An Interview with Poet Joy Harjo to Celebrate The Big Read

Joy Harjo is a world treasure, rare and formidable amongst poets writing today, with a voice equal parts wise woman, jazz, rain, and earth. Her collected poems bring together the full range of her work, an impressive spectrum of word magic that is timeless, necessary, and informed by the history of her people, traditions of storytelling and song. A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, her many awards include the Native Writers Circle of the Americas, the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, and others. She is also a noted teacher, and an accomplished saxophonist.

This Thursday, March 8, at 8 p.m. at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Miami Book Fair and Books and Books host a keynote address with  Harjo as part of the month-long celebration of this year’s Big Read selection, Joy Harjo’s How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975-2001. Copies of Harjo’s book will be given out at this completely free event. 

Joy Harjo took time out of her busy schedule this week to answer the following questions for the Jitney.

 What do you most want readers to gain from the experience of reading your poetry?

Joy Harjo:  I’d like for readers to see that poetry is not without a door, or many doors. I loved poetry as a child but not the way it was taught. How were we supposed to know what the poet meant, especially when they were from England of a century or two before (or what felt like a century or two before) and spoke differently? If you tell someone to read a poem the way you’d listen to a song of their favorite music, it might change perception. I’d like to hand them a poetry that would give them the notion that yes, you can write about what you see, hear, know, from their own familial, cultural or historical point of view. And maybe the readers will feel motivated to write their own songs, stories and poems.

What are you most looking forward to during your visit to Miami?

I love the landscape, the water, the Everglades—the cultural mix. My grandmother’s family, full blood Creek Indians often came to Florida from eastern Oklahoma. They had a place near Stuart, Florida and worked with the Seminoles. I still feel close to my great grandparents Henry Marsey Harjo and Katie Monahwee. Katie’s grandfather was Samual Checote, the first principal chief after removal to Oklahoma. His mother’s brother was Osceola. So my family has history, a connection here.

In the foreword to your collection, How We Became Human, you write about your first encounters with poetry as, “an impulse fed by history, dream, myth (that is myth as an archetypal reality, not a falsehood), belief, and most of all, faith.” Can you talk about the power of myth and how it figures into your poetry? What is the “reality” or truth (as opposed to “falsehood”) to be found in myth? How does faith in that sustain you? Humanity?

I imagine a layer of memory, the stuff that makes origin stories: personal, familial, community and cultural—It’s the stuff of archetypes. We emerge from it, through it, of it—it is like stones with voices and doorways. It is always moving though it may not appear to move. Mythic structures and references moved solid in my poetry before I even know some of them enough to recognize them.  The horses came to me before I wrote the book, She Had Some Horses, then I began hearing all of these stories from my Aunt Lois Harjo, Katie and Henry’s daughter, about Monahwee, our great grandfather, through the Monahwee side. I include one, how I experienced the “myth” of Monahwee on a ride between the Battle of Horseshoe Bend grounds and Atlanta once. The structure of memory, images, and metaphor are Mvskoke based. And of course, I’ve been influenced by Euro-American poetry. When I began writing poetry, I was studying Navajo language at the University of New Mexico and working with local Native students for human rights in the nearby Native communities surrounding Albuquerque. And when I first began writing poetry as an undergrad at UNM I wondered about the writing of other indigenous peoples, and found African poets and writers who wrote in English, who were going through similar stories of colonization as North American Natives.

Last year, I stopped at a local store in Hialeah, and was talking to the store owner, and poetry entered our conversation. He pulled out a copy of your poem, “Praise the Rain” which was published in the New York Times last August that he’d clipped out and saved. It was a beautiful moment in the middle of my day to read your poem with him. I’m wondering how it feels now, after years of writing poetry to see your poems reaching and touching people halfway across the world from where you live? Is it something you imagined when you started writing?

