'Soul Talk' With Joy Harjo
A conversation with the first Native American poet laureate of the United States on the importance of our "poetry ancestors," and why we must always "remember the dance language is, that life is."
By Michael Judge
Remember you are all people and all people are you. Remember you are this universe and this universe is you. Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you. Remember language comes from this. Remember the dance language is, that life is. Remember.
Those wise and healing lines come from “Remember,” the first poem Joy Harjo recited as the first Native American U.S. poet laureate, playing the alto sax and traditional flute in turn with her jazz band, Poetic Justice, at her inaugural reading in Washington, D.C., in September 2019.
As you may have guessed by now, Harjo, who was born in 1951 in Tulsa, Okla., and is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, is not your typical poet laureate. Her right hand dancing with intricate Muscogee tattoos, she recites her poems in a rhythm somewhere between the Beats of the 1950s and today’s spoken-word crowd, accompanied by her band, when possible, in a truly American marriage of poetry, jazz and Native American stories, songs and rituals.
In June 2019, when Carla Hayden, who heads the Library of Congress, announced that Harjo would succeed Tracy K. Smith as U.S. poet laureate, Smith rightly explained that 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 myth-making. Her work powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.”
In November 2020, Hayden appointed Harjo to a third term as U.S. poet laureate, making her only the second poet to receive that honor since the position was established in 1943. With the COVID-19 pandemic striking not long after she was first appointed, Harjo sees her third term as a chance to conduct more live, in-person events and to continue growing her signature project, Living Nations, Living Worlds: A Map of First People’s Poetry, an interactive Library of Congress “story map” and audio collection featuring the works of scores of Native American poets from tribes stretching from Alaska to Hawaii and Oklahoma to Maine.
But what I’m most interested in is her personal journey from her childhood in Tulsa, to her study of painting at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico at the age of 16, to becoming a teenage mother and discovering her gift for poetry, to becoming a grandmother in her 30s, and now a great grandmother who’s published nine books of poetry, two children’s books, and two best-selling memoirs, Crazy Brave (2012) and Poet Warrior (2021). As if that weren’t enough, she’s also produced seven award-winning music albums including her newest, I Pray for My Enemies.
As you might imagine, she’s a very busy woman made even busier with her various duties as poet laureate. It’s a Wednesday morning at her home in Tulsa when I call her, and she’s got back-to-back meetings most of the day. “How are you?” I ask, wishing like all the world we could meet in person. “I’m doing OK,” she says, her voice as calming and captivating as it is in her readings. “It’s just interesting times.”
“To say the least,” I reply, awkwardly blurting out how, like her, I attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop decades ago, and how recently the writing and reading of poetry is saving my life all over again.
“No, I get it,” she says, graciously. “I think that a lot of people have started turning back to poetry. And I think one thing that may come out of all of this is poetry having a place in this country the way it does in most societies around the world.”
Perhaps we saw a glimpse of that in the country’s embrace of Amanda Gorman and her poem “The Hill We Climb,” recited at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, in which the young poet called America, for all its turmoil and division, a country that is “not broken but simply unfinished.”
Naïve as it may sound, it’s the idea that poetry is essential — now perhaps more than ever — to our shared nation becoming a more perfect union that is foremost in my mind when I speak with Harjo. And, it seems to me, there’s a recipe for healing, understanding and reconciliation in her line, “Remember you are all people and all people are you,” a line reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” in “Song of Myself.”
That’s not by coincidence. After reciting “Remember” at her inaugural reading, Harjo explained her poetics, and how she believes the spirits of our forefathers and foremothers inform, inspire and enlighten us. “Every poem has poetry ancestors,” she said. “I think of that poem, and there’s always Walt Whitman hanging out there. He’s always there. And I think of some of our old [Muscogee Creek] songs that always remind us to remember, remember who we are, remember to be humble, remember that we’re all here together.”
As she writes in her memoir Poet Warrior, published last fall: “Every poem has poetry ancestors. My poetry would not exist without Audre Lorde’s ‘Litany for Survival,’ without [Muscogee] stomp dance call-and-response, without Adrienne Rich’s ‘Diving into the Wreck,’ without Meridel Le Sueur or N. Scott Momaday, without death or sunrise, without Walt Whitman, or Navajo horse songs, or Langston Hughes.”
I ask her if she could talk a bit about how poetry serves as a sort of memory — yes, for the writer, but also for the entire tribe or nation?
“I think of memory as ever moving,” she said. “It is not static. It doesn’t stay neatly in the past. And it changes, it’s living. … Certainly, a country, I believe, has a collective memory. A person, a human being, has their individual memories, collective memories. The stone has a different kind of memory than plants, but it’s a living thing. Poetry… is always beckoning me to some larger, more resonant place. And I’ve come to see that memory is one of the elements, a major element, of writing poetry. Certainly, there’s time and phrasing and counting syllables and accents and architecture. … I don’t know that we think about using it directly, but when I am writing poetry and the lines and the images come through, in a way I feel like I’m reading memory. I’m reading memory, but within that is history, within that is even future. Often, I see poetry as the general way to future, to future possibilities, to what and who you’re becoming.”
For instance, “Remember,” she explained, was written at the start of her long career. “That was one of my earliest poems and I was asked, because I was known in the community as somebody who wrote poetry, ‘What would you tell a young native poet?’ I was just beginning writing myself, but what I’ve learned is that the poems are my teachers. … I go into that space, into that timeless kind of space and see what’s there, see what beckons and see what I need to know and need to understand and need to learn.”
