feed our spirits, and we need to feed our souls, and maybe we even feed history and grow it one way or the other.
  • Each of us is descended from poetry ancestors. It’s the same for any art, any occupation. There is a lineage of style, knowledge and culture passed from generation to generation, one artist to another. Ultimately all poetry is related in the family tree of poetry…
  • Poetry is the art that is closest to music, standing between music and narrative orality (which can be speechmaking, sermon or theater). Poetry is the voice of what can’t be spoken, the mode of truth-telling when meaning needs to rise above or skim below everyday language in shapes not discernible by the ordinary mind. It trumps the rhetoric of politicians. Poetry is prophetic by nature and not bound by time. Because of these qualities poetry carries grief, heartache, ecstasy, celebration, despair, or searing truth more directly than any other literary art form. It is ceremonial in nature. Poetry is a tool for disruption and creation and is necessary for generations of humans to know who they are and who they are becoming in the wave map of history. Without poetry, we lose our way.
  • I think it’s easier to honor the male in our culture because it’s much more accepted. There are almost no truly powerful and sustained images of female power. None. Look at Marilyn Monroe? The Virgin Mary? And what images exist for Indian women? The big question is, How do we describe ourselves as women in this culture? It’s unclear.

Catching the Light (2022) edit

  • The traditional ways and rituals of all of Earth's peoples are kept in containers of poetry, song, and story. It is how we know who we are, where we are coming from and who we are becoming.
  • In my community, we are taught that leadership qualities include humility, compassion, a sense of fairness, the ability to listen, preparation and carry-through, a love for the people, and a strong spiritual center that begins with a connection to Earth.
  • When she broke on Earth, the light in her was not broken. We cannot break light, nor can we destroy it.
  • Poetry (and other forms of writing) can be useful as a tool for finding the way into or through the dark. Or a device with which to admire the complexity of the stories in which we have become entangled. Sometimes the only way out is by voice, following the music into the impossible.
  • The most powerful poetry is birthed through cracks in history, through what is broken and unseen.
  • It was all connected, this poetics of listening, word making, and dancing. There was power to transform, to lighten the heaviness of the burden of being human. That's how I came to understand the power of poetry and music. It was a tool, but more than a tool. Words and music evoked a state of mind that lifted us up when racial and historical despair threatened.
  • Emerging from a story, a poem, the Earth, a time in history, or from the body of our mothers is sometimes explosive, chaotic, frightening, yet always awe-inspiring and humbling. We can use the energy to create fresh structures, or we can destroy or be destroyed. The energy can have power over us or empower us, and even what is destructive might clear the debris so that fresh life can emerge from embers or ashes.
  • We must take care to feed the minds, hearts, and spirits of those coming up behind us--to offer songs, poems, and stories that will break open that which is hardened, expose that which is evil-minded or would harm, and remind us how we are constructed to bring forth beauty of thought and beingness.

Poet Warrior (2021) edit

  • Even a lost place within yourself is a place, albeit liminal, a kind of border town. You can make a temporary home if you need to from found materials and shreds of forgotten dreams, and you can even dress to appear somewhat ordinary as you run away, a refugee from yourself. I rolled up the map of my known world and set it aside for some kind of strange autonomy.
  • You were born of a generation that promised to help remember.
  • In the short-root mind, a kind of mind of a people whose children don't even know the names of their great-grandparents, there is no past. Everything is right now. This kind of mind has its roots in the material culture, in what can be accumulated. My great-grandfather reminds me that we need to keep within the long-rooted mind. Because of the longer roots we have a larger structure of knowing from which to take on understanding.
  • Our physical living is held together by plant sacrifice. We eat, wear, and are sheltered by plants and plant material. Nearly all of our medicines are plant-derived. We need to take time with them, get to know them.
  • A family is essentially a field of stories, each intricately connected. Death does not sever the connection; rather, the story expands as it continues unwinding inter-dimensionally”
  • We are all here to serve each other. At some point we have to understand that we do not need to carry a story that is unbearable. We can observe the story, which is mental; feel the story, which is physical; let the story go, which is emotional; then forgive the story, which is spiritual, after which we use the materials of it to build a house of knowledge.