Mvto/mahalo nui loa/thank you for the story of the store owner pulling out a copy of my poem at a local store in Hialeah! I can imagine walking into that store and what’s on the shelves and it makes me lonely for that part of the world and for myself in that part of the world.  I’ve come to believe that writing poetry/being a poet is a kind of calling. It’s not really a career in the way that writing fiction can make a career, or another other endeavor is a career. You do not take it on lightly. Everything has a cost, and in a country where poetry is not in the mainstream, as it is in nearly every other country and every other people in the world, you understand that you are agreeing to take on poetry because you have the calling toward something that is like philosophy, time travel, singing, political commentary, soul talk, and it’s all bound up with words and the architectures made by the structures possible with phrasing and sonics. One of the questions most often asked is, “Who is your audience?” Of course my people and lands of birth are there—but like Coltrane came to realize through the practice of saxophone and jazz, it’s you, the horn, the words, the journey that you make that is related to all such journeys, is you in a call-and-response with the Creator.

Though it’s next to impossible to pick one, I think my favorite poem in your collection is “It’s Raining in Honolulu” and the line, “We will plant songs where there were curses.” You’ve been planting songs now with your poems and songs since 1973, and the world has changed a lot in some ways, but also in many ways remained the same. I’m wondering about the growth that has resulted. What’s changed over the past forty-six years as a result of all that planting?

“It’s Raining in Honolulu” is one of my favorite poems. It’s never really been picked up on, but I think it’s one of my best poems. Yes, so much has changed and so many things remain the same. Where to start? If I look with the mindset of a human with a set number of human years, it’s going to appear that little has changed. Styles change and are fickle, which also includes styles of poetry and other kinds of art making. Even ideas rise up and go under in regular fashion. The largest change has been climate, and the massive degradation of our planetary home, which literally is us. We are Earth. We can now speak with anyone or see stories and news from all parts of the world, but we do not know ourselves. There is ethical wreckage in any area of manufacture where massive profits can be acquired, like pharmacy, food, and governance. We seem to be in a whirlpool of destruction moving faster and faster—even as we are opening to larger and more compassionate awareness.

One thing I thought about heavily while reading How We Became Human is the idea of national identity. You belong to the Mvskoke Nation, you’re recognized as one of the foremost “American poets,” and you’ve lived in Hawai’i, which was a nation (kingdom, really) of its own at one time. The feeling I get though, is that above all those nations, you’re a citizen of the Earth. Can you talk a little about where you feel most at home? What allegiance do we owe to “nation?” What allegiance do we owe to Earth?

I moved home to Tulsa, Oklahoma in November 2011. I had returned to Tulsa that summer of 2011 to help my mother in her lung cancer fight. She passed in October. I was back to the place I had run from to save myself. In high school I found a refuge at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school in Santa Fe, NM that was an experimental arts school for mostly high school students. It was the first time I readily spoke up in school and participated fully, as there were only Native students. I returned to Oklahoma for a brief time to give birth to my son, but stayed out in the world, with trips home to participate in family and community. Always, I am and was a full citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation. The U.S. is a government that overlays many indigenous nations, including the Hawaii kingdom, which was illegally overthrown by American businessmen. It’s a different but similar story with our indigenous nations. Our original lands ranged from Florida to Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. When I am near what is now Columbus, Georgia/Phoenix, Alabama I feel such a tremendous heartache and love for what had been home. I have felt home in O’ahu and in many areas on the South Pacific, in Cairo, Egypt—Yes, we are Earth.

How We Became Human is a collection of poems written between 1975 and 2001. A lot has happened since 2001. I’m wondering why you selected this time period for the collection? Do you see this as a specific era in your own writing? Or in the world?

It seemed that with so many collections of poetry, it was time for a new and selected poems. One of the last poems in that collection marked the falling of the trade towers, and what they represented. It makes a definite maker or place in time, in American culture. I was living in Hawai’i during that time—and my writing had shifted, perhaps even drifted. It was difficult to find traction for my writing or my music there, but that’s not where my literary or musical work was located. There it was my soul and the water, the ‘aina, and where I needed to be. One night my spirit told me it was time to return to the Mainland, to what awaited me there. I had to listen. If poetry has taught me anything, it has taught me to listen. That is its supreme gift. Like listening to the rain, and the songs that praise the rain, and hearing the plants calling for the rain to come. Yes, that’s it.

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Jan Becker

Jan Becker is the author of The Sunshine Chronicles from Jitney Books, and lives in Hialeah, FL.