In the poem, she writes:
Remember the earth whose skin you are: red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth brown earth, we are earth. Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them, listen to them. They are alive poems.
Harjo’s relationship with nature and spirituality is, of course, informed by her Muscogee Creek ancestors and many other tribes’ music, songs, dance and traditions. But in her social and environmental activism, I’m also reminded of the former U.S. poet laureate and ecological activist W.S. Merwin, who said, when asked what social role — if any — the poet plays in America: “I think there’s a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there’s still time. I think that’s a social role, don’t you?”
Our conversation turns to another poet ancestor, Emily Dickinson, who wrote these lines not long before the Civil War:
Bound — a trouble — And lives can bear it! Limit — how deep a bleeding go! So — many — drops — of vital scarlet — Deal with the soul As with Algebra!
It’s that word Algebra that is key, we decide. It comes from the Arabic, al-jabr, which means “the reunion of broken parts.” Deal with the soul as with Algebra!, Dickinson says emphatically. In other words, to heal the soul one must reunite its broken parts. That’s a pretty good analogy for what our country is going through right now, I suggest. “Maybe that’s the poet’s role in all of this,” I ask Harjo, “a bringing together, a re-membering? That doesn’t mean forgetting bad stuff, it means bringing together all the severed parts and singing.”
“Exactly,” Harjo replies. Poetry, she believes, can “step forth during these times and help, be of assistance, be a tool, to help foster that in this country.” There are “so many memories” here, “so many stories,” she explains. But “this country will continue to falter until everyone’s voice has a place. No matter how difficult the stories, they’re all essential now. And so many stories have been repressed because they don’t uphold a certain idea of culture — for instance, indigenous peoples and our lack of visibility in almost every area of American life.”
“Harjo has spent her life — and her half-century as a poet, musician and activist — making sure the art, oral traditions, music and songs of the Muscogee Creek (and more than 570 other federally recognized tribes) do not vanish but thrive, informing and inspiring future generations of Americans.”
That’s not to say that those voices aren’t sometimes confused, contradictory, or reflections of the ignorance or bigotry of the past. Whitman, for example, as Harjo writes in Poet Warrior, “had quite the interest in American Indians. His life was framed by the Trails of Tears banishments of tribal nations from the East to the West. The Wounded Knee Massacre occurred near the end of his life.” And it appears “that he might have been somewhat familiar with Native oratorical skills, and with the craft apparent in those skills that informs poetry. … Yet Whitman, like others of his age, though he was sympathetic with the ‘plight’ of the country’s indigenous peoples, agreed that American Indians were at the root savages in need of what civilization could offer.”
Nevertheless, Whitman is one of Harjo’s “poetry ancestors” — for all his flaws but also for all his genius and as a father of American poetry. As she says in our interview, “Not all your ancestors are perfect.” Whitman, she explains, seemed to have knowledge of and even be influenced by Native American songs and oral traditions, but “at the same time he believed in manifest destiny, and he was known to say they [indigenous peoples] just have to get with the program.” He seemed to buy into the “vanishing Indian trope,” she says, and the argument that they and their culture would disappear if they didn’t learn to change and adapt.
Harjo has spent her life — and her half-century as a poet, musician and activist — making sure the art, oral traditions, music and songs of the Muscogee Creek (and more than 570 other federally recognized tribes) do not vanish but thrive, informing and inspiring future generations of Americans.
In 2020, Harjo took a giant step in that direction with the publication of When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry. In 496 pages, she gathers the work of more than 160 poets, representing nearly 100 indigenous nations, into what Norton calls “the first historically comprehensive Native poetry anthology.”
Each section of the anthology, edited by Harjo, begins with a poem from traditional oral literature, and includes poetry from obscure historical figures, such as Eleazar, a 17th-century Native student at Harvard, to contemporary Native poets such as Luci Tapahonso, Natalie Diaz, Jake Skeets, Layli Long Soldier, and Ray Young Bear. This historical and literary achievement, along with her signature project as poet laureate, Living Nations, Living Worlds and its print companion, is intended to make sure that Native poetry and oral traditions never vanish from this earth.
Integral to her own poetry, and the preservation of all Native poems and traditions, is, once again, memory — even when the memories are hard to bear, heavy with tragedy and loss.
In her latest poetry collection, An American Sunrise (2019), Harjo writes of returning to the land east of the Mississippi (in what is now Tennessee, Alabama, western Georgia and northern Florida) where her Creek ancestors lived for centuries before being forcibly removed by the federal government in the 1830s. Like other Native nations— the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole, among others — the Creek were brutally forced to “relocate” in what amounted to ethnic cleansing.
In 1836, after years of military assaults on the Creeks and land confiscation, the U.S. government drove nearly all of the remaining 15,000 Creeks from their ancestral lands to Indian territory in what is now Oklahoma. More than 3,500 Creeks, many of them women and children, died of exposure, disease and starvation on the way.
Harjo’s great-grandfather, Monahwee, was one of the survivors.
An American Sunrise remembers back nearly 200 years, and sings forward into a future for the Muscogee Creek people, indigenous peoples everywhere, and the United States of America. The book begins with this dedication: “For the children, so they may find their way through the dark — They are all our children.” Near the end, in a poem titled “Bless This Land,” Harjo writes again of the power of the “rememberer,” and our shared responsibility to the land and to one another:
Bless us, these lands, said the rememberer. These lands aren’t our lands. These lands aren’t your lands. We are this land.