Interview with NPR (2021) edit

  • I've come to realize that what has motivated my art-making is really a strong need for justice, for "people" to be treated [with respect.] And then when I say people, I also mean animals and insects and the birds and the earth and the earth person that we are all part of — that there's a key element and that's respect. And my work has always been motivated by that need for respect.
  • President Andrew Jackson went against Congress to remove Southeastern Native peoples from the lands there into Indian territory, or what became known as Oklahoma. Of course, we did not go willingly. There were several scuffles and fights and even massacres against this illegal removal. But we were force-marched from our homelands. I think a lot of America thinks it was only the Cherokee — or the so-called "five civilized tribes," that included the Muscogee (Creek) — but these kind of removals or forced migration or marches happened all over the country.
  • I think a lot of America, when they think back in history and see Natives, we were hiding out in the woods, wearing rags and so on, but we had huge societies. I have a great, great, great uncle who had the largest horse-racing establishment on the Eastern Seaboard, a Muscogee (Creek) man and half Irish. And they wanted that, they wanted what we had.
  • I remember at one point going out to do a story, just after the [1979] Church Rock uranium spill, and there were children out playing in the water and in the livestock and the Navajo speakers were saying, "We need a word." How do we come up with a word that will tell the people that even though you can't see it, there is something dangerous here that can harm you and you can't use these waters, when it was the only source of water for their livestock?
  • when I went to first grade, when we started to learn how to read, I was so thrilled about what happened with symbols and that suddenly it opened up a world to me. I read all of the books in the first grade classroom and was sent into the second grade, and it became like a hunger for me. I liked the sounds, of course, I like the sound that words make. I like the percussion, the percussive elements and the images and so on. Just like the same kind of thing I heard in my mother's song-making. But the more I read and the more the ability grew, the deeper I could read, the more stories and I could be transported in — much the same way that I could be in that kind of visionary dream world when I was younger. And when we get to about 7 — and I think this happens to a lot of us — we forsake those realms of knowing and understanding, and reading helped give that back.

Interview with On Being (2021) edit

  • I’ll be in a car or a bus or a van or whatever, looking at the houses and the windows and all the storefronts, and thinking about all the different realms, all the different story realms, and how many — every place, every window, every doorway is an opening to a life — a whole different life, a whole series of stories. And it’s multiplied hundreds and thousands of times. And some don’t overlap at all. Some are in their very private universes; other universes are more expansive.
  • I’m a great-grandmother now. I was a grandmother in my 30s and a teenage mother. And what that’s given me is a kind of a broader sense of the story field.
  • we don’t live in a society, generally, that supports dreams as knowledge. And we’re not living in a place like that.
  • think about it — about half of our lives, we’re out gathering information that we may not bring forth consciously, and for some of us, it’s like it’s a library that we go to when we need to know something. It works in that way.
  • what happens in this country is that Natives are — our stories, our presence has basically been disappeared from the American story because if it’s true — if it’s true that we’re still here, and if it’s true that what did happen was, you know, was grand theft and massacre — then there’s something inherently broken with the story that needs to be repaired. The other thing, too, is that we are here. And yet, people expect us to be in our traditional outfits, if we’re recognized. They don’t recognize us unless we’re mascots or we’re wearing our traditional outfits.
  • I’ve been around Natives all over the — all over the world, but there’s something about Oklahoma Natives, you know, something about a Southern kind of openness, which makes more holes for laughter to go through, or for the ironic to live.
  • It’s important that, I think, that everyone realizes that they have a connection with the natural world; it’s not something that just belongs to the Indigenous peoples. We might be closer, because we’ve been here longer, to particular elements of it, but, you know, this is something that is inherently part of the legacy of human beings.
  • it was that discipline of art which gave — you know, visioning is one way that — and the ability to vision and having tools for visioning — helps any of us out of almost impossible situations.
  • Our class and our generation really shifted Native art, in the contemporary world art scene.
  • I think of poetry as a kind of lyricism. I think of poetry as a place beyond words, that we — you know, the paradox is, we use words to get there.
  • A poem can be like a pocket that can hold anything, almost anything. You can hold different kinds of time. It can hold grief, it can hold history, and it is often — a poem has come to me or through me, and it’s taught me what I needed to know.
  • when you’re writing, and I think when you’re creating, too, it’s a large part of that act of writing or — whether it’s music or stories or poetry or drawing, or any of the — it’s — a large part of it is listening.
  • Poetry and living — they’re often the same thing.
  • I would think that everyone wants a place for their children to live, and to live peaceably, but why aren’t we included in — as human? You know, we’re still being excluded, and we’re still — it’s still there. Those same people that moved us are still there. The same people that signed off and drove us and forced us out of the South, into the — Tulsa, they’re still there.
  • I have grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and children, and in the original teachings, we’re told that they’re all our children. And how can I — I have to think of them, and they’re the rudder of hope. I mean, that’s where we’re going, with them.
  • Everything is about — I think even — all the teachings, ultimately, wind up — the stories, everything — wind up at a point of harmony. And when you wind up at that point, everything will be reckoned with.

“The First Native American U.S. Poet Laureate on How Poetry Can Counter Hate” in Time Magazine (2019 Aug 22) edit

  • A lot of images [of Native Americans] are based on fairy tales or Wild West shows. We are human beings, not just people who have been created for people’s fantasy worlds. There’s not just one Native American. We’re diverse by community, by land, by language, by culture. In fact, we go by our tribal names, and there are 573 tribal nations.
    • On stereotypes of Native Americans
  • It’s about learning to listen, much like in music. You can train your ears to history. You can train your ears to the earth. You can train your ears to the wind. It’s important to listen and then to study the world, like astronomy or geology or the names of birds. A lot of poets can be semihistorians. Poetry is very mathematical. There’s a lot in the theoretical parts that is similar. Quantum physicists remind me of mystics. They are aware of what happens in timelessness, though they speak of it through theories and equations.
    • On her advice to poets
  • I can remind people that they use poetry, go to poetry, frequently, and may not even know they are. A lot of song lyrics are poetry. They go to poetry for a transformational moment, to speak when there are no words to speak.
  • I always play or perform music with my poetry. When poetry came into the world, it did not arrive by itself, but it came with music and dance.
  • Audiences for poetry are growing because of the turmoil in our country–political shifts, climate shifts. When there’s uncertainty, when you’re looking for meaning beyond this world–that takes people to poetry. We need something to counter the hate speech, the divisiveness, and it’s possible with poetry.

Crazy Brave: A Memoir (2012) edit

  • European and American settlers soon took over the lands that were established for settlement of eastern tribes in what became known as Indian Territory. The Christian god gave them authority. Yet everyone wanted the same thing: land, peace, a place to make a home, cook, fall in love, make children and music. (p19)
  • In the end, we must each tend to our own gulfs of sadness, though others can assist us with kindness, food, good words, and music. Our human tendency is to fill these holes with distractions like shopping and fast romance, or with drugs and alcohol. (p23)
  • Those of fire move about the earth with inspiration and purpose. They are creative, and can consume and be consumed by their desires (p25)
  • I marked myself once with a knife. I was disappearing into the adolescent sea of rage and destruction. The mark of pain assured me of my own reality. The cut could speak. It had a voice that cried out when I could not make a sound in my defense. I never made such a mark again. Instead I chose to slash art onto canvas, pencil marks onto paper, and when I could no longer carry the burden of history, I found other openings. I found stories. (p91)
  • I could hear my abandoned dreams making a racket in my soul. (p135)
  • I believe that if you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you. Or drag you down with their immense sadness at being abandoned. (p135)
  • No one ever truly dies. The desires of our hearts make a path. We create legacy with our thoughts and dreams. This legacy either will give those who follow us joy on their road or will give them sorrow. (p149)
  • For the true warriors of the world, fighting is the last resort to solving a conflict. Every effort is made to avoid bloodshed. (p150)
  • These fathers, boyfriends, 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. (p158)
  • When Sun leaves at dusk, it makes a doorway. We have access to ancestors, to eternity. Breathe out. Ask for forgiveness. Let all hurts and failures go. Let them go. (p171)

Quotes about Joy Harjo edit

  • It is my conviction that currently in the United States, more women than men are writing good and vital poetry, although there are fine male poets. This is our renaissance, our Elizabethan plenty. We have giants like Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Diane di Prima and Maxine Kumin, we have rising powers like Joy Harjo and Celia Gilbert and Sharon Olds, and we have dozens and dozens of individual voices sharply flavored and yet of our time, our flesh, our troubles.
    • Marge Piercy Introduction to Early Ripening: American Women's Poetry Now (1987)

External links edit

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